Homeschooling: It's not what we do, it's how we live.

Free Range Kids Park Day

Apparently, tomorrow is “Take your Kids to the Park – and Leave them There” Day. The idea is that kids should be able to play at the park, safely, alone, by the age of 7 years old. It’s part of the Free Range Kids movement that started getting media attention in 2008-ish when columnist mom Lenore Skenazy wrote an article about letting her then 9 year old son ride the subway home alone in New York.  I have to admit, I’ve gone back and forth on this lady’s views. On the one hand, I get what she’s saying. In practice though, I think she misses the mark – and in doing so I think that she encourages a lot of people to take irresponsible risks with their kids.

Back when I first read about her ideas, I had a 5-year-old and a 6.5 year old – a bit too young, I thought, to contemplate leaving my kids without a watchful eye. Now that this story is hitting the news and my kids are a little older – in her target range, even – I thought I’d re-visit the idea and see what I thought.

{contemplating} … cue ‘Jeopardy’ music  {/contemplation}

Yeah – at 7 and 8.5, they’re still too young to be LEFT ALONE at the park. As in ‘without me (or another trusted adult – heck, even a responsible teen would be fine) on the premises’. I’ll stay in the car and read a book (well, actually I won’t because it’s too bloody hot out there at this time of year to be cooped up in the car. But I will bring a blanket or set up shop under the pavilion and read or knit or something while they play. I’ll probably even have snacks and water for them if they get needy). The fact is I don’t know in person or even know of any children whom at 7 years old are responsible enough to be left alone, completely unsupervised in a public location.

If we lived in an area where there was a neighborhood park on every other block, I could maybe see that – but in our area, the nearest park is 4 miles away. There is no way that my kids could go to that park alone, especially with the park’s reputation (wooded, noted for drug use and sexual activity). Not to mention the 5 registered sex offenders who live within 2 miles of that same park (3 offenses against children {youngest 10 years old}, 1 indecent exposure and 1 rapist). Are these people our cruising for a child to abduct? Probably not. But why tempt them? Sexual crimes are carefully planned strategies. One sex offender shared his strategy here. Read it. It’s disturbing. And you can clearly see how parents who fool themselves into thinking that they live in the magical land of “it won’t happen to my child” are helping these sick bastards commit their crimes. Sex offenders seek out kids who are available. I’d define a child consistently allowed to trek around town unsupervised as ‘available’. Tempting.  And what’s the number one rule in the forest? DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS.

Check out paragraph 5, especially. “The offender will consider whether the victim appears to be in dire need of attention, affection, acceptance or approval, to determine whether these needs can be exploited. The offender will observe who is close to the potential victim, to evaluate the risk of getting caught or exposed. Gullibility and naiveté are considered. Offenders will assess whether there is opportunity to safely isolate the potential victim and to commit a sexual offence, undisturbed.”

I would love to be able to allow my kids to roam wild without a second thought for their safety. But that’s not reality. Even in our own yard (7+ acres), I will occasionally check on my kids – just to make sure they haven’t fallen out of a tree or aren’t into something they shouldn’t be or haven’t wandered into an area they shouldn’t have. We have a 40’ deep pond in the back of our property that my brother recently discovered was positively teeming with water moccasins (those are big, bad, poisonous and fiercely aggressive water snakes if you’re not from ‘round here). Fun for target shooting with an adult. Extremely dangerous to explore without close parental supervision!

Kids at this age are wild and yes, they deserve to be able to run and play in an environment that is free from nit-picky little rules; one that is safe for them to explore – but that doesn’t mean that we should abandon all good sense and take needless risks with their safety and well-being. I’m sure some people will read the above and think I’m insane for allowing my children to mess with guns and snakes – but I’m a realist. We live in Texas and there are plenty of both in my kids’ immediate environment. They’re well versed in handling both and we don’t intentionally allow them into areas where they’ll be around either unsupervised. Telling them to ‘go play’ without ever checking on them is needlessly risky when I know good and well the dangers that are in our yard. Letting them go alone to the park when I know good and well the dangers that are out there is exactly the same thing.

