Free-Range Kids

Mom, How Come the Kids in These Old Books Are Allowed Outside Without a Parent or Cell Phone?

Paging Encyclopedia Brown: Someone has stolen childhood.


Harriet the Spy. Encyclopedia Brown. Meg and Charles Wallace, Ramona, Beezus, Pippi, and that kid from My Side of the Mountain. They all shared something other than spunk: freedom of movement.

It was a given in midcentury children's literature that the protagonists would venture off on their own. They solved crimes, befriended beavers, and saved parents who had become stuck in other dimensions. But the normal stuff they did—hopping on their bikes, walking into town, playing outside—has become almost as mythic as the ability to fly or cast spells.

I was just reading an essay by a mom who said it actually felt sad and unnerving to read the 1964 book A Pocketful of Cricket to her son, knowing he would not be growing up in an era affording him anything like the freedom she or the boy in the book had enjoyed.

And as sad as that is to contemplate, it is also infuriating. There is no reality-based reason kids today can't be out and about on their own. Our culture seems to think nothing of depriving the people we ostensibly love the most—children—of the chance to be fully alive when they are young. Having adventures. Meeting crickets. Making some memories when something goes totally wrong or totally right.

We say we can't let them have the freedom their parents and grandparents enjoyed because we are trying to keep them safe. But this relentless focus on safety only makes sense if we are talking about Rembrandt paintings, or a Ming vase. Might as well keep those safe in a temperature-controlled room. There is no upside to exposing them to anything other than hushed tones and velvet-gloved hands. Kids are precious, but they're not precious things. They grow when they get a chance to do, to see, to try, to run, and even to fall.

A classic article in The Daily Mail several years back titled "How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations" interviewed four members of the same family. The great grandad, 88, recalled walking six miles at age eight to play with friends and make forts in the woods. His son, 63, walked a mile or so to do the same thing, same age. The daughter, in her 40s, had walked half a mile to school.

And she does not let her eight-year-old son off the block.

That is not progress. That is the gradual suffocation of childhood. And yet it has become so accepted that those who resist—who want their kids to roam like Pippi, Harriet or Charles Wallace—are outliers. Just this morning I spoke with a mom in Virginia visited twice by the cops for letting her young kids play on the front lawn.

Yesterday it was another mom. She was watching her son and daughter, ages four and five, play in the backyard, but when she went inside to change the baby, the siblings wandered into the woods. When the mom called the cops to ask for help finding them, they obliged, found the kids—and referred the mom to child protective services.

When the mom asked what she had done wrong, the cop replied that letting her kids play outside alone is always considered neglect.

Paging Encyclopedia Brown: Someone has stolen childhood. Do you think we'll ever get it back?

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  1. Vote for fascists, get fascism.

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    2. Totalitarianism, not fascism. But yeah.

  2. prog·ress
    forward or onward movement toward a destination.
    “the darkness did not stop my progress”
    forward movement, onward movement, progression. advance, advancement, headway, passage, going
    move forward or onward in space or time.
    “as the century progressed, the quality of telescopes improved”

    So if you don’t do more of something than the previous generation, you must be against progress; or more than the last government, administration, ad hoc committee….

  3. Without a cell phone? You’re moving the goalposts.

    I want my kids to have a cell phone so I can tell them to come home, and track their dead bodies if necessary.

    “Back in the day” kids were outside, where they could hear mom yell.

    1. And somebody’s mom had an eye on them. They couldn’t get away with crap.

      1. I can’t remember a single time somebody’s mom cared what we did outside. That was why they sent us outside.

        Bubba’s point was that we were not in someone’s house playing video games. You can hear a mom yelling blocks away if you are outside.

    2. Without a cell phone? You’re moving the goalposts.

      It’s also a bit of a one-sided or contrived conceptualization. I’d say “I promise to play outside more if you buy me a cell phone.” is more likely than “Why didn’t those kids have to take cell phones with them?” Nobody, adult or child, reads Hansel and Gretel and thinks “I wish we were so poor and stupid we had to find our way through the forest with breadcrumbs.” And I would be between remiss or negligent as a parent if my kids regarded ‘Wikipedia Brown’ the same way I regarded Encyclopedia Brown.

      Outdoor freedom is nice but shouldn’t be assumed as better than or proxy for intellectual edification/freedom.

      1. No, but I think it is as important as those other freedoms.
        I think kids shouldn’t have phones, but I’m that kind of cranky weirdo. And I don’t have to deal with the demands of actual kids these days. So I can’t blame parents too much.

