Free Range Parenting: The Stares of the Neighbors

In addition to positive parenting, I’m also a big fan of free range parenting. The idea is that parents do too much “helicopter parenting” today, and that children are actually capable of much more than we think, capable of things like (gasp!) walking themselves to school. For me, free range parenting means preparing Sally to handle life rather than simply protecting her from it.

But there has always been one serious difficulty for 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 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.

My biggest challenge with free range parenting is striking this same balance. On the one hand is what I know Sally is capable of, but on the other hand is what everyone else assumes she is capable of, and there is unfortunately a big discrepancy between the two.

I let Sally go around to the front door after we get back from the grocery while I carry the bags to the back door and then open the front door for her, but I do wonder if someone will see her walking up the sidewalk alone and begin to wonder if I’m a negligent mother.

Sometimes while I fix supper Sally likes to play out back, but I make sure to keep the screen door latched open and poke my head out every time I hear a neighbor going up or down the sidewalk so that they’ll know she’s attended.

Sally likes to walk ahead of me to the car and I let her because I know she will stop at the parking lot and wait for me, but I notice when the neighbors see her standing at the edge of the sidewalk and then look around trying to locate a parent, smiling in relief when they see me coming up the sidewalk behind her.

Once Sally and I were on a grassy hill, taking a break from a walk. I was enjoying the sun and Sally was wandering around picking dandelions. A couple passed on the sidewalk below. I saw them stop and point at Sally and look around, not seeing me for a moment. I stood up and waved, and the smiled and resumed their walk.

I’m glad people are eager to make sure children are safe. After all, if Sally did wonder off this means it’s very likely some well-meaning person would soon notice her and bring her back. And yet, I often wish that there wasn’t such a big discrepancy between what kids are capable of and what people think they’re capable of.

I think sometimes that by treating our children as though they can’t do things or as if they’re incapable, we create a self-fulfilling prophesy as our low expectations infantilize otherwise competent children. I refuse to do that with Sally, but unfortunately the only actions and expectations I can control are my own. As long as we live in a society with such low expectations of children’s abilities, I’ll continue to find my desire to be a free range parent checked by the stares of the neighbors.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Caitlin

    This piece gives a list from the 1979 edition of “Is Your Child Ready for First Grade”:
    http://www.chicagonow.com/little-kids-big-city/2011/08/is-your-child-ready-for-first-grade-1979-edition/

    I find it interesting that our academic expectations have gotten so high–our school expected all children to read before the end of kindergarten, but our standard for physicality (riding a bike) and independence (walking in the neighborhood alone) are now so low. Who would let a 5-6 year old walk 4-8 blocks alone to the store in this day and age? As you point out, Libby Anne, people freak out if a kid that age is playing outside alone in her own front yard.

    • Sarah

      Caitlin, I think Sally is three (please correct me if I’m wrong), not 5 or 6. I trust my five year old’s impulse control in the front yard, but I don’t beleive that a three year old is capable of really understanding the consequences of the road, and so they might not intentionally go on the road, but might follow an interesting beetle or a ball or decide to check the mail. In the back yard the consequences of distraction are comparatively minor.

    • Rilian

      Hey, I looked at that link, and I’m wondering why people ever thought you had to be 6 1/2 to start learning how to read. I learned when I was 3, my brother when he was 2. Do people really wait till they start school to even start trying to figure out this, like, socially essential thing called reading?

      • Conuly

        Children develop at different rates. Trying to teach your child to read before they’re ready means you take longer and by the time they’re 11 you can’t tell who learned “early” and who learned “late” anyway.

  • machintelligence

    Sally likes to walk ahead of me to the car and I let her because I know she will stop at the parking lot and wait for me, but I notice when the neighbors see her standing at the edge of the sidewalk and then look around trying to locate a parent, smiling in relief when they see me coming up the sidewalk behind her.

    I admit this makes me a little nervous. I am an an older parent (both kids out of college) but I think impulse control is marginal, especially at three years of age. Sally may be the exception, but it only takes one instance of darting out into traffic to result in disaster. Perhaps you could teach her to stop six feet back from the curb and give us nervous types a little breathing room.

  • Saraquill

    I’m reminded of the many, many, arguments i had with my mom when I was young about why I couldn’t stay in the house by myself/go up the block to the grocery store/commute to school by myself and so on, the answer was always that I was at a prime age to be kidnapped. When I was eleven, she explained that the first tastes of freedom would make me careless and hence vulnerable.

