Free-Range Kids, in Fact and Fiction

Yesterday, my eight-and-a-half-year-old daughter walked the four blocks to her friend’s house sort of on her own—“sort of” because I was trailing a half-block behind her the whole way; she got out the door before I had a chance to put my shoes on to walk her there, and, since I knew the route was familiar to her, and had the sense that she was testing out her wings, I didn’t try too hard to catch up. So I had the chance to see her demonstrate good judgment and safety awareness when crossing streets, and also to make sure that she was okay. And she was; she was fine. I think I might be ready to let her walk there on her own next time.

On the one hand, this feels like a huge step. On the other…well, when I was my daughter’s age, growing up in a comparable neighborhood, I regularly walked the half-mile to school by myself, made my own after-school social arrangements and went up and down the suburban streets to visit various friends, and even rode my bike several blocks to the milk store to buy milk and doughnuts for the family. There’s been a gigantic cultural shift in the thirty-some years between my childhood and hers, and it’s not necessarily a good thing.

I’m definitely not the only parent out there with reservations about how little autonomy the bulk of kids are allowed these days.  Last week I read Free-Range Kids, a manifesto calling for more kid freedom and less parental catastrophizing. Author Leonore Skenazy. makes some good points about the importance of giving kids the chance to test their independence, and also provides hard figures demonstrating that kids are at least as safe now as they were when most of us parents were growing up in the 1960’s,’70’s, and 80’s.

Coincidentally, I’ve also been re-reading one of my favorite recent children’s novels, Saffy’s Angel, by Hilary McKay, first in her series about the Casson family. The four Casson kids are definitely free-range, so much so that they appear to be being neglected: the 11-year-old son regularly sits in the second-floor window to try to cure himself of his fear of heights; the 13-year-old protagonist goes into town one day and gets herself a nose piercing. The siblings grapple with meals, school issues, and bigger problems in the course of the book, which they mostly solve on their own. Their mother, Eve, spends much of her time in the shed, painting (she’s a professional artist), and the narrative gives the very strong impression that she lives in her own world and doesn’t have any idea what’s going on with her children.

That impression turns out to be not entirely accurate. Near the end of the book, there’s a brief but revelatory passage from Eve’s point of view:

“Eve had, as far as possible, always let [the children] do exactly as they liked. Sometimes she found it difficult to let them do exactly as they liked, when Indigo, for instance, took to climbing out of his bedroom window…or Caddy…failed all her school exams. However, Eve always stuck out these grim times as bravely as she could. After all, she would tell herself, she had known from the day the children were born that they were in every way more talented, intelligent, and wise than she would ever be. Remembering this was always a great comfort to Eve.”

I wouldn’t advocate, or be personally comfortable with, such a total hands-off approach. It’s great fun to read about the Cassons, but one big difference between children’s fiction and real-life parenting is that, as a parent, a big part of one’s job is to try to ensure that not too much plot—at least not serious, dangerous, plot—happens to one’s kids.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for Eve Casson’s respect for her children’s choices, and her faith in their ultimate good sense. I’ll be keeping that passage in mind next time I’m trying to decide whether my daughter is ready to take another step out into the world on her own.

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