Free Range Children

Free Range Children May 11, 2009

I had a second introduction of sorts to the idea of free range kids over the weekend.  Writing in Salon, Lenore Skenazy discusses how we as a society are overly protective of our children.  My first introduction was via a link a commenter at Front Porch Republic gave to her blog, suggesting the two blogs get together for a play date.  Lenore Skenazy’s claim to fame is a column she wrote a couple years ago about allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the subway home by himself.  For allowing this, she was deemed by many to be a grossly irresponsible mother.

As one with a contrarian streak, I have a certain admiration for her message.  We have abysmal expectations for our children.  If you let your child have a drink with you at dinner, they will become a raging alcoholic later in life.  Your child, and this is true in Christian circles, is a moral idiot that can’t understand the consequences of bringing life into the world, so he/she needs to be stuffed with medicines, use devices, or abstain until he or she is mature enough to handle those consequences, hopefully somewhere between 25 and 35.  More generally, there is a tendency to want to shield children from all bad things.  If anything remotely bad happens at school or involves school children, bring in the grief counselors.  We need to avoid the big city lest our dear child see a homeless person, a drug addict, immodest attire, or language that would make a sailor blush.

It isn’t my intention to set her position up as a caricature.  If she lived in my neighborhood, I’m quite confident I would have no trouble with her kids.  It’s possible to be a responsible parent without a 10-foot tether.  My wife and I joked about giving the article to a few friends.  As I was reading it though, something kept bothering me.  We lived in a small city (10,000 people) about a half-hour north of Milwaukee.  We lived in a 3-bedroom townhouse with similar townhouses, so we had about 500 people living within a two block radius.  My wife stayed home with the kids.  One of her constant complaints was having to yell at other people’s children.  She wondered how she ended up getting appointed neighborhood babysitter.  It is one thing to participate in a cooperative exercise of watching over each other’s children, something I believe is closer to the author’s heart;  it is another thing to surrender your parenting to the larger community.  Perhaps we could call this the difference between free range children and feral children.

In the absence of a proper functioning community, I think we are seeing more feral children.  Think “Lord of the Flies”, urban edition.  These children without direction from their parents and really even society as a whole are engaging in not-so-cute behavior.  In suburban communities and commuter havens, the peak time for crime is between 3:00 and 5:00 PM.  If you drive around on a Friday night, you will see youths idling in parking lots and similar facilities.  If a person were to show up from outer space and look at our communities today, he would be likely to conclude that the biggest problem our society has is that we give our children too much freedom, not that we don’t give enough.

Still, she has a point.  As an experiment, I had my three children lead themselves to the park.  I told them that I and their mother would follow behind, but they were to lead the way.  Our children are 8, 7, and 2.  My 7-year-old daughter dutifully took my 2-year-old by the hand and led him.  She even dragged him for a short time, but she was going to make sure he stayed on the sidewalk and with her.  My oldest on the other hand was in his own little world, basically oblivious to what was going on around him.  Admittedly, this was one experiment only.  It certainly wasn’t all bad, but I didn’t come away from the experiment with great confidence in my children’s abilities to function on their own.  I think it was Bill Cosby that said parenthood was about getting children to the point where they could leave the house.  Exposition can take you so far, but experiential knowledge is invaluable.  So in short, I’ve come away from this with the belief that real functioning communities are vital for the raising of the next generation, and I need to let my children get more bruises lest they get broken bones.

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