When I read about the case of parents found negligent by CPS for letting their six and 10-year-old walk home from school, I felt a tightening in my gut. One of my worst fears is having my child taken from me – probably another result of losing six babies to miscarriage. The thought of having my son ripped away at any time, any place, and for no good reason raises my mama bear hackles. No doubt this is the fear the media has played on in reporting this story, but nevertheless, the case for “free-range parenting” is one that I can get behind, even with my super-worrier tendencies.
Many of my generation can remember a time when we roamed the neighborhood on our bikes, exploring and playing with our friends. Our mom would open the back door and yell, “Dinner!” as the summer day descended into twilight. I also remember, at the age of maybe 7 or 8, walking home several blocks from school – by myself. It was a good childhood. I felt safe and happy and content.
Not that bad things didn’t happen. When I was in third or fourth grade a girl in my class was hit by a car in front of my house after she walked out from behind a parked car. She died. My house was on a corner of a busy street and a very quiet road. I would usually play on the quiet side, which was also where the driveway was, so we entered the house through the back door. I still remember coming home through the back and hearing a woman screaming for help. We looked out the front and saw someone lying on the ground, a hysterical woman standing over. My mom called 911. The neighborhood gathered around as the paramedics worked. I can still see the little girl, Danielle, lying there in the street, her long, curly blonde hair a ball of fluff around her. Her mom sat on the grass on the side of the road, crying. It was pretty horrible.
And yet my sense of safety was not destroyed. A few weeks later my mother told me to go to the deli a couple of blocks away for cold cuts, which would have necessitated crossing the quiet street, next to where the accident had occurred on the busy street. “But Mom,” I pleaded, “That’s where Danielle was hit.” I immediately felt guilty, because I knew I wasn’t really worried about getting hit by a car – I just didn’t want to do the errand. But looking back, the amazing thing is that my mother actually wanted me to do it, even after this horrendous car accident. Didn’t she worry that the same thing would happen to me?
Even though the world, statistically, was more dangerous back then, we as parents now live in a culture that has perpetuated fear. And we are passing that fear on to our children. Why? I believe it has something to do with the way our feelings of safety and security were forever changed by 9/11. The idea that terrorists from across the sea, and indeed right here in America, could attack us, civilians who hadn’t done anything wrong, on our own soil, was life-altering. Add to that the increase in school shootings, and randomized violence seems to be everywhere. It’s like we’re on permanent alert because we believe we are never safe. We’re a generation with cultural PTSD.
I also believe that we have lost the sense of neighborhood that used to exist. When I was young I knew everyone on our street. My mom wasn’t worried about sending me for cold cuts because I knew pretty much everyone from my house to the deli. So even when I was alone, I wasn’t really. Because everyone was looking out for each other – and not the way that makes people nowadays call the cops.
It’s kind of a vicious cycle – we don’t let our kids play outside, so they don’t know the people in the neighborhood, which makes us as parents not want to let them play outside.
As of now, I know my neighbors to the left, right and across the street well enough to say hello to. I only know the actual names of one of them. Will I let my son play outside when he’s older? I don’t think our street is very safe, car-wise – there are no sidewalks, and my neighborhood is fairly hilly with windy roads. The kids across the street do play hockey in front of their house, but I’m not sure I trust the drivers enough to let my kid do the same – drivers who should know not to speed because they live here, too, but for some reason still drive too fast.
But the question of free-range parenting doesn’t seem to hinge on car/pedestrian safety, even though that’s a much more common issue than the one that really worries parents – stranger abduction. Yes, we know that statistically the occurrences of this are down from a generation ago (even though just last night an alert was issued in my area regarding an attempted kidnapping). But still we fear it. Maybe this is because when it does happen, it’s all over the media. We are so inundated with information about the horrible things that are happening that we can’t feel safe taking the perceived chance of letting our kids play alone.
And so when the cops are called, they respond to this atmosphere in which everything seems so unsafe. CPS agents, instead of dealing with the real problems, the kids who really need help, are wasting their time on good parents who are just trying to instill a little self-sufficiency in their kids. Neighbors, instead of watching out for each other, are reporting each other. We are connected by the internet, by the media, by Facebook, to all the evils of the world, but we are not connected to each other as a community.
So will I, as a super-worrier, also be a free-range parent? Probably not to the degree that existed in my own childhood. But in places where I feel comfortable, I’d like to give my kids a little bit of autonomy. That may not be in my own neighborhood – or maybe it will, if I get to know my neighbors better, as often happens after you have kids. But my parents now live in a very quiet neighborhood, a dead-end street that’s actually, more specifically, a circle. “The circle,” the neighbors call it. It’s one of those places where everyone does, in fact, know each other, and kids ride their bikes around the circle, never far from home but far enough to have a sense of freedom. The neighborhood where my husband grew up is similar. It’s a little hillier and has slightly more traffic, but of many the families have been there forever. They look out for each other and are just about like family.
That’s what I want for my semi-free-range kid.
Do you believe in free-range parenting?