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Helicopter Parents & Free Range Kids

Before I get off on a tangent and climb up on my soapbox, Happy Earth Day everyone!

And this post is NOT written for people who live in actual dangerous neighborhoods.  I get that fear.

I recently picked up Last Child in the Woods from my local library and I’ve had a hard time putting it down.

The book is well-written and has wonderful scientific data to back up my personal belief in that we are smothering our kids by keeping them indoors, within an arm’s reach, and therefore “safe”.  Technology, heavily scheduled play dates, and our own fear of the unknown is not doing our children any favors.

Growing up in my town I was considered a free-range kid from about age 7 and on.  Verbally telling my parent’s a loose agenda for the day was considered checking in, and my bike and I were requested home by dark.  A typical summer afternoon schedule would be something similar to the following:

6 or 7 am – wake up and watch Matlock or Law and Order reruns.  I was super cool from an early age!  Eat breakfast.
7:30 am – pick out which pair of awesome leggings or sweatpants I would be wearing that day.
7:31 am – head out to the best toy in the whole neighborhood – the ditch in front of our house!  We lived on a steep hill with wide ditches on either side.  After a rainstorm all neighborhood kids would gather at the ditches.  We would proceed to spend the remainder of most of the day damning the ditch, making boats from sticks, straws, and leaves to race, and generally just getting in to a ton of dirty fun.  Stupid city eventually put pipes underground to act as ditches.  No fun!
After lunch, I would fill up my water bottle, grab my helmet and head out for a long bike ride.  I may have chosen to bike (unsupervised) to a friend’s house a mile away, down to the beach (sans floaties and life jacket), or to a state park about 4 miles away (on a 2 lane road with no shoulders- gasp!!).  A helmet was worn though.

My pink bike was a replacement for my mom’s gorgeous old kelly green racing bike that met its demise when I was hit by a car 3 blocks from home.  Was it the car’s fault?  Yes.  Did we sue?  Nope.  Why?  Cause a) I wasn’t hurt and b) I should have known better and done a better job of watching for cars.  Lessons in personal responsibility come in all forms – including flipping over the hood of  red Toyota Tercel.

My hot pink mountain bike and I were besties.  We went everywhere together, had loads of adventures, and multiple close calls (personal responsibility is one thing…learning to not be a moronic kid is another).  My bike offered me freedom away from my “boring” house, my parents, and my sister who was hell bent on making sure I didn’t live to be 10.  Love you sis!

In the 80’s we didn’t have parental GPS tracking devices for my mom and dad to keep tabs on me.  We didn’t have cell phones, so I couldn’t call my mommy to come pick me up if I rode too far from home and was tired (again, TONS of hills in my area).  I learned to ride within my own limits and then learned that pushing those limits could be so rewarding.  I also learned very quickly that I was going to be away from home all day, I needed to pack my own snacks and water.

A story that comes to mind that would make current helicopter parents gasp: one day after church my sister and I asked my mom if we could walk home.  She said “sure, I love you”, and drove away.  She didn’t ask if we knew the way home or when she could expect us to return.  She said sure and drove away.  That is faith in your kids and also faith in yourself in knowing that as a parent you’ve taught your children to be smart, not accept rides from strangers, and to make somewhat educated decisions.

30 minutes in to the walk we realized two things: we were wearing Sunday School clothes that weren’t made for hiking, and didn’t exactly know the route home.  We eventually made the 5 mile trek in probably 2-3 hours, and had multiple adventures along the way.  That story sticks out in my mind much more than staying indoors and playing computer games (Win Lose or Draw on floppy disc anyone?).

Mr.Frugal by Force also has multiple childhood stories about taking off in the woods at his cousin Scotty’s house and the 2 of them disappearing for hours.  Troy has fond memories and many scars to remember his childhood.

