Free Range Children

Ransom Riggs

I was a free-range child. In fact, I think most kids growing up in the 70s, and to a lesser degree the 80s, were. Which is to say that except for school and occasional scheduled activities like Karate lessons (I can still break a board!) and swimming (I'm no Phelps) my time was more or less my own, and how I spent it -- within my own limited means -- was up to me. I could walk, or bike, or even boat as far from my house as I wanted to (there was a creek behind the house) as long as I made it back home by dinner time. Nowadays, that sort of thing is becoming nigh unthinkable; a recent LA Times article makes the point that kids aren't allowed to just "go out and play" like they used to:

Today, for most middle-class American children, "going out to play" has gone the way of the dodo, the typewriter and the eight-track tape. From 1981 to 1997, for instance, University of Michigan time-use studies show that 3- to 5-year-olds lost an average of 501 minutes of unstructured playtime each week; 6- to 8-year-olds lost an average of 228 minutes. (On the other hand, kids now do more organized activities and have more homework, the lucky devils!) And forget about walking to school alone. Today's kids don't walk much at all (adding to the childhood obesity problem).

Studies have shown that kids who have to "fend for themselves" more tend to develop stronger critical thinking and creativity skills; they're forced to make their own fun, imagine worlds, become storytellers themselves rather than have stories fed to them by parents and television and the unending narrative that is a hyper-scheduled existence. A vocal advocate for childhood self-fending is Lenore Skenazy's blog Free Range Kids: Let's give our kids the freedom we had! In an oft-quoted (and hotly controversial) blog posting titled "Why I Let My Nine Year Old Ride the Subway," she writes

I left my 9-year-old at Bloomingdale's (the original one) a couple weeks ago. Last seen, he was in first floor handbags as I sashayed out the door. Bye-bye! Have fun! And he did. He came home on the subway and bus by himself . Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn't strike me as that daring, either. Isn't New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It's not like we're living in downtown Baghdad. Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call. No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn't want to lose it. And no, I didn't trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. 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." Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence. Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It's not. It's debilitating — for us and for them.

And one more gem from the Times: "Increasingly, American children are in a lose-lose situation. They're forced, prematurely, to do all the un-fun kinds of things adults do (Be over-scheduled! Have no downtime! Study! Work!). But they don't get any of the privileges of adult life: autonomy, the ability to make their own choices, use their own judgment, maybe even get interestingly lost now and then."

What do you think? Are parents too namby-pamby these days, or is there actually more to worry about? Does all this structure and hyper-parenting make kids stronger or weaker?