Why I’m not a free-range parent

May 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I was a child, we would spend entire summers outdoors, roaming the neighborhood. I spent most of that time roller-skating in the park with my best friend. I suspect that the summer before I turned 11, I spent more time wearing roller skates than shoes.

We did not wear helmets, of course, or any of the protective gear that has become normative today. We did not check in with our parents for hours at a time: the rule was that we had to come in when the street lamps came on, just as the sun was setting. We were largely on our own, learning valuable skills through creative play.

It is difficult to avoid a sense of nostalgia when we look at how scheduled our kids’ lives are in comparison.

Some parents suggest that we ought to go back to this model. After all, kids are safer than they have ever been before; the risk of abduction is absurdly low; we ought to let them walk themselves to the park now and then.

However, we are forgetting two things whenever we argue that kids should be allowed to range free, the way they did in the 70s and 80s.

First, we are forgetting that there was a social network in place if (and when) something bad happened.

If one of us fell while roller-skating and started bleeding, we would go to the nearest house, walk in unannounced (no need to knock) and ask the parent home to help us. That parent would promptly go into triage mode: call 911? Go straight to the emergency room? Call the kid’s parents? Hand out a bandage and a popsicle?

In those years, there was always a parent home when school was out.

By way of comparison, some years ago I fell in my suburban neighborhood one afternoon while taking a walk. I had to hobble home on a torn-up ankle, completely unaided, because I did not know anyone who could help me. My friends and neighbors were all at work and at that time my family lived half a continent away.

My sense of isolation that day caught me by surprise: since then I have sought out greater community. It’s one of the great gifts of living here.

Second, when we argue for a free-range childhood we are forgetting how often kids got seriously hurt. Kids now wear helmets for good reason. Kids are safer than ever because we have worked to make them safer.

To be sure, every so often you will see internet posts about how ‘we sat in the front seat without seatbelts and drank water from the hose and we all turned out just fine.’ These memes are a revolt against the safety-mindedness that pervades modern parenting.

But every time I see one of those posts, I am reminded of another experience in my childhood. In my teen years, I went to a neighborhood pool every day to swim and flirt.

Our favorite activity there involved the heavy metal grate at the bottom of the pool. We would swim to the bottom, pick up the grate, and swim with it to the surface. We would then let it pull us back down again.

One of the kids there was a practical joker, always laughing. One time he floated to the bottom with the grate and then started to struggle with it. We all assumed that he was joking. Until, of course, too much time had passed. His arm was caught in the recovery pump.

He never resurfaced.

Every bicycle helmet, every warning sticker, every safety notice that you see represents an afternoon that came to an abrupt halt, a childhood interrupted, a grieving family.

It is a truism that kids need unscheduled time to learn how the world works on their own terms. I do think that we should make it a priority to give kids that kind of freedom.

That does not mean, however, that they should be left unsupervised.

In other words: the issue is not ‘should kids be allowed to walk to the park by themselves?’ but rather, ‘what do we do to create community, so that it is safe for kids to walk by themselves?’

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about how Moses sets up a master layout for the tribes, so that they camp in the same formation every time they reassemble. Judah is camped on the east side, and next to them is Issachar – and so on. This account might be read as one of the duller details in the long process of instilling law and order in the Israelite camp.

But it could also be read in terms of community.

It may or may not be his intention, but by putting the same family units side-by-side each time, Moses is creating a structure that allows kids to roam freely.

Kids grow strong and independent when they know someone is there for them, regardless of where they are. Parents have an easier time raising kids when they can share the twin burdens of supervision and correction with other parents, especially with parents they know and trust.

To do that, however, it is necessary for families to come into regular contact, in the context of a shared community.

That’s why I think that the congregation is so important for families.

At the year-end picnic for the Rabin Religious School, it was wonderful to see how the kids were able to play independently without having an adult organizing them. That’s one of the signs of a healthy community.

One of my goals for the year to come, and the years that follow, is to expand that sense of community, so that the kids feel that same sense of ease in the sanctuary and in the social hall.

I think that we ought to continue to work toward the good of the greater community as well: to make the effort to know our neighbors, to vote in school elections, to be involved, to make sure that parks are clean and neighborhoods are safe and kids have a place to roam.

In my view, what is best for our kids is best for us all.

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