So, why do my crazy childhood adventures and verbal diarrhea matter?  To some people reading this, they don’t and that is ok.  But I suspect a lot of parents out there long to give their children the childhood they had, but don’t out of fear.  To that I say, stuff that fear in a sack missy (or mister)!  Look up crime statistics for your area.  I’ll wait…ok, you’re back.  What did you find?  For most people I’m guessing they found that violent crime has actually dropped in their area since they were kids.  Hmmm, ok then what has changed to prevent you from letting you kid roam freely?  A few guesses on my part:

1) fear is a powerful motivator
Fear of the unknown lurks within all of us.  There is a really tall slide at a park near our house.  Jack is obsessed with it.  I’ve always climbed the stairs behind him, made him wait at the top while I adjusted myself, put him on my lap and slid down with him.

Two weeks ago we were at the park.  When he said “no no mommy, Jackie do it”, my heart was in my throat.  Did I want my 2 year old going down a probably 12 foot slide without my protective arms around him?  No!  Did I want him growing up thinking he always needed me to be there to try anything new?  No!  So, with great angst I let him do it.





When he landed at the bottom with an enormous smile on his face he looked at me and said “mommy, JACKIE did it”, and I knew I had made the right choice.  While I don’t want him to fall and break his arm, I also never want him to ask me to call his college advisor to figure out what classes he should take the following quarter.  Jackie did it is something I want to encourage and nurture.

Now that I am a mother, I realize that my parents weren’t just sitting at home enjoying the quiet time while I was out and about on my own.  They were likely worrying and had concerns about my safety.  And also enjoying the quiet time…I was a talkative little bugger!  They probably were tempted to hop in the car a few times and drive by my normal haunts to see if I was being lured in to a van with some candy and a puppy.

2) too much damn information!
So with the evidence that crime is down in most places, why do we think that a kidnapper is lurking behind every bush waiting to snatch our kids?  Because the news and the internet do a wonderful job of scaring the shit out of us.  Childhood abductions remain around the same numbers as 20 years ago, but with a 24 hour news channel and oh so obnoxious people like Nancy Grace being all up in our faces all the time, we get the feeling that kids are stolen from their own homes at a rate of 15 a minute.

3) the idea that kids need structure, rules, and a rigid extracurricular schedule as soon as the diapers come off.
Not providing in-utero Mandarin lessons to your developing fetus means they will NEVER get in to a good pre-school.  And you may as well sign them up for a life of fast food if they don’t get in to a good preschool.

Growing up I played soccer, softball, basketball, and so much more, but I did it because I WANTED to.  Choosing my activities because they interested me never made it seem like a chore.  I had enough time to get damn good grades and still go be a kid.

Kids need direction, yes.  They need well-defined boundaries so that they grow up to be good members of our society and not the Unibomber.  They also need freedom and independence to nurture creative play.  They need a ditch, some sticks, and some mud.  They need to be outside in the sun, rain, and snow to know that life is much bigger than Facebook and the Disney Channel.

As soon as we are settled in our new place, I’m cruising freecycle and craiglist for mountain bikes and a kid bike carrier. We already have helmets for all 3 of us. Jack will be outside and he will get to experience nature and my version of childhood. I want that for him, and I’m committed to allowing him to be a child and not a home bound Nintendo-playing little person.

My responsibility as a parent is to help nurture him and teach him right from wrong. HIS job as a child is to make his own mistakes and learn from them. Hopefully we’ll do a good enough job in teaching him right and wrong that he will make smart and safe decisions.

Eventually that child carrier will come off the bike and I’ll give him a kiss and tell him I love him and to be home before it is dark.

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20 comments on “Helicopter Parents & Free Range Kids”

  1. This is my rant and i have to say I sure do miss those carefree days of jumping on the bike and adventuring the whole day.
    My husband and I raised our two kids beside a river in a rural community and my now 23 and 24 year old offspring can tell stories about playing in the woods…with…gasp…the cougars lurking near by….and the bears…they might run into…and probably a creeper or two possibly watching from a distance…and it was not easy to give them freedom but i was never the parent who ran to pick up the little person who fell off a bike and scrapped an elbow or knee.
    What i think my children cherish about those days are the memories of freedom and they learned about making responsible choices and taking care of themselves.
    I am not quite sure why…besides the obvious influence of internet and televison…parents are so up in arms about allowing the person they brought into the world freedom to just be children. I wish they could realize that they dont really need to micromanaged their offspings lives and so then retard their ability to be strong, free standing people when they are young adults. hmmmm…very curious.
    Thanks, I’ll get off my soapbox now…have a good one, I am totally enjoying your blog.

