A Glass of Sprite

Hi Readers! I loved this letter from a guy named Brad. You may, too. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I happened to rabbit-hole into your blog tonight, and read it for about 2 hours, fascinated by the psychotic parents out there. I’m 27 and was raised Free-Range. I was allowed to run amok, largely unattended, for extended periods of time. I got into all sorts of trouble and suffered many life-threatening injuries such as skinned knees, bruises of various sizes, bloody noses, and twisted ankles. One time I was attacked by a clearly homicidal rose bush. And I even broke my arm when I made the unwise decision to jump off the tailgate of a parked pickup truck and tumble down a hill. My broken arm shaped the rest of my life.

First of all, I was 10 years old. I was playing unsupervised outside in the summer with my band of heathen friends, a group of about five boys in my neighborhood. I don’t even remember what we were doing, or why I was climbing on the truck, much less why I jumped off it. I realized something was wrong when my arm was really hurting a different kind of hurt than I was used to. I got on my bike and rode home one-handed. I told my mom what happened when I got home and she sat me on the couch and got me a Sprite.

Soft drinks were a special treat when I was a kid and so Sprite was my mother’s first line of defense if something was wrong. Bad day at school? Sprite. Cold/flu? Sprite. And, apparently, broken arm=Sprite. I sat there watching TV and sipping sullenly, but when my arm was still hurting after an hour, we went to the ER. X-ray later, I was diagnosed with a fracture of both the humerus and radius, a cast was applied, and I was to follow up with my regular doctor in two weeks.

I learned a lot in the six weeks I was in a cast. I learned that I was far more capable one-handed than I has previously thought. I learned that a bent wire hanger was the perfect scratching implement for under-cast itches. I learned that I had way more friends than I thought, judging by the sheer number of signatures my cast acquired. I learned that broken bones suck, but life goes on. My parents didn’t freak out, so I didn’t freak out. I really think it was the first time my little brain followed the whole decision-action-consequence-adaptation continuum from inception to resolution.

I’ve since grown up to be a paramedic. I love what I do. It’s fulfilling in a truly indescribable way, but I’ve noticed something that troubles me. I make a lot of calls for “panic attacks” that don’t stem from a medical disorder, like clinical depression or schizophrenia. They’re panic attacks born from the inability to deal with life. There’s a college near where I work, and we make calls there all the time for kids that don’t know how to deal with the stress from being away from controlling parents. These are kids that crumble at the slightest bump in the road. They make a C on a term paper, their boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with them, they don’t like their roommate, whatever. They panic, hyperventilate, and sob uncontrollably. They don’t sit on the couch and drink a Sprite because no one ever taught them how.

I like the Free-Range philosophy. It’s promoting a way to make kids self-reliant. Teaching them to fish, so to speak. That way, when they leave the nest and forge their own path they have the tools they need. My parents let me face life head on when I was a kid. They let me fall, but they helped me dust myself off and get back up. I’m a stronger adult because of it.

My mom always used to say “If you cry when you burn the toast, what to you do when the house burns down?” That stuck with me.

So did the Sprite.

Sincerely, Brad

Things go better with...a little self-reliance.

So I’m Envious

Dear Readers: Yup, I’m envious, of this mom, her kid, her country:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I don’t know what to say really.  I’ve just found your blog and I’m astonished with the stories I’ve read.  They’d be a lot of fun  –  if they were not so scary.

My point of view is a bit different as I live in Northern Europe where we have not yet realized how dangerous the world really is.  I’ve raised a Free-Range Kid without having heard anything about the concept.  I guess that’s how we roll, up here in the North.

My kid took his daily nap outdoors in a pram in all four seasons. Yes, in winter too.  Yes, with all the frost and snow.  He was a very healthy baby.

My kid traveled 100 kilometers to his grandparent’s house by bus since he was 4 or 5.  The bus drivers are decent people who keep an eye on a little traveler and see that he meets his grandpa at the destination.  No problem, never.

My kid walked to school and back since he was 7 and took care of himself until I or his dad came home from work.  The only problem was the front door which had to be fixed a bit so that the child was able to open it.

My kid spent his childhood upside down doing somersaults and cartwheels and jumping off the swing in its wildest speed and he never broke a single bone.

