Blind and Free-Range

Hi Readers — This is an inspiring column by Peter White, an English broadcaster who’s blind. It reminds me that our job as parents is to believe in our kids — to believe they can rise to a challenge.

On the road (and as I film my reality show), I hear from a lot of parents who think it is dangerous to let their kids do anything on their own — walk to school, babysit, take a bus, you name it — because they might get hurt or frustrated. I hope that some of those parents read this essay, because here’s what happens when we DO say (heart in throat): “Go for it, honey.”  We pick up where Mr. White is recalling how his mom let him learn how to ride a bike:

I didn’t understand it then, but I know now it took great courage for her to do what she did. The interesting thing is that the special blind boarding schools to which we were sent were equally uninhibited. At my secondary school in Worcester we were positively encouraged – no, actually forced – to go out alone, or accompanied only by another blind friend. The 4 o’clock walk was compulsory: nobody asked where you were going, or whether you had the skills to get there. And when things went wrong, the school faced them with almost unbelievable sang-froid. When I was 12, I had a road accident. My parents were informed of this in a terse letter: “Peter has had a slight brush with a lorry. No serious harm done.”

After this incident, a few half-hearted rules were introduced about who should be allowed to wander about unsupervised, but they were quickly abandoned. Nothing interfered with the custom of Founder’s Day, where every pupil was given five shillings, and sent out for the day – a kind of ultimate 4 o’clock walk. I once managed to hitchhike the 200 or so miles home to Winchester and back. Returning to school just after midnight, I received a mild reprimand, and congratulations for having had the initiative to enlist the help of the police in getting my last, after-dark lift. But I was far from the boldest. The school bred adventurers, roaming the city and beyond. There were always a handful with girlfriends, off to parties and pubs, clambering back into school at night up drainpipes and through windows.

It’s hardly surprising that, growing up in this environment, the world held few terrors for us.

Only one word besides “blind” occurs to me to describe those kids and ironically it’s this: Lucky. — L.

32 Responses

  1. http://www.amazon.com/Thunder-Dog-Story-Triumph-Ground/dp/140020304X

    This is the story of a blind man and his guide dog that guided people out of the towers before they fell. His childhood is AMAZING.

    We think we have trouble free-ranging our kids. His parents got phone calls about thier blind son RIDING A BIKE!

    This is my new minimum standard, if his parents let him do it, then my daughter is surely capable of doing it!

  2. My Dad was born blind, and he attended a school for the blind. He was required to walk to church every Sunday (as he got older he figured out that he could go to the soda fountain for an hour instead, and the school authorities would never know! :D) He was expected to learn to navigate city streets on his own. In the town where I grew up, he can give anyone directions to get from point A to point B just as well as a sighted person can.

  3. There’s a classic book, “Follow My Leader,” about a boy who loses his sight in a firecracker accident. He is sent on a bus to another city by himself to go to dog training school and get his guide dog. It’s a good book, and good for parents and kids to help them realize that kids weren’t magically capable back then, yet incapable today. It reminds the reader that children can rise to the occasion and can deal with many things a great deal better than we give them credit for today.

  4. Gosh… this is a wonderful essay! Truly inspiring.

    In other news… today a coworker and I were watching a tv report about the folks in the east who had a bear wander into their basement while their 10-year-old slept. Near the end of the report, the mother said her first reaction was her son would never go outside again, but admitted that wasn’t reasonable. It showed clips of the kid playing outside, with aught but a safety net over the trampoline (which’t isn’t a bad idea in itself, I figure) in their woodland backyard.

  5. Yesterday I sent my 13 yr old son and 11 yr old daughter around the corner to buy matches. It was my 4 yr olds birthday and I needed matches to light the birthday candles. 5 minutes after leaving the two of them walk in, hand me the money and said they were asked for ID. How old do you have to be to buy matches?