    When I was starting high school, I complained that she didn’t trust me. She insisted that it was other people she didn’t trust, but it never felt that way.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ blotzphoto

      You should check out Lenore Skenazy’s Blog “Free Range Kids”.
      https://freerangekids.wordpress.com/
      Lenore goes into great detail, there and in her book of the same name, as to how incredibly unlikely it is for your children to be kidnapped by strangers.

    • Steve

      The kidnapping panic is the media’s fault. Sure, kid’s should be careful (don’t speak with strangers and all that), but overall the chances of getting kidnapped are very low. But because every case – as tragic as they are – is blown up in the media at great length, people are hyper-aware about the issue and probably take it too seriously.

      • Jenora Feuer

        And yet, it is almost never strangers at fault; kidnapped children are far more often than not kidnapped by a relative. (Most commonly whichever parent didn’t get custody.) While the media image of strange men in black cars tempting children with candy does happen, it is incredibly rare (which is why it’s news when it happens).

  • Noelle

    You’re lucky to have a trustworthy kid. My autistic son let himself out of the house twice at 4-5 yrs old and wandered into the woods behind our house. He was lost at least 15-20 minutes before the neighbors found him. He’s walked into the neighbor’s house. He took off at a waterpark when he was 3, and my heart stopped for the 15 minutes it took to find him. I can trust him in my yard now that he’s 7. I can’t see everything from windows and there’s no place to put a fence.

    I lost my daughter for 20 minutes at a crowded ocean beach on vacation. She was 4 and angry about something and took off. I was frantic and crying and had a few moms on the beach in tears too. The lifeguards helped us find her. That still gives me the chills. What if she’d gone for the water?

    I understand the parenting anxiety. There’s an art to stepping back and judging maturity. I trust my 5 year-old more with crossing the street than my 7 year-old. Your next kiddo may need his own timetable.

    • Rilian

      My brother didn’t go to daycare at all, so when he started kindergarten it was a completely new experience to him. I say that to give him the benefit of the doubt as to why he did this. One day after school, instead of waiting for my mom to get there to pick him up, he followed some other kids, who were walking home. He ended up nowhere near our neighborhood, and my mom drove around for an hour looking before she found him.
      But I don’t want to say that people should base how they raise their kids on what my brother did. He is unusual.

  • Jeremy

    I don’t entirely agree with you on this one. I definitely agree that free range parenting is not abuse or neglect, and that involving CPS in what is a legitimate parenting choice is an awful thing to do. Where I don’t agree is that it’s the best or safest choice. I’m not concerned about Sally’s ability to handle herself; as you say, you’re a better judge of that than are people who don’t know her. What I’m concerned about is child-snatching.

    Yes, I’ve read the free range arguments that child-snatching is incredibly rare and doesn’t justify keeping a toddler indoors at all times to protect against it. When you get to the point of letting a first-grader wander around the neighborhood unsupervised, on the other hand, I get squirrelly about it. I simply don’t see the magical benefits the free-rangers ascribe to being allowed to roam around free (and when they start talking about that, it’s my belief that they get very politically conservative in their rhetoric — glorifying “a simpler time” and whatnot). I can’t think of a single benefit I missed out on by not being allowed to roam around the dangerous Los Angeles neighborhood in which I grew up. Since I don’t believe there’s any benefit to that level of free-ranging, what’s the point of incurring even the minimal risk of child-snatching? Why put your child at minimal risk for no good reason?

    So, in summary: yes to letting Sally outside by herself. No to letting Sally wander the neighborhood unsupervised. And I’ll argue with you, but I’ll fight anyone who calls you abusive or neglectful or tries to call CPS on you.

    • Conuly

      “Why put your child at minimal risk for no good reason?”

      So you don’t drive your child anywhere (or allow them to be driven) within, say, a one mile radius of your starting point?

      • Jeremy

        There’s good reason for doing that: the need for children to travel outside their homes outweighs the risk to their safety. What need to children have to be alone, outside, far from home, when they are very young? It’s not the risk that bothers me, but the lack of need for the activity at all.

      • Conuly

        And they need to travel by car, Jeremy?

        “It’s not the risk that bothers me, but the lack of need for the activity at all.”