  2. I grew up the same way. I lived in a small Ohio town and may parents had no idea where I was at any given point in time as I roamed the town on my bike. I now have three kids and live is a large urban town in Florida and hesitate to let my kids out of my sight. Yes I worry about strangers and the dangers that lurk around every corner, but mostly its because my kids are idiots who are hell bent on killing themselves before they reach middle school. They have no fear of strangers, climb everything they see, and would run out into the middle of traffic I let them. I think knowing your kid has a lot to do with it. On a side note, I think my mother was hugely irresponsible for the hand-off way she raised me and wouldn’t dream of being as uninvolved as she was.

    • I do think that you need to give them their freedom in small doses, I let my now 14 year old be more alone and explore by himself at an older age than my younger son. My older is an extreme extrovert who will invite 10 strangers to the evening meal just because they are at Mommy’s work (large teaching hospital-this happened when he was 5) My younger son is much more introverted and was shy as a youngster. But letting them run ahead of me in a park that dead ends after a mile, letting them climb the gravel hill for the mountain bikers, buying or keeping broken electronics for them to take apart and put back together (I disected many a radio in my youth and fixed a few, plus fixed a TV or 2)sounds like you have boys mine are quite monkeys too best thing is to have some good climbing trees and teach them how to do it right (I am shocked I didn’t break my arm climbing on some of the trees near my childhood home-I should say falling from them) Wry grin

  3. When I was 8 I got hit by a car too. I broke my leg and was in a cast for 2 1/2 months. Was it the cars fault? Yep. Did we sue? Nope. And now I work in auto insurance and know I could have EASILY gotten 10s of thousands of dollars. But my parents were just happy my medical bills were paid for and I wasn’t dead.

    We didn’t go on all sorts of crazy adventures, but I would always ride my bike to swim lessons when I was about…12 or so. I would ride my bike to my friend Julie’s and to sewing lessons (Which now I know was only a mile away but seemed SO FAR!).

    I am a parent, now, too and I’m terrified. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. But I’m scared! Because I watch the news too much and my husband is a police officer so we know what COULD happen. But we just have to keep LOGIC in our heads and teach our kids SAFETY! I guess being scared is just part of being a parent!!

    Great article, thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Fantastic. Just found this post linked from another of your more recent ones. I couldn’t agree more. Growing up, the woods near our little park a few blocks away was my fortress/training ground/ghost yard/alien planet…you name it! Dirt, mud, sticks…just building materials for miniature cities and racetracks. And that bike…..oh, that beautiful, wonderful contraption, what a game-changer! The minute shoe training wheels were off I was like Speed Racer and Indiana Jones combined. Well, after going one block, crashing into a curb, putting my leg through the wheel and being carried home by dad. But after that….oh yeah buddy, Indiana Racer!! My sweetie is 11 now, and I love it anytime she asks if she can go out to the playground or next door to the grade school’s big field to play (it’s only separated from our back yard by a chain link fence for Christ’s sake! I can SEE her the whole time if I want).

    She started taking the bus home this year, since her middle school is across town. First week….forgot her keys. Did she panic? Probably. Was she scared? I bet. But she’s smart (a notion we all-too-often dismiss in regards to our own children!). The grade school next door (which she went to) was just getting out (middle school’s out at 3, gradeschool at 3:30). She calmly walked next door through the heavy flow of smaller children and walked into the school’s office. Five minutes later she had called me to let me know what was up and I was on my way to rescue the princess. On another occasion (when the grade school was out that day for some reason) she walked a block to one of our neighbors (who used to babysit her) and did the same thing. She’s a smart girl. As I imagine most kids are if we give them the right parenting and let them learn from their mistakes. I’ll always worry, because I love her. Sort of a no-brainer. But I also trust her a lot more than some parents, and that’s sad.

