Friday, May 1, 2009

Free Range Children

The Sunday Scribblings prompt is confession.

Otto and I were listening a little while ago to a discussion on TV of the controversial book called Free Range Children. Most of the panelists argued with the author that she should not have let her nine-year-old ride alone on the New York Subway. She explained that he very much wanted to go by himself, so she and her husband prepared him well, tested his ability to read maps, gave him money to call home if there were any problems, etc..

This philosophy does not prevail in my neighborhood or city. The only time I even SEE children is when I encounter them at the library or on the lawn of the library waiting for a parent to come by with a car to ferry them home. We can drive for miles without seeing a child on his own two feet.

What I must confess is that Otto and I raised four free-range children. Our children were allowed to roam throughout the neighborhood, ride their tricycles around the block, walk the half mile to school, (they eschewed the school bus which the city provided), jump rope or roller-skate on the sidewalks, play hide-and-seek all over the neighborhood, only giving us a general idea of what they would be doing, but with certain deadlines to appear for meals or previously-made family plans.

And after Otto and I had recalled how we had dealt with our own children’s freedoms, we grew nostalgic about our own free-range childhoods.

Otto remembered catching frogs after school.

I remembered especially living in Santa Cruz, at that time a small town that always carried a faint scent of ocean, with flowers a little brighter than they ever appear inland. I was only in kindergarten when I was allowed to walk to and from school, wander up the bare hill behind our house and the few dead-end unpaved streets that intersected King Street. At the top of one of these streets I found a farm with a new best friend (even though she had a scary German shepherd). A few hundred yards up another, I found a barn with a nest of new-born kittens and was offered one as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. My mother didn’t allow me to have pets, but when she was in the hospital giving birth to my brother, Grandma, who was caring for me, went with me to choose and bring home a small white kitten.

And after we moved from King street to Caledonia street, I, a first-grader was allowed even more freedom. My mother would have had a fit if she had seen me walking on the top of twenty-foot retaining walls above concrete yards. As a matter of fact I would have had a fit if I has seen any of my children doing it!

We moved to Stockton in the hot central valley when I was seven years old. Except for meals, none of the children spent any time in their un-airconditioned houses. During the day we played, jumped rope, romped in the lawn sprinklers, gathered in the shadowed crawl-spaces under the houses to scare ourselves with ghost stories. At dusk the big kids and the little kids and everyone between joined in games that might be one-a-cat in the street, or hide-and-seek or run-sheep-run that scattered us in all directions.

This is not one of my new poems, but I think it expresses some of the joy of the type of childhood I experienced:

Baked by summer sun, the cramped house is cocoon
whose tight walls clutch the valley heat. Now late
beyond the ordained hour of bed-at-eight,
like moth emerged to night and rising moon,

I'm freed to velvet air, allowed to play
with older children. Captains choose, and then
I pledge my fealty to a man of ten.
“One, two, three...”, and , scampering away,

I seek the darkest shadows, crouch below
a berry bush with warm, tart, berry smell,
my heart a-thump. I scan the dark, can’t tell
if slithering forms are ghost or friend or foe.

The single street lamp shivers points of light
through leaves; I shiver in delight and fear.
Aware of gravelled footsteps stealing near,
I’m drunk with peril, happiness and night.

Furtively I creep along a hedge
past feathery rows of carrots, tents of pea,
startled by window light where I can see
a neighbor. She’s oblivious of the edge

that separates her world and mine outside.
I move with stealth and joy and feral cunning.
Then, “Run sheep! Run!”, and I am off and running,
phantoms at my heels, my arms flung wide

to hug the tree trunk. Trembling. Safe. Our turn
to be the hunters. Then my mother’s call:
“Come in! Bedtime!” and I must leave it all
for lamp lit prison, sweaty sheets. I yearn
my lifelong for an hour as fierce and free
as that abandonment to jeopardy
Phyllis Sterling Smith


linda may said...

Granny! This is wonderful. The kids are so coddled today are missing out on so much. I was free ranging too as a child. Things happened to us in those days too and we learnt from them also. Nowadays they call them feral children.I think that the media and film industry have a lot to answer for today in showing the horrors that can happen in our society and terrifying parents to a degree where children are over protected. But on the other hand bad things can happen. Where do we find a balance?

Granny on the Web said...

What a wonderful descriptive vision of a game in childhood!
Ah, memories of that time, the young ones of today sadly, will not have them of their childhood. The freedom to explore, to climb, to fall, the excitement of a dare,in other words to enjoy a childhood of learning life.
Well done on this , I love it.
Love Granny

Maggie May said...

I was also a free range child. In fact ALL children were free range when I was growing up. It was a way of life.
My own children were also much more free than the children of today. I feel they all miss out so much but is it true that people are more perverted today? Are there more dangers? Certainly when I moved from the countryside (in the North) and moved to the city (in the South) I did start to encounter some *iffy* people.
Sad that we can't let children walk to a friend's house in case they meet some terrible person on the way.
Good post. Thought provoking.

