A Sweet, Simple Free-Range Success Story

Hi Folks! In the midst of all the usual nuttiness, let’s celebrate a nice little moment, courtesy of a  mom of four in Nebraska. You’ll note, she takes a lot of precautions because this was a first. Eventually, she won’t need them and neither will her kids because they’ll all be more confident and competent,  which is pretty much the Free-Range goal! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to send a little note about our own personal Free Range Success story. Our family recently moved from the Northern Virginia/DC suburbs to a small suburb of Omaha, Nebraska. It is much easier to be Free Range when all of your neighbors are doing it too! Kids walk and ride their bikes to school here by themselves, roam the neighborhoods, etc.
Anyway, my kids were always trying to find ways to spend their allowances, but I was sick of the clutter they were bringing home. So I suggested that they think about using their money to attend a movie. We have four children, and taking everyone out to a show is cost prohibitive. But if two of the kids wanted to spend their own money to go by themselves. . .
We decided on The Adventures of Tintin, as my older two (boy age 9 and girl age 11) have read the comics and it’s not a movie that my younger two would want to see. I picked a matinee hour, gave them notes to keep in their wallets in case someone questioned them or they needed to call me (similar to your “I am a Free-Range Kid” note), and we talked about the various scenarios that could go wrong and how they would handle them (movie never starts or is cancelled for techincal problems, I’m not waiting for them outside afterwards, etc.). I made them come out after buying their tickets so I could check that they had purchased the correct showing, and they went skipping back in to buy their snacks and watch their movie.
Needless to say, they had a wonderful time. They shared a popcorn and pop and enjoyed the show. They realized my son’s wallet was missing, and asked for the lost-and-found. When it wasn’t there, they returned to their seats and found it wedged between the seat and the armrest. They came running out to find me waiting for them and to tell me all about it. My daughter had expressed surprise (and maybe disappointment?) that no one had questioned them. I told her that if they behave like adults, they will be treated like adults. They thanked me for letting them go. They were obviously very proud of themselves and I am obviously very proud of them.
When I posted this adventure to Facebook, my brother commented that he and my younger sister were similar ages when they went to the movies by themselves. He said they sat in the front row and he spilled their pop all over the floor. Twenty years later, it’s still a fond memory for him.
I would never have done this were it not for the Free-Range encouragement. Thank you for  making our society a saner place to live. – Nebraska Mom

Maybe it's time to let your kids escape to the movies...by themselves?

My Son Went Outside Barefoot. Is This a Crime?

Readers — This letter means so much to me. It’s from a mom in Massachusetts, reminding us that Free-Range isn’t just an idea. It is real. It can change lives. (And it believes in barefoot kids.) — L.  

Dear Free-Range Kids: Imagine my surprise as I looked out the second story window only to see my 10 year old son walking into our driveway with a police officer’s car creeping along with him!  You see my son was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes” and this was apparently alarming to law enforcement.

Actually, he was outside, without shoes, waiting for his friend to arrive, and in his great anticipation, had decided to walk a few houses up the street.  (How terribly childlike of him!)  The officer asked him, “WHY ARE YOU OUT ALONE WITHOUT YOUR SHOES?”  And my son (quite nervous and experiencing an anxiety-induced brain freeze) said, “Uhmm, I don’t know.”  The officer took note of his name and address and drove away after he was safely inside.  I am left to wonder if there’s a file at the police station with my child’s name on it with a note about the boy who was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes.”

This year has been one of fantastic liberation. We’ve taken a great leap of faith and allowed our first-born to roam and ride his bike alone and with friends.  He also has the free will to decide if he wants to wear shoes or a coat (unless we’re going to a public place or it’s 20 degrees. 🙂  Since adopting a “Free-Range” parenting style I have noticed that others view this as somehow neglectful and/or dangerous.  Interestingly, I have also seen a dramatic change in my child’s well being since he’s been “let off leash.”  He’s lost weight, he noticeably smiles and laughs more, and he has had many wonderful experiences to brag about — like catching a giant catfish at a pond down the street (alone) and carrying it through town with its tail flapping around, half hanging out of a lemonade container, and then summoning the help of a “stranger” to get the hook out.  He has stories to tell because he is LIVING and I am so happy to give him one ounce of the joy I was allowed as a child.

Recently, as dusk became dark and he was not yet home, I wondered if I had made a mistake.  Where was my boy?!  My heart began to race as I thought of every horrible thing that might have happened to him.  I jumped in the car and as I started down the street I saw the outline of his human shape chugging up the hill to our house.  He made it, in one piece, with rosy cheeks and the smell of childhood all over him.  Free-Range is the way to go!  There is risk in everything.  Freedom is a risk I am willing to take.  Thank you,  you have changed our lives! — Carla English, mom of two

Guest Post: Free-Range…in a Group Home

Hi Readers — Here’s a guest post from Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a very cool, national nonprofit trying to ensure a playground within walking distance of every child. Hammond is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. So read this while you send the kids outside! — L


When I was 19 months old, my father went to unload a truck and never came back. My mother, who was left to care for eight children, didn’t raise us Free-Range on principle, but rather by default. She had to work multiple jobs, so we were left on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner was often butter and sugar sandwiches on white bread. My older siblings started skipping school, ostensibly to take care of us younger ones, but they sometimes ended up getting into trouble instead.

