May 19, 2010  •  In NYC, Parenting, Personal

Free Range Kids

In light of yesterday’s post regarding The Bubble Wrap Generation, I found it strangely appropriate that I learned about “Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day” this morning on the radio.

I was not surprised when my favorite NYC blog, Gothamist, picked up on the story and ignited a furious war among its readers.

Would YOU leave your 9 year-old child alone in Central Park?

Because I think that I would.

My parents taught me independence from a very young age. After teaching me to safely cross the street, to not talk to strangers and never get into an unfamiliar car or building without them, they trusted me to walk the  ½ mile to kindergarten every day.

I was a quiet, introverted person as a young child too, so I didn’t go out too much…I much preferred to sit at home and read. However, my sister — my opposite — loved to go out and play with the neighborhood kids. She would spend all day outside without adult supervision, returning in time for dinner, starting at the age of 4.

Did she ever get lost? Yes. But my parents had taught her to seek policemen in case this ever happened, and my sister followed suit. (And the one time she got lost at the beach, she had the common sense to go to a lifeguard…at the age of 3½.)

I think my sister and I turned out okay. Neither of us experienced any major injuries or traumatic incidents while growing up. We both did well in school, attended prestigious universities, and while I am preparing to be a SAHM, my sister is currently working on her PhD in art history and archaeology.

Are we the exception?

I’m genuinely curious as to how my readers grew up. Were you allowed to go out, unsupervised before the age of 10? Were you allowed to tinker in the kitchen by yourselves, preparing food with sharp knives and hot stoves, starting at the age of 6 as my sister and I?

I know that the world is a dangerous place. But the sheltered, over-protected life only seems to have arrived within the last generation or two. Wasn’t the world ALWAYS a dangerous place? What prompted parents to change their ways?

(And again, I’m not looking to spark a debate. If anyone can enlighten me with facts or even theories, I would really appreciate it.)

Going back to the topic of “Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day,” I have to agree with Gothamist reader GoldenRuler, who writes:

if you can’t trust your 9 year old – especially an urban 9 yr old – to be in a park or get around the city by herself, then you should question your parenting skills.

ANYTHING can happen at ANY age, and the sooner they learn how to take care of themselves, the better – and how else to help them build their confidence and skills than by letting them venture out alone? this doesn’t necessarily mean you go from holding their hands on the slide to complete abandonment in one day. done gradually, with informative guidance and common sense (i.e., not letting them run to the corner store at 1 AM in east new york), and taking the kid into consideration (all kids mature at different ages and ways) it’s perfectly normal.

19 Responses to “Free Range Kids”

  1. That’s one thing I worry about when we have kids. My parents were very hands-off – probably to the point of it being bad but nothing terrible came of it (and the only time I almost burnt the house down my Mom was home). I was allowed out to play with the neighborhood kids from a pretty young age (4/5) and they just yelled out the back door when it was time for me to come home. They left me home alone around 7 or 8 on when the baby sitters tended to be big fails (my brother was 8 years older and would just leave, one girl and her boyfriend made out etc). I never did much beyond turning on all the lights and watch tv. I want my kids to be independent like I am. It’s funny for me to see my in-law-nieces and nephews who still literally can’t do a load of laundry or stay by themselves and they are 13 +.

  2. I’m trying to remember. I’m 28 now. I think I was 10-11 before I was allowed to be at home by myself, and around age 12-13, I was allowed to babysit and go hang out at the mall with my friends without supervision.

    But I grew up on the outskirts of a medium-sized city, not really urban by any means. So I was allowed to play outside by myself at a young age, but there was no one else really around at all, and I would need someone to drive me pretty much anywhere, so it was only natural for a parent to be with me when I was younger. I got my own car when I was 16, but wasn’t allowed to drive it without an adult until I was 17.

    As for the kitchen…I don’t think I cooked anything until I was like 19 and out of the house…but that’s because I’m not the slightest bit domestic, lol. (My first year in college I think I lived off of hot pockets and pizza rolls.)