  6. […] Read the original post: Blind and Free-Range […]

  7. I love it. Maybe we should challenge other parents to raise their kids as free as a blind child.

  8. I can really relate to this. My youngest daughter is moderately low-vision, which means she’ll never be able to drive and has a harder time reading street signs. Bicycles in a confusing streetscape without bicycle path is a major challenge too.
    Realizing this, my reaction was to start training her for independence early. She started taking the subway home from school regularly at 11, she was encouraged to walk around and know the neighbourhood. This way she became the most advanced “free-mover” in her class and other parents trusted their kids to go on the subway to if they were with my daughter Emma.
    She is now a very capable 14-year-old, sho trusts herself, has great instincts and sense of direction, and I would have no problems sending her out backpacking in Europe at 18, like her sister just did after finishing high-school.

  9. My 9 year old daughter is legally blind and completely night blind. She was born with a condition that causes her eyes to move rapidly back and forth and a severe head turn that we have since had corrected (the head turn) and people are amazed that we don’t make a lot of allowances for her compared to our other children. The allowances we do make are all educational and safety related, such as leaving the hall light on at night so she can find the bathroom. Other wise she is outside riding her bike, walking with friends, she is a heck of a dancer, climber, and skateboard rider and has great art skills. If she wants to try it, she does. We don’t coddle or stop her from doing anything and she wouldn’t let us if we tried. She is mainstreamed in school, although we did consider a school for the blind just for skill-building. She instead has an evaluator that comes in once or twice per week to work with her on peer issues as well as understanding when to ask for assistance (her one area where she is lacking, she never admits needing help).
    Yael- in our area you have to be 18, which I only know because I did the same thing and sent my 15 year old to get some last summer. I remember going and buying fireworks and matches at 13 (many moons ago) with no problem, but now you have to be 18 to buy many things:(

  10. I like stories like that! It helps to remind us of what our kids are capable of. I’m not sure I would be able to let my kid ride a bike if he was blind though…

    @Yael

    I don’t know for where you live, but here you must 18 years old to buy matches. I remember quite well because when I was in high school, my friend and her younger siblings couldn’t buy matches for their single dad surprise party. The store clerk knew each one of them for years and they even begged him to no avail.

  11. My son is autistic and I am often amazed how little the parents with neurotypical children let their children do! Even small things like putting on their own shoes, hanging up their bag, opening their own lunch box, saying hello and goodbye to their teachers etc. We were told by Special Education that we should encourage our son to do everything we would otherwise expect from a neurotypical 4 year old. Yeah it takes longer to teach but he’s already more independent than a lot of his kindy friends. Obviously some things may not happen. We still have to have the death grip hand holding happening because he’s a ‘runner’. But he has the right (and it is a right) to become independent. And how is that gonna happen for other kids when their parents do everything for them?!

  12. Thanks for this post. I have no kids yet, but my partner and I have been talking about it. There is a good chance that if I have a boy, he will be blind (due to a recessive genetic disease that runs in my family). I’ve been around people with vision issues my whole life because of this, but my boyfriend hasn’t. It’s really uplifting to have stories that shows how capable and independent someone can be even with vision impairment. And it reminds me that it’s not the end of the world if it does happen. Thanks!

  13. yael: A lot of stores require you to be 18 to buy matches or lighters because of the crackdown on teenage smoking; they’re considered “smoking accessories”.

    NZ mum: Yeah, I was reminded of the infuriating story posted here a while ago (maybe by you, but I think it was in the US) about the school where one side of the hallway had a bunch of autistic first-graders who were being taught by a teacher and an OT how to put on and remove their coats, and the other side of the hallway had a bunch of neurotypical third-graders and their mommies putting on their coats for them.

  14. Just returned from the French Riveria with my dh and 3 kids (13, 13 and 10). It took my kids only 3 days (3 week trip) to notice the freedoms the French kids had. No school buses, they ride with everyone else on public transport. In Monte Carlo kids looking the same age as my sons were seen all over the city with no adults belonging to them in site. My boys’ noticed it and pointed it out. “Mom, how are they allowed to do that?” they asked. I could only explain about the difference in culture, the availability of public transportation, Monaco is a REALLY small country, etc. My boys loved the idea of being able to travel in a city with out me. And to my surprise, once they knew that independence was the norm for their age-group, they took every opportunity to strike out on their own. With know knowledge of the area, and no french so they could ask for help, it was hard for me, but I trust my boys and their abilities. And everything was fine.

