Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Free range kids"

This has been a thing in the news lately - because of the (perceived) epidemic of helicopter/bubble-wrap parenting (where parents hover over their children wanting to protect them from every harm, which results in eventual adults who are even more risk-averse than I am*)

(*I'm risk-averse, but mainly about things like bungee jumping and swimming in water known to harbor parasitic amoeba. I don't mind speaking up when I see something wrong, or criticizing something needing it)

And also, in some of the more fringey areas of the news, there's been an attempt to generate outrage on the behalf of a few parents being investigated by Child Protective Services for doing stuff like let their kids walk a few blocks unsupervised.

(I admit, I tend to be a bit cynical of those stories. So many times when there is a "the Authorities are investigating this person for a minor thing, they're overstepping their bounds!" it turns out the person in question has been a problem person for a long time, and the "minor" thing is something they can actually be investigated for or charged with. Then again, some Authorities DO overstep their bounds these days, as I found out last summer with the whole debacle with my alleyway that then led to my being "cited" for "overly-tall grass" that was actually about 6" below the height at which you are supposed to be cited....)

But anyway. I wonder if this is also perhaps an attempt to conjure up some gen-X nostalgia (we're getting old enough to be cranky and nostalgic now). Lots of us were kind of free-rangey as kids. Some Gen-Xers were even forlorn "latchkey kids" - usually children of divorce who came home to an empty house, let themselves in, ate snacks while watching re-runs of the Brady Bunch and on, and on.

I wasn't as free-rangey as some kids, but I do think of the things I got to do that maybe parents today would cringe at. I used to regularly, as a fairly young kid, walk down the street to my friend Elizabeth's house. (And sometimes she walked up to mine) She lived, as I remember, five houses away, which would have been a "long" city block, at least. (And for part of that time - though that was when we were older - a kid who eventually went to "juvie" for seriously beating up another kid on my street and also for petty theft - lived in one of those houses). Oh, my mom and her mom both knew where I was headed, and if I had not arrived in a very short time, a phone call would have got both our moms out looking. (And most of the neighbors along that street knew us and kind of watched over us).

I also ran around outside a lot. There were "vacant lots" (which were really more like abandoned pasture - this was a small town, not a city) behind and to one side of my parents' house, and my brother and I used to play there a lot. We were kind of within vision of our parents, and we were certainly within calling distance of the house (I mean, oral calling - this was in the days long before cell phones). But my parents also trusted us a certain amount - they knew that if we saw clouds building up and heard thunder, we'd head back home. Or if we saw a strange dog running around we'd head home. And they knew we were smart enough not to throw rocks at hornet nests or stick our hands in holes where snakes might live. (And we were. I was afraid of both hornets and snakes as a kid).

We also used to go "exploring" with the kids across the street - there were a pair of twins, Tim and Jan, who were about five years older than I was (my parents trusted them to watch over us - Jan babysat my brother and me a few times). They would go along with us. There were a lot of undeveloped areas around our housing development and we'd go walk around in them and look at them. (There was one area of the development that had had streets and sidewalks laid out, but didn't have any houses or streetlamps yet). No one ever got after us for it - if we ever saw a cop, they never said anything to us, they might have known that we were not troublemakers, so.

"Exploring" was fun. We were never all that far from home but it felt kind of far. We used to climb over the chain-link fence at the back of the house where Tim and Jan lived, and we'd be in an area that was like forest to us. (It was probably second or third growth, the kind of junky stuff that comes in to disused land, but it was "forest" to us). We'd roam around looking at stuff and talking about what it might be like to live out there, like in a cabin or something.

We did once get into a hornet's nest - Tim urged us to run to get away from them, and then he shepherded the kids who got stung back home. No one was allergic to stings, so the worst that happened is that some of us were crying.

Sometimes we went exploring in the creek that ran through the neighborhood. I remember trying to catch frogs (they were always too fast) and falling in once or twice - but the creek was shallow and the bank was neither steep nor all that muddy, so getting back out wasn't hard.

I also used to climb trees a lot as a kid. I suppose that could be seen as dangerous, but I was careful. I never fell - my grip slipped once or twice but I was aware of the danger (but not so aware as to be scared). My mom never seemed to worry excessively about it, or at least she never expressed worry about it to me. Part of that may have been that she could see the tree I climbed most of the time from the house, and so she could look out and see me there, and maybe she watched me more than I realized.

And yeah, a lot of that was the result of having grown up in a pretty safe small town. When I got a little older, like around 12, there were some worrying news reports of high-profile kidnappings, but even the nearest one wasn't all that near to where we lived. (Honestly, the biggest dangers probably WERE things like dogs and hornets).

I don't know. We were careful about things - we knew how to safely cross the street, where traffic was bad so not to walk around those areas. We knew how to get back out of a pond or creek if we fell in. We knew some basic first aid and generally when an injury was something you could "walk off" vs. something you probably needed to go home to have a parent deal with. (Also, there were parents around - my mom didn't work, Elizabeth's mom worked evenings, as did Jan and Tim's mom, some of the dads had odd hours so there was usually someone's mom or dad home if they were needed). And we had enough people on our street we knew that even if we were way up the street at the creek and someone got hurt, there was a house we could knock on the door of and ask them to call one of our parents....