        So you only drive your children places they NEED to go?

      • Anat

        To Jeremy: Kids should familiarize themselves with their neighborhood. And walking or biking around is good exercise. Also there is social benefit to forming interactions with peers outside of organized activities and without parental interference. Assuming the child is comfortable and reliable. At 6 I was walking to the corner store and not only going places alone but supervising my 3 year old brother. But my daughter is different (was capable of running off, even into traffic, on a whim if she got upset) and we live in a different environment (schools don’t allow unsupervised walking or biking before 4th grade, the nearest stores are all large supermarket rather than the ‘mom and pop’ style stores I went to on errands, most places really need a bus to reach) so it took longer for her to reach this level of independence.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ blotzphoto

      It’s your call Jeremy. If you don’t think your neighborhood is safe that’s fine. One part of the free-range philosophy is empowering parents to use their own best judgement and critical thinking skills to make their own decisions on whats best for their kids. I don’t leave my three year old alone outside, but my 5 and 7 tear old have a lot more latitude. My question for you is; at what age do your kids stop being “very young”.

    • Rosa

      There’s actually more and more research coming out about kids needing social learning time that includes being able to play freely in groups, being able to learn to navigate the world by themselves. There are also the benefits of getting exercise (which is highly restricted when they can only be outdoors when an adult is available to supervise their leisure), and experiencing natural phenomenon directly – things like dirt, bugs, gravity, that parents often restrict. There’s even developmental differences between kids who play on perfectly flat surfaces vs. uneven ones.

  • lisa b

    I didn’t even realize I was a “free range” until recently. I have always let my children have a lot of freedom. I really want them to feel confident, I want them to feel a little scared when they make a wrong turn on a walk, I want them to figure it out on their own. I had some of the best times as a kid wandering off by myself all day and coming home at dusk. And, I don’t give a damn what my neighbors or friends think. (most of family parents pretty similarly to the way I do)
    Strangers kidnapping a child is actually extremely rare. But, I have told my kids not to talk to strangers, scream and run if they feel threatened.. etc…
    I’ve lost a child, (3 y.o.) for about 2 minutes in an amusement park before and she was scared enough to stay close to family afterwards, now I let the same girl (12 y.o.) go out on her own at the same amusement park. She meets us at the designated spot at the designated time- every time. She enjoys her freedom…

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    I think there’s certainly a balance to be struck. A neighbor used to let her 2-year-old and 5-year-old wander outside unsupervised as late as 10 pm. The younger child would run behind cars (we live in a townhouse; the street is essentially a parking lot). I was always scared to DEATH I would accidentally run over one of her kids. My own kids (8 and 11) have license to roam the entire street with the request to go “outside,” and visit their neighborhood friends–but they must let us know where they are going to be (e.g. if they visit someone) so we can retrieve them in a reasonable amount of time when needed. Haven’t sent either of ‘em to the store for something yet, but that day’s coming soon.

  • Meggie

    “It takes a community to raise a child”. I love that phrase.

    When Son No.2 was a toddler he refused to wear warm due to severe excema. (Warm clothes would rub against his skin and cause severe pain.) He prefered cold to pain. Very sensible really. If we went out I would always pack warm clothes but never force him to wear them. I can’t tell you how many times elderly ladies stop me to reprimand me for not dressing him properly and I would explain “He has excema and …” For a while it drove me crazy until I realised all these ladies are doing exactly what we should all do – they are concerned about a child and they are doing something about it. Someone walks past and sees a toddler and checks there is a parent is someone I want as a neighbour. Sure, it might drive me crazy to have to keep going out to let people know I am there but on the other hand, I know that there is a whole community watching and protecting my child.
    I don’t believe in hovering over children but I think the more people watching from a distance, the better.

    • Rilian

      I hated when I was a kid when people would tell me to put on a jacket. I wish I could go back and tell them, “I know how I feel, you are not in my body, it’s my decision, not yours.” My mom would sometimes worry I would get cold, but my dad took the stance that if I got cold I’d come in and get a coat. Why do people assume that kids are just like dolls that must be protected, rather than actual people who can make their own decisions and know their own needs? They don’t know them perfectly, no one does, but we are not born dumb rocks.

