Guest Post: Warning! Toddler At Play

Hi Folks! Here’s a guest essay from Lisa Baker, who’s trying to be a Free-Range Mom to two kids in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about her parenting adventures at Organic Baby Atlanta. Enjoy! L.

Warning: Toddler at Play by Lisa Baker

In the Yequana tribes of South America, parents let toddlers wander near open campfires, playing with knives.

In Romania (where I lived for a year), mothers send toddlers alone to the corner store to buy bread and cheese for breakfast.

Me? I let my toddler play in the yard.

Oh, I know it’s a risk. I wouldn’t have let her when she was one, or even two. But when she turned three, we moved to a house with a small, manicured lawn, fully enclosed by a child-proof picket fence. That’s when I began, hesitantly, to send her out the front door alone.

But don’t worry: I watch her. I sit by the window in the kitchen, one eye on my work email and another on her. Not because I’m afraid she’ll figure out how to unlatch the gate and go wandering up the street (though she’s done that) or because I’m afraid she’ll eat a mushroom she finds in the grass (though she’s done that too). No, I’ve got a baby gate lock on the gate now, and Poison Control assures me that highly poisonous mushrooms rarely grow in well-kept lawns. But I still keep a close eye on her.

Because of the neighbors.

They’re good people, my neighbors. I know most of them by name. They walk past often, and when they see my daughter alone in the yard, they  pause and look around anxiously, especially the ones who are parents themselves. They’re wondering where I am.

That’s my cue to run outside and wave enthusiastically. Yes, I’m here. My kid is not unsupervised. Please don’t call CPS.

They smile and wave back, relieved, and keep walking. And I’m safe to go back inside. Until the next neighbor comes along.

Because my biggest worry about letting my child play outside alone isn’t what she might do, or what might happen to her. It’s what others might think.

Of course there’s no law that says I can’t let my three year old play in the yard.

But there’s no law that says I can, either.

And so, even though the closest corner store is only a few blocks away, I don’t think I’ll be sending my daughter to pick up bread any time soon.

And as for teaching her safe handling of knives and campfires?  Maybe in a few years. As long as we keep that in the back yard.

Just don’t tell my neighbors.

46 Responses

  1. Love it! What a great post. My kids have started asking to stay in the car while I dash into stores, but I have to say no for the same reasons: Not because they could be hurt, but because of nosy people who might call the police on ME!

  2. When I was in the Czech Republic in 1992, my friend sent his 8 y/o daughter to buy us beer for dinner. Surprised me !!

  3. What a sick country we have become.

  4. Good for this mom.

    But I really have to say “Ugh” at the single line in this essay:
    “But there’s no law that says I can, either.”

    Since when did we have laws telling us what we COULD do? I was given to understand that in the United States (you know, home of the *free*…), all the duties not specifically outlined in the Constitution were reserved to the states and/or the people. (See: 10th Amendment)

    It’s my right to parent as I see fit, short of abuse or (real) neglect. I don’t need a politician to draft a law telling me that I’m *allowed* to do A, B, or C–it’s already my right. *sigh*

  5. This post so perfectly describes how I feel. I am good friends with my neighbors and our kids play together often, but I am the least overprotective of any of them, and in the back of my mind, I always wonder what they think of my parenting. Whenever I have the opportunity, I explain my Free-Range tendencies and why I feel the way I do, hoping to sway them to my side of the fence.

  6. I identify completely. My biggest fear is the people who doubt my instincts and what they might do to me/us.

  7. Yep! The biggest obstacle to my free-range parenting is “what others might say”, not the safety of my child or my own peace of mind concerning their safety.

  8. Filoque, I go through the same thing with mine! And I’ve outright explained to him that while I completely trust him, and he’s right to think it’s a good idea, the real reason I don’t let him is because someone here would come along and make trouble over it.

  9. This is it exactly. I don’t fear kidnappers, or skinned knees. I don’t even fear just what people think. I fear what happens when they think they have the right to call the cops, and CPS comes in.

  10. Experienced the same thing in Atlanta. Sent a group of boys to the park down the street in the neighborhood (4th and 5th graders). They were approached by neighbors, asking where I was.

