I wrote this five years ago, but I think all the discussion of free-range parenting merits a reconsideration. My kids are now 7, 9, 11, and 12, and they range much further and freer than they did five years ago, but still I’m more careful than my parents – not because of fear of strangers, but because of the number and speed of cars.
My neighbor and I were discussing a favorite children’s book the other day. The book is Robert McCloskey’s classic _Blueberries for Sal_ in which a mother human and her daughter go blueberrying, and have a minor mix up with a mother bear and her cub. The book is charming and wonderful, and one of my own childhood favorites, now beloved of my 3 year old. My neighbor was telling me that she loves the book, but can never read it without a frisson of horror at what a neglectful mother the parent in the book is. And she’s got a point. After all, the mother of a child who is clearly a toddler tells her daughter to go pick her own blueberries and leave mother alone in peace to pick hers, on a wildlife rich hillside, where bears are known to be. Mother, the book tells us, wants to pick blueberries to can for winter. Given such parameters, she can’t spend the whole day watching her daughter, who is left to take care of her own needs.
But, of course, the book is of a much older parenting era, from when my parents were children. My neighbor and I both remember from our own childhoods that the kind of parenting illustrated in the book was normal. By four my sisters and I roamed our housing project with other children, playing in the woods behind it or on the gravelled hillside. We weren’t allowed to cross streets, but otherwise, we were remarkably free. Living on a busy, urban street at 6, my five year old sister and I crossed several busy urban streets walking alone to school. By seven and six we trick-or-treated alone at night on city streets.
A generation later, neither my neighbor nor I permit or children to walk long distances, cross streets alone, or roam the neighborhood without supervision. Now some of that, in my case, has to do with having an disabled oldest child who cannot be trusted. But most of it has to do with higher parenting standards today. Letting your children roam is perceived as unsafe, and to some degree it is. In response, “free-range parenting” which grants children more freedom has arisen as well, but there is still considerable debate.
Some of our attentiveness to our children seems to be paying off. Children’s death by accident rates have fallen significantly since 1970, mostly in a reduction of deaths in traffic accidents. In Britain, for example, such accidents fell by 75% from 1970 to 2000, while the population and number of cars grew.
On the other hand, absolute numbers of deaths on playground equipment and by child abduction are about the same – in 2005, 25 children died on playground equipment in the US, in 1970, 28 did, on the old “deathtrap” equipment we used to use and love. So in some areas our greater caution is providing real results – several hundred kids each year who aren’t dying in car accidents, for example, while in other areas, it isn’t making much difference. Many parents worry a lot about abduction, which isn’t a very big risk at all, and which we really haven’t affected much by anything we’ve done (although we are MUCH more aware of it because of media attention).
The sheer number of cars on the road, the speeds they travel at and the reality that quite a number of kids did die in car accidents and still do means that we have a real reason to fear letting them roam the way our parents did. And yet, there’s also a cost – by not allowing children the range of independence and freedom we did, our kids lose something. They lose maturity, judgement, independence, autonomy, time in the world as children. They lose contact with nature, and solitary imagination, playtime with other children. Their world is much more processed and managed by adults – safer, but less free.
And, of course, there are physical consequences – fewer of our children may die from road accidents, but more of them may have shortened lifespans from obesity, take medications for hyperactivity that in some cases (not all) is merely shorthand for not enough exercise. In _Last Child in the Woods_ Richard Louv exhaustively documents the effects of nature contact on children, and documents the consequence of what he calls Nature-Deficit disorder, which include behavioral issues, depression, obesity, sensory issues, anxiety, and slower development of things like independence.
We are the only parents in history to spend this much time and energy protecting our kids. And, of course, it isn’t a hard sell – who doesn’t want their kids to live. If you offered most parents the blunt choice “ok, your kid can live to 68 and die of obesity and diabetes related consequences from being kept at home and indoors too much or your kid can have a 1 in 100 chance of simply dying when a car hits him” who wouldn’t take the 68?
