A plea for free-range parenting
Open your doors and let neighborhood kids play together freely.
The hallway is mostly shadows interrupted here and there by the nightlights that help my 6-year-old son get to the bathroom safely at night. At half past 6, I walk toward his bedroom to wake him and get him going for school at 8 a.m. His door creaks, my slippers pad softly, and I gently sit down next to his warm, curled-up body.
“Good morning, Moose,” I whisper. “It’s time to wake up.”
He lies still for a few seconds. I rub his back and start to tell him again that it’s morning time, but before I can finish, he shoots fully upright in bed, throws his arms in the air, and shouts, “Hot tamale!” The force of it nearly pushes me off the bed and I have to pick myself halfway up from the floor while laughing.
“Yes! Hot tamale! What a splendid way to wake up!”
“Yup,” he shouts, “Let’s play!”
And then I’m not laughing so much, because it’s 6:30 in the morning and the burden of play is already upon me.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I hate playing. I don’t like videogames or hide-and-seek and I don’t like sitting on the floor giving voice to some “guy” who inevitably is evil and gunning down my son’s “guy.”
“Why can’t they just get sandwiches together?” I ask. My son sighs in exasperation. Not only do I not like playing, apparently I’m not very good at it.
It’s not that I don’t get the importance of play. I just don’t want to be my child’s constant playmate. After about two minutes of pretending that Bouncy Gorilla is the Police Bunny’s long lost mother, I want to rub my eyes with lye to get out of it. And a parent can only schedule so many play dates in one week to get out of the job of playmate. We are in serious need of a new plan.
My own childhood was rich with play. Neighborhood kids oozed out of every street crack. On the court we lived on, an endless game of Kick the Can was in motion. From 8 o’clock in the morning on, all of us neighborhood kids milled around a three-block radius looking for distraction. We wandered into friends’ houses, helped ourselves to goldfish crackers, Kool-Aid, and my mom’s famous chocolate chip cookies. We looked for lost kittens, Indian arrowheads, and for other kids who wanted to spit down the drain on the curb. It was glorious.
I never, ever remember asking my mom or dad to play with me. Why would I? They were boring adults. I had 30 kids to choose from who didn’t think unburying dog bones was gross.
The parents of my neighborhood understood the value of play and freedom. Most children’s book authors understand it, too. Quick, think of a children’s book with parents in it. You may be able to think of a few, but the bulk of them are parent-free with children roaming, playing, and finding adventure that is neither structured nor scheduled.
There’s a term for this kind of parenting, and it is not “neglectful.” It’s free-range parenting. The term first hit big last year when a Maryland family was scrutinized for letting their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter walk a mile to a neighborhood park by themselves. Free-range parenting is often considered a reaction to helicopter parenting, but as a child of the ’70s, I see it as a return to a more common sense approach to raising kids. Our kids need to play. Adults don’t. Let’s go ahead and, you know, let them do that.
On one side of the issue are the parents who are worried. News reports scare us. Strangers do bad things. We must protect our children.
On the other side of the issue is the fact that the world is actually full of good people. Bad things make headlines. The regular good of a day is not reported.
Here is my case. I have a son who wakes up in the morning shouting “Hot tamale!” His energy is more than I can keep up with. His little sister is already exhibiting similar social energy and a leaning toward the family philosophy that there is no such thing as a stranger, only a friend we haven’t met yet. In short, my children need more socializing than my husband and I can provide on our own. What we need is a neighborhood at play.
So I send out this plea. Neighborhood parents, please send your children over. Please tell them to come to our doorstep and shout for my kids to come out to play. Tell them to come on in and rummage through our overflowing toy boxes. Tell them that if they hang out in their yards kicking a soccer ball around, my son will find them and they can spend the day together figuring out how ants build their little sand mountain homes. Our daughters can wade through creeks and learn the gore of leeches and the beauty of tadpoles together.
Because here’s the thing. I can teach my kids caution without teaching them fear. I can show them the world without keeping them behind glass. I can let them explore and play and find adventure because that’s their job as little people. That’s what is going to make them strong, creative, independent, well-rounded adults. And speaking of adults, let’s be honest. Playing with Skylanders and Batman and Elsa is not exactly what we consider a good time.
A neighborhood at play is good for all of us, especially those parents like me who only have so much let’s-get-down-on-the-floor-and-play in them. So please, open your doors. Send your kids to mine. Let’s let our kids be little together. Let’s let them end their days with ruddy faces and grass-stained knees or the buzz of an afternoon of epic snowman building. Let’s open our doors to the kind of neighborhoods we had, full of possibility and free of tethers. Let’s let them play the way they were meant to play.
Molly Jo Rose's column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God's goodness in the darkest places of the world.