Friday, July 25, 2014

Free Range Child Rearing

I called home from work one day to discover Gilda had left 10-year-old Dan in charge of watching himself and seven-year-old Ellie while she went to and from the cleaners four blocks away. I went ballistic.

How could you be so delinquent, so irresponsible, I demanded of Gilda when I came home. She calmly responded there was nothing to fear, that Dan was more than capable at his age of caring for both of them in the few minutes she was away.

I bring this up now because of a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show I listened to Thursday. His WNYC public radio guest was Lenore Skenazy, author of the book and blog Free Range Kids, her conceit being that children today need more independence, that fear they will be snatched, or worse, has been overblown by the media and overtaken our collective psyches, particularly those of parents of young children.

Lehrer and Skenazy discussed the recent arrest of a South Carolina woman who let her nine-year-old daughter, armed with a cell phone, play in a popular park while she worked in a nearby McDonald’s. For details of the alleged charge of unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail, and their conversation, click on this link (, or for a CNN article click here (

I will avoid taking sides, though the Murray of 25 years ago clearly had an opinion. But I can’t seem to be anything but nostalgic for the freedom my friends and I had in the Brooklyn of the 1950s and early 1960s to play outdoors, even in the street, to walk two long avenue blocks to play in the PS 254 schoolyard all day where stocky-built, black curly haired Tyrone was the local bully, to ride city buses to school and sometimes often wait 20 minutes or more in the rain or freezing cold and snow for a bus to arrive. 

This was not the bucolic Stand By Me coming-of-age experience. Rather, it was an ongoing immersion into city life complete, for me at least, with a mugging in Coney Island when two early teenage friends and I snuck away on the elevated subway one Saturday afternoon to enjoy the rides in Steeplechase Park. It was a quick, almost casual, mugging. We were about to walk into Steeplechase. I held a $20 bill aloft and before I realized it wasn’t Stanley or Jerry reaching for the money, the twenty was snatched from my grip by three youths who jostled all of us before racing away. We were unsettled, but still had enough money to spend an hour or two at Steeplechase. 

We had to keep our trip secret. Stanley and Jerry came from families that prohibited traveling on Saturday, or touching money. I didn’t have those restrictions, but my cousin Michael was coming to our house that afternoon and I had some explaining to do about why I was not home to play with him. I fibbed that I was at the schoolyard playing ball and had lost track of time. 

Fast forward to Gilda’s and my parenting prerogatives. When Ellie started seventh grade we were surprised to learn she no longer qualified for busing. White Plains provides busing to students who live at least a mile from school. We hadn’t moved. The school hadn’t moved, so why had Ellie been stripped of busing privileges? Seems a new busing administrator had mapped out a different, less than a mile, route. 

Gilda and I were upset. Ellie was unperturbed. Gilda ferried her uphill to school every morning; Ellie relished the down hill walk home, even disdaining offers of rides from parents no doubt concerned about a 12- or 13-year-old girl trekking on streets without sidewalks with the need to cross busy Mamaroneck Avenue.  

Some parents are reluctant to send their kids to sleep away camp, much less for a full seven or eight week summer. We shipped Dan out when he was nine, Ellie when she was seven. When Dan asked for an all-night birthday party, we agreed, never thinking he and his friends would stay awake the whole time. But they did and it is still fondly remembered as another example of Forseter libertarianism. 

When Dan learned to drive at 16, we gave him a credit card. Thirteen-year-old Ellie got one, as well. Both credit cards have their pictures on the back. Nearly 20 years later the pictures have yet to be updated by the bank. The point is, we trusted them to handle the cards in a responsible fashion. They did.

Yes, bad things happen. But they can happen even in the most careful circumstances. It’s normal to be vigilant. It stifles growth and independence to be suffocating.