I wonder if some of the decline of community, the fact that kids don't feel comfortable doing that anymore (knocking on a door and going, "My friend sprained his ankle! Can you please call his mom, her number is...") and that increasingly, no one is home during the days. (But then again: so many kids have cell phones.) I wonder if some of the discouragement of free-ranging kids in smaller towns or suburbs is due to an artificially inflated sense of danger (which I would partly lay at the feet of the 24-hour news cycle).

The other thing I wonder about, though, is whether more "indoor" or "bubble wrapped" kids don't get the chance to earn some of the common sense we had - for example, my friend Tim knew instinctively what to do about the hornet's nest (and he also suggested first going to find some mud to put on the stings, but we all wanted to go home instead). And I knew what was probably a safe thing to attempt (climbing a tree with good sturdy branches) and what wasn't a good idea (crawling out on a thinnish branch stretching over a pond). And also stuff like how to get someone home after they sprained an ankle. (I don't remember any of us sustaining any worse injuries than bee stings or twisted ankles....a few kids wiped out on bikes and got injuries that way, but just walking around, I don't remember serious injuries).

Part of the reason we were outside so much as kids is that there wasn't as much indoor entertainment. Video games were in their infancy (We did have Pong, but Pong wasn't fun for very long). Very, very few people had cable and there were something like four or five local channels, and during the day what they showed was "boring" (game shows and soap operas). But I wouldn't trade running around poking mud with sticks and trying to catch frogs for having the best video game system or all the cable channels out there, and I feel sad for kids who don't live somewhere where they can do that kind of stuff.

Edited to add:  A few more thoughts on this. I wonder if some of the "how DARE those parents let their children walk alone in a residential area" backlash is because there actually aren't just free-range kids, there are what I would call  "feral" kids.

"Feral" kids (and yeah, I don't entirely like that designation) are the kids who aren't really parented at all - instead of parents giving them boundaries and saying, "Yes, you may walk alone to your friend's house down the street but I'm going to call her mom so she knows to look for you, and please be home by 4 pm" the parents kind of ignore the kids and leave them totally to their own devices.

It's a fine line. I don't have a problem with kids walking in a residential area, but I was really kind of unsettled to see a small-ish kid (I estimated about 8) walking alone along the side of one of the main drags in town - in addition, a street with no sidewalks, so he had to navigate through the parking lots of businesses.

Also, I've seen kids be rude. When I was a kid, we were, well, kids, but we tried not to be rude - our parents taught us better than that and we mostly had a certain degree of deference towards adults. But kids doing stuff like playing "chicken" with cars (on their bikes or on foot) or similar things, or knocking over trash cans - that's not "free range kid" behavior, that's potential-problem behavior.

And I remember a few years back, around the fourth of July, a few boys (probably about ten-ish) were lighting firecrackers and bottle rockets and throwing them into the street - a not-heavily-used street, but one that is used. (I waited at a stop sign until they saw me and didn't have any lit firecrackers, then slowly pulled through). (And anyway....I don't like the idea of a kid that young using firecrackers unsupervised. Oh, maybe some kids did it years back, but I know when my brother wanted to shoot some off, even as a teen, my dad insisted on supervising. And he insisted on there being a large bucket of water nearby, not just in case of fire but to "drown" any duds to be sure they wouldn't go off later)

Again, I think it comes down to a common-sense thing: most of the even-slightly-daredevil kids I knew as a kid wouldn't play chicken with a car - that was just dumb and a good way to get yourself in bad trouble. But I do see it from time to time. (Or maybe I hung out with a fairly tame crowd).

But now I think of it, I wonder if people calling the cops on "kids out loose" where in some cases, it really is just kids walking to a friend's house or not doing anything other than going out for a walk is the result of the Few Bad Apples yet again - the kids who vandalize or do dumb hazardous things or do things like tip over trash cans, and so now all kids have to pay....


Chris Laning said...

Your childhood experiences mirror mine earlier.

Unfortunately I'm personally acquainted with parents who were told that it's a school rule that no child is allowed to walk from home to school or school to home without a parent. The end result of that policy is that most of the parents drive the kids to and from school even if the distance is short, which is really too bad.

purlewe said...

I also had similar childhood experiences.

That said I would say that there are 2 directions this is going. 1 is the idea that children will be abducted at any minute. My sisters do not let their children play outside in a fenced in yard unless there is an adult outside with them. Which means the kids rarely play outside. My sisters honestly think that their kids will be abducted. even if the stats for abductions have not really changed in the last 30 yrs. 2 is the point that I find that not letting children be unattended every minute suddenly doesn't seem to apply to any of the children of color I see in the libraries who walk there and back unsupervised. But if a white kid does it in a richer neighborhood, suddenly the cops are called. I fear that the sense of community is gone. That mom-shaming is also a part of this. And that we are not letting our children learn from mistakes or even attempt any mistakes. And I think we are raising some children with way too much supervision (and causing them to never make any decisions for themselves) and other children with absolutely no supervision (causing them to make some decisions that only adults ever make).

Waaaaay more than you wanted to hear I am sure. but I have feels about this.