Tag Archives: free range kids

Metro Solo

Celebrating once camp was over.
Celebrating once camp was over.

There have been a spate of stories this summer about parents arrested or in trouble for letting their kids go to the park alone or otherwise do things independently.  If you’re a parent who reads blogs, I’m sure you saw these stories or the many, many responses to them.

One of the things I’ve seen, which I’ve also written about a little bit here in the past, is that when we know crime has dropped, and we know that children are generally safe from strangers, one of the reasons that many parents don’t send their kids outside alone anymore isn’t fear of kidnappers or violence, but rather fear of judgement from neighbors and busybodies and the subsequent involvement of the government and the potential loss of their children.

I do worry about all these things – the bad guys, the busybodies, and the government – but I keep making the decision to not let it interfere with what I see as best for my kids.  And I think being confident, independent kids is what’s best.  They get so much out of being able to go to the park alone, to ride their bikes on the closed park roads alone on a Sunday, to walk to the store by themselves, and most recently to ride the subway solo.

For the last two weeks, Mushroom has gotten himself to and from his summer camp on the Metro by himself.  We had to get special permission from the camp.  who were initially aghast that we wanted to send him to camp on the Metro.  We live walking distance from the subway, and he routinely goes to the shops near there alone or with his brother.  The camp was right outside a station on the same Metro line.  It seemed like a no brainer, especially since I had to take BalletBoy to a completely different camp farther away in our only car.  Even so, we had to go back and forth with the camp several times and then write up our own liability waiver in order to get them to agree.  One of the camp employees said, “You can’t really mean a nine year old on the Metro, can you?”  But then, by the end of the conversation, when the judgement of parenting was past, he casually added, “Well, I took the Metro at that age alone and nothing happened.”

We actually based the liability waiver on the one from BalletBoy’s camp, which was in a walkable neighborhood suburb that just doesn’t happen to be near ours.  Hilariously, after all that back and forth with Mushroom’s camp, BalletBoy’s simply handed us the waiver the first day.  “Sign here if you want to allow him to sign himself out,” the camp director told me, with no further greeting or explanation.

We spent the first few days of camp getting Mushroom ready to ride alone.  We made sure there there was plenty of money on his card and made him a nifty necklace cardholder like the kind government professionals often wear to hold their clearance badges.  We practiced which trains were the right line and which way to walk and what to do if you accidentally missed your stop.  One morning I rode the subway with him then said goodbye at his station and turned around to take the next train back myself.  The next day, I walked him to the Metro and said goodbye at the turnstiles.  And then, finally, he walked up and went entirely on his own.  He texted me from his cheapie cell phone to say simply, “there.”

As you can probably predict, absolutely nothing bad happened.  He arrived there and home without any issue and without losing anything along the way.  He had a lot to say about the Metro ads, but not much about the people.  No one hassled him or talked to him at all.  The biggest excitement was that he once got on a train that didn’t come to the end of the line.  He had to get off when it shut down and catch the next one.  He adjusted accordingly.  In other words, it wasn’t much excitement at all.

In fact, I kept saying to him things like, “Wow, you’re so grown up!  Taking the Metro alone!” and, “I’m so proud of you!  You’re so responsible!”  And he practically rolled his eyes.  “It’s no big deal,” he told me.

Well, it shouldn’t be.  He’s absolutely right.

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Mushroom and BalletBoy Go to the Park!

Somehow, despite the fact that I’m far to busy to get sick, I seem to have contracted the flu (or something very fluish).  It’s passing quickly and isn’t all that bad compared to, say, the flu I picked up in China that time, but on Friday, I couldn’t even bring myself to get out of bed for most of the day.  We didn’t have school.  We had to cancel Destination Imagination (which is rotten because we desperately need the practice time before the tournament this coming weekend).  And what a tragedy because Friday’s temperature got into the 70’s.  That’s the sort of February weather that must be seized upon and appreciated.

Well, luckily, we live on a block with a small playground on our corner.  It’s a bit of an urban mess, honestly.  There’s a contingent of homeless guys who hang out there on the benches and play checkers and cards on the tables.  They’re mostly harmless and some of them are even nice, but it doesn’t always make it the most clean or conducive atmosphere for play.  We use it occasionally, but if we really want to go to the park, we’ll walk somewhere else or drive to one of the larger city parks.  This playground is scarcely larger than a house plot.  It’s only there because it used to be the turnaround stop for the trolley car and when the trolley shut down in the 1950’s, the city took it over and had to do something with it.

