Free Range Parenting

Last week the Utah state legislature passed a new law. I don’t know its official name, but in the news it is being referred to as the Free Range Parenting Law. Essentially, this law frees parents to decide for themselves when it is appropriate to let their children do things like: play alone in the yard, walk alone to and from school, wait alone in a car, and (imagine this) play in a public park without direct adult supervision.

What is funny about this new law is that it does not nullify older laws… instead it codifies rights parents have always had. Rights that have been slowly eroded over decades by flawed assumptions, news-fueled hysteria, and flat out paranoia.

In this age of “helicopter parenting” American society has been convinced threats to children are everywhere. Furthermore, anything less than 100% parental monitoring is at worst tantamount to handing your child over to an abductor/abuser/murderer, or at best blatant neglect.

Those of us who grew up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, often reminisce about the carefree days of our respective youths, when children roamed free on safe streets, and moved freely from one unlocked house to another. We yearn for a simpler time when horrible things didn’t happen to unsupervised children. It turns out however, despite what we’ve been told to believe by the 24-hour sensationalist news cycle, kids are no more threatened today than they were back then… in fact the world is measurably a safer place.

According to The Washington Post:

The FBI has several decades of data on missing persons now, and those numbers show that the number of missing person reports involving minors has been at record low levels in recent years. Overall, the number of these reports have fallen by 40 percent since 1997. This is more impressive when you consider that the overall U.S. population has risen by 30 percent over that same time period, meaning that the actual rate of missing person reports for children has fallen faster than 40 percent.

Some of the greatest lessons I learned as a kid took place in situations which by today’s standards would never happen.

Harris Hill elementary school, in Penfield, NY was about two miles from our home. I remember riding my bike to school for the first time (with my older brother) when I was in fourth grade, and if my math is right, this would have been in the fall of 1978… I was nine.

We rode out of the neighborhood, and down the shoulder of a double-yellow road. At the end of the road, we crossed another busier road, and then turned onto the trail through the woods. From the trail, we emerged on the other side of the woods, crossed the public park and then raced our bikes down the huge namesake hill to the school. The journey I have just described could easily have been the opening sequence for an episode of Law & Order SVU, or Criminal Minds, save for the fact that we got to school on time and unharmed.

Parenting

The School, The Park & The Woods

We were not followed in the car by our parents, nor were we required to call and check-in upon our arrival. We got on our bikes and went to school… just like fifty other kids who lived close enough to do so.

This type of transportation freedom was normal and when the weather allowed, we preferred it to the school bus.

In the spring of 1979, Harris Hill held the annual PTA fundraising carnival. In years past this had been a Friday Night indoor affair, but this year they decided to do it on a Saturday and to hold it out in the school parking lot. My mother was involved in the accompanying bake sale, so I rode with her in the car to the carnival. The event was exactly what you’d expect, kitschy games of chance, contests of different kinds, prize drawings, refreshments and other fundraising activities rooted in mild teacher humiliation.

The bake sale sold out in the first hour, so having met all her responsibilities for the day, my mother found me and asked if I was ready to go home. Was she crazy?!?! There were still two hours of fun to be had, and I had north of two dollars invested in tickets already submitted to win fabulous prizes in the yet-to-be-held drawings. They had said you need not be present to win, but everybody knows that’s a lie, so after a brief negotiation, my mom agreed to let me stay, and walk home with my friend Brian.

We never discussed a specific time, but the carnival was ending at 3:00, so I guess she expected me to show up at home around 3:30.

Brian and I stayed to the very end, watching every single drawing for fabulous prizes, winning exactly none. As things wound down, we noticed the teachers at the refreshment stand struggling to get rid of all the remaining food. At first, they were offering hot dogs, popcorn and ice cream and discounted prices, but as the lingering people dwindled down, they started giving it all away. Brian and I jumped at the chance to eat a few free hot dogs, and as we started our two-mile journey home, we each held a box of popcorn and a couple ice cream bars; you know for the trip.

Parenting

Free is free, right?

We crossed the school yard, then the park. At the entrance to the woods, we decided to rest our weary bones on a park bench and eat the popcorn. When that was done, we deposited the empty boxes in the garbage can next to the bench and ventured into the woods.

By this time the ice cream bars were beginning to melt pretty badly, so we stopped in the woods to finish the chocolate-covered vanilla novelties. With the ice cream gone, all we had left was four paper wrappers, four sticks and a few plastic spiders we’d won at the carnival. We spent a few minutes wadding up the paper labels and flicking them at each other using the sticks. Once the wrappers were lost to the leaf-covered ground, we continued on our way.

We emerged from the woods a little sticky, but otherwise just fine.

All we had left to do was cross the slightly busy road, and walk along the shoulder of the double-yellow back to our neighborhood. Despite the complete lack of a stop sign or traffic light, we easily made the crossing and started the remaining one-mile home.

Parenting

The long double yellow road today (with sidewalks).

The shoulder of the road was wide, so even though there were no sidewalks, the passing cars posed no real threat. As we walked, we continued to play with the ice cream sticks. About halfway along, a delivery van approached us from behind. I have no idea why, but as the van passed we decided to flick two of the ice cream bar sticks at it.

Almost immediately, the van jammed on its brakes skidding to a stop. Then, the reverse lights came on as it violently backed up to where Brian and I were standing. As the van came to a stop, I looked to my right, my left and then behind me… Brian was gone. As I turned back to face the angry van driver, I spotted him hiding in the weeds in the field behind me.

What had happened was this… despite our collective lack of athletic talent or skill, we had managed to flick at least one of the ice cream sticks through the open passenger window of the van, knocking the driver’s glasses clean off his face.

Understandably, he was pretty pissed.

As a ten-year-old standing by the side of the road getting his ass chewed out by an adult stranger, I can say with certainty I was scared. I don’t recall the whole conversation, but I do remember it involved a considerable volume of tears, coupled with abject begging for forgiveness. After a few minutes, the driver felt like he’d had his say, he put his glasses back on and drove away, squealing his tires just for effect. Only after the van was out of sight did Brian emerge from the weeds.

We spoke briefly about the incident, but quickly decided we should probably get home before the guy came back. I thought about giving him hell for ditching me, but I honestly thought his move might have been the smarter one. We walked along briskly, and a few minutes later we saw the van coming back our way and we immediately hid behind two garbage cans. The van drove by without slowing down.

Before the “incident,” we were having too much fun to keep track of the hour, so by the time I walked into my childhood home my Mom was pretty angry… it was after 4:30. For a moment I thought she might have somehow already learned about my ice-cream-stick-flicking malfeasance, but instead she was only mad about my tardiness. Whew!

I’m pretty sure, as they read these words, this is the first my parents will have ever heard about this story, but it doesn’t really matter. I was a ten-year-old kid who was careless with an ice cream stick, resulting in an ass-kicking I truly deserved… lesson learned.

As the father of four teenagers, I have made every effort to be as “Free Range” a parent as possible. Society has frowned on some of the freedoms my wife and I have granted our brood over the years, but at the same time I am regularly asked how I’ve managed to raise such confident and independent young adults. When I explain, sometimes they listen, but most of the time I get the “you’re lucky they weren’t kidnapped,” furrowed brow. I am comforted by the fact the law is catching up with common sense… at least in Utah.

Copyright © 2018 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved

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