Monday, April 2, 2018

Free Range Kids

No, this post doesn’t have anything to do with kids becoming target practice for assault weapon users. Rather, it’s about something I consider to be good news.

Of all places, the State of Utah was the first in the nation to pass a law prohibiting parents from being prosecuted for raising “free range” children.

From the CNN article linked above, “The measure essentially changes the state's legal definition of neglect, meaning parents won't be prosecuted for letting their children (of appropriate age) do things like walk to school by themselves, go to the store alone, play outside unsupervised, sit in a vehicle alone or stay at home by themselves.”

It boggles my mind that such a law is even necessary, as I fondly remember the unfettered days of my youth when I would leave the house each summer morning and disappear into the neighborhood until lunchtime. And then I’d go back out until dinner. Where? Friends’ houses, the school playground, the drug store (aka the candy store), the neighborhood pool, the mall… wherever the action was.

Obviously, there were no cell phones so there was no verbal contact with home base unless I wanted to eat at friend’s house and called for permission from their home phone. 

I had a watch and I had instructions on when to report back. Mom didn’t need to know the rest of the details unless I was going somewhere new and uncharted. But I had a bicycle and permission to pedal as far as my legs would take me. This was from around 3rd or 4th grade on.

I used to walk to school by myself, a walk that took at least a half hour to 45 minutes. Granted, only part of that was on account of the distance. The other part was that my route sometimes looked like a Family Circus panel.

The worst thing that happened there was that I almost derailed a commuter train. I told the whole story here, but long story short, in 3rd and 4th grade, I had to cross railroad tracks on the way to school. One day I put a piece of iron on the tracks, thinking the train would smash it, as I’d seen it do to coins. The iron had other ideas and stood firm, tossing the train almost up on two wheels before re-settling on the tracks. Scared the living crap out of me. But I learned my lesson and never messed with putting things on the tracks again.

I walked to school right up until I was allowed to bike to school. Fall, winter, spring, it was up to me to get my ass to school on my own. The irony was that when I got to 10th grade, when we moved to our house in the sticks outside Toledo, OH, that’s when I had to take the bus. That was also the closest we ever lived to my school. The bus ride took about 4 minutes. I walked farther in grade school.

Before that, when I was in junior high and living in Columbus, my friend and I wanted to go to COSI (The Center of Science and Industry… it was like a really cool museum with kids’ activities and stuff). It was located off one of the interstates and was too far to bike, so we looked up the bus route and hopped on a city bus. Our parents were totally cool with it.  We got there and back with only minor incidents.

Well, the incident was minor for me. On our way back to the bus stop, a bunch of black kids came up to us. One of them wanted the two Slim Jims I had just bought. I countered that I’d give him one of them. He accepted. I was golden.

 My friend, however, thought cursing at them was a better option. He yelled, “Eff you, N-----s,” then bolted and they took off after him. He was going, “C’mon, Bluz, let’s go!”  I was like, “They’re not chasing MY ass, ya dumb Nazi.”

He got away from them and we met up back at the bus stop. Good thing he ran track. He’s probably leading a White Power Men’s Group somewhere today.

So there were some bumps along the way, but I learned my lessons first hand:

·        Don’t flash your goodies out on the street, in unfamiliar territory.
·        Be nice. That will usually get you out of more trouble than shooting off your mouth.
·        It’s probably not a good idea to lob N-bombs at a bunch of city kids in 1974 unless you’re really fast.
A couple years back, I read about a case here in Baltimore where some parents were brought up on charges for allowing their kids to walk home from a playground alone. They were eventually cleared of neglect charges, but I found it presumptuous and offensive that they were even investigated. This story should have ended once the police brought the kids home and the parents said, “Yes, they’re allowed to go to the playground and back by themselves.”

I’ll give you that some kids should absolutely NOT be trusted to roam free like I did. But others should, and no one is better positioned to know who can or can’t than the parents involved. Local law enforcement should butt out of it completely unless they find the kids misbehaving or in distress. You’d think they’d have something better to do than force “help” on those who don’t want or need it; like two kids just walking down the sidewalk.

Maybe a good intermediate step would be to issue a “free-range kid” ID tag. Or chip implant. Or tattoo. Then the cops could just “catch and release,” if they found it necessary to investigate every juvenile pedestrian they encountered. And the parents wouldn’t have to be dragged into court about it.

I realize many parents will recoil at the idea of letting their beloved offspring off the leash. But with a law like this, they are still free to hover over their children’s every activity if they wish. But those who think a little independence is an excellent development opportunity is free to do what they wish.

But there are so many child assaults, abductions, and cases of abuse! How could I let my child wander out into that?” That’s the common refrain.

I maintain that there really aren’t any more instances of such malfeasance now that there were then; it’s just that with social media and 24/7 news channels, we hear about every goddamned one of them, so it seems like an ever-present menace.

There was a lot of horrific crap that happened in the 70s too. We just didn’t hear about it unless it was local. The fact is, even “free-range” kids are safer now than they were back in The Day. And only a small percentage of child abductions are committed by non-family members.

The danger I see is that by keeping kids on such a short leash, they are being robbed of the chance to learn vital independence and coping skills. The result is often kids who don’t know how to go anywhere or do anything and who must rely on others to pave their way through all obstacles. Through the constant surveillance, we are creating the entitled, helpless kids we eventually complain about never moving out.

I’m not suggesting it will be a painless experience. There will be bumps and bruises and some scares along the way. I know I had my share and I endeavored not to repeat them. All of those little setbacks were great teachers.

I wouldn’t exchange my “free range” childhood for anything. I’m glad that, at least in Utah, more kids might have the chance to wind their way through childhood the way I did. Would that other states follow Utah’s lead.

And that’s probably the most unlikely sentence I’ve ever written.


Mary Ann said...

You survived and so did I. Do you think the kid world was safer then?

bluzdude said...

Absolutely not. It was just as dangerous then as it is now.

Anonymous said...

The amount of free range is equal to the responsibility accepted. You always were respectful of knowing and doing what we expected, thus more freedom.. nice post. Dad

Jono said...

Same way I was raised. The parents would have been a little miffed if they knew just how far I could go on a bike in a day, but I never had the need to tell them. We did avoid the local hoodlums whenever possible.

bluzdude said...

And that's my point... The parents know best how much a kid can handle unsupervised. That's not a job for cops or neighbors (unless the kid is up to no good... Which I never was... As far as you know.)

bluzdude said...

In those days, a bike was your key to freedom. I know I ranges far and wide on mine, probably farther than my folks realized. And that was good for me. I learned how to be responsible for myself and keep out of trouble.

Mary Ann said...

You learned through experience, the only real teacher.
No stars or Smiley faces on your bike roaming adventures, just genuine self esteem and confidence