      • Meyli

        I’ve volunteered in a pre-school before and that’s one thing I really don’t like. The teachers MANDATE coat-wearing! Nope, its ‘too cold’ and you must wear your coat and hat to go outside and play. Now, I doubt any child would voluntarily go outside in the snow with only a t-shirt, but we’re talking above-freezing weather. A kid who’s running around playing tag will keep warm no problem. I don’t understand why they can’t just make the decision for themselves; maybe take the coat with you if you change your mind….ugh.

  • meg

    Two things:
    1 – I’m an aunt, not a parent, but when I see a small child on their own (especially if they’re crying), I do a double take, make sure I can see a parent. I suppose it’s how you want to look at it – I’d hope that a parent, seeing me check where mum/dad is would read it as I’m concerned the child is lost, and want to make sure they are safe, as opposed to having a problem with the parenting of the child. But I was a kid who used to deliberately get lost. . .
    2 – Recently, I was at the local aquarium. A small boy, perhaps 1 1/2- 2yrs, started running around the exhibit we were at, screaming ‘daddy daddy daddy’ inconsolably. He was definitely lost. Another woman looked at me, said dismissively ‘he’s not mine’ and walked off. The only other family/mother nearby (different race, so I knew not related to him) looked at me with obvious concern. I walked up to him, knelt down, and started to calm him down. It took me less than 60 seconds to stop the crying, have him talking to me and holding my hand. And no one would have questioned me if I walked out with him. As it was, we went to take him to a staff member when the father finally showed up. The other mother watched me, and I’m glad of that – kinda check and balance system. The fact I had his trust so quickly scared me more than a little.
    So conclusion – free range is fantastic for the child to gain independence, but I think it has to be in situations where they are comfortable, safe and where you can watch them. Not in a crowded place.

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    Being Swedish I think people are less uptight about letting their kids be outside in the yard here but still more uptight than when I was a child. I do not think I would be the least bit scared that my child would get kidnapped if he/she was a couple of blocks from home but I would probably worry about traffic or that the child would become absentminded and walk away in the wrong direction or get lost.

    I have thought about the whole thing about not talking to strangers as well. My mother did not scare me of this but she was clear that I was never to go in someone’s car even if I knew the person or if the person said that she had sent him/her. My mother told me who she would consider sending to pick me up and told me that if anyone else offered a lift I would say no and move away from the car. I can’t say I knew why she said so but I sensed it was important since my mother didn’t really forbid very many things and this was something that she emphasized. I hope to do something like this myself because I do not want my kids to be scared of talking to strangers in general, I want them to feel safe around people. I will emphasize body integrity though and that neither adults or children are allowed to touch him/her or hug or kiss her against their will.

    • Rosa

      every once in a while a Swedish parent visiting the US has problems with this – there was a pretty well-publicized case maybe 10 years ago where visiting Swedes left their baby in a stroller outside a small, crowded shop in New York and the police came.

      • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

        Well, I wouldn’t leave a stroller outside a shop, in Sweden or elsewhere though, not because I would fear kipnapping but out of fear that I would not hear the child if it woke up. I found that incident a bit strange myself and most people in Sweden did so as well, it is really not that common to do so unless you live in a tiny town where everybody knows everybody. However, older kids I think are often given more freedom but would I be abroad I would sstill like a closer look than back home because of the language barrier.

    • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

      yep, I’m not really on board with “no talking to strangers” thing. There are different strangers…and if my child, say, got harassed by someone in a shopping centre or something, I’d rather he knew to run to a security man or a shop assistant for help.

  • Rilian

    When I was a kid, most of the kids in my neighborhood went out alone all day. A few kids were accompanied by parents, but they didn’t freak out when they saw that other kids were alone. I vaguely remember one person once asking where my parents were and seeming a little judgemental when I told them that my parents let me go outside by myself. But that was just one person out of a couple hundred.

  • Rilian

    I’ve realized that I do this now. I think it’s just that now I’ve gotten used to little kids always being with parents, so now seeing them alone is unusual, so I find myself wondering where their parents are, if they look 5 or younger. Once I saw someone that looked about 1 or 2 years old, just wandering around the park alone … so I waited a minute to see if an adult appeared. Guh, maybe I’m over-reacting.

