Free Range Kids

CHW LogoThis from the Washington Post: The parents of two children, age 10 and 6, were investigated by child protective services after their children walked home alone from a park near their home.  Several years ago,

Since many of you are mandated reporters of suspected abuse and neglect, I may be putting myself at risk by admitting the following:

  • Our kids walked to school since first grade – without their parents
  • When our son was 7 we allowed him to be in the house by himself when we ran around the block
  • At age 10, our older son was given the chore of doing his and his brother’s laundry, which of course meant pouring laundry soap into the machine
  • By age 12 our younger son regularly took the Milwaukee County bus to his guitar lessons
  • All of us regularly walk barefoot in the yard, eat outside, and pick up trash and recycling we find as we walk

Without realizing it, we were in the vanguard of what is becoming known as the “free range kids” movement, a reaction to the notorious “helicopter parenting” trend of the past decade or so: the notion that kids must be protected from all known risks by hovering over them constantly and intervening should any danger such as a pedestrian, a mosquito, or a jellybean dropped on the floor get through the layers of virtual bubble wrap in which those kids are cocooned.

This is, perhaps, a bit harsh.  I don’t mean to suggest we should be cavalier about safety, and I recognize that the fact that I walked to school in first grade, stayed home alone briefly after school, and rode New York City public transit when I was 12, means that everything we did back then was a good idea. (Our kids did not ride in the back of pickup trucks.)  But we tend to overemphasize risks and safety, at the expense of allowing children to experience – and yes, at times fail.  Take stranger phobia; the evidence is that abductions and other crimes involving children are actually less common, though you’d never know it from watching Nancy Grace or other TV “news”.

There is a down side to this sheltering.  Overprotection of children makes them less able to deal with problems when they are adults.  Here’s one example: Boston College has seen a doubling of emergency calls for minor issues like being called a name by a roommate or finding a mouse in the dorm.  So the helicopter continues to hover.  NPR reported a couple of years ago about parents who show up at their children’s job interviews.

I’m all for insisting on kids wearing bicycle helmets.  But at some point you have to take off the training wheels and let them go around the neighborhood on their own.  Just hope someone doesn’t call CPS.

One Response to Free Range Kids

  1. Kurt Hecox says:

    Could not agree more with these comments. There is no way to avoid practice as a contributor to growth and growth requires a willingness to make mistakes. Independent adults do not emerge from overly depndent children. In Shenzen, China (village of 10 million) I witnessed an entire grade school exit from the school building to walk home for lunch – withoiut an adult in sight. I didn’t see fear but rather confidence on their faces. These will be the same children that will be competing with our children in a demanding competitive world. I hope we have not handicapped them too significantly.

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