Despite the issues, the husband and I agreed quite awhile ago that when they were six years old, they could start going to the playground by themselves.  As this was one of the first nice days since the fall and I couldn’t take them to a better playground, I reminded them that they were now allowed to go alone, as long as they stayed together and told me first.  I explained that if anything strange happened to make them feel uncomfortable, such as a fight among the homeless guys or an adult acting strange toward them, that they should come home immediately.  I don’t think they would be in danger at all, but I do know that sometimes sketchy things happen there and that the kids should know to come home rather than stay and feel uncomfortable.

They had turned down the offer to go alone in the fall, but they seized it now excitedly and immediately ran down the block to the playground.  Half an hour later, they came back.  A toddler who, “didn’t know the difference between two and three,” had been bugging them.  But after getting a snack, they almost immediately ran back again and stayed for another half hour on their own.  This time, apparently another toddler, a little girl, “asked us too many questions!”  Still, after using the bathroom, they went back for a third time, again staying for about half an hour before some mysterious internal clock told them they should check in with me.

It’s funny to be that they felt so put upon at the playground, but each time by smaller kids getting on their nerves.  Clearly, a pesky toddler is the biggest problem you could face at the playground, even one in the “inner city.”  We try to live our lives as relatively “free range” parents and the kids have had a number of exciting solo experiences, including a few short hikes with friends in the woods and the ability to go do their own shopping while I’m in a store doing mine.  Sometimes, when they meet a somewhat big milestone like this one, going off completely on their own, it’s a little bittersweet for me as a parent.  The genie is out of the bottle and we’ll never be able to tell them that they can’t run down the block on their own again.  But I’m proud of them for seizing their freedom (not to mention the precious warm February weather) with confidence and nonchalance, as if it was no big deal.

Is Parenting Joyless?

Two recent articles about parents.  The first, from The Washington Post, I was put onto by Free Range Kids.  That article talked about how stressful it is for mothers to exhaustively involve themselves in every aspect of their kids’ lives, especially when most of them work full time.  The beginning example of a mother who watches all her kids’ TV shows with them in order to monitor them and has a separate system implemented for each kid made me exhausted just thinking of it.  Sure, I enjoy some Phineus and Ferb with my kids sometimes and if they watch something I’m curious to make sure it’s not rated R.  But come on.  Three different systems?

The second, from New York Magazine, I was put onto by Mental Multivitamin.  This article was probably one of the most depressing things I’ve read about parenting in awhile, if ever.  Studies show that being a parent decreases your happiness and that it’s a joyless task for most people.  Good grief.  First of all, let me say that I’m proud to be a statistical anomaly.  I’m pretty happy and I make room for enough personal time, at least usually.  However, this quote, which Mental Multivitamin also pulled out, really struck me:

Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”

Excuse me?  That mom from the first article, who had the system for her kids’ TV viewing that probably ate up all her own TV viewing time sounded like she was doing “tiring work.”  When I read about parents who don’t let their kids go to sleepovers or play in the yard by themselves, that sounds like tiring work.  Organizing ways to ferry your kids to five different activities after school when you’re working full time sounds like tiring work.  Don’t get me wrong, because I love homeschooling, but that’s a good example of tiring work.  However, talking to your kids and treating them with respect?  That does not sound like tiring work.  Not every single thing a kid says is a “special contribution.”  However, the notion that having a thought-provoking conversation with your kids is what’s at the heart of American middle class mothers’ stressed parenting levels is just…  depressing.  How out of whack are our priorities when that’s what the sociologist is suggesting is our biggest problem?

I’ve posting about free-ranging and homeschooling before.  I think they can go hand in hand, in part because I think that like all these helicopter parents, schools are also micromanaging kids’ lives and taking every ounce of free time away from them.  Even recess and bus rides are getting programs and special coaches these days.  However, I have chosen to be involved in my kids’ lives on a sort of epic scale by homeschooling them.  It’s strange to agree that parents should lay off and trust that their kids will be okay when I’m essentially not doing that by removing them from a piece of society that I don’t trust at all, namely our school system.  However, I have tried to let go of any notions that my kids’ every ounce of success or failure depends upon me.  If I screw up, I let it go.  Likewise, if the summer camp teacher screws up, if the kids see something on TV that’s less than desirable, if something crazy happens in the front yard while I’m not watching them, I try to remind myself that no one thing, makes or breaks a person.  I trust the world and I trust the kids and myself.

