Until recently, I had heard the term “free-range” used only to refer to chickens allowed to wander around in a barn lot instead of spending their lives cooped up in a cage.
But now, according to recent news reports, the phrase is being employed to describe human parents who have been either criticized or praised for permitting their children to do things like walking alone from here to there or playing outside or staying at home while unattended.
As one who got to range very freely indeed during a 1950s childhood in small-town Missouri — and has long been turned off by the image of overprotective 21st century helicopter moms and dads — I have taken a special interest in the current discussion.
The debate began in 2008, when one Lenore Skenazy gave in to repeated requests from her 9-year-old son to be allowed to find his own way from downtown New York City to their suburban home.
“I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th St. crosstown bus home,” she wrote in a column for the New York Sun. “If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, ‘Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.’”
The kid made it safely and proudly home, but the story went viral.
“Parents across the country wondered whether she was ‘America’s Worst Mom’ or just one who valued her kid’s independence,” The Washington Post recently reported. “Within a year, she wrote a book. She called her parenting style ‘free-range,’ in which she allowed her son to do various activities without her
More recently, Utah passed a “free-range parenting” law. It exempts moms and dads from being accused of neglect for allowing their sons and daughters “of sufficient maturity” to play outside or take a walk without a grownup hovering over their shoulder.
“As a society, our pendulum has swung a bit too much to the side of helicopter parenting,” said state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore. “We want kids to be able to learn how to navigate the world so when they’re adults they’re fully prepared to handle things on their own.”
I mostly say “amen” to that — although, looking back from the perspective of our uptight age, I can hardly believe the freedoms my friends and I enjoyed in those old days. I mean, it was routine for us to disappear after breakfast and not show up again until dinnertime, with few parental questions asked about where we had been and what we had done.
It could have been something as innocuous as a neighborhood softball game or an impromptu trip to a fishing pond. But it also could have been some little adventure guaranteed to curl a lot of parental hair if known about.
For instance, I remember long hikes along miles of curvy railroad tracks – including the crossing on foot of small trestles across streams. I still cringe to wonder what we might have done in mid-bridge if a 100-car freight train had come rumbling around the bend. Jump off into the shallow water? Hang by our hands from the ends of wooden ties till the danger passed?
Then there was the time some of us took a notion to explore a spooky cave whose hardly visible mouth we discovered in a stone embankment overhanging one of those creeks.
One passageway led to another and another as we squeezed our way through narrow cracks farther and farther into darkness, sometimes crawling on bat guano. If we hadn’t been lucky enough to find our way back out just as our flashlight batteries were dimming, nobody would have even known where to look for our bodies.
Then there were the long hikes in the countryside around my grandfather’s dairy farm. Depending on the season, we might stop to swim in Shoal Creek, pet (or try to ride) friendly horses encountered along the way, kill and skin snakes, hunt squirrels with our .22 rifles, or maybe even build a fire and spend the night camped out under the stars to the tune of coyote howls.
Does all that sound crazy-reckless in this age when kids spend their days riding from organized activity to organized activity strapped in their moms’ SUVs? No doubt. But I have no recollection of any of the youngsters of my youth ever being killed, hurt or molested while exercising their liberties. Maybe there really are such beings as guardian angels.
In any case, I liked the question recently posed by free-range mom Skenazy: “Why give kids freedom — why give parents freedom — when you can take it away so easily and say you’re championing safety in the process?”