By Peter Lazar
"Free-range Parenting" is a recent term for a style of parenting that was long the norm. In his 1946 bestseller, Dr. Benjamin Spock advocated allowing children levels of independence in accordance of their age of development. Parents still know that kids are happier and develop better when they are given freedom to explore and learn from their own mistakes. But sometime after the 1980s, fearfulness and helicopter parenting became normal in the US. We know that letting kids have the run of the neighborhood is good for them, but there's still this parental fear. Why's this?
Crime rates in this country have actually declined by 50% or more since 1993. Many of us with children live in safer neighborhoods with better neighbors than even we did as children. Truly the Internet is part of the problem as we hear dreadful news from around the world. But we saw such news in the 1970s and 80s on TV as well.
The problem is more immediate to our surroundings: many of us don't know our neighbors! We logically know that the folks five doors down are fine upstanding people. But because we both work and they both work and we enter our homes via our garages, we've really not had a chance to get to know each other. But viscerally, we worry about letting kids loose. Why's that?
I think an intuitive worry is justified in a disconnected neighborhood with upstanding citizens who don't know each other. We think the problem is child abduction but it is more complex and realistic.
Molly and I experienced a small example in our cohousing neighborhood last week: An adult neighbor mentioned to Molly that he saw one of our daughters jumping over the nets that block out the traffic (kind of like a tennis court net). This could be slightly dangerous behavior to the kid. I feel that if the neighbor didn't know us well, then he wouldn't have mentioned anything because this is not serious and doesn't harm anyone. But he was comfortable with us and easily expressed his concerned about her welfare. We appreciative he spoke out. This is just one of many unplanned and unexpected interactions that help promote safety. We know each other and look out for one another above and beyond the call of duty. Being pedestrian oriented, there are also a lot more people, including adults, about at any given time.
For those of us who grew up as free range children, perhaps in the 1970s and 80s, I think our parents justifiably didn't have the fear parents do today. Perhaps due to single family incomes, there were enough people knowing each other about to provide an extra safety net.
Living in cohousing, one thing I don't worry about is what my kids are up to in the neighborhood for hours at a time without me. They have been running in packs together since the age of four or five. My wonderful well-known neighbors are like a protective blanket providing comfort with their collective watchful eyes and participation.