During most of history, most parents provided either benign or not too benign neglect by the standards of the day. Most parents were more like Sal’s mother than like I am – they expected children, from a very young age, to entertain themselves while they worked, when they weren’t working alongside them. Some historians argue that in the past, in some societies, many parents simply didn’t allow themselves to become deeply attached until it was clear the children had left early childhood and the danger of death. Lawrence Stone argues this in _The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800_, but Stone’s conclusions have been disputed, and there is a simple dearth of evidence to be overcome.
Many traditional societies that are or have been in existence until recently are deeply affectionate to their children, despite the high risks of infant mortality. But it is definitely true that most societies have judged children to require less care and attention by a primary caregiver after infancy than we do.
For example, women in all parts of society have always worked both in and out of the home. Historically speaking, poor women who worked often left their children home alone for long stretches, very small children left with nearly as young older siblings, or in the 19th century, perhaps dosed with alcohol or opium to keep them from doing anything dangerous. At home parents in the 18th century made babies where clothes with giant pillows embedded in them to keep them from getting too badly hurt, or tied them to trees or furniture – but still lost children to fireplace accidents, injury, drowning, etc…
What is different about the way we parent now? One of the major differences is the sheer amount of attention we have to give our children. As domestic labor of all sorts has decreased, and many of the traditional functions of homemaking have been dropped, Juliet Schor notes that we’ve transferred that time to parenting. People are still spending about the same amount of time they were on domestic labor 100 years ago – only this time, they are attending their children and vacuuming, both to higher standards, rather than making candles and baking bread.
Barbara Ehrenreich has observed that no human society has ever simply allowed women only the work of childcare and domestic labor – women were simply too valuable, and other needs so basic that the notion of an at-home life with children at the center simply didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Which raises, of course, the question of whether any future, low energy, less industrialized society will be able to give to their children the same degree of safety attentiveness that we are now.
But this isn’t the only difference. One of the major differences is the structure of childhood itself. For example, my four year old sister was struck by a swing at the playground near our home, and lost two teeth and received a concussion. This crisis was resolved by the fact that the playground itself was full of children, including children who to my five year old eyes were near-adults – big girls and boys of 10 to 12. One of them ran for a nearby neighbor, another carried my sister home across the road. One of the most important differences was that all the children of the neighborhood played together this way – it was not a matter of letting a four or five year old wander the streets alone, because older children could be counted on to be present. Similarly, there were many more adults at home, and a custom of adults sitting on porches and otherwise keeping a general eye on things. If we began to do something wildly unsafe, the chances were good someone’s mother or father would stick their head out and yell at you to cut it out. And the chances were good you’d obey - adults had status.
We have learned, gradually, to relax with our children in places like our synagogue, and trust that if one of our sons goes out with a friend, there will be adults hanging about to keep an eye out, and that if someone misbehaves, a firm correction will be issued – perhaps by Mom or Dad, but also by friends who know that they can correct our kids. But there are comparatively few places like this in our children’s lives. In many neighborhoods, there is simply no one home for long hours, older children are at after-school programs and lessons, rather than out playing, and children’s lives are formal and structured. So letting your kids roam the neighborhood means letting them roam alone – much less safe than in groups.
And, of course, there are those cars again. More cars, going faster, with less experience keeping an eye out for young kids, and less reason to expect that kids might be playing in the roads.I live on a rural road, and might reasonably expect that my street, with perhaps one car every 20 minutes except during commuting time, would be a paradise. But I’ve seen folks come barrelling over our hill at full speed with no awareness of who might be on the other side, and have had one close shave myself while walking it – I don’t think I’m entirely ridiculous to fear what might happen to a five year old with less well trained reflexes and less fear of stupid drivers.
On the other hand, I’ve seen how extreme our fears have gotten, and perhaps mine are just as excessive. I’ve seen parents say that their children can’t be considered safe playing on their own front lawns, for fear that the child might run into a busy street. This is certainly true of toddlers and even four and five year olds, but I’ve seen parents make this argument about children who are 7, 8, 9 or older. I’m not sure in our reasonable desire to keep kids safe, we aren’t doing more harm than good.