        1. I think kids shouldn’t have phones, but I’m that kind of cranky weirdo.

          Phones/mobile internet are as much a part of the future environment as woods are of the past. Similar potential for exploration and learning, similar potential for life-changing pitfalls*. I agree that a four year old doesn’t need free access to a phone any more than they need plunked down in the middle of the woods and left to find their own way home, but I don’t see how keeping kids off phones is any different than forbidding them from playing outside.

          *Even an argument to be made that (e.g.) getting caught sexting at age 10-12 is better than at 15-17.

          1. I like to think that there is some value in learning to live without all that connection and information first, then being introduced to the wonders of modern communication tech. Possibly because that’s how it went in my life. But like I said, I’m the weirdo. I didn’t even have a cell phone until 3 or 4 years ago. I think it’s better that way. Everything is so insane now in large part because of social media. And seeing kids so attached to their devices makes me sad.

            1. Understood and agreed, there was a minor discussion in the comments on the COVID tracking app brickbat about figuring out how to socialize without being tracked. I still stand by the notion that if kids with phones grow into adults who can’t socialize without a phone, it’s not the phone or necessarily the kids’ fault.

              IME, when you don’t have a job that requires you to carry a phone 24/7 and you can rely on adults to be carrying phones 24/7, it’s a great time to learn to socialize with or without a phone and figure out whether you want the kind of life that would require you to carry a phone 24/7.

            2. Elon Musk said in an interview I saw that we’re all cyborgs now, essentially, that our phones, mini but powerful computers we carry, make us so. Sobering thought. Future of humanity.

          2. Elon Musk said in an interview I saw that we’re all cyborgs now, essentially, that our phones, mini but powerful computers we carry, make us so. Sobering thought. Future of humanity.

    3. I stopped being able to hear my mom yell the Christmas that I got a Schwinn 10-speed.

      My world went from however far I could walk from my parents in 10 minutes to being how far I was willing to pedal before remembering how tired I would be after pedaling back.

      Now imagine what life is like for someone who has spent his or her whole life within earshot of the one parent they live with, suddenly getting their driver’s license and the car or motorcycle that comes with it. No wonder there are so many “wheelie fail” and “stupid drivers of SoCal” videos showing up on YouTube.

      1. We have young adults in the house with no desire for a drivers’ license, kids don’t seem as desperate to get out any more. They also don’t have a clue about the rules of the road. One good thing about biking around the streets in the neighborhood, is you get to know how the road works before you are driving several tons around at speed. You also get to know the layout of the town and how to get places.

  4. When the mom asked what she had done wrong, the cop replied that letting her kids play outside alone is always considered neglect.

    What she did wrong was calling the cops.

    1. “What she did wrong was calling the cops.”

      Not sure if it was necessary [just how dark and deep were those “woods?”] but once she did that, it was on her.

  5. buncha drunk dumbass chicks destroyed childhood.

  6. What broke the cycle? For generations children were by and large taught self reliance by parents who allowed or (in my case) encouraged them to go be somewhere else. What generation decided that the way they were handled was not what they would pass on to their children?

    1. It’s called affluence. It means families can afford to be overprotective. A century ago we got rid of (non-farm) child labor for the same reason.

    2. Too much communication leads to a least common denominator of paranoia.

    3. The baby boomers. And I’m not being snarky. Seriously, the baby boomers.

      1. In case you don’t believe me, go back and watch old episodes of Thirty Something.

        1. You’re forcing me to take your word for it.

      2. It didn’t look that way to me, but I suppose most of the people of that generation I knew as a child were either hippies or rural redneck sorts who had other things to do than worry about where their kids are. You’re probably right.

        1. In the mid 80s through early 90s, when the boomers were flooding into institutions, both public and private (as any generation that reaches a given age will naturally do) there was a major and palpable shift towards child-centric safety. You started seeing it in products on store shelves, policies from the government… everywhere. I remember a woman I knew at the time who was a little older than I, and was kind of a militant feminist and mother of a young child pointed it out to me. Being childless at the time, I didn’t give much thought to such things. But she went on a long diatribe about how great things are getting now that boomers are getting in charge, and was pointing to all the ‘child safety’ shit that was popping up, literally everywhere, even in innocuous ways. Remember the “baby on board” sign (the original intent of which was to ‘warn’ other drivers that there was a young child in the vehicle and thus drive more carefully)? Yeah, popped up right around that time.

          There was a MAJOR shift towards child-centric safety during that time at all levels of the culture– Including but not limited to safety in the realm of feelings and sensitivity.