Giggles said...

This whole post left me teary for what my child never had. It was glorious to enter a house of roast beef and homemade baking pies, after a hard day of play! How joyful those memories are! Your poem is exquisite, correctly defining my childhood! I love it! Thank you for this really special post...

Hugs Giggles

anthonynorth said...

The freedoms I enjoyed as a child were great, and often dangerous, what with accident after accident. But it taught me so much about life. Today's children are missing out on so much.

Rinkly Rimes said...

A beautiful beautiful poem. I could see it all. I draw your attention to a recent one of mine on the same subject.

Marianne said...

What a sweet, wonderful post!
Free range children. My brother and I were and when the cousins came for the Summer? Oh, what good times were made!
My children were free range also.
My grandchildren? sadly, no, not free range at all... and yes, I feel they're missing out on a world of experiences that help promote the individual.
Your poem, beautiful and alive!

Honey And Papa said...

This is a wonderful description of our childhood. Yes, there were dangers playing outside; the same dangers there are today. We could and did get injured. Kidnappings and sexual abuse are not new.

In who's interest is it to convince parents that playing outside it dangerous? In who's interest is it to convince them they are safer in front of the TV? But, did it make our kids safer?

Except for planned activities (sports), kids who are not outside are not getting their exercise. Percentage wise very few kids are kidnapped. Sexual abuse happens over the Internet. I was at home when I fell off the stairs and cracked my skull. I was at a neighbor's house when I fell off the flower pot stand and broke my wrist.

AD said...

this was an amazing heart felt prompt.
i loved every word you stitched :)


La said...

I so can not stand knowing that my children out of my 'sight'. wild world outside...


Lucy said...

Thank You Granny! I was a free range child and have always felt neglected because of it.
But..after reading your take... I realize I grew up with a rare freedom and should really be embracing it!( and feeling blessed that I survived it! haha)
My children knew NoThing of that heart thumping excitement while hiding under the berry bush. (BOY did that bring back memories just now!!)
Beautiful confession! One I would like to revisit anytime I need a reminder of my carefree childhood days!
(you write so brilliantly Groovy Gran! xoxo)

bunnygirl said...

I walked to school in kindergarten, too, and always went to school on foot or on a bike until my 8th grade year when we moved to a house too far away and with no sidewalks, leaving no other way to get to school except bus or car.

I would've much preferred to spend my days indoors because I was a bookish child, but my mom made sure I played outdoors every day that the weather was suitable. It was fun and so good for me. None of us kids were fat because we were too busy running, skating, and riding our bikes.

Unfortunately, the new parenting model of keeping kids indoors out of fear ends up creating the very danger they fear. What kept free-ranging kids safe back in the day was...other kids. We roamed in packs and were almost never alone. Good luck to someone trying to kidnap one of us! There would've been dozens of noisy witnesses.

Not so, now. Today kids are safer indoors because there are no other kids outside to look after each other. That's what's so sad.

Bobbi said...

What a beautiful post! My siblings and I were free-range children and for the most part, so were my own children. You brought back many wonderful memories for me.

It really is a shame that society has degraded so much that many children are unsafe walking the streets of their neighborhoods and towns.

Devil Mood said...

I know there are many dangers out there, but children are lacking if they're not allowed to explore a little on their own. It gives them independence and confidence. Your children were fortunate that you raised them free-range :)

Tumblewords: said...

Ah, yes. Wonderful to have the freedoms we had. So many games, so few years. It was every bit that wonderful and more. Lovely post!

susan said...

When I was eight and my sister was seven, my mother taught us how to catch the city bus to our school. We attended school outside of our neighborhood. My parents worked. My mother gave us instructions, put us on the bus for a trial run and followed in her car. When school started, we were off. We had no problems and no one stared at us on the bus. When it got warm, we skipped taking the bus so we could buy ice cream. We lived 26 blocks from the school. It didn't take long to walk and the ice cream was worth it. :-)

I understand the world was not what it was when we were children but I don't think raising our children in bubbles is healthy either. They're overweight, sedentary and personally I think less mature. Not to be overly critical of children but I think parents are failing to remember what it means to be a child and to learn through experience.

Didn't mean to go on and on. You took me back to a wonderful time and I'm 44.

2cats said...

Granny, I was a free range child too. I would travel miles (or so it seemed) in a day to play and jump and run. What fun being a child was in that era of freedom.
My own child grew up in the country. He had a 10 acre woods to explore. He made bike trails and running paths. I guess he was free range. But, if we had lived in the city I would never have let him out of my sight. It is that fearful I have become.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories with all of us.

AdellBeek said...

Your post reminded me of what my grandmother used to tell us, and that is go out and play. She didn't tell us to stay in the yard, she just told us to stay away from strangers.

Thank you for helping me remember something I almost forgot.

Rachel said...

I wish my children could have a free range childhood. My husband and I both enjoyed free range. I'm not sure it's safe for my children.

