Parenting on the Free Range

When I was 10 years old I stepped on a yellow jacket’s nest. I was in the woods with a friend. We had biked to school, as our semi-rural suburban Boston town allowed us to do upon reaching the fifth grade, and had decided to stop off in the woods on the way home. We weren’t there for any specific purpose, other than to indulge in the reasonless exploration that occurs frequently in our childhood years, and that we often, too easily, lose as we mature.

We were wandering randomly over uneven ground covered with leaves, when suddenly I looked down to find my blue jeans covered with yellow jackets. I immediately sprinted away as fast as I’ve ever run in my life, hands sporadically slashing at the wasps, trying to wipe them off my legs as I dodged through trees and bushes, like a halfback looking for the hole between linebackers en route to the goal line. The former occupants of the nest trailed behind.

By the time we reached our bikes at the forest’s edge along the country road, the yellow jackets were gone. All that remained of them were a few stings, and the newfound knowledge that not all wasps and bees build their nests in trees.

Even now, decades later, I am conscious of this whenever I’m off trail in the woods.

I recently asked my mother about this event, and she has no recollection of it. Indicating to me that the whole episode, from riding my bike three miles each way to school, to wandering about in a patch of woods I’d never been in before, to getting stung multiple times by yellow jackets, wasn’t a big deal.

I’d like to think I’d allow my own kids that kind of free range. But I know I will struggle to grant them the kind of autonomy I enjoyed, even when they reach 10 years of age.


The author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry), Lenore Skenazy gained notoriety as “America’s worst Mom” when she allowed her 9-year-old son to navigate his own way home from Bloomingdale’s, in downtown Manhattan, to their New York City apartment.

“For weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own,” she wrote in her column for the New York Sun. “So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.”

Skenazy notes that, upon his arrival back home, her son was “ecstatic with independence.”

As I imagine Skenazy was, as well. For parent-child empowerment is often a two-way street.

Written in a humorously conversation tone, Free-Range Kids includes chapters on boycotting baby knee pads “and the rest of the Kiddie Safety-Industrial Complex,” “Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference,” “Fail! It’s the New Succeed,” and many more. Skenazy’s observations immediately ease one’s blood pressure, if not one’s constant hovering over the children. Even if only for a moment.

“The whole idea behind Free-Range Kids is that we all want the very best for our kids. We want them to be happy, healthy, and eager as beavers to take on the world,” writes Skenazy, who points out that while we can’t babyproof the world, we most certainly can “worldproof [our] growing children.”


But what kind of world are we proofing them for?

I recently read about a study by the organization Natural England. Researched by William Bird, the report highlights the continuously shrinking radius of free range that (British) children are afforded, from one generation to the next. It concerns the area around Sheffield, England, but accurately describes a challenge for many on this side of the pond as well.

“In 1926, George Thomas was eight years old and walked everywhere, including six miles each way from home to a fishing hole,” writes Kristen Laine in her post for the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) blog Great Kids, Great Outdoors. “His son-in-law, Jack Halliday, eight years old in 1950, walked to and from school and about a mile each way to play in the local woods. In 1979, Jack’s eight-year-old daughter, Vicky, also walked each day to school and in warm weather walked on her own as far as the swimming pool, about a half mile from home. Vicky’s son, Edward Grant, eight years old in 2007, roamed no more than 300 yards from his front steps. He was driven to and from school, driven to safe places to rid his bicycle, and seldom took part in an activity without adult supervision,” Laine continues. “Edward’s great-grandfather was then 88 years old, and still, he said, “a keen walker.””

Old habits, it appears, are hard to break. But what about new ones?

“I want my children to feel comfortable heading out into the woods or down a bike trail on their own,” Laine tells me over the phone. “To have room to explore the natural world without adult interference. That’s something I had as a kid, and that few children seem to have today.”

As we talk, I learn that Laine, like me, was once an Outward Bound instructor, and I reflect on the educational philosophy of Outward Bound that corresponds to much of our discussion on free range parents.

No matter the length or location, from one day of team-building exercises at an education center to a month of hiking and camping throughout the wilderness, each Outward Bound course involves the transference of decision-making power, regarding everything from assessing safety hazards to managing the experiences of all involved, from instructors to students.

A few of Outward Bound’s “Design Principles” and “Outcomes” really resonate with my conversation with Laine about free range parenting: “Designing an experience that supports physical and emotional safety,” “Utilizing and managing appropriate risks,” and “Learning from success as well as failure.”

Laine notes that Natural England’s map and its decreasing radius of roaming freedom correlates both to today’s dependence on automobile transportation throughout much of our landscapes, as well as the parenting challenge of empowering kids to be okay on their own.

“Cultural anthropology,” continues Laine, “suggests that beginning in middle school, between the ages of 8 and 12, children across many cultures develop a whole host of valuable skills in individual and group play in the outdoors. Antioch professor David Sobel uses a lovely phrase to describe that. He says that immersive outdoor play is “one of the indispensable proteins that build a sturdy adult soul.””

The Director of Certification Programs for the Department of Education at Antioch, Sobel focuses his studies on environmental education, as well as raising children with nature.

In his new book, Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors, Professor Sobel suggests that “children are biologically programmed to have certain kinds of experiences between ages 6 and 12,” and he urges parents to “maximize the likelihood that these things happen.”

He suggests various types of experiences parents can cultivate in their children, including providing “opportunities for ecstatic moments in nature,” and “a full range of movement diversity in their bodies.” But his third challenge cuts directly to the key of free range parenting: “We need to discipline ourselves to start letting go – that is, letting them go out of our sight – so that they can develop literal and figurative pathfinding skills.”

Or, as Skenazy wrote in her infamous column, “A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.”

I pause for a moment to consider this correlation between children finding themselves in the world by finding their way through the world when I realize I haven’t checked on my sleeping toddler in close to an hour. Without a second thought, I dash down the hall to make sure she’s okay.

She is. But what about me?

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate’s Summer 2012 issue of Nurture, but not online.)

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