Spreading Wings – Free Range Kids

Free range kids
By Angela Switzer

When I grew up, summer time meant unstructured time; hanging out with friends, riding bikes around town, swimming and having the kind of fun we made up on our own. No parents needed.

Fast forward to today, where kids seem to have schedules as structured as Fortune 500 CEOs—with, yup, parents acting as schedulers. It seems like “unstructured playtime” is as dated as sling shots and Big Wheels. Rarely do I see a pack of kids roaming the neighborhood just looking for something to do.

Remember the story a few years ago about a New York City mom who let her 9-year old son ride the subway home all alone? All over the news, involving child psychologists and panels of parents, the story led to her being known nationwide as the “World’s Worst Mother.” She appeared on television several times defending her decision to allow her very capable son the right to ride the subway without an adult.

Today, that mom, Lenore Skenazy, runs an organization called Free-Range Kids, whose mission statement goes like this: “Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”

I love it. When I was growing up, I was exactly that: a free-range kid. My mother didn’t work; she spent her days taking care of all things domestic for our family. We always knew where to find her, but she didn’t necessarily know where to find us three. We lived in a world without cell phones and hovering mothers. And, that time of discovery, as well as self-responsibility, was critical for social development and a defined sense of self.

When I was in third grade, I first went to summer camp with my best friend. Although I wasn’t thrilled by the idea, it was a big-girl experience for sure. We lay awake every night missing our parents, sweating furiously in the South Georgia heat trying to ignore the buzzing nuisances that persisted into the wee hours. But once again, we had stories, albeit miserable ones, to tell when we returned home.

Things have really changed in the world where I am raising my own children. We over-communicate with our offspring; we wonder and worry about them constantly, even stalking them on Facebook.


What has changed?

Over the years, I have found myself struggling to go against the grain, and allow them independence. I have certainly been overinvolved in my kids’ lives. As my sons are now teenagers, I am reluctant even to let an evening pass where I don’t text them a few times or inquire when they’re coming home. Yikes! That’s me?!

In many ways, today’s kids aren’t encouraged to be as independent as those from generations past. Perhaps mass media is to blame, with TV shows and movies abounding with child abductions, murders, and violence. (Can Liam Neeson have any more family members “taken”?) Suddenly tracking devices don’t sound out of the question with that type of a skewed reality floating around.But, according to the Christian Science Monitor, in reality, crime rates, including murder, rape and assault, in the United States have decreased significantly since the 1990s and are presently analogous to those from 1963.

As parents, I believe, it is absolutely crucial that we do all that we can to encourage our children to take the necessary steps toward becoming competent, fully functioning young adults. We can facilitate these steps by sharing our own confidence that we live in a safe world.  We do not want to raise fearful kids, terrified at the thought of walking alone. More often than not, especially in Bend, Oregon, the community is a welcoming place for children to shed their security blankets.

You will know when your child is ready to handle some measure of independence. Trust your instinct, and don’t give in to the common thought that kids should never be without an adult nearby. Throw some caution to the wind. Let your child go into the store alone. Let him buy a gallon of milk for you. He’ll feel proud that he accomplished the task and contributed to the family. My father tells the story of standing in an extremely long line to buy potatoes for his family in the very crowded streets of London. And he was only five!

When your teen flutters on the side of the nest, ready to take flight, will he be confident or will he fail to launch, choosing instead the security of his parents’ presence? Just as importantly, do you cling to him, fearful that he will plummet and never soar? Ask yourself each day, not what you have done to protect your child and keep him safe (which is certainly important), but what you have done to advance his capability and competence in the world.

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