Thursday, August 25, 2016

Free-Range Kids: Part 1, Framing the Discussion

Children at play in Spokane
In my last post, I argued that warnings to be alert to children on back-to-school day were three months too late because more children are on the street during the summer.

But in the course of making that argument, I acknowledged that, regardless of the season, there are fewer children on the street than when I was young.  (Yeah, that probably makes me a curmudgeon, but sometimes even curmudgeons are accurate about the shortfalls of the modern world.)

This reduction in the numbering of roaming children is often described as the loss of “free-range kids”.

Over the years of attending urbanist conferences, I’ve heard several people tell similar stories of the multi-generational loss of childhood autonomy.  If I recall correctly, one of the speakers was Sarah Susanka of “Not So Big House” fame.  However, being unable at the moment to put my fingers on the exact details of Susanka’s or others’ stories, I’ll offer a composite of the stories I’ve heard.

When the speaker’s great-grandfather was a child, he was allowed to bicycle six miles, with sandwiches in a knapsack, to spend a day fishing.

The pond became off-limits to the next generation, but the speaker’s grandfather was still allowed to pedal into the township a couple of miles away to gather with friends.

The speaker’s father could only venture along the length of the road where the family lived.

And the speaker wasn’t allowed to leave the frontyard without parental supervision. 

I suspect that many readers can trace similarly reducing circles in their family histories.

In my case, my father would often tell the story of wandering his small hometown all day, playing with childhood friends and making his own lunch, while his mother ran the downtown soda fountain.  (In his later years, he also came to realize that the entire community had been watching over him.  Whenever he misbehaved, the story would be quickly relayed to his mother at the soda fountain, with judgment rendered before he could return with his side of the story.  He didn’t get away with much, but he felt protected.)

I didn’t have quite that much freedom as a child, but wasn’t far behind.  I often rode my bike to visit friends, even if it meant crossing a busy street.  And I recall being given a few dollars at age ten to bike three-quarters of a mile to buy a missing ingredient for dinner, an errand that also included buying a few baseball cards from a vending machine in front of the store.

Having no children, the story ends with me except to the extent I can observe the world around me.  And I can report never seeing a ten-year-old child ride up on a bicycle to buy groceries at the store in my neighborhood.  (Nor are baseball cards still sold in vending machines.)

The loss of free-range childhoods matters to urbanists because, along with children who never leave the house, an antithesis of free-range children is children who are driven everywhere.  Two major elements of urbanism are the sufficient closeness of the various needs of life such that walking and bicycling are the superior transportation options and streets that are balanced between drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists such that the latter two feel safe.  Having Mom back an SUV out of a three-car garage to drive Junior to a play date a block and a half away works against both of those elements.

Furthermore, the lost of free-range childhoods should matter to all of us because childhood freedom to explore, whether ideas or surroundings, seems to correlate with greater creativity in adulthood.  With creativity being perhaps the most valuable commodity that U.S. offers to the global economy, anything that lessens creativity should be a cause for alarm.

Okay, if free-range kids are good on multiple levels, why have they become scarce?  Several reasons can be given, starting with increased attractions at home such as video games, better televisions, and the internet and over-estimated stranger danger.

But the reason I want to note today is enforcement of cultural norms.   Many citizens are willing to call authorities if they believe children are being given more freedom than appropriate, making parents timid in their parenting decisions.

Let me give another example from my own life.  From kindergarten through third grade, I attended an elementary school a half-mile from my home.  The walk was along a moderately-used local street.  A guard-assisted crossing of a collector street was also required.  There was little sidewalk, so most of the walk was on paved and unpaved shoulders.

My parents thought it was fine if I walked to school, but not on my own, at least for first grade.  So they set me up with a nearby third-grade girl.  The two of us walked together along the shoulder, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, as cars drove past us.  (And yes, there was a certain thrill in showing up for first grade in the company of an older woman.)

My parents weren’t pushing the envelope and I don’t recall anyone ever questioning their judgment.  It was how things were in 1959.

It’s very different today.  A Washington, D.C. couple who believe in free-range kids have been investigated multiple times by the police and child services for allowed their ten-year-old and six-year-old to explore their neighborhood by themselves, including a recent incident during which the children were held in the back of a police cruiser for three hours.  

As the writer of the linked article in CityLab correctly notes, specific circumstances matter greatly.  Allowing a six-year-old to walk by himself to play in a neighborhood park with friends is very different than sending the same child for a quart of milk at a convenience store that has been robbed three times in recent weeks.

But our default has too become excessive caution and that mindset undermines our children and our cities.

It needn’t be this way.  The culture in Japan expects children to venture out on their own at a much younger age.  There is even a television show that films two- and three-year-olds heading out to complete their first family errands.

Even if the U.S. can’t fully emulate the Japanese model, we should at least ponder it.

This is a rich topic to which I’ll return as soon as possible.  But my next post will be another summary of upcoming opportunities to publicly espouse urbanism and that post will be followed by a discussion of road diets.  Lots of good stuff coming up.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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