Eventually the bills piled up and my siblings’ frequent absences from school caught the attention of social workers. When I was four, we were all transferred to Mooseheart, a group home outside of Chicago. In many ways, life at Mooseheart was both Spartan and structured. I stored all my belongings in a single trunk; I shared a room with 23 other boys; I was summoned to classes, meals, and other activities by a whistle; and I needed written permission to move from one building to another during school hours and after dark.

But within this structure, I actually had an ample amount of freedom—more than many kids, including so-called “privileged” kids, enjoy today. For one thing, with about 1,200 acres of lush lawns, playgrounds, athletic fields, and basketball courts, Mooseheart was full of outdoor spaces for roaming and playing. And I always had other kids to play with. Rarely in my free time did I have an adult hovering over my shoulder—there simply weren’t enough adults to go around.

My childhood was unusual, yes, and certainly not desirable in every way, but it was my group home upbringing that initially opened my eyes to the importance of strong communities and of free play—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. It was Mooseheart that set me on the path to founding a community-building nonprofit dedicated to saving play—a journey I detail in my new memoir, KaBOOM!.

The Free-Range movement is often misinterpreted as a movement that gives parents license to be reckless, lax, and neglectful. Critics completely gloss over the vital role of community in the Free-Range philosophy. Say the words “child-directed free play” and they don’t envision a group of neighborhood children looking out for one another as they invent games, create new worlds, and explore their surroundings. No, instead they are haunted by images of stray kids running wild in heavily trafficked streets or careening helmetless downhill on their bikes (of course, as the pedophiles and child-snatchers lurking on every corner look on).

Beyond all the paranoia and hyperbole, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding. Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure—I know, because I lived it.

I would never advocate for children eating butter and sugar sandwiches for dinner, spending Christmas alone, or routinely missing school. But freedom within a strong, healthy, nourishing community—that’s what every child needs and deserves. – D.H.

Two Stories You Won’t Hear on the News

Hi Readers! Here you go! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in a small town (less than 300 residents) in Southwest Pennsylvania,  and regardless of the image the local-ish news channels portray, it is VERY safe. I grew up in the house I am living in, my  parents live next door.

The other day I was working in the yard, repainting some furniture. I heard my 2-year-old come out  then turn around and bang on the door she just exited. My mom came to the door and asked Gwen if she wanted to come in. I didn’t hear anything else, and when I looked up a few minutes later and didn’t see my daughter, I assumed she had gone in with my mom. A couple minutes later, I went in to clean up. When I didn’t see my daughter, I asked where she was. Mom said she thought Gwen was outside with me. This started a search of the yard (large, nearly 3/4 acre, all fenced in), something that happens a couple times on most days. When we determined Gwen wasn’t there, we started walking up the street. Mom found her standing in front of a neighbor’s house three homes away, looking for the back-hoe she’d seen the day before. The neighbor who lived there was just walking over to Gwen to bring her down and see if she was ours. My next door neighbor, who was leaving for work, was also just coming out to see whose child it was.

Total result? A minute of semi-panic when we realized my two-year-old wasn’t in the yard. A five-minute conversation with a normally anti-social neighbor about her grown daughter at the toddler stage. And when my father came home, he moved the gate latch to the outside of the fence so Gwen can’t open it again. Nobody called the police or child protective services, no injuries occurred, and Gwen wasn’t even fazed  — though she WAS disappointed that the big machines were gone.

This is a big deal to me because Pittsburgh news (our closest “local” news) runs nearly weekly reports of parents going to court-mandated parenting classes or even losing their children because of similar occurrences where toddlers get out and wander unsupervised. In all of these occasions, when neighbors find random children, they don’t look for a parent, they seem to START by calling the police.

Then, today we went to our nearest park to play on the big swings. The park is right against the Youghigheny River, so there are a lot of water fowl. Gwen played until she realized the ducks were there! She wanted to go look. While there, she had a lovely conversation about the ducks with an older gentleman (75 or 80 years, probably), who was sitting on a bench watching the ducks, too. I actually walked back to the car (about 20 yards away) to get her drink while she sat and watched with him. She probably sat still for longer than anywhere else today. He was polite, patient, and seemed to find her constant observations about the ducks adorable.

Thankfully, the local city has not succumbed to the temptation to bar adults from enjoying the same areas as children, because both my daughter and the gentleman had a wonderful time.