  • jay

    I’m fully behind you, Libby Anne. And laughing at the comments that are so nervous. My kids are 14 and 15 now and I’ve been a free-range parent the whole time. I fully trust them because I’ve given them a lot of freedom and they have handled it well. They are so grateful for the freedom and responsibility they have. And my daughter never wears a coat – almost never. She doesn’t get comments any more, but when she was a small child walking around without a coat on, I would get moms telling me to dress her properly. But she was always warm. I would tell the moms to feel her hands – they are warm – she doesn’t need a coat. But I got lots of looks, too.

    • Carol

      Yeah, I have to laugh and cry with the looks and the comments. I am totally with you on the coat thing – only adults get cold. Kids are like little furnaces, they just do not get cold. My sister in law was always complaining that my nephew left his coat at school. It’s hard to look at them without their jackets on, but I just clamp my mouth shut.

      I go back and forth with the free range parenting. We’ve done some things that other parents wouldn’t do. We live near a school and we used to let our kids walk down our very quiet street to the school by themselves and one time the neighbor kids went with them. The mom was working and when she got home from work and found out about it, she let me have it. I told her to knock it off.

      • Eric D Red

        I let me kids decide if they’re cold or not. I sometimes have to tell my wife to let them be.

        However, I’ve half-jokingly told my oldest to at least carry her coat so that I don’t look like a negligent parent! And I say it loud enough that other parents hear it.

  • http://www.rwcnj.com/ Anne

    Things are very different from when I was a child. All the kids were allowed out in the backyard on their own and nobody thought it was strange. When we were about 6 or 7, we biked all around the neighborhood and went to the store for candy and sodas. Now parents are much more cautious.

  • Liberated Liberal

    I applaud your decision and efforts to treat your child like a citizen of this world and not just a fragile pet to be protected. I think it’s wonderful.

    I am a product of the most protective, most anxious and most smothering parenting you have ever encountered. Even at 18, 19 and 20 years old, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere alone. I was a teenager (!!) before I could get the mail alone, and it was literally 100 feet away. I couldn’t decide when I was hot or cold or hungry or not. I couldn’t be upset or show any emotion at all without my mom exploding and deciding to go on a crusade to destroy whoever could have made me feel anything! When it came time for me to leave for college, my parents laid on the guilt about how lonely they would be, what would I do without them, how could I leave… and on and on. When I did finally leave, it was a constant, I want you to be happy, but….

    I am now 30, and my mom must know I’m alive multiple times a day. She can’t handle it if she knows I’m going to be spending the day alone (without male supervision) and must call me many times; I make sure never EVER to tell her if I’m going to be *gasp!* going somewhere alone. If she doesn’t hear from me within five minutes of the time I’m supposed to have arrived somewhere, she calls the police. When we moved halfway across the country a couple of months ago, my mom was so freaked out about me driving a car (following a truck and another car) that she forced my dad to fly out in order to drive for me.

    So what is the result? I don’t communicate effectively because I’m afraid of the reaction; I have no ability to make decisions; I don’t know what I want because I was never allowed to make my own choices; I have no self-esteem; I am attracted to men who are responsible and in control (which ends up always being abusive and controlling) because I feel as though I have no control; I can’t cook; I am afraid of EVERYTHING; suffer severe anxiety and panic attacks.

    Please treat your children like people and not prizes to make you feel secure. The damage from anxious parenting is life-long and quite serious.

    • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

      sorry you had to go through this. I’m a product of that sort of parenting myself. fortunately I was lucky to meet a good guy and his influence plus several years of counselling helped somewhat. But unfortunately there’s no way to get back the life I could have had if my parents were a bit less insane.
      People tend to not really get what’s the big deal, because “oh but they love you so!”. It’s frustrating.

  • Frances

    I think that Free Range Parenting is not only good for the kids, it’s good for the parents. Occationally I’ll watch Bubble Wrapped Kids (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World%27s_Worst_Mom) and the controlling parents are always uptight, worrying, nervous wrecks.

  • Rosa

    I so feel you! “Sally likes to walk ahead of me to the car and I let her because I know she will stop at the parking lot and wait for me, but I notice when the neighbors see her standing at the edge of the sidewalk and then look around trying to locate a parent, smiling in relief when they see me coming up the sidewalk behind her.”

    Seeing kids near cars makes other adults REALLY nervous – including drivers. When my son was first riding a bike, he’d ride and I’d walk. We eventually made a rule that he had to stop BEFORE the last fully square piece of sidewalk by the street – well back from the corner – because the cars swerved and stared and one nearly drove into a lightpole from gawking at the “unaccompanied” child.

