Tuesday, October 2, 2012
independence and limits
My mother and father grew up in the same very small town. My brother, sister and I grew up in a small university city. We lived in a residential neighborhood that had a shopping corridor about three or four blocks away. There are so many things I wish I could ask my mother now (of course). But one of the major topics I wish I could know more about is how she decided to give us so much freedom. Was it of necessity (as a single parent)? Was it of naivete (not thinking bad things could happen)? Did she even think that much about it, or was it just the way the world worked for her?
My mother had a sort of slogan about this: "You can have as much freedom as you show me you can handle." Basically this meant: do well in school, don't get pregnant, don't get arrested, be a good person. Do whatever you want besides.
I also have to consider my perspective. I was the third child, born ten years after my oldest sibling. Mom had to have been considerably more relaxed, less bent on the details, and quite a bit more tired by the time I was old enough to start tearing up the town.
All I know is, I spent summers riding my bike and mowing the lawn, walking to Walgreen's to buy candy with my change, walking to the high school across the street to play tennis at the courts, and riding my bike to the swimming pool (a cool two miles from home). During the school year, I walked to school with a group of other kids (no adults), walked to church (by the swimming pool), and walked to my piano teacher's house for lessons. It was awesome.
I came across this super-thought-provoking article on NPR today.
It is a fascinating read. The author posits, as I think most of us would agree, that children today have much less freedom to roam, unsupervised and unscheduled. He even has a very cool graphic showing four generations of a family, all at eight years old, in Sheffield, England. The great-grandfather was allowed to go six miles from home to the lake and fish. The grandfather was allowed several miles to go play in the woods. The mother was allowed a half-mile or so to the pool. The son can walk 300 yards to the end of his street.
I don't usually do this, but I allowed myself to read all seventy-odd comments on the article to get a sense of how people feel about this. Many people said, "I was raised with a lot of freedom, but I'm scared to give my kids that level of access to the world because it's more dangerous now." Population density, higher crime, faster and more traffic, neighbors not being as knowledgeable about one another, fewer sidewalks, and the hypervigilant, sensationalizing media were all referenced.
A few commenters had theories I thought were simply genius. One was that we don't accept child casualty as a fact of life anymore. I thought about that for awhile. Both of my grandfathers lost one of their siblings in childhood, to disease or accident. Their parents had large families of six and seven. One commenter remarked that he had a "free range" childhood, and he knew one child who suffocated in an old refrigerator, one who drowned in an access pond, and one who was hit by a car. These incidents seemed like part of what life held for some families at that point. Certainly none of the families were prosecuted by the state for negligence or abuse.
Another theory was that smaller family size and later age of childbearing in developed countries have made a high-stakes game of childhood, where there is no "screwing up" with your kids. You can't have five and expect one to end up alcoholic or destitute. That's just not how it works anymore. And parents feel so unbearably responsible for their children's futures.
Will I allow Vicki Jo and our other, future children to roam freely in our neighborhood? Gosh. I hope so. I don't know.
I do know that the free and open times I had by myself as a child were a huge benefit to an independent life. I took off for college 1200 miles away with very little trepidation. I remember when I set off on my first thousand-mile solo road trip, no smart phone, just an atlas and the knowledge that we have a fantastic interstate system that would take me where I needed to go. I learned how to fend for myself and feel secure that I could find my way home. Was that worth the risk of injury, bullying, and abduction? With 20/20 hindsight, yes.
What will you all do with your children? Allow them to roam, or keep them within sight?