For me, the ability to homeschool has increased my happiness because I chose to do it.  It wasn’t foisted on me and I don’t feel societal pressure to do it.  If anything, the pressure is to send your kids to school.  It makes me happy to have the ability to do what I think is right and to live my life the way I want, not the way society tells me to.  I think one of the problems I see with parents is that they don’t feel like they’re in control of their circumstances.  They feel like they have to stay on a certain track or they’ll have damaged their kids, just like that sociologist suggested.  When even talking to your kids becomes a chore to check off in their development, of course it becomes tiring and stressful.  When you think the kids’ futures depend on you checking everything off a list that includes both conversation and closely monitoring their TV watching with a system, then of course it’s all just joyless.

Free Range Homeschooling

Some people know I’m a huge fan of the free range style of parenting.  If you also think that babies don’t need so much crazy gear, consider it reasonable for school age kids to run down the street to see friends on their own, and refuse to worry about the extremely remote possibility that a random stranger will kidnap your kid off the street, then this is the parenting philosophy for you too!  It’s all about fostering independence.

But wait, you say, that sounds like the antithesis of how people think of homeschooling parents!  I encountered someone just the other day who seemed to think that because I homeschooled, I must spend every waking minute keeping a watchful eye on my children.  Clearly he didn’t see this morning when my kids spent an hour watching Avatar cartoons before I even woke up.  Or this afternoon when they spent an hour… somewhere.  The basement with the Legos?  The backyard mixing “potions” in my nice glasses?  Well, they’re here now, so clearly nothing blew up.  I’m sure there are some stringently watchful homeschool parents out there somewhere.  But considering the helicopter parent trend, are they really that different from the population as a whole?  I do know many homeschoolers who have expressed to me that a desire to spend more time with their children is a primary reason for homeschooling, but wanting to spend more time with your kids is different from wanting to keep an eye on them at every moment.

For me, while I love my kids, spending a huge amount of time with them wasn’t one of my primary motives for homeschooling.  From the time that they were finally old enough, I jumped at opportunities to drop them off in classes.  They’re very comfortable with leaving me, even for strange situations, and I’ve tried to encourage that confidence in them.  I chose to homeschool for other reasons.  I believe that institutional settings aren’t usually the best learning or socializing environments.  I also find our country’s standardized test driven educational culture to be completely out of whack.  I see education as process-oriented, something that most schools don’t seem to understand at all.

However, I’ve discovered that homeschooling also gives my kids a balance that most kids these days miss out on.  They can spend a huge amount of quality time with me and the husband, have a varied and interesting slate of activities in the community and still have loads of time to play by themselves or with their friends.  They’re not quite old enough to venture far on their own, but they have the run of the house and when we go places, they can wander through playgrounds and creeks while I read a book.  I always bring a book.

I know I’m not the only one either.  The kindergarten co-op we participated in is made of homeschoolers who feel similarly.  Here’s what a typical co-op day looked like: one of the parents did an hour or two of planned activities.  Then we shoved a snack at the kids and set them loose in the house or the backyard out of our sight while the parents snacked and talked for the rest of the day.  Sure, the educational part of the day was important.  But the friendships and free social time were probably even more important.  This was also the group in which the kids went on a hike together completely by themselves.  We picked a place they knew well and couldn’t escape from because it was an island.  After a couple of misadventures, they arrived all together, all in one piece, and very proud of themselves.

Because of these experiences, I’ve realized that homeschooling makes it much easier to have free range kids.  Kids in schools are increasingly denied any free play during their days.  Even the physical education part of their day is increasingly diminished.  Because we homeschool, my kids get a lot more free play time than many other kids their age.  Unlike the school system, I’ve made that a priority for my kids.

Swinging at a huge suburban park on an afternoon when it was practically deserted.

Leave Our Children at the Park Day!

I adore Lenore Skenazy ‘s Free Range Kids Blog.  In case you didn’t know, she proclaimed today “Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day.”  You can read all about it on her blog, where she’s been posting up a storm about it, not to mention doing the rounds on the 24-hour news networks.  I hope it goes well.  I don’t know that any of the negative, fearful parents out there will be swayed by anything as rational as statistics on how much lower the crime rates are now or how rare random kidnappings are, but I admire Lenore Skenazy for trying and for putting this cause out there.

Alas, at 5 years old, Mushroom and BalletBoy are a mite too young for this, but maybe next year, especially if the impending redesign of our corner park makes it a little more kid friendly and a little less drunken old man friendly.  It seems like a park that’s literally a stone’s throw from our house ought to be a place where the kids can go without me, especially since they can just dash back home in a matter of less than three minutes, no street crossing needed.