Moral of the story: There are some areas of the country that haven’t completely succumbed to insanity, and I am SO happy to live in one of them, since we have been Free-Range with Gwen since she first became mobile. — A Happy Pennsylvania Mom

WTD? What happens when a toddler watches ducks with someone other than her parent?

“Anything Could Happen!”

Hi Readers! To get the blood flowing this Monday morn:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I got a random issue of a parenting magazine in the mail. I don’t subscribe, but I guess it’s a teaser issue to try to drag me in.  There’s a Q&A feature in which a mother asked if it was okay to leave her 2.5-year-old in the living room watching a movie while she put her infant down for the night, which involves nursing the baby to sleep in another room.  (From my experience, this is usually a 15 minute task, 30 minutes, max.)

The response from the “expert” (with some sort of PhD behind her name)?  NO!!!, because Something Could Happen.  The advice?  Put your 2.5-y-o in a “contained” place and don’t nurse the baby to sleep but put him or her down more quickly, if you must be apart at all.  Even better, the implication is, would be to nevereverever let your 2.5 year old out of your sight, not even for a MINUTE.

Yeah, right.  As I was reading that, my 2-year-old was in the living room alone, using a movie to wind down for the night after all the stimulation of grandparents.  I bet that “expert” would call CPS is she saw the neighborhood gang roaming around the semi-country acre lots on our cul-de-sac –“unsupervised,” sometimes.  There is a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, two 6-year-olds, a moderately to severely mentally retarded 4-year-old, and the aforementioned 2-year-old, all playing happily while parents do no more than glance out the window periodically and keep an ear out.  Heck, she’d lead the lynch mob herself if she knew that we let the older four wander in the woods behind the neighborhood by themselves!

My 2-year-old HAS been injured enough to take note–twice, in fact.  And both times, she was being directly supervised by an adult in the same room with her.  Once, she was within arm’s reach and just tripped, fell, and put her tooth through her lip.  The other time, she nose-dived through a screen to an open window that was 10 inches from the ground and scraped the bridge of her nose on the brick.  There was no way to be fast enough.  Accidents happen.

But the worst she’s suffered when outside with the boys is a skinned knee because they have been raised to be responsible–as I am raising her.

Free Childhood with Purchase

Hi Readers — Here’s a note that made me happy, and, as it is gifting time, I figured it might inspire a few more Free-range Kids books (just $10.17!) under a tree:

Dear Free-Range Kids: For or against? Definitely for! I just finished the book and wish I’d known about it sooner.  Then maybe I wouldn’t have second-guessed myself so much.  Such as when I let my seven year old walk home by himself from the school bus (even though my neighbors warn me repeatedly about the dangers of child snatchers who could be lurking around in our rural, small town neighborhood).  Or when I let my kids eat raw cookie dough and cake batter (even though my sister told me I was putting their lives at risk).  I also suspect there have been a few times when friends have decided not to let their kids play at my house because I don’t stay outside with them in the yard the whole time.

But I have held my ground and am occasionally rewarded with evidence that my children (ages seven and four) are doing just fine with the freedom they have.  The other day I watched out the window as my son ran home from the school bus.  He ran as if he were being chased by a swarm of hornets and darted off the road into the tall grass in our neighbor’s yard.  When I asked him what was wrong he said, “Oh nothing.  I was just pretending that I was Indiana Jones trying to escape a huge boulder that was about the squish me.”  Music to my ears!

I love this movement.  I only pray it takes off while my children are still young.  Maybe then they’ll have some friends to run home from the bus stop with. — Kate

Let's hear it for freedom and fun!

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

“When I Was a Kid, My Neighbor Was Abducted. How Can I Go Free-Range?”

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I just got:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m generally in agreement with Lenore’s views.  It’s ridiculous to try to protect our children from EVERYTHING out there.  The article about not having a baby on board sign because it could decapitate the baby … fear-mongering at it’s worst!  Gave me a good lol.

My mom and I talk fairly often about this blog.  And there is one argument that she brings up that I don’t know how to combat.  When I was 14 or 15 a girl down the block was kidnapped.  She’s not been found to this day.  She was walking 3 blocks in a safe neighborhood to the local grocery store.  All of us neighborhood kids did the same thing.  She went with a friend.  Sure, it’s a VERY rare scenario, but it happened in my life.  I knew the girl and her friend.  That could have been ME!

So when it comes to things like letting the kids play alone in the park … that’s very scary.  My neighborhood couldn’t BE more typically suburban and safe.  But, how do I work up the nerve to let my daughter do something that feels so dangerous?  I don’t want to be a helicopter mom, but I don’t know how to justify something that in my experience has turned out so disastrously.  Maybe that’s the shift in thinking that I need to make … it’s not what makes me comfortable, but what is best for my daughter.  Because the likelihood of her being kidnapped is very, very low.