Beth said...

A lovely recollection and an exuberant poem! I remember playing such games, dreading the call to bedtime, the wildness of the hunt and chase. Ah, sweet memories.

Larraine said...

Parents seemed to be spooked by the stories of child predators that they see on cable news. It's too bad really. When you see the store tapes, for instance, that show a predator grabbing a child, that child is usually by themselves. On the other hand,most suburbs aren't set up to allow "free range." There is very little public transport. I grew up in Philadelphia in an era when people didn't even think about predators. Once I was about 10 or so, I wandered all over the place. I did have to ask permission to go very far. However,I took public transportation into Center City starting at about the age of 11. When I was a teenager, I would go to the Art Museum on Sundays. When I was younger I rode a bike everywhere. It was great. We've lived in a suburb of Baltimore for the last 30 years. My son grew up here. He rode his bike all over the place. The big difference was that he had to wear a helmet. We lectured him about being careful, about watching traffic,made sure that his bike had reflectors and lights. He always came home in one piece, thankfully.

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

I was a free-range child with a horse. :-)
And... my husband's name is also Otto.

Yours, Cyn

Winifred said...

A lovely posting and very nostalgic.
It's so hard to find the balance now. I had so much freedom as a child playing in the dene all weekend, holidays and after school. We walked to school ourselves from a young age and played on the beach on the way home. There was hardly any traffic and we lived in a small place where you knew most people so felt safe.

My children had less freedom living in a town but still walked to school and back themselves and played out a lot. My grandson is just now being allowed to do that and he's eleven. I feel sorry for children now as they have lost so much freedom.

danni said...

wonderful look back at a happier and more care free time - i remember that everone's parents looked out for all of us as we roamed and amused ourselves - made no difference where you skinned your knee, somebody's mother was always handy to stick a band aid on it --- and just as handy to call a parent if need be - we were free, but sure never got away with anything!!!

keith hillman said...

I love the idea of free range children. I was one. My childhood was pure bliss. Thank you for another charming chapter from the story of your life.

floreta said...

great poem and nostalgia!

i had never heard of this book/concept of "free range children" before! i am also not a parent so forgive me for my ignorance.

this is fascinating!

paisley said...

all thought i was raised in a strictly religious household, we had free range of motion while we were outside playing... my mom had a dinner bell and when she rang it we had to come home... other than that i pretty much just remember being a kid playing outside all day as we were never allowed to play in the house unless it was raining or snowing or some other natural occurrence.....

MichaelO said...

Another lovely memoir, Granny! I was a free range child. I try hard to get my kids to get on their bikes and ride around town on their own. Just go down the street and knock on a friends door! They all have to have "play dates". Sheesh.

A Girl Named Me said...

I was a free-range child, but I sure didn't raise one.

By the time my son was born, it was practically child neglect to let your child out of your sight. It's too bad, too.

If I had to do it over again, I still wouldn't let him ride the subway alone (if we even lived near one!), but I would definitely do a better job of balancing.

I always appreciate reading your writings, Granny. Thank you for them.


Tricia said...

What a great poem. I was a free range child but I am having a hard time allowing my children to be. We live in the country and are raising 12 kids and there is really no reason to be so "freaked out" about everything but I do have a very big imagination and sometimes it gets the better of me when it comes to my children. If I haven't seen or heard them outside for at least 10 minutes then I just KNOW something terrible has happened and I more than once feel like I've experienced heart failure. Shame on me for not trusting.

Kristin said...

i hadn't seen this poem. It recalls the thrill of stealth which i still enjoy. I remember when bedtime brought mothers to their doors to holler their children home? That and calling their dogs in punctuated the day in our neighborhood.

I agree that it's a media induced hysteria. Dangers were always there, though bunnygirl has a good point that kids in packs are safer than loners. It wasn't just danger from strangers that threatened the lives of children. A friend's father born in Illinois in the 1880's was the only surviving son in a family where every one of his brothers eventually drowned in the Mississippi.

I'm glad we could let our children roam. At 5 Anna began her day by running a block still in her nightgown, cutting through Stephanie's yard, to her best friend's house, burst in their back door bellowing, "I'm HEEERE!", run upstairs and jump into bed with them. They swore they didn't mind.

Reen said...

I'm new to your blog (coincidentally, got here blog-searching for parents writing about their kindergarteners riding the hopes of assuaging my own fears!) and I just adore this post and the poem. Brings back such great thoughts about my own *very* free-range childhood. If my mom had known about how much time we spent 1/2 mile down the road along the railroad tracks - yikes! Now as a parent of two I'm always torn about this and had a heart attack when the 5 (yes FIVE) year old went out the front door by herself the other day in search of a toy left behind in the car. Our fenced yard and lack of sidewalks has kept the poor thing so sheltered (at least while at home), and I yearn for the type of neighborhood (or maybe just confidence) where I could let her loose a bit more. Thank you for your thought-provoking writing!