  11. My almost 10 year old daughter recently decided to run away from home. She packed a bag and walked to our local park, a couple of minutes away. I followed in my car and watched her from a distance. She didn’t know I was there. During the hour and 15 minutes she spent there, 3 moms/nannies with children came and went and one or two other people also walked through the park. She spoke to some of them. I don’t know how the conversations went but nobody called the police, or me, or tried to take her home or to the police station. The joys of living in Africa!

  12. I disagree with this line- “They’re good people, my neighbors.”

    No, they are busybody neighbors. Good neighbors bring you extra produce from their garden. They shovel your driveway when you are inside with the baby. They don’t judge you or look for reasons to judge your method of parenting. This is what a busybody does.

    I would politely enlighten them that small children need fresh air. Lots of it. You are watching her from inside and she is safe, thank you very much. Would your neighbors prefer you plop her in front of the TV all day? Are they volunteering to babysit her for you? If not, let her happily enjoy the very safe outdoors that is her own backyard.

  13. My ex-husband was thoroughly scandalized when I let our two-year-old have some time in the backyard alone one day. Well, hard to say if he was truly scandalized or just angling to paint me as a “neglectful mother,” as we were living in the house together but the marriage had ended.

    Threats to call CPS over such things are so… oh, I don’t know. Is there anything less helpful to a child’s welfare than capricious calls to CPS?

    When will people stop using the CPS as a way to bludgeon people with their misguided paranoia? When will the authorities start telling people, “You must observe a situation in which you imagine the child is suffering intentional harm. This does not include walking or playing alone outdoors.”

  14. “Of course there’s no law that says I can’t let my three year old play in the yard. But there’s no law that says I can, either.”

    From this place, springs the beginning of a police state.

  15. I’m not sure the OP was saying that since there’s no law that says she can, she wasn’t sure she can or should. I just think she was saying that because of the way people think, in the absence of such a law, she was going to get grief from busybodies. She has no “chapter and verse” to point them to if they meddle, though she shouldn’t need to.

  16. I agree with lollipoplover such people are NOT good neighbors. Quite frankly, I think people who are busybody neighbors should be thrown in jail for butting into such situations. Yes, I mean it, they should be thrown in jail. To me, it’s harassment & intimidation just the same as someone stalking you.

    You know what? I say, parent how you please IN SPITE OF the risk that someone will call CPS. Because, you know what? (This is one of the few areas where I probably disagree with Lenore Skenazy.) If you can’t parent your child free of such interferences, then in reality, you aren’t the parent at all. To me, having them home does NOT trump free-range, it IS free-range. Either I am the parent, or I am not.

    In fact, I have had mine play outside alone when they were barely 1½ years old (with another 3½ with them). I started out doing so for 10 minutes or so before checking in on them, once I realized they were fine, I started extending it. They are now 3 & 5 and it’s nothing for them to be outside for 2 hours at the time. Heck, ever since we got them their first swingset yesterday, they’re BEGGING to even more than before.

    It’s my right, it’s my business, it is no one else’s, and I do not as a general rule advocate violence, but the minute any neighbor butts in & interferes beyond just giving their opinion with a non-judgmental or threatening tone, I think it would be justice for someone to sock them right in the nose with their fist.


  17. Busybodies are a huge problem nowadays. Me and my children were accosted just this weekend by an elderly couple who thought my children were ‘locked’ in my car, which they were not, while I was just a few feet away. They decided on their own that I was the devil before speaking with me. The woman would not even approach me; she sent her husband over to threaten me (calling me “tough guy” when I asked him to identify himself) while she kept her distance from any fallout.

    By the time these self-proclaimed child advocates were done ‘protecting’ my children, my daughter was in tears about the man who she thought was going to hit me, since we had to leave the area to avoid a fight.

    Needless to say I don’t take fight bait from old men, least of all in front of my children.

    A word of advice to “child advocates”: you aren’t the police. If you think a law is being broken. call the police by all means. Otherwise, mind your own business, and don’t attempt to take the law into your own hands.

    Marcus Del Greco
    Alton, NH

  18. If you see a tot playing alone in a yard, by all means stop and look–at the gate, to make sure it’s latched. Then move along!

  19. They used to say “Children should be seen and not heard.” Now it feels like “Children should not be seen in public at all…unless they are properly supervised by an adult.” I, too, am more afraid of what busybodies will do in reaction to my free range parenting than I am of anything “bad” happening to my son. Because it’s become odd to see children outside playing.