  3. We were definitely encouraged to play outside alone all the time growing up and my parents were not the laid back hippie type at all. We came home cut and bruised and no one questioned anything. We were spanked when we were naughty and dragged out of stores when we were brats. Yet I never doubted that my parents loved me or that it was ‘physical abuse’. Honestly sometimes people need to have a little reality check smacked into them (I know I still do sometimes).
    Cause and reaction is how people learn from the earliest stages of life. When you press a button on a toy, it makes noise – you learn that if you press the button again it will make the noise again. If children are so overprotected that they never experience anything, I truly feel that they are missing out on important life learning experiences (good or bad). No cause, no reaction. Obviously no one wants their child to get hurt, but the first time they do they will surely learn to be more careful the next time. As a parent you wont always be there, so wouldn’t it be best if they learned these lessons early?

    Next topic? How do you feel about trophies for everyone so no one gets left out?

  4. We were definitely encouraged to play outside alone all the time growing up and my parents were not the laid back hippie type at all. We came home cut and bruised and no one questioned anything. We were spanked when we were naughty and dragged out of stores when we were brats. Yet I never doubted that my parents loved me or that it was ‘physical abuse’. Honestly sometimes people need to have a little reality check smacked into them (I know I still do sometimes).
    Cause and reaction is how people learn from the earliest stages of life. When you press a button on a toy, it makes noise – you learn that if you press the button again it will make the noise again. If children are so overprotected that they never experience anything, I truly feel that they are missing out on important life learning experiences (good or bad). No cause, no reaction. Obviously no one wants their child to get hurt, but the first time they do they will surely learn to be more careful the next time. As a parent you wont always be there, so wouldn’t it be best if they learned these lessons early?

    Next topic? How do you feel about trophies for everyone so no one gets left out?

  5. Geek in Heels:

    @Chelsey — excellent suggestion! I personally believe that not everyone should make the team, and not everyone deserves a trophy/medal/award. I’ll elaborate on it with a future post, and thanks for the idea!

  6. Jen:

    I was allowed to walk home from elementary school on my own (from Kindergarten on up), usually with other kids who lived in our neighborhood. I was allowed to play with my friends who lived on our block all the time without supervision. I couldn’t go over to friends’ houses without permission (which I think was more of a parental courtesy thing), but we could play in our front yards or down the street in the sand-duney area (I grew up in the desert).

    We played on "dangerous" metal playground equipment, leading me to burn my hand (again, it was the hot hot desert), and my brother to break his ankle. Did my parents sue anyone for that? No. We learned our lessons the hard way. We were also free to ride bikes and rollerblade and play sports and do other risky things. Skinned knees are part of being children.

    I think I was probably 8 or 9 before I stayed home by myself. Not overnight, though. Sleepovers were ok at 10 or 11.

    I think my mom, being a teacher, had a really good sense about what kids were capable of at certain stages of their development. My parents had a pretty good balance between supervised and unsupervised activities.

    I never did cook very much as a kid, I always had way too many extracurricular activities to do the "around the house" kinds of things. It is something I wish I had more experience in since, as an adult, I have to do those things.

  7. I am definitely one of those kids who was let out of the house any time she wanted.

    No curfews, no rules, no fear and starting at the age of at least 7.

    I wandered all over the neighbourhood, waking to the park, meeting new kids, and playing

    I was told repeatedly NOT to go anywhere with strangers, and to scream: He/She is not my Dad/Mom! as well as not to accept candy from strangers..

    I turned out perfectly fine.

    I was also taught how to make rice (rice cooker, very easy), make simple sandwiches, heat up food, and even use the pot and pan very carefully

    If I wanted to use the oven, I had to call my oldest brother because my arms were too short and tiny to hold the pan carefully and put it in without falling into the oven headfirst.

    I also did my own laundry, took the bus on my own ALL over the place and biked everywhere.

    I turned out perfectly fine, even more street savvy. I’d totally leave a 9 year old alone, trusting that I taught her well enough to be a smart kid.

  8. Lindsey:

    I grew up in a small town (fewer than 10,000 people) and from a young age, I was allowed to ride bikes to visit friends who lived up to a mile away (not many friends lived farther than that). My friends and I rode all over the place, played in the backyard and the field a couple houses down, without supervision (and we didn’t wear helmets!). We climbed trees, even after my brother fell out of one and broke his arm. I think my siblings and I were often expected to entertain ourselves.

