The Return of Free-range Children

Recently, a Maryland couple was investigated for allowing their children to walk home alone. As reported in Slate, a 10-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister were walking back from a playground “about a mile away” when the police picked them up and drove them home. Then the cops tried to hassle the parents for an offense along the lines of child endangerment. This happened. Really.

Dalielle and Alexander Meitiv, free-range children

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv with their kids at the playground

They probably expected to find that the parents were absent, drunk, stoned, or abusive. Instead the police discovered that Danielle and Alexander Meitiv belong to the “free-range” movement, which believes that children must take calculated risks to grow up self-reliant.

As I have written before, this is the way children used to be raised before the advent of “hands-on parenting” and helicopter parents. It was also before the six o’clock news ran story after story about the hazards and dangers that threaten our children and how we can make childhood ever safer by hovering, cocooning them in bubble wrap, buying a new device, or making their decisions for them. Free-range children were the norm.

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Free-Range Children Start Young

I hate to think of what today’s police would have done to my parents when I was five. Mom and Dad wanted to send me to school early, probably because I was already trying to read and write and they thought it would give me a leg up be in first grade a year before other kids. The only problem was that the parochial school my siblings attended, St. Louis de France in Swansea MA, had no room in the first-grade class. Ever resourceful, my mother found a space at St. Roch’s school in Fall River, driving me there from our home in Somerset every morning and picking me up every afternoon. That’s what parents do today, even when they live within walking distance of a school. So far, so good.

The Walk to Lunch

Lunch was a different story. For some reason, My parents decided that I would not eat lunch in the same room as the other kids at St. Roch’s. Instead, I walked out the front door to Locust Street, crossed Linden Street, and walked down Locust alongside Ruggles Park. Then I crossed Robeson Street, crossed Locust Street and went upstairs to my grandparents’ second-floor apartment. There I ate lunch with my grandparents and my uncle, who worked nights. Then I walked back to school. Alone. Every day. By myself. I was five.

free-range child, free-range children, Ruggles Park,, Fall River

A free-range child’s lunch-time walk

A police officer directed traffic at the corner of Linden and Locust but it wasn’t his job to keep an eye on one little girl going to and from lunch. My grandfather watched for me by the window but I don’t know what he could have done had something happened. Grandpa had been disabled by a stroke and rarely spoke or even had his teeth in. By the time he made anyone aware I was in trouble, it would have been too late.

A Strange Group

No one ever bothered me. I wasn’t frightened—the walk was the best part of the whole trip. I was annoyed because I wanted to eat lunch with the other kids, not with three “old people.” We must have made a strange group around the table: my wizened disabled grandfather, whom people called “Petite Joe,” my strong grandmother who supported her family as a midwife, my uncle who always had a two-day growth of beard, and a five-year-old girl. Looking down on us was a big painting of the Holy Family, watched over by God the Father who was represented by a big eye at the top of a pyramid. I didn’t say much.

The point is that no one thought this arrangement was dangerous or that I was too irresponsible at five to cross two streets without holding an adult’s hand. My uncle could have walked me to and from the school but, clearly, no one thought it was necessary. I didn’t feel weak or vulnerable. I knew how to cross a street by myself and not to talk to strangers or get into strange cars. What else did I need?

If anyone had accused my parents of child endangerment—a term that did not exist in the fifties—they would have gotten an earful from my mother. That would have been something to hear. Children then were expected to function in the real world much sooner than they are now. The following year there was room in the second grade class at St. Louis so I got on the bus with my brothers and sister and my lunchtime walks were over.

What Did I Learn?

Allegory of Christianity,

Something like my grandparents’ picture — but not the same thing

The experience taught me to be strong and self reliant. I was more afraid of God’s big eye looking down on me than I was of walking there and back again. I got a hot lunch instead of a cold sandwich and I suppose that was good.

Today folks would say I had “quality time” with my grandparents and my uncle although I can’t define what that quality actually encompassed. They didn’t really talk to me as much as they talked around and above me. I learned as Yogi Berra famously said, that “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And I started school early, which meant I got to learn the things I wanted to know much faster.

Safer but Not Smarter

I admit that I would not have had my kids take a lunch-time walk like this when they were five, even though they were both smart and responsible children. Things change but sometimes not for the better. Safer is not always smarter. Still, I applaud the growth of the free-range children movement. It’s about time we got back to parenting our kids instead of coddling them and giving them real-life experience instead of protecting them from the real world.

In ten years, these free-range children could be like the one-eyed man who rules the world of the blind. They will be willing to take risks their more protected contemporaries won’t even consider.  They’ll be stronger, more self-assured and more self-reliant. They’ll explore the world instead of hiding from it. They’ll make their own decisions. Those are all good things. And it’s good to know that at least some kids won’t be sitting passively and waiting for someone else to manage their lives.

3 thoughts on “The Return of Free-range Children

  1. I have mixed emotions on this one. First, I too was allowed and even expected to walk to school, which for me was about 4 blocks in a mixed suburban/rural are outside Hershey, PA. If that school is still there near our old house, I’d be fine doing the same with my kid in that neighborhood again today I think.

    We read about all kinds of crazies today, that I don’t recall reading about or even hearing about from my parents back then. I’m sure with the internet and media sources galore we’re hearing more than we ever did back then as well. And I’m also certain there were crazies back then too, so I’m thinking that it’s probably something of a mix now since Reagan took away funding for Mental Health facilities and programs, there are probably more of them on the street now than ever before.

    We (my wife and I) don’t believe in the “helicoptering parents” thing either, but we were fully engaged with our kid from start to finish as he grew in years. For us that meant he could walk to the bus here in Lexington (half a block), had a key to the house when he was about 8, but we had him in multiple after school things, including going over to friends homes we knew on occasion. He knew how to reach us, and called us once or twice when plans didn’t work out, etc.

    What this means for us was that even in Lexington, we weren’t going to let him walk, or ride a bike the mile or do from school back home until he was about 12/13, when he had his blue belt in karate and could take care of himself reasonably well, including being aware of the crazies in this world and what that could mean.

    We think times are more dangerous today than they were when we were kids, at least it feels that way to us, and the reports we all hear about with abused and molested kids seem to warrant those feelings. We never had that thought back then that I recall, and maybe we were just naive, or maybe it just wasn’t an issue.

    Walking around in Lexington is probably okay still today. Walking around in Fall River TODAY, is probably a different story, as maybe Dorchester, or most parts of NYC and Long Island where I lived later in life.

    Knowing what we know today, I’d prefer to err on the side of caution, wouldn’t you?

    • Erring on the side of caution is why I didn’t expect my kids to walk alone when they were five. I don’t think the world is more dangerous, though. We just hear about the dangers more and that makes us more aware of them. My parents used to warn us about “the gypsies” but now we know that family members can be more dangerous. And kids get “stranger danger” training in school, which we never had. Because we’re all more aware of the real dangers, people keep an eye out.

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