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Raising free-range kids

afree.jpgI wrote recently about my childhood growing up in Downstate Illinois. I mentioned me and my friends roaming all over town on our bikes, walking to the movies and the swimming pool on our own, and riding our bikes through rain water backed up after thunderstorms. Also, for that matter, through piles of burning leaves. One of my classmates wrote to mention that the Boneyard, the creek running through town, was a drainage canal. "What?" I asked. "Where we caught crawdaddies?"

One of the comments on the entry was from a reader in Florida who said, rather sadly, that his 15-year-old son had just taken his first unsupervised bike ride through the city park. When he was growing up, he said, things were different. But not "today." We use that word today as code for the dangers lurking everywhere in modern society. Another reader sent me a link to a web site advocating the raising of Free Range Children. I learned this has become something of a movement, cheered by a book by Lenore Skenazy. The movement believes we are punishing our kids by over-protecting them.

Certainly today we take for granted things that we never imagined in our own childhoods, like child car seats, bike helmets, bottled water, security guards, sunblock, hand sanitizer and childproof bottles. I mentioned my childhood memory that we boys would pee behind trees, shrubbery, or garages ("If you run home, your mom might grab you and make you do something"). I forgot to mention that one of the reasons we needed to pee is that when we got thirsty we drank out of garden hoses--our own, and anybody else's.

That was in a small town. Over the weekend I attended the reunion of Chaz's class from Crane High School in Chicago. After the banquet and before the band started, they played a game called Remember When? A classmate took a hand-held mike around the room and everybody took turns remembering things like popular hangouts, teachers who were characters, high school romances, and Herb Kent the Cool Gent on the radio. 3 2wayskip.jpg

Free Range girls violating the school insurance policy

Then one alum said: "Remember when...we dressed up neat to go to school? When there were no drugs? No drive-bys? When a neighbor felt free to whoop you if you did wrong, and if your parents found out about it, they'd whoop you again? When there were no serial rapists? No kidnappings? When we got to play outside until the streetlights came on?"

Remember when. We live in a reign of terror. Outside the home, molesters and drug pushers lurk. Children drown, are hit by cars, shot, electrocuted, bullied, burned, stabbed, attacked by pit bulls, or kidnapped and end up with their photos on milk cartons. When they play, they make "play dates." They can ride their bikes outside--but don't leave the block. They can shoot baskets, but in the driveway, or at a supervised playground. If some kid tells you to go f*** yourself and you whoop him, you'll be seeing his parents in court. If he comes over to play and falls down your basement stairs, you'll get sued for the house.

Many parents keep firearms in the house for protection, even though most shootings in the house are tragic accidents. Now I learn of a church whose pastor has asked his congregation to bring their guns to church, in support of the cause of Visible Firearms. That pastor is getting mixed messages from above. My friend McHugh was sitting in O'Rourke's one night when a guy flashed a gun stuck in his belt. "What are you carrying that for?" he asked the guy. "I live in a dangerous neighborhood," the guy said. McHugh told him, "It would be a lot safer if you moved."

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You might fall and break your necks.

We believe that all undesirable things can be eliminated by legislation. In England this has gotten so far out of hand that that a 10-year-old boy is forbidden to cross a parking lot, and girls can't skip rope on public property. In America, have you seen grade school football players recently? They wear more armor than Robocop. It's safer for them to sit on the sofa and blow people up in video games.

We have three grandchildren, and I share some of this paranoia. It would be very, very hard on me if something bad happened to one of them. They were raised in the Chicago suburbs of Naperville and Lisle, claimed by some magazine or another to be the best place in America to raise a family. But there's teenage drug use there, like everywhere. Parents talk about the little potheads who corrupt their children. Every little pothead is somebody's child.

We have three times as many children in America now. Therefore, three times as many crimes against children. I don't have the statistics but you know what I mean. The rate has not gone up. But crimes against children are played big on the news. We want to know every detail. The word rape at one time wasn't used in newspapers. Now we want to know the name of the rape victims, and see their photograph, and watch them sitting side by side on a sofa with their protective parents, and asked that most futile of all interviewer questions, "How did you feel?"