    It seems to me that drivers should ALWAYS drive in residential areas as if there might be a child about to cross the street, and then they wouldn’t freak out so much when there is one waiting patiently for an adult to cross with them. But instead other parents put all this pressure on you to make the world safe for unwatchful adults. It’s stupid.

  • http://pslibrary.com MrPopularSentiment

    By the time I was 4 years old, I was walking about half a mile with a group of children (no adults) to where the school bus would pick us up. Once, when I was about 5 or 6, my friend and I missed the bus home so we walked alone about 3miles (although, granted, my mom did consider that to be a big deal!). Starting at around 6-7, I was “roaming” – playing outside on my own or with other children, without adults, for hours at a time.

    I value that experience. It’s made me capable and confident as an adult. When I encounter challenges, I face them head on and I don’t expect others to be around to bail me out. I’m independent and physically incapable of feeling bored.

    I realize that it’s unrealistic to give my son the same childhood, if only because I lived in the country and he’s growing up in the city, but I do intend to give him as much freedom as I possibly can.

    For now, he’s only one year old, so that means sitting in the field and letting him wander quite far (but still within sight). I also let him do “dangerous” things, such as climbing on the furniture. I just position myself so that I can catch him if he falls, but I let him try and I don’t help or interfere (and I make him sweat when he’s ready to come down and realises that he can’t!).

  • http://www.themommypsychologist.com The Mommy Psychologist

    Part of childhood is scraped up knees and bumps. I’m not sure when we starting believing our children were so fragile. I think we are robbing them of such a huge part of childhood when we take away their ability to just be kids. I recently went on a rant about how I take the sidelines at the park when my son is playing because the park is his time and his place to figure things out. And more importantly- just be a kid! It’s here for anyone interested:
    http://www.themommypsychologist.com/2012/04/30/helicopter-parenting-just-isnt-my-style/

  • Sue Blue

    I agree that parents today are much more paranoid about their children’s abilities to take care of themselves. When I was five years old, I walked seven blocks to my kindergarten in North Hollywood by myself every day. Both my parents worked, and my mother would drive along the route after I left for school to make sure I made it, but she didn’t take me because I insisted I was a “big girl”. I knew how to avoid strangers, which neighbors could be approached for help, and my own phone number. The entire time I was growing up, we played outside unsupervised until dark, built forts in the woods in Colorado, walked miles to school to avoid riding the “uncool” bus, and rarely had a school bus stop within a mile of our house anyway. One of the things that amazes (and annoys) me about school busing today is that in our town the buses literally stop at every driveway on every road, even picking up kids who live only a few blocks from school. No wonder kids today are obese – they aren’t even allowed to walk a few blocks to school. And these aren’t all little kids – this goes on up through high school. And the parents are out there waiting with their kids, even the older ones. Unless there’s an amber alert in the area, I think that’s a little paranoid, and kids don’t learn to be self-sufficient.
    That said, at three years of age my son got out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, opened the front door, and went outside. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get back in because the door was locked. I couldn’t hear him crying because my room was in the back of the house. It was a below-zero night in Montana, and the only reason he didn’t freeze to death is that the neighbor, who had to get up at 3:00 am to go to work, saw him on the front porch as he was leaving for work. He took my son inside his house to warm up and called me. I was lucky not to get a visit from CPS. So I think that three years is a little early to expect much in the way of critical thinking, forethought, and planning from a child; they’re not really capable of assessing danger yet and need to be closely supervised. I put a childproof lock on his bedroom door after that – and it stayed on until he was six and understood how dangerous it was to go outside alone without telling anyone. It wasn’t stranger danger – it was environmental risk. A friend of my sister had a three-year-old boy who did the same thing in the middle of the night and was found by police after being hit by a car several blocks away from home (he survived). Kids that age just don’t have the judgement to be outside alone.

  • mostlylurking

    I was about as free-range as they come as a child. Hardly ever were we accompanied by a parent when playing outside, even when our favourite playground was the sea shore. I walked alone about 3 km to and from school when I was six (we lived juuust too close to get the schoolbus), and when I was seven I would let myself in with my own key and make my own lunch after school, because mum wouldn’t be home until 16.30, and school let out at 14.00. I absolutely thrived! I loved my “quiet time” alone. I loved my freedom. And I sure aspire to let my daughter experience as much of the same as I’m able.