    Our male friend in Munich, Germany (we really got around LOL) was hugging my kids and picking them up, on his shoulders, sit on lap on subway, holding hands, etc. My kids loved it. After 3 days he finally commented that he was so happy that he was able to express how he loved my kids. He was very worried that as an American I would have issues with him touching my kids. I admit that at first I did (and kept it to myself-just watched), but really, we were together the entire time, my kids loved every minute of it, and there were never any ‘creepy’ vibes at all. In short, there was NO REASON to have any issues. No logical reason at all. And no gut instinct reasons either. He said that Germany is getting more like America in that adults are starting to hold back, be suspicious, etc.

  15. ebohlman: No that wasn’t me. That is craziness! I presume that by third grade kids are around 7 (I’m really not that familiar with the US system). Why are the parents going into the classroom anyway to drop off their kids? When my son starts school at 5 I will go to the classroom to drop him off until he learns his way around and then he will go in alone to meet his teacher and teacher aide. And he is ‘special needs’!

    But I am finding that the special needs kids at kindy seem to have it more together than the other kids. They can do more because they are encouraged to. It just seems so lazy to not take the time to teach your 4 year old the things like putting away their bag, carrying their own bag, putting their lunchbox away and taking off and putting on their shoes.

    But maybe I’m just a pushy mum expecting too much…

  16. Great – I loved the ‘brush with the lorry’ bit! I used to worry with my first one who is completely’normal’, that his self-esteem might get damaged by all sorts of little things.If I’d only had him I might have become a helicopter mum…Fortunately number two came along, with all sorts of little issues, and I just had to make her go out and get on with things, and bugger her self-esteem! 🙂 .Was good for all of us, and when number three came along soon afterward, it was like, self-esteem, pain – what are they?! When number two got hit by a ute she didn’t hear (some hearing loss) when riding her bike too fast, it was a little freaky, but as this fellow impies, and he had way more ‘issues’ than she has, you just have to get on with it.

    And ride your bike sensibly!

  17. Recently my daughter, 9, was telling me about a girl in her 4th grade class. The girl fell off the swings at recess and broke both of her arms. She was in 2 cast all the way down to her fingers. I asked my daughter how she was handling everything at school with two unusable arms. My daughter then informed me she is blind also! I was shocked, my daughter had talked about this girl several times and never mentioned her being blind. Apparently it’s no big deal, the girl does everything everyone else does including swinging 🙂 I thought that was awesome!

    I went to the store the other day to buy super glue, the cashier asked if I was over 18. That made me feel good since I’m 34, but I wonder about a world where you have to be older to buy glue than you do to drive!!!

  18. I always found it amazing that education for kids with disabilities emphasizes independence and self-help skills while “normal” kids are prevented from doing those same things. When I lived in the States, I was an American Sign Language interpreter in a community college. One of the classes that I interpreted was called, “Occupational Opportunities.” In “Oc-Op” students with various physical and mental disabilities learned how to find a job, write a resume and cover letter, and learn interviewing skills. One of the things that the instructor emphasized was that the sole person a student should bring to the interview was his interpreter, and that was only if he required one. Parents, other relatives, and even the Oc-Op teacher did not go on interviews. If a student got a job, the Oc-Op teacher did some follow-up for a certain period of time after the initial hiring. But once a student got a job, he was treated like any other employee by his boss and co-workers. Many supervisors said that their “disabled” workers were better employees than their able-bodied ones who were the same age. The Oc-Op students who used public transportation (the majority) also knew how to read the schedules to figure out how to get to their interviews and/or jobs on time (this was in the days before the Internet). Since many of the Oc-Op students had been using public transportation at a fairly early age, they could do that easily.

    Contrast this with what one sees with a lot of “able-bodied” college graduates now. Parents go on job interviews, write the child’s resume, and even negotiate salaries with the child’s boss. Many large companies now have information packets for the parents. All of that was unheard of when I graduated from college.

  19. It’s amazing to hear a story of someone with a physical handicap that wasn’t coddled and found his own independence. I wonder if we are putting emotional handicaps on our children by not giving them the freedom to strike out on their own.

