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Free Range Children and The Latest Parenting Debate

I really am not an OCD parent. Well, I don’t think I am anyway.

I love my children very much. At bedtime, my wife and shuffle from room to room and contrapuntally take turns reading with each of my three children. We read to them, they read to us. We read from the Bible and then I tell them a Leonard. Leonard you see, is a penguin, and I’ve been telling them Leonard stories for over ten years straight now. Leonard designs and architects crazy inventions and almost invariably those inventions go terribly wrong. Last night I ended a 4 month rabbit trail wherein Leonard became President of the United States in order to infiltrate the Boo-Lah (not the Blah, the Boo-Lah, that got a lot of laughs every single time) and bring this international crime syndicate to its knees.

I digress. We’ve read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. We’ve gone on hikes, and talked about the meaning of life. So in a word, we are just like you out there I’m sure. You want the best for your kids, and so do I.

So when news starting hitting the fan about Free-Range-Parents and the recent court cases my ears pricked up. If you are unaware of the issue its simple. What do you do when parents willingly, and with foreknowledge, permit… nay-encourage, their children to travel on their own without parental guidance. Oh, and by the way, these children (in the Maryland case anyway) were the very young ages of six and ten. So when these young children are are seen by other worried parents the called the police, and the police intervened.

If I haven’t made you mad yet, on one side or the other, you aren’t paying attention.

With this case in mind, I decided to take a look at the geography of where I was allowed to roam when I was those ages. This was what I found:

free-range-child

See those two big massive roads? Yeah, that’s the 5 freeway and the 605. Two of the busiest roads, literally, on the planet. “California freeways logged nearly 85 billion miles in 2011, enough to complete 900 trips from the Earth to the Sun, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation released Monday.” Don’t think this generic quote about the California freeways is significant to the 5 and the 605 interchange? Here’s an article specifically about the chaos that ensues at this specific crossroads and the enormity of the scale right here. Its a spectacle to behold really.

Basically what I’m telling you, is that my backyard, my free-range locale was literally the busiest intersection in the world. And I’m a hyperbolist, and yet, I am not hyperbolizing for you at all right now.

My range of wandering covered around 6 square miles of territory. My home, my school, my church, my friends, my liquor store (I kid you not), my park, my ball field, my everything was contained within this zone. Don’t think I wandered around at a young age? I was pulled over by the cops on Florence Avenue (not a small road itself) – get this – on my tricycle. I kid you not. My parents still tell that story to this day. I decided I was done with my dad working on his dissertation and so I was going to go find him. Another time I got picked up by a cop after I got completely turned around in the neighborhoods I wasn’t used to navigating on my own.

And so the question is this – why weren’t my parents arrested for neglect? Today they would be, although, there aren’t any specific laws about children in California being left to their own devices out and about. There are laws around leaving children in a car in California, but not on a tricycle, driving along by himself on the 5, or the 605 freeway.

But the question is this. What should the legal authorities do, when I decide as a parent, to teach my child a lesson about independence and navigating the world today? What should the cops do when my son is out playing at the park without me? And if we just want to just get right to it, what does it say about me as a parent when I allow my children to run around on their own without being involved? Does it mean I’m lazy and selfish? Or does it mean I am cleverly intentional?

There is an article over on the Atlantic entitled, “The Overprotected Kid”. The subtitle says it all, “A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer.” The New York Times recently ran a piece entitled, “The Case for Free Range Parenting” wherein they cited a recent University of California study that found that “American kids spend 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of the TV or playing video games. Even when kids are physically active, they are watched closely by adults, either in school, at home, at afternoon activities or in the car, shuttling them from place to place.” That same article goes on to state that the most recent study on the data has said that there were only 115 stereotypical abductions by a stranger in the year studied. While in that same year there were almost 3,000 children’s deaths under the age of 15. If we cared commensurately… or rather, if we cared in statistically relevant ways we would be writing laws right now to disallow children from riding in cars instead of prohibiting them from roaming the neighborhood.

In England, a study was done identifying the gap between the last four generations and their individual freedoms allowed by their parent. The report’s author, Dr William Bird, the health adviser to Natural England believes children’s long-term mental health is at risk. Here is a quick overview of the generational impacts amongst a single family’s ability to roam around the area of Sheffield.
Free-Roam-Parenting-Study-Graphic

I would venture to bet that you too would agree that your own ability to roam is much different to kids today.  And yet, a part of me wonders.

As I reflect back on my own sub-twelve childhood, I begin to weigh the pros and cons. I learned how to become independent. Sure. I learned out how to get myself to my baseball game on my own. I learned how to egg a house on my own. I figured out how to check out library books from a library that was well over a mile away from my home. I knew where the free donuts where and where the great games of capture the flag could be had. I knew when frequent the cemetery for some piece and quiet, and when not to. I understood that when the street lights came on it was time to wander back home again. I learned how to steal porn from the grocery store and the liquor store. And I learned that the high school down the street was great for dumpster diving for all sorts of crazy half-used stuff.

What if I was given the opportunity to go back and talk to my younger self… I wander what he would say when I asked if he would prefer the freedom or if he would prefer the interaction with his parents? At first I’m sure the child me would wonder what happened to himself… but after getting over that particular shock, I would think he’d be confused by the choice. My own father was a text book definition of a workaholic. He was a pastor and also a superintendent of three Christian schools, and so it was a good “cause”. But he still worked crazy long hours. He also was simultaneously working on a Doctorate that would allow us a level of financial freedom and wealth we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

But what would the young me prefer? Would you prefer the ability to run roughshod all over the Santa Fe Springs community doing whatever you felt like? Or would you prefer to have your parents at your ball game? Or driving you here and there. Or keeping you inside where you could play your Atari 2600 under their watchful eye? I would hope the younger me would be wise enough to say – could I have both and? Is there a way in which I can learn to be independent safely, while also spending really great quality time with my folks at the library instead of heading there by myself? I would hope that I while I would yen for the support of my parents, I would also continue to hold on to the drive and independent spirit I learned from those wild discoveries on my own.

And so as I consider the craziness going on in Maryland, I would hope that cooler heads would prevail. That while it would be unwise to allow latch-key kids the roam of the city… maybe it is ok to allow kids to walk to and from the nearby park unattended occasionally without getting embroiled in a ‘Kafka-esque’ level imbroglio. But maybe that’s just me.

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