BTW:  For those interested, the girl is Michaela Garecht.  Her mom writes a blog here.

To which I replied:

First of all, what a tragedy. It’s impossible to contemplate it without feeling hopeless and disgusted with the world.

But then, as you point out: there is your daughter and her life and childhood to think about, too.

As far as going out and about in the world, there is no reason to start by sending her alone to the park. It would be more fun and more safe for her to go with a friend. I realize the girl in your neighborhood WAS with a friend, but an abduction like that is rarer than rare. So you can take some steps that allow your daughter out and about, but still with someone else, which is very safe.

Secondly, I think most of us feel better when we take action. So take a self defense class with her, or have her take one. Why not? Even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children says the safest kids are the confident ones. There is confidence that comes from being prepared.

Thirdly, I don’t know how to get over the abduction fear, since it happened to someone you know. All I can say is I do know people who have been in car accidents and I still get into a car.  My friend’s boss died slipping in the tub. And, you’ll be happy to hear, I still bathe.

The sad truth — the truth we think we always have control over, but we don’t — is that sometimes tragedy happens. For some reason, we are able to compartmentalize some of our fears. Car accidents haven’t scared Americans off of driving. They say, “Well, when I’m driving, I’m in control.” But as a reader once pointed out so cogently here, if you are killed by a drunk driver, it doesn’t matter how great a driver you are (were!). Things happen. We don’t think about fiery crashes every time we put our kids in the car. We don’t leap to the headlines, and imagine all the sorrow and guilt we’d feel — and we shouldn’t. That would be an obsessive way to live our lives.

But abduction is another story. We feel it’s always a possibility, even if it’s rare, and that therefore we must actively prevent it all the time. And the only way we can think of preventing it is by never letting our kids out of our sight.

The fact is, it is rarer than lightning and we must not give our kids a Rapunzel life. The odds are very much in our favor. Meantime, it is not as if we aren’t making a trade-off, every time we refuse to let our children explore the world, or go about some of their day without us hovering. Childhood is a time to grow up. If someone else is doing all the growing up for the child —  suggesting the games, deciding the teams, watching out for the cars, finding the route home — that adult has sucked all the lessons, and joy, and even frustration and disappointment — out of the experience. Sure, they do it with the best of intentions. But they have outsourced the work, and fun, of childhood.

It is our job to prepare our children as best we can for the world. To teach them, train them, and then, gradually, to let them go. Yes, with some fear in our hearts. That’s the part about being a parent that really bites.

So good luck to you as you deal with this. And good luck to your daughter, too. And keep us posted! — Lenore

How Can We Give Our Kids Freedom When It’s Supposedly “Dangerous?”

Hi Readers! I was reading this lovely link one of you sent in,  nodding along with the whole gestalt, and then suddenly found myself quoted. Nice feeling! Here’s the beginning of the piece, which appears in SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle’s web site:

How Do We Teach Kids Independence in a Fear-Driven World? by Amy Graff

My 7-year-old daughter, Paris, spent a week with her grandparents this summer in the tiny coastal town of Gearhart, Ore.

If you ask Paris what her favorite thing was about the trip, she won’t tell you the about the root beer floats she and her grandfather enjoyed nightly, nor about the festive parade that passed through town on the Fourth of July. She won’t tell you about getting her first-ever pair of Crocs (something I refused to buy her), nor about learning to ride a bike without training wheels.

Rather she’ll tell you about going to the store with her 7-year-old friend Annabelle. She’ll tell you that she and her friend walked six blocks all by themselves to the corner grocery store where they spent their pocket change on candy.

When my daughter returned from her vacation and told me this, her eyes grew big and excited and she started jumping up and down and flapping her hands. This was the sort of sheer joy a parent almost only witnesses on Christmas morning. And it wasn’t the candy that made her so happy. It was the fact that she had done something without an adult standing on the sidelines watching.

…. I practically cried when my daughter told me this–not because I disapproved of her walking to the store with a girl named Annabelle who I’ve never even met. I nearly cried because I realized my daughter is deprived of freedom. She’s growing up in a fear-driven world where an adult has to watch every move she makes. She’s rarely allowed to step outside an adult’s eyesight unless she’s locked up inside her own house. If I had been there in Gearhart with my daughter, I probably wouldn’t have allowed her to walk those six blocks….

Read it (and weep) here! And maybe come up with some good ideas for all of us on how to loosen the reins AND deal with busybodies, all while keeping our kids pretty darn safe. Thanks! — Lenore

Front Page Treatment

Hi Folks — Here’s a link to a nice Free-Range story on the front page of today’s Arizona Daily Star, in Tucson. (Where I had my first newspaper internship many moons — and suns, and probably a comet — ago.) What’s nice is so many of the comments are positive! — L.