    Obviously you’ve done a great job with the kiddo. I wish more parents had the kind of outlook you guys do!!

    • Oh yeah. I also tried making freezer jam for the first time.

      Unrelated… but freaking delicious!!!

    • Omg I would ALWAYS forget my key when I was a kid! In the summer it was fine but in the winter *in MA) it sucked! Luckily my neighbor worked from home and they had a spare lol.

    • I was a latch key kid in NJ and knew how to break into our basement the screen popped out and only a small child could fit through that window, stretch feet onto top of washing machine and then walk up to unlock the front door for my sisters ๐Ÿ™‚ Mom had a chain lock for the basement door for when we were home and sleeping. I’m thinking of getting 2 hide a key rocks and have my neighbor have mine and me have theirs this way if someone finds the rock it doesn’t fit the house that it is closest too (I live in a more rural area that is harder to stake out then the more urban area I grew up in) Plus my current front door is more difficult to accedentally lock myself out of (you need to use the key to lock it)

  5. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very small town in Pennsylvania which boasted only 2 traffic lights and miles upon miles of farmland around it. My parents were good to my brother and I, strict when necessary, but playful at heart. We spent our afternoons playing in the streams behind our house and getting into all kinds of trouble. Did I fall out of a tree and break my arm, yes. Did I learn from it, or course. We did all kinds of dangerous things and learned a lot because of them. I am not an advocate for letting your kids go off without supervision before they’re ready to, but I had an older brother and we were pretty smart kids. I think knowing your kids is the most important thing. Parents that spend time with their kids know their limits, fears, talents, and are able to trust them more readily with being smart and staying out of danger. My mom knew that I had an independent streak a mile long and that if she smothered me I would only push back even more. To her credit she gave me limits (don’t bike past the old bridge) and then knew when to expand on them when I had earned her trust (stay within 3 miles of home on your bike).
    My boyfriend grew up in east city Boston and so believes what he must have had a very different childhood than I. (and of course since he still hasn’t ridden a horse I would have to agree with him) However, his parents stuck with the same fundamentals that my parents did and so I have figured out he and I don’t really differ in our views. He had boundaries, but they were city blocks rather than old trees and bridges. His friends and he regularly went off on their own, but they went to parks and kid hangouts instead of streams and farms. All things considered we’re finding out that our views are pretty much the same when it comes to raising kids. 1. know your area and what is safe/not safe 2. Know your kids and their limitations 3. enforce boundaries that allow your kids the freedom to gain independence while maintaining certain safe limits. Thanks for your blog. It has provided a lot of good things for me to add to my life.

  6. Margaret says: I lived for the magic hour(9am) when you are allowed to call your friend’s house and say: “Mrs. Skinner, may I please speak to Meghan?” We spoke with the adults in our friends’ lives, and there is much to be said about that. As we earned our ‘responsibility stripes’ we earned the badges: a watch, a water bottle, a small backpack, limits. “Call home if you leave the Skinner’s house. If you’re on bikes, there are phones around; call after two hours. You may not ride past Gunby Creek. Be home at four to read for an hour. We’re having dinner at six.”

  7. I love this post, and agree completely. I’m in my early 20’s and grew up in a town with a population now of 85,000 about an hour north of Toronto, Ontario. We lived in a small “No exit” neighbourhood with approx 100 town homes and were allowed to be out until dark. There was a park and hills and speedbumps. All which COULD have been potentially dangerous. We would run down the hills as fast as we could and sometimes would lose our footing and tumble to the bottom. We would tie skipping ropes to the bar at the top of the slide and use it to climb up from the bottom without the urge to hang another child (they have removed any bars above slides because of this). The best was flying over the unnecessarily over-sized speedbumps (which seemed to be there for our enjoyment only) on our bikes, roller blades and skateboards. Of course, some of us ended up with broken bones, stitches or cuts and scrapes, but nothing that didn’t heal and make for an awesome story after the tears were gone. I was allowed, and even encouraged sometimes to come home covered in mud and because of lack of money, we were always behind the times technologically. We never had game-boys or gaming consoles until they were outdated or until we bought them ourselves later in life, but I fully believe that we are more creative because of it. For a short time, I worked for Toys R Us and it amazed me how many toys don’t encourage children to have an imagination. When the time comes that I have children, I want to encourage them to be creative, to think for themselves because I have witnessed too many children of this generation need others to think and act for them.