Yes, I agree that crimes like kidnapping and flashing and molestation are rare, and thank god for that. But you know what? Even ONE child kidnapped or harmed in such a horrible, horrible way is too many. Children are a blessing (even when they’re being little monsters), and it’s our job to care for them. That doesn’t mean smothering them to the point of immobility – nor does it mean that you let them roam free just because they want to.  I dislike the argument that ‘they’ll be fine’. It’s not necessarily a matter of if they can, but should they. In all this debate, I am missing what value there is in leaving your children alone at the park that cannot be gained while you’re physically there, but not interfering with their play. Is there something in that equation that I’m missing?

The reason that I am ‘present’ – not hovering, not even in close enough proximity to them that I can hear their conversation usually, is so that when they start throwing rocks at each other, I can remind them to stop because the natural consequence of a concussion, chipped tooth, injured eye or bleeding scalp wound is not one that I feel is ‘worth it’ in trade to drive that lesson home.  There’s also the small factoid that children lack common sense and the general ability of forethought. Anyone who has a child of 7 knows this to be true. They don’t stop to reason their actions through to the logical outcome. Throwing this at Little Johnny or jumping out of the tallest branch in this tree is fun, therefore I will do it. Little Johnny’s concussion or the compound fracture from landing wrong never enter into the picture. Not to mention the point that I don’t WANT my kids to have to ‘figure out what to do’ to handle a broken bone, or to rely on some other kind-hearted mom to staunch the flow of blood from a smashed nose or scraped knee. I don’t want someone else doing my job!

I’ve had to be the mom at the park who hands out band-aids and antiseptic wash, or pulls an unruly child or a bully away from other kids because there’s no parent to oversee that child’s behavior – and it smacks of NEGLECT to me. The argument has been brought up that children need to know what to do in an emergency – just because they’re told what to do, even if they’re drilled in what to do – that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be able to do it. I’ve seen adults panic in an emergency – I have been guilty of panicking myself for that matter!  No one would argue that emergencies only strike when you’re ready for them, and I think it’s unfair to put that kind of responsibility on a child’s shoulders when it doesn’t need to be. A theoretical knowledge of how to handle first-aid is great; we should go over such things with our kids so that in the event of a true emergency, they’ll have a chance of successfully coping. But it’s not so that we can intentionally leave them without adequate care.

And what about the bully? It’s not my child that’s going to get pushed or have a toy stolen because I’m there. But I also don’t want my child to be the kid who spends afternoons in the park alone and learns that without an authority figure to curb such behavior, he can use his words and hands to hurt people to get his way. No child is going to come home and tell Mom all about how he didn’t share the swings, or cut in line for the slide or stole some kid’s juice box. I’m quite curious how ‘free range’ moms go about making sure that their kids are actually learning about independence and not learning about extortion.

Here’s an anecdote for your consideration. In one of our most frequently populated parks in town, there was this man who used to come out to watch the kids. He always wore dark sunglasses and would bring a lawn chair and a stack of newspapers and magazines to “read”. When we started noticing him, it was creepy. Normal people who come to the park for lunch or to pass the time will sit at one of the tables or under the pavilion, eat or read for a while and then leave. This guy would sit in weird, sorta hidden spots and watch the kids while pretending to read. It was creepy and weird enough that we called the police after seeing him out there a couple of times. Turns out, this guy was a flasher. He’d sit behind his newspapers touching himself and had exposed himself several times in other locations, but because he had not yet exposed himself in the park, the police couldn’t arrest him. So they advised us to continue calling them when he showed up and they would come out and talk to him. This continued for months – at several local parks… until finally he stopped showing up. Did he get bored? Did he finally get arrested? Did he move? I have no clue. My point here is that these people ARE out there. Reading statistical reports about how crime is going down shouldn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy and safe. Falling crime rates doesn’t mean that crime is gone. It’s still out there. And if you leave your kids alone in public locations, then you’re begging for it to find them.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s been a lot of criticism of ‘attachment parenting’ throughout the articles that praise raising free range kids. The idea seems to be that AP is synonymous with ‘smother mothering’ – that AP parents hover and never let their kids from their sight or that they handle problems for their kids… let me clarify here. That is not what AP is about. In fact, children who are raised ‘attached’ are more independent than those who are not in my (not insignificant) experience. AP is about starting with a strong familial foundation – one that lasts , that the kids know is stable and secure that will allow them to explore, all the while knowing that mom and dad are solidly in their corner if they need them. And for some reason that rubs the “free range” people the wrong way.

