Free Range Children.

Via Ann Nichols
on Nov 1, 2013
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There’s a choice: to insulate one’s offspring for the longest possible time to keep them safe, or to let life unfold, running behind the two-wheeler with a hand ready for a fall, clinging to neither bike nor child.

My 16-year-old son has just left for school with an energy drink and a pocket full of Halloween candy for breakfast. He also has a TV in his bedroom, and does not willingly read books. He frequently trades on Craig’s list, where he has gotten himself a dilapidated BMW and a series of cell phones. He listens to music with lyrics that would send his grandfather into apoplexy.

He grew up in a neighborhood of undergraduate student renters, and as a little boy, used to ride his motorized Jeep around, meeting and greeting, and often being invited in for some ice cream or a little Nintendo. We always knew where he was, and we received apologies for everything from the bong on the coffee table to treats given at dinner time. His student friends bought him Christmas gifts,and giant bags of candy for Halloween. One year a group of leggy, stunning party girls made him a trick-or-treat bag.

Before you judge, I will tell you that there is a balance in this life. Just last week I took him for a dental cleaning. His shots are up to date, and he is required to do his homework. He has good grades, good friends and is kind to animals, grandparents and small children. He loves broccoli, and is generally fairly charming and polite. He is, to quote one of his teachers, “a hard kid not to like,” and I attribute a great deal of his ease in the world to his breadth of experience, positive and negative.

My friend Will introduced me to the term “Free Range Children” to describe the way he and I were raised in the 70s. There were rules, but we were also encouraged to be “out of the house” and to find things to do on our own. There were no scheduled play dates. We rode our bikes all over town, played games in the backyards until dark and spent hours in the woods near my house, sledding in winter, building forts and finding troves of decaying pornography in summer.

There were clear boundaries and expectations at my house regarding manners and kindness, but no one ever supervised my homework or intervened in our friendships. We didn’t attend religious services, and my atheist father and Jewish mother raised us with strong moral compasses without benefit of organized religion.

I was required to brush my teeth, take piano lessons until fifth grade and write thank-you notes. I was not allowed to chew gum and discouraged from having Barbies (which my parents found moronic). In general, though, I was “free-range.”

There is tremendous pressure on contemporary parents to “helicopter.” The goal is to protect children from all possible harm, and to shape their experiences, friendships and education in a way that increases the probability of future happiness and success.

At its lowest levels it involves sheltering children from “inappropriate” content in movies, games and music. My own experience was that, as a voracious reader, I read all kinds of very adult things, and that I did not, as a result, become a nymphomaniac. I also spent a fair amount of time trying to tune in a porn channel that occasionally presented its grainy self on our downstairs TV set, squinting to figure out whether I was looking at a breast or, perhaps, an elbow.

My son has become neither a potty mouth nor an axe murderer as the result of games and movies, or rap and hip-hop songs. I often take the opportunity to explain to him my own personal horror at the way women are objectified in certain music, or to the casualness of killing in games and movies. I have to trust that we have raised him well enough that his brain is not, at this point, merely a malleable puddle of mush to be shaped by whatever blows down the cultural pike.

My husband and I are watching, we are available, and I know we value those “teachable moments.” It’s our choice to allow some exposure to the worst of pop culture now, while we can talk about it and maybe provide a parental inoculation against the worst effects.

A level up from media control is academic and social micromanagement. I do not believe that children have to have certain teachers, be with certain friends in classes, or have specific curriculum, without which they will fall behind. Part of learning to function in the world is being allowed to fail while the parental net is still there—better to find out what happens when you don’t do your homework when you’re in fifth grade than when you are in college.

My parents intervened precisely once in my 13-year public school career, provoked by the second grade teacher who told me that I should stop writing imaginary stories and “write about something real, like dolphins.”

We would always intervene to protect my son from a situation that was damaging to him academically or personally, but having to make new friends in the classroom or deal with a cranky teacher is a part of life, like meeting new co-workers or roommates, or working for a difficult boss.

The highest level of parental control involves physical freedom, and it’s complicated. There are places where children are not safe outside, and, sadly, their parents do right to keep them close to home and under watchful eyes.

We don’t live in one of those places, and although there are busy streets to cross, and probably the average amount of stranger-danger, Sam was pretty emancipated. There were streets he wasn’t allowed to cross until he was a certain age, and he had to wear a bike helmet, but otherwise he was free.

I have seen among his friends, the effects of the restrictions imposed by fearful parents. While I fully understand the impulse to protect what you love most in the world, there is no way to accident-proof life.

Bad teachers, bad influences, bad words and bad accidents happen, and there’s a choice: to insulate one’s offspring for the longest possible time to keep them safe, or to let life unfold, running behind the two-wheeler with a hand ready for a fall,  clinging to neither bike nor child.

The summer after Sam was in first grade, he and his friend John rode down the big hill we live on, into the intersection below. Sam on his bike and John on a scooter. At the foot of the hill, John rode into a moving car, and was killed.

When John’s father came the next day to tell Sam what a good job he had done running for help, he said to me that John had probably known he was doing something dumb, but that he had “died being a boy, and having a great ride.”

I haven’t heard anything wiser since.


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Ed: Sara Crolick

{Photo: USFWS – Pacific Region}



About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


4 Responses to “Free Range Children.”

  1. @haskins2 says:

    Once again, I am reminded how life is about balance. I was raised more like a veal calf and when finally "set free" as a young adult, I alternated between running wild and feeling terrified of the big world…

    We raised our daughter to explore, take chances, embrace life. Not exactly "free-range," until she was a teenager, since we live in an urban area. But when she became a teenager, she learned to navigate the metro, get to school on her own,and generally be free and unafraid of living in the world.

    Roots and wings…

  2. Sin dan says:

    Fully agree, except for times for free biking around is long gone and the example in the end is bit over the top, but is a good story ending.

  3. Leslie says:

    love this and could not agree more!!!! another great read! keep it up and thanks 🙂

  4. GabbyAbby says:

    I felt the ending was perfect. I was just about to reach for the thought of "well, you might not feel that way if your child had been…" and there it was. Perfect. Precisely because it is real, it is true, and life does happen in just that way sometimes. I'd be willing to wager that Sam learned to make more calculated, careful, and informed decisions about doing stupid stuff after witnessing that tragedy. Those moments *never* leave us unmarked. I was a free range kid too Ann, but hid a good deal of what my day was all about b/c my mother would have ruined it for me. Not that we were doing anything wrong, but she had helicopter tendencies. I handled my kids with a more open hand and there were some mistakes along the way, but everyone is still alive and I'm grateful for that every day.