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Opening Arguments

The free range days are gone

Sad but true: We've allowed our neighborhoods to become so dangerous we can't just let our kids be kids anymore.

I'm a new father. Like many new parents, I've been giving a lot of thought to how I want to raise my child. And just as this became my life's primary mission, there emerged this phenomenon of "free range kids." An anti-helicopter parenting movement was just what I wanted.

Lenore Skenazy, who is sort of the spokeswoman for free range parenting, says she is fighting "the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape." Finally! A movement that sets itself against the notion that a kid who isn't being actively surveilled by parents or a paid professional is in danger. Finally, a reaction to the parental fear that becomes an excuse for omnipresent intervention and control, to the absurd point of mistaking a cultivation of self-reliance with neglect.

The "free range kids" movement speaks exactly to what I want for my children: a childhood that teaches independence and self-reliance, a childhood like my own. And yet I'm worried that I can't avoid the helicopter. I know that crime is way, way down from when I was a free range kid. (Back then it was just called "childhood.") I know that the chances of stranger-danger are infinitesimally small. But I already have some of the anxiety that motivates over-protective parents. I want to imitate the free-rangers, but am afraid to do so. And I think I've discovered one reason why. Free range kids, and the parental trust that enables them, are at least partly dependent on a feature of American life that is dead or dying in many areas: the neighborhood.

I was 12 when our family first moved to Fort Wayne. It was, to say the least, a culture shock. We went from the rural isolation of a coal camp with 200 to 300 people in it, where everybody knew everybody else, to what to us looked like the big, bad, scary city. My parents should have been the clingiest, most freaked out helicopter parents ever. But they weren't. I was allowed to get on my bike and go pretty much where I wanted to, all by myself.  That's just the way it was then. Today my parents would probably be arrested dor child endangerment.

He's exactly right about the independence and self-reliance. That's what we robbed our kids of, the ability to find their own way and figure the world out.