Why it may be impossible to raise 'free range kids'
The decline of the American neighborhood has inhibited our ability to instill self-reliance in our children
I'm a new father. Like many new parents, I've been giving a lot of thought to how I want to raise my child. And just as this became my life's primary mission, there emerged this phenomenon of "free range kids." An anti-helicopter parenting movement was just what I wanted.
Lenore Skenazy, who is sort of the spokeswoman for free range parenting, says she is fighting "the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape." Finally! A movement that sets itself against the notion that a kid who isn't being actively surveilled by parents or a paid professional is in danger. Finally, a reaction to the parental fear that becomes an excuse for omnipresent intervention and control, to the absurd point of mistaking a cultivation of self-reliance with neglect.
The "free range kids" movement speaks exactly to what I want for my children: a childhood that teaches independence and self-reliance, a childhood like my own. And yet I'm worried that I can't avoid the helicopter. I know that crime is way, way down from when I was a free range kid. (Back then it was just called "childhood.") I know that the chances of stranger-danger are infinitesimally small. But I already have some of the anxiety that motivates over-protective parents. I want to imitate the free-rangers, but am afraid to do so. And I think I've discovered one reason why. Free range kids, and the parental trust that enables them, are at least partly dependent on a feature of American life that is dead or dying in many areas: the neighborhood.
As a child of the 1980s and early 90s, I had a single, working mother, and we lived with my grandparents in Bloomfield, New Jersey. It was one of those 60 percent Italian, 40 percent Irish neighborhoods you used to find then in Essex County. On most days when the weather was nice, it was expected that I would leave the home and play outside, that there would be other children doing the same, and that no one would have to organize our activities at the nearby park. I never had a play date. A friend from half a mile away might leave his house without a plan, come up with the idea that it would be fun to jump bikes over a curb with me, and knock on the door to ask my grandmother if I was home. In the summer, I might leave the house at nine or 10 in the morning and not return home until the street lamps came on.
By the time I was seven years old, I was comfortable walking over a mile to school. This included going underneath a Garden State Parkway overpass. I realize that I already sound like the apocryphal grandfather humble-bragging about long walks to school in the snow. But, in truth, if school was cancelled, sometimes the daily morning Mass still needed servers. I'd make the same walk to make good on my commitments, even in the snow. By age 10, I could do this walk in the dark of a winter evening after basketball practice. Learning to keep to your social commitments was probably a great thing to learn.
In some ways this independence was forced on me and my friends. Many families, including mine, simply didn't have the time, money, or energy to have us monitored constantly. But my free range childhood was also sustained by a community. I was able to entertain myself outside because other kids my age were also playing outside, almost constantly.
That community included scores of homes filled with people who knew me and my family by name, and had lived in that community themselves for decades. They knew my uncles from when they were kids. And there were spinsters and nosy retirees who casually kept an eye on those parks where we romped. They didn't intervene, unless someone's property or safety was obviously in danger.
If I came home from school and was locked out, I could knock on about a dozen doors and would immediately receive assistance, whether that came in the form of a phone to call my mother, a bowl of butterscotch candies, or a remote control to watch afternoon cartoons. The expectation was that "we" were all in this together.
Everyone knew that you sometimes had to let a rambunctious kid out of doors. Or that he would get out of line once in a while. It would have been serious effrontery if you gave a parent a nasty look merely because their child was publicly misbehaving. The judgmental reproaches would only come if misbehavior was constant, and even then it would be expressed privately.
I live in a much safer neighborhood now than the one of my youth, and in an era that is almost incomparably safer according to crime statistics. And yet I never see children playing outside unsupervised. Who would my children play with unless I organized a play date? I'll probably never see another kid knock on my door and ask if my daughter can come out to play. Couldn't she have texted instead?
People live in my neighborhood (and nearly all the others around it) because it is nice, but as social mobility increases the stock of people who have been here for decades has decreased. There are fewer "eyes on the street" altogether; the retirees move away or into more specialized communities. And why not? Their children, if successful, didn't buy a house near their childhood home either.
At the local shops, parents flash each other nasty and judgmental looks all the time for the slightest and most routine annoyances of children's behavior. Instead of a "we" that lightly surrounds us, everyone in my town is a "they," and a potential source of problems. I'm not afraid of strangers doing harm to kids. I'm much more afraid (even if the stats don't justify it) of other parents calling the police or child services on me and getting a bogus charge of "unsubstantiated child neglect" merely for having kids that are more capable and independent than theirs.
Some people reading this may scratch their heads. They may still live in the kind of neighborhood that is characterized by a sense of shared identity and familiarity. The decline of neighborhood solidarity isn't universal across America, and it seems far more advanced among upwardly mobile neighborhoods than in working class areas. But it's one of the most obvious and profound changes I've noticed in my own day-to-day life. And it makes me suspect I won't be able to give my children the independence that I know is best for them.