My Free-range Childhood vs. Whatever We Call It These Days


The other day a series of black-and-white photos started showing up in my Facebook notices; a series of children hamming it up for the camera. Everyone in the pictures was instantly recognizable: It was my 5th and 6th grade classmates.

There we were, trying to make a human pyramid, clearly failing, but clearly having a ball. Holy cow. Fifteen or so kiddos on solid tarmac being encouraged to climb up on one another? And, on school grounds during school hours? No way you’d ever be able to get that shot these days, let alone be allowed to stage it.

I sent a FB DM to a classmate asking who the photographer was. Was it our teacher? A parent? I wondered because among the series of pictures were a few portraits, which were a bit startling to see. No, it was a freelance newspaper photographer and artist/musician who used to give little extra-curricular classes in art and music in the schools and who still lives in our childhood hometown. I joked with my classmate that, these days, the photographer would be clapped in irons for taking such shots. She agreed, “A grown man taking pictures of kids? …absolutely!”

All of it got me thinking about how free-range my childhood was, for adults and children alike. Whereas the parents of the children whose portraits were taken that day were probably thrilled to see such stunning pictures of their child (a former classmate later commented her parents had copies of her portrait taken that day in an album somewhere), today’s parents might be more than a little upset to learn that somewhat intimate portraits of their ten year-old were taken without their prior consent. There would be calls to the teacher and principal asking who this “adjunct instructor” was, and if he had had a background check, and who gave permission to take pictures of their child before getting their OK (let alone posting anything to Facebook). Then there would be lecture to the child about never letting anyone take their picture unless a parent or teacher has said it is OK.

I guarantee you there was no such kerfuffle, request, lecture or parental knowledge of pictures being taken of my classmates. It simply would not have occurred to anyone to ask permission, nor would anyone have been concerned that permission was not asked in the first place.


from a NYT article re: free-range parenting

These days, child’s play is only allowed within exceptionally controlled environments, and only observed by those who have been cleared to do so. Though we were very aware that strangers could do us harm, we were not kept from walking the mile to/from school or the school bus because of it. Naiveté on our parents’ part? Perhaps.

My question is this: Have we moved from falling back on telling ancient cautionary Red Riding Hood fables in hopes our children will learn a valuable lesson about being safe, to the most ridiculous extremes that feel more like Rapunzel has been locked away in a remote and distant castle by a neurotic, jealous and hysterical witch-of-a-mother? Or, are we simply more conciensious and proactive than our folks were?

A recent news story about someone reporting to police they’d seen two unsupervised kids walking across a park—kids who, by the way, had been given permission by their parents to walk home from the park—and their parents later coming under investigation for neglect by their local Child Protective Services (CPS) agency (source: NPR) would be testimony to the fact that conciensiousness has become an absurd overabundance of caution.

Somewhere there is a middle ground between calling CPS because a couple of unsupervised children were “caught” walking alone, and being actually careless about our children’s welfare and protection. The middle ground is something that falls between letting kids run completely amok in public, and only allowing them to “play” in closed off, specifically sanctioned, carefully designed to not injure, highly supervised playgrounds.

And, somewhere there’s a middle ground for adults who interact with children outside of the bounds of vetted “safe houses,” such as schools and the home. It’s a tough call because no one can be sure who actually means well and who means harm. Dangerous people are insidious that way. But a well-meaning, genuinely concerned and responsible adult who wants to help a lost boy in the mall find his mother should not have to think twice about approaching the kid for fear they’ll only bring suspicion on themselves.

It is good to be wary and cautious. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be. But erring on the side of extreme caution is costing our children their childhood, to say nothing of their need to learn, all on their own, what their limits, as well as their absolute potential may be. We cannot keep them in tightly controlled environments once they are out on their own, so what is it that is gained by allowing them to only function within super-supervised perimeters as children? How do we expect them to be able to manage in this chaotic world when they reach adulthood if all they’ve ever known is carefully designed and monitored sanctuary? There’s just got to be a middle ground somewhere in all of it.

[ Want to read about others childhood? Go to: ]

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