I don’t mean to say it is weird to be worried.  On the contrary, it is quite natural.

When I became a mother I looked into a mirror: “We have to talk.”  Was I going to follow all my protective instincts and allow myself to see the world as a Very Dangerous Place?  Or would I force myself to be a bit stronger and trust a bit more?

Now that my kid is 16, I’m happy I didn’t thrust upon him the idea of threats and dangers lying in wait everywhere.  All his life he has been learning how to spread his wings one day.  That day is getting closer, but that’s ok. He’s been a good learner.

They all have to learn to take care of themselves, don’t they? It is not something a young adult suddenly knows all about when he wakes up on one particular birthday morning.  Why fear and not let them learn it step by step, naturally? — Johanna


Hi Readers : You read it here first! Free-Range Kids is officially declaring Saturday, May 22 — the weekend before Memorial Day– the very first, “Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day.”


Just that. If our goal is to get kids back outside (it is), and playing together (it is), and for parents to relax (it is), and to start creating community again (it sure is!!!), then “Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day” is a great first step.

Across the country — what the heck, across the world — parents will  converge upon local playgrounds and parks with their school-age kids. They will tell them to have fun, make friends and don’t leave with anyone. Then the parents will wave goodbye and the kids will amuse themselves for whatever amount of time they’ve decided with their folks. An hour. A morning. Or maybe even just half an hour, to get used to the whole thing, which, admittedly, sounds radical. But is it?

The crime rate in America is back to where it was in the early ’70s. Crime was going up then, and it peaked around 20 years later. By the mid ’90s it was coming down and continues to do so.  So the strange fact — very hard to digest — is that if YOU were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids today are safer than you were! I know it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, here’s an interesting poll about how the majority of people feel crime is going up when actually its going down. But anyway, the point is:

Most of us used to play outside in the park, without our parents, without cell phones, without Purell or bottled water and we survived! Thrived! We cherish the memories! And if you believe the million studies that I’m always publishing here, kids are healthier, happier and better-adjusted if they get to spend some time each day in “free play,” without adults hovering.

I know there will be shrill voices insisting, “Predators are gonna love this holiday!” but keep a level head. Crime is down. Awareness is up. There is safety in numbers, which means getting kids outside again, together. This won’t happen until we actually start DOING IT.

So spread the word and be not afraid. Free-Range Kids never says there is no risk in the world, only that the risk is small and worth taking, as it always has been. The trade-off is kids who make up games, who solve problems, who discover nature and get moving (to coin a phrase). Kids who don’t need a screen to entertain them. Playing outside, on their own, is what kids all over the world do. We have forgotten how vital and wonderful it is.

Walk around your neighborhood. Do you see empty sidewalks? Empty yards? Empty playgrounds? It’s a waste — of childhood. Let’s bring it back, starting on May 22.

Feel free to add your ideas, caveats, endorsements and suggestions below. This could be the start of something big! (Or not. Guess we’ll see.)  — Lenore


Found: A Free-Range Kid Of Recent Vintage!

Hi Readers — We talk (a lot!) about raising Free-Range Kids. Ever wonder what it feels like to BE one in this day and age? Or if there even ARE any in this day and age? Read on!

Dear Free-Range Kids: Well, I am actually 17, and for some strange reason, found this blog and I check it every day. I definitely agree with the idea of Free-Range Parenting and am happy to say that I had a Free-Range childhood (in the 90’s-00’s! gasp!) and will be raising my kids that way.

That being said, in my old neighborhood we lived maybe one third of a mile from my school and my mom usually walked me over. I wanted to go myself, and when I was in second grade, I was granted that privilege. I didn’t know many of the kids in my neighborhood, so I didn’t roam around that much, but I do remember my dad taking me to explore the woods near my house (until they bulldozed it) when I was maybe 5.

When I was about 10 we moved  to another neighborhood with tons of kids, about 12 others in the cul-de-sac alone, plus my two siblings, and another seven or so who would come up from down the street. I consider that to be when my childhood really began, even though I was already a little older. I suppose that may have had something to do with why my mom let us be so free, but my brother and sister were 6 and 7, respectively, and they were granted almost the same privileges, so…who knows?