    On a side note, my youngest (who at 5, bikes to school with her siblings) was feeling tired yesterday, and asked if we could use the “drive-thru” at school instead of biking.

  20. “I don’t know for where you live, but here you must 18 years old to buy matches.”

    I don’t know how it is everywhere, but here, you can’t buy matches at the tobacco counter unless you’re 18.

    But walk into the kitchen gadgets aisle, and you can pick up a whole box of ’em and take them through the checkout.

    Same thing goes for knives — no pocket knives, let alone hunting knives, under 18. They keep those locked in the case in sporting goods, and you have to have ID for the salesperson to get them out and sell them to you. But you can buy quite a lethal kitchen knife at any age.

    Spray paint, on the other hand, forget it. You need ID for that.

  21. I’ve been carded for spray paint, too. And, they even key in your driver’s license number at the register as if you were buying meth fixin’s and they are keeping track of you. Went I went in to buy Sudafed this fall, it took almost an hour because last year when I bought it, they mis-spelled my last name in the meth po-po database, so when they entered my last name and DL number this time, it didn’t match up and threw up all kinds of flags. (Hello, look at me – I weigh too much to be a meth head.) The pharmacist had to get the meth po-po involved to get it straightened out. I was NOT leaving without my Sudafed if it meant slipping somebody in the parking lot a fifty. LOL! The kid and I both had the crud last winter and I stopped at the dollar store to get Nyquil for me and kid’s Nyquil for her. They wouldn’t let me buy both in one transaction. I had to pay for one and then buy the 2nd one in another transaction. They checked my ID, but didn’t key in the DL number. There was no point in that other than a CYA thing on their behalf. The biggest travesty these days is lack of common sense.

  22. gap.runner – I work in HR and received a letter a few months ago that was written by the father of a potential candidate. It went on and on about how wonderful his son was, how well he had done in college, and how he was a hard worker. I started to reply and ask why the kid didn’t send out his own letters if he was so capable and hardworking. I guess my kid is going to be at a disadvantage because I am NOT doing it.

    NZ mum – not too pushy at all IMO. The little girl across from us just started kindergarten this year. Her mom STILL walks her to class every day, and she still cries every day and clings to mom. Mom thinks she is doing the right thing, but this is NOT good for the child. This woman has been overly protective of this kid her entire life and it’s beginning to harm her. This poor child is going to be pegged as “weak” by her peers and picked on constantly just like all the other “kindergarten cry babies” of past generations.

    I know this sounds tacky, but when mine was 4 and going to daycare (which required you to sign the kid in), I taught mine to sign her own self in. After a few months of signing herself in/out with me standing over her, I started dropping her outside and letting her walk in by herself and sign herself in. I would park and go in behind her and check to see if she did it and never had a problem with her doing it. By the time she started school, she was fine with walking in alone. I did walk in the first day each year with her, but that was to carry the 4 bags of school supplies. She’s 11 now and the summer camp still requires the parents to sign the kids in/out. Not me. She can sign herself in/out just as easily as I can. It’s a shame that more parents and adults don’t encourage kids to be more independent. I realize the whole sign in/out thing is for the daycare’s/camp’s own protection, but it just makes the kids think they are incapable of even simple things.

    My current helicopter parent pet peeve is those that sit in the drop off line until little Johnny and Suzie actually get inside the building. You know – because they are likely to be kidnapped between the car and the front door of the school. Kid takes 5 steps, turns back to see if mom is still there, mom waves, kid takes 5 steps, turns back again, runs back to car for kiss through window. Kid takes 5 steps, turns back, waves at mom. Kid takes 5 steps, sees friend, kid stops, waits for friend to catch up so they can walk in together. Mom still sits there. Kid gets to door, turns back, waves to mom. Psssht. Teach that kid to tuck and roll.