Whatever happened to inter-dependency between parent and child? Why is it that people think that humans need to be so damn independent at such a young age anyway? Why is there such a RUSH to force babies and little kids to be ‘on their own’? What’s the value in that? They have plenty of time to grow up and be independent. Why saddle them with unnecessary responsibilities at such a young age? Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for chores and teaching kids life-skills. I want my kids to grow up and move out of my house! But seven-year olds out and about without Mom or Dad? Really? And we wonder why kids are thinking that sex is okay at 11 and 12 years old. Why ever not when they’re taking on so many other ‘grown up’ responsibilities at such young ages?

So back to this article

baby-paramedic writes:
“So when your children leave home, go on to tertiary education and will start drinking alcohol, will you be there to pick them up when they screw up?”

Ummm… yes, if it’s feasible. When did it become anything but right and proper for a parent to be there to help pick up her child and set him back on the right track when he falters? I must have missed that memo. I thought that was the definition of a ‘screw up’ – an accident, an unforeseen occurrence. That’s not a way of life or a habit that the child has gotten into because of over-parenting, and all children are prone to screwing up, no matter how ‘well’ they’re raised. It’s part of growing up. I’m curious if by the comment, baby-paramedic means to imply that because s/he is raising free-rang children, her/his children will be expected to handle their screw-ups without aide.

I’m 33 years old and if I found myself in a situation where I needed my parents to help me out of a sticky wicket, then I FULLY expect them to help me if it is reasonable for them to do so. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t try my best to solve my problems on my own first, or that I would take advantage of my parent’s generosity – but ultimately, yes – if I needed help, then I know that I can rely on my parents to provide assistance. Isn’t that what parents are there for? To touch base with, seek advice or assistance from, learn from? No matter what your age.

Another comment made after that article was something to the effect of the goal of parenting was to work yourself out of a job. I think that’s an excellent way to look at it. I can’t remember if the comment was for or against free-range kids…. And ultimately, I don’t think it matters. The point is that if you do your job correctly, your kids will need you less and less involved. I agree with that wholeheartedly; I just think that 7 years old is jumping the gun by quite a bit.



4 responses

  1. rjoneslcsw

    I agree with you. I can’t imagine what parent would feel it was ok to leave their 7 year old alone in a public setting. My daughter is 9 and although she’s mature I would never leave her unsupervised. the world is much too dangerous a place for that.

    May 22, 2010 at 7:24 pm

  2. Pingback: Summer Days… « Finding the Fantastic in Everyday Learning

  3. Jana C

    AFter reading a million free range pages. It is nice to see that someone else feels as I do. Thanks for posting this one.

    August 21, 2010 at 7:40 am

  4. It’s a topic that I wish was more reasonable. I love the idea that the phrase ‘free range kids’ invokes in my mind; it’s juts that what I see and think of as ‘free range’ is quite different than what the philosophy seems to advocate.

    It’s a tetchy subject, and one that I have lots of thoughts about, lol. I’m sure I’ll have more in the future 🙂

    August 21, 2010 at 3:07 pm

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