    My mom let us practice some cooking during the summers, but other than that we didn’t help in the kitchen much and we didn’t do laundry because my mom is a control freak. But we did have lots of other chores, probably from 8 or 9 on, I washed dishes (no dishwasher), cleaned the bathroom, did yardwork (cut grass with a push mower, raked pinestraw and picked up pinecones) usually for little to no compensation. We were just expected to help out and we were repeatedly told that chores "build character."

    I nannied last summer for a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old whose parents raised them just the way I hope to raise my kids–they walked to and from school, met friends in the park at the end of the street. It definitely helped that they live in a very family-oriented neighborhood, so if someone sees your kid doing something he/she’s not to supposed to, Mom and Dad are going to hear about it.

    I’ve talked about this with my mom: Is the world less safe now, or does it just seem less safe because the Internet and CNN reports every little thing? My mom genuinely feels that the world is more dangerous now than when my siblings and I were growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. That makes me sad. I really want my kids to have the same kind of childhood that I did.

  9. Megan:

    I’m from small-town Iowa (1500 pop. small) and my brother and sister and I basically lived outside growing up. There were a bunch of kids our ages in our neighborhood and we all would hang out during the summers in our backyards. We even played a different version of hide ‘n’ seek (called Bloody Murder! Isn’t that a great name for a kid’s game?) after it got dark out and we play until 11:30 or even midnight.

    My parents were pretty hands off about a lot of things, but I still managed to grow up pretty well-behaved, IMHO. I didn’t even start swearing until I was in college! My husband and I are pretty big believers in kids learning their own lessons rather than being coddled and protected their whole childhood. It won’t be doing them any favors cause when they leave the nest, nobody else is gonna look after them.

  10. Ali:

    I grew up in an inner-ring suburb of a city in the midwest that has a very high crime rate. My neighborhood was (relatively) safe, but there was crime- and more serious crime 1/2 mile away in the city. Walked to school everyday; in kindergarten, there was a rotating group of parents who would walk with the kids, but by first grade, we were on our own (unless it rained).

    We were allowed to go outside and play in the yard, and ride our bikes to the playground (1/2 mile away in the other direction of the city) ourselves. Normally, it would be me and my two younger brothers. At the age of 10-11, I would be left at home by myself for a an hour or two at a time…and at age 12, took the Red Cross babysitting class, and was off babysitting other kids (and my brothers).

    Now, all was not fine and dandy. A right of passage seemed to be that your bike got stolen (mine was taken from our garage, but my one brother had his bike stolen from him while he was on it). People did get scratched/bruised on the playground, and occasionally would fall in the creek at the bottom of the sled-riding hill. But that was part of being a kid. We knew enough street sense to not stay out riding our bikes after dark, and to walk home along the routes where we knew people- so if there was a problem, we’d have a safe place to go. And if someone fell in the creek, then that meant it was time to go home.

    I don’t think that the world is any more dangerous than it was when I was growing up- and if anything, it is less dangerous. I think I was about 10 or 12 the first time I used a bike helmet.

  11. Well, hmm. I grew up in the country, and while it was and still remains one of the safest parts of the country, my mom was very cautious and did not like me to roam far from home (i.e. to find the nearest paved road — a mile away — to ride my bike or rollerblade. Because — you know — that one girl, 10 years ago, got kidnapped and killed when her mom had let her do JUST THAT. My mom didn’t want me to be snatched off the side of a mostly deserted highway, with narry a witness within screaming distance. I can sympathize with her. However, the odds of anyone except other local folk passing me as I tooled around? Pretty minimal. There are always cases of ‘wrong place/wrong time’, and unfortunately every mother knows the stories of so-and-so who was just out walking her dog when some horrible sex-offending mad man HAPPENED To be driving by.. Did I mention I’m also an only child? I understand now why she didn’t like me going around by myself — even as a teen. In town was fine. But not out on those country roads. She and/or my dad were often willing to take the bike rides with me though. So it isn’t as if I were LOCKED Up.

