Free Range Kids

Published 2008-04-17

With a kid on the way I’ve been thinking a lot about my own childhood and the way I was raised. In particular, I’m kind of floored at how few freedoms modern children have. I think a large part of the person I am today — fearless, independent, improvisational, and yet careful and relatively cautious — is a direct result of the latitude I enjoyed as a young person.

New York Post columnist Lenore Skenazy recently let her 9-year-old ride the subway home from Bloomingdale’s, a surprisingly newsworthy event. She described it on NPR as being the equivalent of “Nine Year Old Makes Toast”

the following is crossposted as a comment on Lenore’s website, Free Range Kids.

My young childhood was in rural Nebraska in the 1970s, and I had parents of the “be home for dinner” parenting philosophy, so I enjoyed a lot of freedoms from a young age. These included such mad behavior as riding stunts on our bicycles, building treehouses, swimming in irrigation ditches, and shooting BB guns — all of which I’m sure are roundly verboten to 7-to-10-year-olds in 2008 America.

When I was 10, the family moved to the “big” city of Lincoln, where we lived in a relatively urban neighborhood near the agricultural college. Luckily I was just at the age where climbing trees was becoming less interesting than things like movie theaters or shopping malls.

I don’t remember having any strict boundaries of any sort in either environment. I certainly got in trouble for “running off” but that was because I hadn't told anyone where I was going beforehand.

When I was 11, I rode my bike to Gateway Mall, about 2 or 3 miles distant from our house. I remember vividly that I had three dollars with me, enough to buy a soda, play a video game, and (fittingly) purchase a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

None of this behavior was worthy of comment. All the kids I knew lived this way, and many of them were “latchkey kids” so beloved by after-school specials.

The fascinating thing to me is that the world has in most ways become a much safer place since that time. Child abductions are down, violent crime is down, street gangs are quieter, and so forth.

Case in point: I started delivering newspapers when I was 12, just one year after a sensational case where a paperboy in my town was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. I don’t recall anyone saying to me or anyone else that kids shouldn’t deliver newspapers. It was just regarded as this weird and awful fluke thing that happened, but it didn't have anything particular to do with “us.” (I’m sure my mom will remember this differently and chime in on the comments. Also, Mom: what was that kid’s name?)

Should such a heinous thing happen now I'm sure it would be swiftly followed by laws forbidding 12-year-old boys from going outdoors before 6 am or after 6 pm.

You know, “for our safety.”