It is remarkable, to me, how much we’ve consented to sacrifice for our cars. Our children’s freedom to run around is only one thing – our health, their health – cars are the leading cause of death in children, teens and young adults. Our rising asthma rates, and, of course, global warming are prices as well. In fact, it seems that we’re willing to sacrifice anything, pretty much, to keep the cars coming down our streets. What if we weren’t? We parents clearly think that our children’s relationship with nature is something worth sacrificing to keep them alive, and I, for one, cannot say we’re wrong. I want my kids *living* – but I’m not sure we’re making the right trade off. I want my kids living and in nature, my planet to have a sane climate and my kids healthy. Might it not be wiser and more loving to give up the economic and social benefits of cars, in order to have fewer dead and maimed kids?
But all of that is, in part, a side issue, since this column is about the price of parenting while doing other things. What happens if more of us go back to domestic labor, if the time we put from homemaking into parenting has to go back there. What happens if more of us go back to working from and at home, and fewer of us have the time to give our kids all the attention we have been? Does that mean that a few of them will get eaten by bears? Is the only choice neglect and death or not letting our kids out of our sight?
To some degree, I think the reality is that that is the choice – that we have to risk our kids lives to some degree to give them lives. What degree that is, I don’t know. It isn’t a perfect solution – and it isn’t clear to me what the point of optimization is – the minimum number of children that have to die by accident so that the rest of the kids can have a meaningful childhood. Somewhere between the youth spent in a bedroom, wrapped in cotton wool and Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi lies a happy medium, and I haven’t found it. Nor do I know if it is possible to identify that point.
Going to a less industrialized society means reducing some risks (car accidents), and raising others (fire). It means most likely having less time to supervise our kids, and it means that some parents will probably experiencing horrible outcomes. It probably also means in some ways other of us will get physically and mentally healthier children. Depending on how non-industrial, some of the consequences will be more serious than others. It depends what we lose, and what we can keep up. Bike helmets? Ration vaccinations to those able to pay? Do we try and keep the cars on the road at the expense of things like education and health care? That seems to be where we’re headed.
A few months ago, my autistic oldest son opened a locked door, opened a latched gate and, while Mommy was catching up on sleep and Daddy was changing a diaper, started walking down the road, bouncing his ball. It was 15 minutes before Daddy noticed that he’d gotten out and the gate was open.
We were lucky. Eli happily bounced his way down our rural road for nearly 3 miles before we found him. He was not struck by a car. He didn’t go off into the pond and drown, he didn’t wander across the fields and get lost, where, unable to call out if we called him, he might have died of exposure. A neighbor spotted him, didn’t remember who he belonged to and stayed with him. Another neighbor, on his way to work, stopped, seeing me frantically racing up the road calling Eli’s name. He asked “are you looking for a little boy?” I climbed into his car (not waiting to see if he wanted to drive me somewhere or not, I was a little Mom-crazy) and ordered the poor man to take me to my son. He did. My heart started beating again, and eventually I stopped crying and praying. Eli was fine. We got better locks. It was my personal vision of hell.
The irony is that this escape was motivated, I think, by my seven year old’s desire to get out from under his parents’s thumb. He’s autistic. His judgement is impaired. We can’t trust him to wander – which means that his father and I watch him constantly, are always with him. But he also has a powerful urge to be alone, and an appropriate 7 year old’s desire to explore, have adventures and do cool things. There’s nothing wrong with his intellect and he’s an ordinary kid inside, with ordinary desires to do stuff. It is hard to know what Eli was thinking because he can’t talk to us, but I suspect that some of my fear was created by the protection I’ve so lovingly arranged for him.
It isn’t an irony I know how to navigate, and I’m not sure how other parents should. But I suspect most of us are going to have to risk our children in some way, balancing one risk (not enough food for the winter) against another (accidental death) in a less certain, less secure world. I suspect we may get happier, more confident, more competent children from this harrowing by fire that demands they learn to keep themselves safe, but that will be no real consolation for those of us who pay too high a price.
But there are some things we can do to keep this freer world safer for kids – reduce the sheer number of cars, teaching more safety skills to our children. Perhaps most of us could have “walk only” areas in our towns or communities. More of us could risk a little bit more, so that there were more children of various ages working together to protect one another. And perhaps we can bring more adults home to work and domesticate, so that children need not be roaming their world unobserved or unprotected.
Sharon, who is perhaps reading too much into _Blueberries for Sal_ .