  20. […] Hi Folks! Heres a guest essay from Lisa Baker, whos trying to be a Free-Range Mom to two kids in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about her parenting adventures at Organic Baby Atlanta. Enjoy! L. Warning: Toddler at Play by Lisa Baker In the Yequana tribes of South America, parents let toddlers wander near open campfires, playing with knives. In … Read more: […]

  21. Since Congress has been rather free with mandates in recent years, they should mandate that local police and Child Protective Services set up and maintain “free-range kid registries,” that parents can join voluntarily. Police and CPS would be required to take a skeptical attitude toward neglect complaints about a registered “free-range kid.”

    Such kids could carry FRK cards with their photo, as well as a phone number to reach a guardian.

  22. The problem of people being afraid to let their kids play outside alone for fear of busybodies’ reactions seems to be a cyclical problem–people react, because it’s out of the ordinary, because so many people are afraid of being judged for allowing their children a very normal, developmentally-appropriate freedom. So, the way I see it, the solution is for people to actually be good neighbours, and talk and communicate with each other, and either collectively decide to be free-range, or just agree to live and let live, parenting-wise. A collective “free-range” community would be the best solution, because then, that way, the neighbours could agree to, say, patch up each other’s kids when they get hurt playing outside, or occasionally surprise the local kids with Popsicles or Kool-Aid when they trickle into their yard on a hot summer day (or hot chocolate in the winter), or simply turn the sprinkler on, and allow the kids to run through it. At the very least, kids should feel like they can approach their adult neighbours in the event of an emergency, like the Block Parent program of my youth, which seems to have died a natural death.

    But anyway, in order for the idea of a co-operative free range community to work, everyone has to agree to it and contribute equally, or there’ll be one or two families who’ll feel put out at having to essentially raise all the kids in the neighbourhood–not that a lot of adult intervention is even necessary; what ever happened to the older kids looking out for the younger ones? I guess they’re all off at indoor soccer, gymnastics, French Immersion, Mandarin, and S.A.T. prep classes an hour away from home, so they can prepare for adulthood instead of enjoying their youth.

  23. Sippy cups are dangerous!! Should we really let kids use them? Story at 11! No really, story about how dangerous bottles and sippy cups are.

  24. […] Hi Folks! Heres a guest essay from Lisa Baker, whos trying to be a Free-Range Mom to two kids in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about her parenting adventures at Organic Baby Atlanta. Enjoy! L. Warning: Toddler at Play by Lisa Baker In the Yequana tribes of South America, parents let toddlers wander near open campfires, playing with knives. In … Read more: […]

  25. A sad commentary on what we’ve become. The thought of calling CPS when a child is playing in _their own yard_ (or even a playground) would never occur to me, so why does it occur to others?

    Can’t everyone just mind their own business and assume most children and their parents are just fine without governmental interference/control? True child abuse or endangerment is relatively rare, so stop seeing it everywhere!

  26. At the age of 3, a child should be able to play with indirect supervision for short periods of time. We didn’t put window treatments up in the back of our house for quite some time so that we could cook up a dinner while the little ones played in the sandbox or dug in the garden. It’s called playing. It’s fun and kids need to do it a lot. An indoor “sand play” table doesn’t cut it.

    My kids put on wellies and hit the backyard most mornings before I could even brew a cup of coffee. They woke up with crazy toddler electricity in their veins, and the best way to blow off that energy was to get them outside. Mud pies and bug catching doesn’t happen indoors. I would have have utterly lost my mind if I had to follow them around the yard every bleeping moment.

    You learn to trust your kids and their judgement by letting them out of your sight.
    Especially in your backyard.
    This is called growing up.
    It’s also called basic parenting.

    Of course something could *happen*. But there’s probably more risk involved keeping them inside (see Sippy Cup danger in above post, accidental *curious* toddler overdoses, and household falls and accidents). And clearly keeping kids inside is driving quite a few moms out there insane.

  27. This is my problem too. I’m more afraid of what other people might do or think than what my child will do or things that could possibly happen to him or her. I don’t want to follow my kids around outside either. I did that exploring and learning when I was kid; it’s their turn now.