5no helmutssandlot.jpgWe don't need no stinking helmets.

I had a free-range childhood. So did most kids who grew up before about the Vietnam era. Marijuana was unheard of in high school and even college. You felt safe when you left the house. At 16 I had a newspaper job requiring me to drive home at 2 a.m. No problem. In grade school my mom gave me an "emergency dime" to carry if I ever needed to call home. I still have it. Now parent get antsy if they don't hear from a kid for more than a few hours.

Kids sometimes do foolish things. Or bad things happen to them. Those are not the inevitable result of leaving the house. When he was still legally a juvenile, the son of a friend of mine was arrested for shooting his .22 at the trailers of semis on the interstate. He spent a month in custody. Today he is the mayor of a medium-sized city. It wasn't been that many years ago. What does that prove?

Maybe it shows that kids can do damn fool things, and they should pay the price, but you let them you believe they are better than that. It's too easy these days for a "good kid" to become a "bad kid" after one mistake. Sometimes early trouble can damage a lifetime. Surveys have expressed alarm at the numbers of primary school boys on behavioral drugs like Ritalin. A sociologist writing for the Spectator said their treatable condition is Being Boys. In a school system run by women, girls are rewarded for being more docile. Boys Will Be Boys, but when they are, they're diagnosed as troublemakers. They can start believing it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am reminded of the 1938 movie "Angels With Dirty Faces," about two kids who grew up as best friends in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. One of them (James Cagney) became a killer who ended up on Death Row. The other one (Pat O'Brien) was the priest who walked the last mile with him. "All right, fellas," the priest said after his childhood pal had been executed, "let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could."

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Published in 1957. Things would get worse.

So much is simply chance. You can't plan for bad luck. You can't pass laws against it. You can't be innoculated for it. You can't wear protective clothing. Forrest Gump inspired the bumper sticker, Shit happens. Mankind knew that before we developed speech.

I don't know what the answer is. I understand why parents are frightened. If your child seems strangely reluctant to go to school, it may be about more than a dislike of school. Kids know what's going on, and may have reason to fear. It's worse these day than just getting shaken down for your lunch money.

It is no coincidence that a graph charting the rise in perceived danger in American society would parallel one charting the rise in drug addiction--and the rise in laws and police action against drugs. Agents seize tons of drugs coming into America, we're told. For every pound they seize, how many pounds get in? The police can't handle it. It's not their fault. I once had a long talk with the chief of the Narcotics Bureau of a very big American city (not Chicago). "Everything we are doing," he said, "is a complete waste of time and money. When people start using drugs, sooner or later they will need to use drugs. You can't pass laws against that need."

Maybe there is something to the Libertarian notion of legalizing drugs. That would diminish the profit motive for cartels, the mob and pushers. If we imported drugs, we could supervise their distribution and sale, imposing conditions such as now apply to alcohol. That would also be a blow to criminal elements in the supplier nations. Fewer Americans would spend years or the rest of their lives as part of the world's largest prison population (by percentage). Would legalizing drugs encourage their use? Are more people alcoholics because booze can be purchased legally? Are the drug laws actually keeping anybody from using drugs today? If you are a crack user, and you want crack tonight, do you know where to buy it?

I don't know what the solution is. I really don't. What I do know is that something fundamental has disappeared from the American landscape, and that is the sight of girls and boys running around and playing. In 1957, there was a best-selling memoir about childhood titled, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did you Do? Nothing, by Robert Paul Smith. These days, a kid had better have an answer ready for that question. 

Every kid used to carry a Boy Scout knife. This is a wonderful video.

What she learned from "How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself," the sequel by Robert Paul Smith.

She allows her 9-year-old son to ride the New York subway by himself.

Tom O'Bedlam reads "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas

They learned to be free range from a movie

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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