  23. Most blind kids a generation ago actually were NOT encouraged to be independent. My husband was, and I thank his mother in my heart every day for her courage to let him be free and independent when, as she says, she felt alone as all the other mothers of blind children she saw were doing everything to shelter and protect their children. Now, raising my own brood of blind and sighted children, I have to struggle twice as hard, as it seems society wants me to treat even my sighted children the way most blind children used to be treated. I can see the difference in outcomes just in the blind community, where you can see side-by-side adults who think they are capable because they were always told that, while in fact they are dependent and functionally incapable because they’ve had everything done for them. Next to them are people like my husband and my best friend, who can support their families, function independently, and take on things most people wouldn’t imagine a blind parent doing, like homeschooling their children, working as a programmer, or even cutting the grass and doing basic home repairs. I’m not looking forward to the day when the majority of adults are like the non-functional blind adults I see today, who were sheltered and protected a generation ago.

  24. Off topic here, but the link to the book review about school security measures is the same one as the speech to Congress.

  25. @Teri, You would love the Youth Center at the base where I work. It’s for kids in 6th to 12th grades. The kids can sign themselves in and out. There is a computer at the front desk and the kids just type in their passwords for signing in and out. If a kid wants to walk over to the PX or Commissary to buy something to eat or a soda, he simply lets a staff member know, then signs out. It’s the same when a kid wants to go home. When the kids do summer sports camps, they’re allowed to leave on their own at the end of the day. My son loves being at the Teen Center because he’s so used to being independent.

    The School Age Center was a different story. Kids could sign themselves in, but had to be picked up by a parent or legal guardian if they lived off-base. When my son was in 4th and 5th grades, he thought it was odd that he could ride his bike to school and back by himself but needed to be picked up from the School Age Center. There were times when I had driven to work and my son rode his bike to the SAC after school. I got the “negligent parent look” because I sent my son off on his bike with a, “See you at home!” when I picked him up from the SAC.

    Kids who get driven to my son’s school in good weather are viewed as wimps. My son would much rather ride his bike to school with his friends in good weather than be driven (when it’s pouring rain, that’s another story).

  26. A high school friend of mine was legally blind – he could only see out of the edges of his vision (I forget the name of the condition – but it’s basically a big black spot in the middle with vision around the edges). He went skydiving, biking, climbing, and was generally the world’s biggest daredevil.

    He did however get in trouble once. He bought a used motorcycle and got pulled over for speeding. When asked for his license, he said “The State of California didn’t see fit to give a blind man a license, officer.” Said smartass remark landed him in jail for a few days. However, I don’t think it actually slowed him down particularly. I wouldn’t advocate breaking the law by free ranging, but you gotta give the guy props for sheer hutzpa.

  27. BMS – chutzpa. Don’t question it, the answer would just annoy.

  28. So many comments on getting carded to buy certain products. I’ll add mine. I recently went to a hardware store to buy an electric circular saw and a can of spray paint. I was carded for the spray paint. In Texas you have to be 18 to buy it. I asked the clerk which item she really thought was more dangerous. She told me there is no age limit to purchase power tools. 🙂

  29. Uly – merely a typo on my part. Never question the spelling. 🙂

  30. @Terri-in the summer, I went to day camp and since my parents worked, I was often going to the pre-and post-care programs. After about 3rd grade (so, 8?), parents could drop us off and we could go in by ourselves. I don’t think I was allowed to take my sister in though…

  31. The lay-pastor at the church I used to attend was completely blind from birth. He was in his mid-thirties when I was attending the church, and he was one of the most capable people I’ve ever met. One of the few concessions that had been made for him his entire life was that his mom or dad has to drive him places, although he had actually successfully navigated driving a car in a big open field with nothing to hit. He navigates the church and other familiar locations without any assistance, and uses a stick to tap his way around where he wasn’t familiar. He attended public school, then to a major college (I can’t remember where), then to seminary. In college, he majored in computer science, and can tear down and rebuild a computer from component parts by touch. He touch-types better than most sighted people, uses a braille printer (which was really cool) and a screen reader for computer work. His mom and dad felt that there was no reason for anyone to treat him any differently just because he couldn’t see. It was really inspiring.

  32. […] Blind and Free-Range, from Lenore at Free-Range Kids • because treating our children as if we believe they are capable of handling everyday living will help them grow to be capable of everyday living… […]

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