  28. Amen!

  29. I love that the advice in the sippy cup article is to switch to a normal cup, which we started to do by default, since kiddo wanted to drink from our cups, not his. The mum in the story, however, advocates watching the kid all the time while they are drinking. So practical, and a wonderful way to make sure they don’t learn to identify when they are thirsty and find their own cup, huh?


  30. […] Hi Folks! Heres a guest essay from Lisa Baker, whos trying to be a Free-Range Mom to two kids in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about her parenting adventures at Organic Baby Atlanta. Enjoy! L. Warning: Toddler at Play by Lisa Baker In the Yequana tribes of South America, parents let toddlers wander near open campfires, playing with knives. In … Read more: […]

  31. […] Hi Folks! Heres a guest essay from Lisa Baker, whos trying to be a Free-Range Mom to two kids in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about her parenting adventures at Organic Baby Atlanta. Enjoy! L. Warning: Toddler at Play by Lisa Baker In the Yequana tribes of South America, parents let toddlers wander near open campfires, playing with knives. In … Read more: […]

  32. My almost 2yo is free to play in the backyard whenever he wants. We leave the patio door and screen open when it’s warm and he goes in and out as he pleases. He did the same last summer when he turned 1 and figured out how to crawl down the one step. Now he walks up and down the step like a big boy (he’ll be 2 in July). And I don’t just sit in the house and stare at him although he usually just stays on the patio which I can see from inside. Our yard is fenced (chain link) and the only access are gates on either side which are locked (because the older kids kept leaving them open and he kept getting out). Last year I heard the next door neighbor mumbling about how wrong it was for me to leave my baby outside unattended. Ugh. Funny thing was I was sitting right inside the patio door and could see him perfectly while using the computer.

    This neighborhood is very pro-free-range but the other day I had a neighbor come and tell me my 6yo was “wandering” off towards the park. ALONE! She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t worried or upset about it. She had sent my son to go get her which confused all the kids because the 6yo has my permission to walk to and from the park and has been doing it for awhile. When I told her that she was like, “but there are child molesters over there.”

    It’s a small neighborhood. I doubt the child molesters are hanging around the park where everyone would recognize them. That would be stupid (and I’m sure a violation of their parole).

    But that is still my biggest worry–what other people are going to do when they see my kids out on their own. Luckily it’s not much of a worry here. I don’t even think twice about leaving the kids in the car (well the 1yo and 6yo come in with us if the older kids, 11, 10 and 9, aren’t with us). Heck the 10 and 9 year olds walk themselves to and from the store now (about a mile away). And no one thinks this is odd.

  33. I lived in a neighborhood when my kids were young enough to scare the neighbors by playing outside unsupervised. CPS was called three times to my house. The first time they came I listed all the things I was going to do as a free range mom and asked them if these were things they thought I shouldn’t do. They said they had children with real problems to worry about and my kids were obviously fine. The police in my neighborhood were very keen to call in the social workers and even put me in jail once for free range parenting. CPS finally told me to ask my neighbors to stop calling them. if you aren’t abusing or neglecting your kids CPS shouldn’t be a threat to you.

  34. We let our almost-three-year-old play unaccompanied in the backyard all the time. There’s a fence but he can crawl under the gate if he wants to… and I wish he would more often, because I worry more about his crippling shyness than anything else! We live on a dead-end street and there are always kids outside playing in the street by themselves, from teenagers to preschoolers. I guess we have it pretty good!

  35. Love the post. Is she exaggerating though? I have let my daughter go outside since she could crawl..

  36. I think leaving younger children by themselves in the yard is still accepted here in Australia fortunately.

    My 7yo daughter doesn’t dare tell anyone that I let her stay home by herself for fear of getting herself or me into trouble. I find that quite sad. She now knows to give people my phone number if they question her about being alone on her way home, but it still makes her a bit nervous after she got escorted back to school once by a concerned parent.

  37. […] what I think at my guest post at Free Range Kids! Like this post? Follow me by email!  Related […]

  38. I feel the exact same way!

  39. Emily has the right idea. A neighborhood should be a safe place for little kids to wander freely. The main reason for this is the kids should all know each other and each other’s siblings and parents and vice versa. The only thing she left out in her response was that neighborhood parents also reserve the right to correct a child doing wrong and to report it to their parents. I know it’s hard with several small children underfoot, but have a neighborhood party and invite EVERYONE. That’s how you start.

