Starting in third grade (8 years old), nearly every weekend my parents let me ride my bicycle alone to the local strip mall about a quarter mile away to pick up bagels for breakfast.
Around fourth grade (9 years old), I became a latchkey kid. Most days I would come home from school to an empty house and grab a snack and entertain myself for a few hours. One day, when I missed the school bus I had to walk home, with my saxophone case in tow, the roughly two-mile trek. Do you know what happened? Not once, not twice, but three times? Parents of family friends I knew saw me walking and pulled their cars over to stop and offer me a ride home.
Stop and read that again.
They stopped to offer me a ride home. (I finally accepted on the third offer.) They didn’t call the police. They didn’t have me detained. They didn’t want to lock my parents up for neglect.
Reading about the free range parenting controversy with the Meitiv family in Maryland simply saddens me. I had lots of freedom as a young child, which I believe has made me the independent thinking, self reliant person I am today. I want my daughter to have a similar experience. I want her to feel comfortable walking home from her elementary school, or riding bikes with her friends to get frozen yogurt, or playing in a local park without me hovering over her—and other adults calling the cops.
Sure, something can always go wrong, but the odds are against it. US children’s exposure to violence, crime, abuse, as well as rates of abduction have all been downward trending for decades. Add in all of the technology at our disposal that allows us to track the location of our kids, and there is no safer time in the past half century for children to be “free range.” And, there is no greater need for it.
Children need more time to interact with people, not just technology. They need to learn how to problem solve (e.g., what to do if they lose their house keys on the walk home) and make calculated decisions (e.g., when it is OK to stop and give someone directions) on their own. They need to know a sense of community—who owns local stores, who works in them, who gardens their front yard, who has dogs, who needs help getting up their stairs, etc.
The reason so many parents stopped to offer me a ride that spring day was because they knew me. They knew my family. As most homes now have two working parents and being overscheduled and busy is a bragging right, the concept of knowing your neighborhood is nearing extinction. The more we try to get done in our day, the less time we have for ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our communities. I believe when the sense of community returns so will the normalcy associated with free range parenting. Besides, isn’t that the village we’ve been told we need?