    I certainly do hear the “things were different before, it’s more dangerous now” BS. Thing is, there aren’t more childnappings happening now than before. There aren’t more sexual predators on the loose than before. It really isn’t any more dangerous now than it’s ever been. We just hear about it more now, because if something happens to a (white, middle class/ rich) kid, media blows it up in war types even if it happened half the world away. And if a child is molested/ kidnapped, the perpetrator is almost always a relative/ trusted person, hardly ever a stranger encountered on the way to school.

    • Rosa

      Some things are more dangerous, some things are less. Kidnapping is probably more difficult for predators now than in the early ’70s when most people weren’t even aware of the danger. But, people drive a LOT more now, and drive bigger vehicles with worse blind spots, so traffic really is more dangerous. In some areas wolves, bears, or wildcat populations have bounced back; in most places, unrestrained dogs are a lot more rare.

      It’s just different.

  • Caravelle

    I’m completely into Free Range Parenting in general, but I’m also reminded of an article I once read titled “How did we survive the 60s ?” and pooh-poohing various security neuroses that have arisen since then – including things like seatbelt in cars. To which the obvious answer was “A lot of you did NOT survive the 60s, you realize that right ?”.

    I still think free range parenting is better by default (although I haven’t thought about it that much, not having any children now), but I think it’s important to look at all the costs and benefits for each person, and not just assume it HAS to be better because I was raised that way (and I was) and I turned out fine.

  • Meyli

    I think when most people see a small kid “alone” they assume the worst – omg, where is the parent? Did something happen? Are they ok? I agree that its nice to know that if something DID happen, chances are a well-meaning adult would be around to step in and do the right thing.

    My mom let me walk to school starting when I was 6-7, provided I went with my neighbor (who was my age). It was practical – she could watch my toddler siblings, and we didn’t have to pay for the school bus. I never remember being worried or scared – I don’t think she was either.

  • mae

    I think it’s great to let kids explore and discover without adult “coptering” and control. I let my kids “free range” in the fenced in backyard to some extent. They’re three toddlers. They dig where ever and whatever they like, they play with worms, grubs and spiders. They plant carrots, play with the dogs and eat turnip leaves out of the garden. I don’t tell them what to do (unless I’m afraid my six year old will dig a hole deep enough to get into gas lines!) because I think ME trying to control THEM with MY experience is unfair. They need to learn whether or not they like mud, worms, spiders etc. or if grass tastes good or not. I want them to explore and discover the world around them based on their own life experiences not mine. Now I keep them away from the road, and I do walk my own son the 3 blocks to school.

    I let him handle his own social situations unless he needs an authority figure involved. At the YMCA he’s passed the swimtest and can swim where in the pool he likes. but he had a bullying situation for the first time ever the other month, the 13 yr old kid took his ball. He demanded it back, the kid kept taking it and not allowing him to rebound it. I didn’t voluntarily step in right away, but when he looked my direct I went all “Teacher mode” on the 13 yr old kid and demanded he act like a mature 13 yr old when interacting with my 6 yr old or we’d have to get the head lifeguard involved.

    That’s the only time I’ve had to step in. The rest of the time, my 6 yr old does what he likes at school, in the yard, in his sports teams and at the pool. But I think it’s VERY important that they know there is an authority figure there to back them up in a case of bullying behavior or abusive behavior. I’m pretty sensitive about abusive behavior, and I won’t tolerate it. I want to make sure my kids are confident enough to NOT be doormats or scared and they’re independent and can speak up for themselves. And if they can’t fight the battle, they know they can easily find someone there who will back them up.

    Kidnapping is an extreme, but I don’t want my kids to ever think that it’s okay for someone to treat them poorly, etc. Also I have a friend who got pulled aside by an old man and he exposed himself to her behind a fence while she was walking home from school one day, in a “safe” neighborhood. She was too terrified to ever tell anyone so who knows how many other countless young girls that creeper abused? It’s important for kids to know they’re safe, until they’re old enough to keep themselves safe.

    I watch my kids in the backyard because I don’t want creepers to say something or do something inappropriate to them, before they’re old enough to protect themselves. And if you think that’s rare, go check the statistics again. Its not.


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