Anyway, one benefit of Free-Ranging seems to be that kids grow up slower. I was playing imaginary games, exploring the woods, and going on adventures with the kids up until I was about 15.

Another family with three kids and us formed a “gang” called the Half-Dozen Pickles and we would ride our bikes around the neighborhood. Before another subdivision tore down the woods, we built forts and teepees out there. There were also a couple abandoned houses in the woods, and we (very scared at first) approached them and sneaked around the garage. Eventually we became more bold and roamed the entirety of the houses, playing hide and seek and bringing our lunches down there to eat in them. Once we wandered in the woods almost a mile or two when it snowed and we almost got lost.

We loved to play chalk houses, babies, teenagers, army, pine straw houses (where we “drew” houses by moving around the pine straw in the woods), capture the flag, hide and seek, manhunt, and lots more. Capture the flag and manhunt were our favorites, and it was great having so many kids to play them with. The only thing that was disappointing was that two of our friends had a pretty protective mom who wouldn’t let them leave the cul-de-sac and play after dark — which was the most fun time for those games anyway 🙂 This made things difficult, because we’d often have to sneak away from those two kids to have our adventures, so they wouldn’t know we were leaving and be disappointed, since they weren’t allowed to come.

We would stay outside all day if possible with all the kids, only returning to grab lunch (although we usually took it with us and had picnics) and staying until our mom called us back in, usually after dark. The only rules were we had to be within calling distance when the streetlights came on, so we could hear her. Our “range,” now that I’ve looked it up on Google Maps, seems to have been four miles from our house, although I’m not quite sure my mom actually knows we went that far 🙂 We’re perfectly fine though… actually, excellent, since we were able to have the freedom to explore.

Just thought I’d post this to show it’s not impossible these days, and that all of us kids, in my opinion, are amazingly ready for real life thanks to that freedom we were given. — Megan

Notes from An Overprotected Childhood

Hi Readers: This letter is from a woman whose mom was way more helicopter than most — an extreme case. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale and she sent it here to endorse the Free-Range movement. Here’s wishing the writer, and her mom, a very happy and  liberating 2010. Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I really wish that I had a free, happy childhood memory to share, but I don’t.  I grew up in the ’80s and my mother was obsessed with keeping my brother and me “safe.”  She was a total helicopter mom, even though that term wasn’t used then.  She watched us every second she possibly could.  I was never allowed to go over to any friends’ homes because their parents could be child molesters.  My mom didn’t like other children in her house, so they weren’t allowed to come to our house, either.  She was a bit more lenient with my brother because he’s a boy and I’m a girl, but not much.

My brother and I grew up confined to our back yard and had only each other as playmates.  Eventually, I stopped going outside completely, pretty well bored of the tiny yard.  I was a stereotypical fat kid.  My mom wouldn’t even let us go very often to play with our own cousins, thinking that they were too “rough.”  Every newspaper item regarding a child that had been abducted, raped, or murdered was thrust into our faces with the same phrase, “See?  Next time you want to complain, you should think about this kid!”

I love my mother very much, and she did teach me many things that I am forever grateful for, like the value of a dollar (I’m the only cousin in our family who has never had a problem with credit card debt) and how important reading is (she never denied me any book I ever wanted to read).  The lesson I could have done without?  That every person you meet will probably try to hurt you in some way.

I am now 26 years old and I have never had a real friend. I am very grateful that I am alive today and have never been seriously injured, but it sure seems like there was an awfully high price to pay in order to guard against something that seems so unlikely to me now that I am older.  I can’t completely escape her influence, and I may never be able to.  I hope that this website can reach many parents and show them how to let their kids have more freedom.  I’ve never had a serious physical injury, but I’ve had all kinds of emotional illnesses.  I think I would rather have had a few more bumps and bruises. They heal a lot quicker.

Riding Lessons

Readers: Here’s a lovely piece about …well, not exactly about any Free-Range issue in particular. But it sure resonates. — Lenore

By Julie Ann Kodmur  

Who knew how much you could learn from a bunch of horses?! Certainly not me – until my then-3 year old daughter started taking lessons at a humble barn in the small town in the Napa Valley where we live.