  40. Hey, I’m the guest poster, and sorry I couldn’t come on to comment earlier! Yes, the “no law that says I can” wasn’t to say that we need one, only that in the absence of one I don’t have any defense if someone WERE to say I shouldn’t be doing something. And yes, I am working very hard to build a community of free-range parents on my street — mostly by pointing them to this blog! But I’m sad to say I’m not exaggerating. Well, I’ve never had CPS called on me, so that’s an exaggeration. But I have gotten weird looks because my daughter was in the yard alone. And I really do run outside to wave at people as they walk by so they know I’m watching her. I’ve also had neighbors tell me, with great concern, that they saw my daughter apparently running alone to the playground when I was 30 feet behind her. They don’t seem to understand that the fact that THEY are there in the park, along with so many other adults walking their dogs and watching their kids, is the reason why I can let her run ahead of me alone! To be fair, I do live in intown Atlanta, and our house is on a somewhat busy street. But I really didn’t let her play in the yard alone until she was three. Before that we lived in a more dangerous neighborhood, though (and our yard was a big steep hill with a drop-off onto the street).

    However, in the safe neighborhood where we now live, I have never seen a kid younger than eleven or twelve outside without an adult. Other than my own kid, of course. My neighbors with three- and five-year-old kids never allow their kids in the yard unless an adult goes with them. We’ve discussed the fact that this is their rule. I’d like to invite them over to play on our swingset, but not if it means I have to stand out there. Sad, because my daughter rarely wants to go back there to play by herself!

    Thanks for all the comments. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has this fear!

  41. Forgot to say: I do know my neighbors. There’s a very active parents network in my neighborhood, and I meet parents at the park all the time. And I am constantly telling them about this blog. 🙂 — and discussing the fact that I welcome them to correct my kid if necessary. But the vast majority of them seem to be terrified to let their kids out of their sight.

  42. […] Warning! Toddler At Play, from Lisa, guest-posting at Free-Range Kids • because I’ve talked to so many people who do things not out of fear that something might happen to their child, but for fear of what other people might think, and it’s really sad… […]

  43. @LRH – my girls were the same way. They were bored? “go run around the house 5 times” My oldest was called a “wildling” by her boyfriend yesterday. I posted below her comment “more like children of the corn”. They discovered that you don’t poke the dead armadillo on the lawn with a stick – it smells rotten when it pops open.

  44. I let my son, who is not quite 2, play in the backyard alone. Yes, I can see him and hear him at all times, and no, he is not allowed to climb on the 7-foot playset while I’m not out there, but I have no problem allowing him to play in the grass in full view of the window in a fenced backyard. Some of my friends and relatives are horrified that I’m not right by his side. But the reality is, he is able to entertain himself for 15 minutes or so by picking sugar snap peas from the garden (and eating them), or digging in the dirt (with *gasp* a real shovel–not a plastic one!) or pushing his trucks around all while I throw something together to get dinner started. In truth, when I was little I was pushed out the door as soon as I got home from school and wasn’t allowed back in until dinner was ready or it was dark, whichever came first. My mom remembers HER mom setting her babies on blankets at the end of a cotton row and leaving them there until she picked the row (gasp! they could be bitten by snakes or spiders or dogs or aliens!). I keep my kid safe–not in a straight jacket.

  45. […] me about free range parenting, one thing that has held me back, and just today I read a post that articulates the problem I face perfectly. I’ll add my own analysis, but first here’s an excerpt:I let my toddler play in the […]

  46. OMG YES to this post, I do this also! Only mine is 6, and she rides her scooter up and down the sidewalks of our apartment complex. I sit out on the porch and read while she zooms by and I open the curtains on the windows so if I do go inside I can still see her going by the windows. I know this is lame — when I was her age I had the full run of the apartment complex we lived in at the time. But there were other children to run with, and here mine is apparently the sole child, as I’ve never seen any other. And I hate to admit that one of my big discomforts with letting her wander away from the direct sight of our windows is that some neighbor might complain about a unsupervised child endangering herself. Same with something like leaving her in the car for a second while I run back in to get something I forgot — I’m not worried that something will happen to her, I’d be more worried that someone would see a lone child in a car and complain to someone.

    Man, that’s so sad. I didn’t realize how often it’s in the back of my mind.

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