  8. Love this post. I have a theory that many of our generation felt, to varying degrees, emotionally neglected by their parents (lots of divorce/dating/remarriage dramas, both parents having full-time careers, more economic stresses than in previous generations) and have tried to make up for this by hovering over our own children both emotionally AND physically. We can’t let go because it feels like letting go of ourselves. We need to recognize the gifts of independence, problem-solving, courage and self-reliance we developed, even if at times we would have liked our parents to be there for us when they weren’t. I wonder what kind of parents over-parented kids will be?

    • I think over-parented kids will be entitled kids and we are already living in a society full of them!

    • I myself was, and am, an over parented daughter.

      I did get a chance to ride my bike a lot and whatnot once my single Mom and I moved outside the small city. And I made dumb decisions… we all do. But it was and still generally is a safe area. However, as I got older and tried to be more independent, she’s gotten worse with checking in where I am all the time (my friends describe it as “umbilical cord issues”), especially since I moved to a larger city. I had no life there.

      I think the difference is, Mom never let me do anything important on my own. She let me go off and play, and didn’t let me help her in the kitchen and with chores, so I gave up after a while. She meant well on one level, let a kid play and be a kid, that and she didn’t want me to make a mess as children often do. It didn’t do me any favours because now I have a hard time quickly and efficiently doing anything; sweeping and mopping a tile/hardwood floor (her whole house is carpeted), doing dishes by hand, or making food. And then she criticizes me and tells me to hurry up, or she used to, if she’s around and sees me doing these things.

      I don’t feel entitled… I feel incompetent, and I’ve lost a job because of it, in part. I’m always second guessing myself because Mom never trusted me to do anything thoroughly, properly, and not make a mess. She always taught me that people have certain ways of doing things. The difference is, most understand when I do it wrong and correct me. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I don’t. She would yell.

      OK, I’m sorry about this… I’m trying to reconcile not becoming a helicopter parent… but there’s also the thing about bullying… other kids that are raised differently due to patterns and cycles, some not as positive as others. I’ve considered home schooling, or simply not having kids to begin with. And I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was six. Nearly thirty years later… here I am.

      If I do have kids, I wonder how I will be about letting go when the time comes. I guess there’s a balance somewhere.

      Sorry about the rant… here’s a star and a cookie for getting this far.

      Again, love the blog!


    • Mandy,
      Sorry to hear that you feel incompetent ๐Ÿ™ I think that some of it is what we make of it. Luckily my mom didn’t prevent me from helping in the house, but didn’t require too much of my sisters and myself because she felt guilty that we had less stuff and that we each chose to work from the age of 12 starting with paper routes, and moving on to fast food and the local mall. Of the 3 of us my younger sister win’s in fighting the pack rat tendency and I won at being the 2nd best cook (after mom) and the best baker. Now from the influence of living in France for a year and her favorite cook books being Joy of Cooking and the NY Times cookbook, even my mom’s chinese food tastes a little french (white wine in the sauce) but to quote my younger sister so long as mom is with us we will always have good gravy. Now in my late 30’s my mom has become a helecopter parent since I have the only grandkids for her to show new things to/re-explore areas with (Montreal this summer)
      If you didn’t learn it at her knee learn it now FLYLady is a great place to learn cleaning and home organization, and there are ton’s of great cookbooks (says the cooking nerd who reads cookbooks for fun including taking them out of the library to read and not to make a specific recepie)
      Please change that inner dialogue/monologue, You are worth it! You are special! You are enough! And your awareness will make you a good parent in your time

  9. FYI I borrowed your sweet pink mountain bike @ CWU it’s in our shed ready and waiting if you want it back!

  10. Yep, I’m with you. But be ready for some criticism. A large population won’t agree with you.