Watching the children practice emergency dismounts early on got my attention: little bodies flying over the big bodies to land smartly on the ground with big smiles, nice and tidy, nice and safe, nice and prepared.

Lesson: Always be ready, don’t dread any mishaps, just do it!

How cute, I thought, when the local paper did an article on the stable and there was my daughter zooming through the air in her purple sweatshirt, glowing with the pride of being in control. And yes, a few moms raised their eyebrows at me, some whispering, “How could you? Don’t you know what happened to Christopher Reeve?”

Today we’re at the stable five or six days a week. We trade some of my daughter’s lessons for chores, which include, yes, shoveling the deep stuff. Still today, after five years of this routine, my husband shakes his head in wonderment that when we wake our daughter up very early in the morning to go shovel manure and she bounds up out of bed with a smile. Or, if you let her sleep in a bit, with a scowl because you didn’t wake her up sooner.

Lesson: Enthusiasm trumps the ‘dirtiest’ of chores.

We also feed the herd of horses. The horses are all types, from a persnickety Shetland to a majestic, elderly Iceland pony who’s going blind, to a couple of handsome mustangs, to some affectionate broken-down thoroughbreds who have been rescued. Who knew how complicated feeding some animals could be? My daughter can discourse at great length: The geldings are fed first, before the mares; there’s an exact amount of water that goes into the grain, be careful because the horses’ personalities change when food is in the air, and more.

Lesson: Empathy. Everyone’s hungry.

Strawberry roan? Leopard appaloosa? Fallabella? Welsh pony? Colors, names, breeds. How much can a child’s brain retain?

Lesson: Unbelievably lots. When a kid is motivated, that ‘little’ brain can hold a universe.

The law of the herd. The spirit of the herd. One of my longest-standing curiosities about the barn is when and if the horses lie down. Sometimes the kids ride at odd hours or late at night (recently, memorably, very late in the moonlight, practicing formations for riding in the local July 4 parade). Even then, rarely do you see more than one or two of the horses lying down. Turns out there is always one watching out for the others, literally on his or her feet, ready to whinny out the news of a visitor, whether human, coyote, goose or dog.

Lesson: Someone is always watching out for you.

 To read for more of Julie Ann, see www.julieannkodmur.com.

To find out more about the stable, please see www.sunrisehorserescue.org. The site is down temporarily, but should be up this evening  (Aug. 5, 09).

Cop Collars Kids Selling Lemonade

Seven of the little rascals. Together, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Going door to door, trying to gin up some cash with the cold stuff. Read all about it here. One brilliant neighbor realized how incredibly dangerous this was. After all, it was teaching children all sorts of terrible lessons like: Get to know the folks on your block.  Be independent. Have adventures.  So, naturally — like everyone who sees any child doing anything without an adult these days — he called the cops.

In the cop’s defense — just barely —  I will say that  when he wrote up the kids for the crime of peddling without a permit,  he didn’t know the law actually only applied to folks old enough to spell “mooron” correctly. That is, peddlers over age 16.

And the Haverford chief of police immediately realized this whole thing was a “public relations nightmare,” and got the department to apologize for its overzealousness.

But so far the neighbor does not seem to have apologized for his. Seven kids working  together on a classic childhood endeavor  is just too great a risk, I guess, for anyone to stand by and watch. — Lenore

Kids Can Do More Than We Think

Kids rise to the occasion. That becomes abundantly  clear when we look at what kids get to do —  and are expected to do — in other countries, cultures, eras. Here’s a little note that just came in. I cannot think of anything my kids have done in school that rivals this for independence and instilling a “Can do!’ sense of confidence.

Then again, it’s not like I’m saying,  “Oh, if only I got to raise them in the  USSR!” either.

By a Free-Range Kids reader named Alena:

I grew up in a small town of the former USSR.  Even in the first grade we had to behave as adults.  Each class was responsible for their classroom, and after classes were finished we had to clean our classroom: map the floor, dust and such. During recess we would go outside and pick up any garbage around the school. We had our own garden behind the school were we grew greens such as scallions, dill, parsley and cabbage which were served then in the school lunchroom. From the 6th grade till the end of the high school we had done plays, concerts and many other activities by ourselves, teachers were there just to supervise.  It was never accustomed to ask parents for the money for one or another activity in school.  We made everything by hands from the supplies provided by the school.  Girls used to bake and boys would provide lights and music. My friend and I started baking cookies when we were 8 years old, i guess that’s when we learned how to read the recipe.