    On the flip side, my husband also grew up rural, in the same small town region, but his family lived much farther from town in a much more secluded area. Also, his father and father’s family farm much of the land in the surrounding miles. It’s their homesteads – though far apart – you would pass while playing within the miles of home. He and his brothers and cousins were able to work and play wherever they pleased, and without a care. The outdoors was like an extension of their home. For me, the outdoors was more of a place where serial killers might be driving around, looking for me in particular. hah.

  12. kay:

    Working with troubled adolescents has jaded me. I do not trust other people enough to allow my 9 year old to go alone anywhere – it has nothing to do with trusting them. Sure, a 9 year old can scream, "Help!" and ask someone directions if they get lost – but they are not big or strong enough to fight of an attacker (even an older kid), and even adults are sometimes "charmed" by the most manipulative con-artists out there. Also – kids are easily influenced by peers (studies show that they listen to peers/siblings far more than they listen to parental instructions) and if they found a group of similarly-aged kids that were experimenting with drugs/alcohol or just being obnoxious/crude, it would be awfully hard for them to not join in – whether they had been taught not to or not.

    I do believe in trusting children – but I do not believe in treating them like adults. Their brains are completely different (they are no where near matured), their developmental stage is completely different (look up Erickson’s stages for example), and they are incapable of adult insight into most situations.

    It’s just a risk I don’t understand taking, myself. :)

  13. haha, I was totally a free range kid!

    My children will be, too. You’re not doing your kids any favours by helicopter parenting.

  14. Vee:

    Disclaimer: this is coming from someone who doesn’t have kids and might not ever. I have only BEEN a kid. Ha!

    My parents were so stifling. They wouldn’t leave me alone in the house until I was like 13, nor would they let me go anywhere by myself. It was like pulling teeth just to go out on a Friday night with friends once I got my driver’s license. I was absolutely sheltered. When I went off to college, I. Went. Crazy. Seriously, I did things parents have nightmares about.

    I think imparting a little responsibility at a young age is a wonderful idea ;)

  15. Geek in Heels:

    @Vee — That’s a great point that you make. I knew of many students in college who were like this, and they really had trouble adjusting to college life and being away from home. Personally, I would rather that my kids "rebel" in middle/high school than in college, where grades will count more towards your professional life and responsibility should be learned. (But then again, what person DOESN’T rebel at least a bit in college?)

  16. Mary:

    The good old days. When I was a kid, we were poor but we always lived close to a park. So every day, we would go out into the park and play on all the metal slides, merry-go-rounds and what not, BAREFOOT. We had so much fun and we never had adult supervision. We used to search for glass bottle beer caps so that we could make our own chess boards and pieces. As a soon to be parent, I hope to be able to give my children the same freedom but as you know, media has so much influence in our every day lives that it may be hard.

  17. Moll:

    We had a set range of our neighborhood that we could travel to on our own, and as we grew older that sphere of exploration grew larger. It’s hard for me to comprehend that kids today don’t get on their bikes and take off down the road with their friends! My mom would send me out the door and tell me to entertain myself, and I certainly feel like it was good for me. When we do have children, I want them to have the freedom to learn, explore, and make (small) mistakes.

  18. Chammas:

    This is such a good post. I have to say when I first read it, I thought "is she CRAZY" But thinking back on it my sister and I were left alone before the age of 10. I spent part of my childhood in Europe, and my mom would let us go to the park by ourselves. My mom brought me a barbie watch so I knew what time to go home. I had to be about 6 or 7 then. But I’ll be honest with you, the thought of leaving my 5 y/o alone terrifies me. Your right that the world has always been a dangerous place but it’s something when you become aware of it You kind of get caught up in the fear. I’m trying to loosen my grip on him because I know it’s not healthy and I don’t want him to be afraid to live. When you hold your baby in your arms for the first time it’s great, then it’s a little scary because you realize he’s out in the world and you can’t protect him from everything. Thanks for writing this, some real food for thought.

  19. Hell no. My mother would stand at the window/deck come 3.30 and watch out for my school bus to come around the corner. If she didn’t see me get off and walk home she freaked out. If we went to ride our bikes/scooters outside on our street, she’d come outside to watch.

    I really hope I can resist the urge to helicopter parent when I have kids.

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