It is 3 pm when my 11-year-old son asks me for a cell phone. He and his younger brother want to walk a half-mile loop in the woods. Alone. I give goodbye kisses and remind them to be back by dinner. I won’t see or hear from them for the next four hours.
I am raising “Free Range Kids,” which is a term loaded in context and controversy.
Recently, a Maryland couple was investigated for negligence for letting their children walk a mile to the playground. Instantly, the internet lit up with comments ranging from hailing them as heroes to those accusing them of inviting abduction of their kids.
The plight of that family and several others recently cited in various news outlets has spawned its own genre of satire news stories. It has also sparked a new conversation around safety and age-appropriate activities for children.
A 1979, a kindergarten preparedness checklist asked, “Can [your six-year-old] travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to the store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” I imagine that there are few children today that would pass that quiz.
But we do not live in 1979, one might venture. This is true.
We are a society saturated with shock-media. Tales of mass murders, kidnappings, and random violent attacks abound. We have not yet figured out how to disseminate this glut of news stories that prod at the basest of our fears.
In actuality, the world we live in is far safer than it has ever been. Our physiology has not evolved as quickly as our technology, which makes it difficult to compartmentalize how and when real danger is near. Instinct urges us to protect our babies. In many cases, this means keeping them under constant surveillance.
Meanwhile, we’re simultaneously lamenting the loss of childhood freedoms. With 89% of mothers worried about the negative impacts of excessive screen time, and the American Academy of Pediatrics stressing the importance of unstructured play on child development, parents are grasping for ways to engage their kids in activities.
As school winds down and gives way to Summer Break, we schedule camps and activities that have kids always under a watchful eye. Solo trips to the pool and days spent climbing trees and splashing in mud puddles unfettered by adult interference take the sepia hue of what once-was.
“Free Range Kids” is the newest combat zone in a series of phrases like “Helicopter Parents” or “Tiger Moms,” that only serve to judge and polarize differing beliefs about child-rearing. Labeling “good” or “bad” practices allows us comfort in an unsure world. If we can say, “At least I don’t X,” then we don’t have to feel guilty for our other doubts.
It is important to remember that we all make choices based on the information available to us. While my family believes in the power of roaming, I respect the rights of others to choose differently. There is no one “right” way to parent.