I live in NYC now and I have a 11 year old daughter.  Since she was 9 she was allowed to go to the nearest  supermarket to get milk or bread, she can make pancakes for us in the morning and she bakes cookies as well.


Learning The Wrong Lessons from Sandra Cantu’s Death

It’s front page news out here in San Francisco where I’m visiting, but it’s probably front page news out by you, too: The tragic story of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, who was abducted and murdered last week in California. Today’s front page story is as inevitable as the media attention: “Case Forces Parents to take Tougher Look at Children’s Safety.” http://tinyurl.com/cfsyyw

It’s hard not to take a tough look after a killing like this. As the parents interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle say, they are hugging their children closer and talking to them about safety. This is good news. Children should be taught to run, kick and scream if someone is trying to take them away. Teach them NOT to be polite. Also, by the way, teach them they CAN ask for help from strangers.

But of course, these are not the only lessons parents are taking from this tragedy. At least in the Chronicle piece, many parents have vowed to no longer let their children go outside alone, ever. “I used to let my kids walk to the park, which is a block away,” one mother is quoted as saying, “My 11-year-old would chaperone. But after this, there will be no more walking on their own to the park. This is a long-term change.'”

It IS a long term change, but not one that makes sense. First of all, her children were not walking alone if the 11-year-old was walking with them, right? And so already they were exceedingly safe. But even walking alone is generally safe, something really hard to remember in the face of one little girl who wasn’t.

The chances of being abducted and killed by a stranger stand at 1,500,000 to one, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center. This is a number that does not go up or down a lot year to year. To keep your children inside or guarded at all times because of chances like that would make sense only if you also vowed never to take your children in a car, considering the odds of them dying in an accident are 40 times greater.

And yet, even though five child passengers are killed each day, you never see parents vowing, “I used to let my kids come with me in the car. But after this, there will be no more driving. This is a long-term change.”

This is not meant to be flip. Only that if keeping children safe from any possible death, no matter how remote the danger, is your goal, you literally cannot let them do anything. If they eat, they could choke. If they run, they could trip. If they go to school, they could fall down the stairs. Any of those could lead to death.

By all means, teach your children to be assertive. To fight, bite kick and scream  if they are in trouble. But beyond this, the lesson from Sandra Cantu isn’t, “Never let them go outside until they’re 17.”  It’s that there is no lesson. Only a very sad story that will replay itself in most parents’ minds longer and louder than all the other stories that don’t end this way. — Lenore

Up With Recess! (And Down with Homework)

In case you had a sneaking suspicion that when schools chip away at recess time, they are doing their students no service, along comes this nice little study to say: You’re right. And while we’re at it: Grrrrrr.

Thanks to No Child With A #2 Pencil Left Behind, more and more schools are sucking time out of play and handing it over to classroom larnin’. Nothing wrong with larnin’ of course. (Except spelling it that way.) But this study, released last week, found that kids who took a brisk 20 minute walk on a treadmill actually read at a GRADE HIGHER level than when they picked up a book after sitting around for 20 minutes.

Here’s the study: http://tinyurl.com/cm8odq

And here’s the fabulous website stophomework — http://stophomework.com/ —  which is dedicated to bringing sanity to how we fill our children’s time. As Sara Bennett, the founder of the site and author of The Case Against Homework, points out:  homework not only takes time away from free play, in the grammar school years it does not give anything back. For kids below middle school, “there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement,” Bennet says.

 Still, I know my kids bring home homework every day, and have since kindergarten. It’s the worst part of their day (and mine!). And all it means, says Bennet, is that “Kids spend an awful lot of time doing something there’s no proven value to.”

Meantime, there IS proven value to play. It just seems weird to have to justify it that way: “Go out and play, sweetheart – it is so educationally sound!” But if that’s what it takes to get schools to start rethinking homework, so be it.  – Lenore