          History of the ‘baby on board’ sign:

          Michael Lerner had the idea of marketing the sign in 1984, right after he drove his 18-month-old nephew home. He realized people were impatient at his driving: “People were tailgating me and cutting me off,” he says. “For the first time, I felt like a parent feels when they have a kid in the car.”

          1. In a recent piece about American parenting and its effects on marriages, Danielle and Astro Tellers semi-jokingly attribute the origin of elevating children to gods—and parenting to a religion—to one viral object: the “Baby on Board“ sign.

          2. A lot of societal changes happened after the 60s. I just watched a documentary that explains a lot of the changes from one perspective.

          3. In the mid 80s through early 90s, when the boomers were flooding into institutions, both public and private (as any generation that reaches a given age will naturally do) there was a major and palpable shift towards child-centric safety.

            Agree 100% that that was the exact timeframe when all this shit started. I saw too and it was very obvious – from the beginnings of the bike helmet to the replacement of the station wagon with the mini-van (and later SUV).

            But when things like that really do happen – at the same time – it is not likely because of some sudden social mass insanity. Maybe (ok not maybe – yes) there was an over-reaction by a new generation of parents to a new boomlet of kids. But they were reacting to something real. Not something imagined or invented. What is invented is Skenazy’s bs – There is no reality-based reason kids today can’t be out and about on their own.

            Something was very very different from the way those young parents remembered conditions of their own childhood mobility v the conditions their own kids would move around under.

            Only Americans can’t see the obvious difference. No surprise Americans are also the ones who have imprisoned their kids and who now have to drive those kids around all the time. But hey – I’m sure the changed means of mobility has nothing to do with the changed limitations of mobility.

    4. Based on my own experience, it seems pretty recent (after my clidhood in the 80s). But it could have started sooner for all I know.

      I think it has really gone into high gear (like so much of today’s insanity) with social media enabling all the world’s busy bodies and paranoids.

      1. See my post above, started in the 80s as a direct result of boomers entering the institutions.

        1. Yeah, you’re right. I was fortunate to be in a pretty relaxed, mostly rural environment. And in a state where you could still do stuff like ride around in the back of the truck on highways.

          1. Up until the mid 80s, America was a graveyard filled with children who were suffocated by plastic bags, drowned in mop buckets or bled out after being cut on the odd sharp edge.

            In April 1987, seven-year-old Michelle Snow was killed by a lawn dart thrown by one of her brothers’ playmates in the backyard of their home in Riverside, California. The darts had been purchased as part of a set of several different lawn games and were stored in the garage, never having been played before the incident occurred. Snow’s father David began to advocate for a ban on lawn darts, claiming that there was no way to keep children from accessing lawn darts short of a full ban.[6][7]

            Partly as a result of David Snow’s lobbying, on December 19, 1988 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission introduced an outright ban on lawn darts in the U.S.[8] In the previous eight years, 6,100 Americans had visited hospital emergency rooms as the result of lawn-dart accidents. Of that total, 81% were 15 or younger, and half were 10 or younger. During the week when the commission voted to ban the product, an 11-year-old girl in Tennessee was hit by a lawn dart and fell into a coma.[6]

            1. Now we have people, young and old, walking into the path of moving vehicles while staring down at their social media feeds.

              Many die. It’s not hard to find youtube videos of this. Just don’t look at them while crossing a busy street.

        2. More likely it entered as a result of:
          1. right turn on red laws which really did a number on eliminating actual stops at intersections or signs. Slow rolls while looking left and turning right resulted in a spike in ped and bike accidents.
          2. CAFE law compliance encouraged carmakers to find the loophole and move their family car from a car-chassis (station wagon) to a light-truck-chassis (minivan) just as the millennial birth rates started climbing. Anyone driving those vans knew visibility was shit – esp for shorter humanoids. And collisions with non-occupants (peds and bikes) were much more deadly.

          Once you eliminate the main mode of kid-directed mobility, you slowly eliminate their ability to be mobile – and free. And basically we Americans don’t care.

    5. “encouraged” ???

      More like, “go outside and find something to do, I’m not going to entertain you”.

      1. We weren’t even asking to be entertained. It was always a preemptive strike.

        1. “Tie this porkchop around your neck and go wrestle with the dog.”

        2. Yup, that’s pretty much the sense of what she was saying…. get out of my kitchen!

    6. I’m 50 and remember parents could not get rid of us fast enough. In fact, if a parent showed up, you knew there was trouble.

      What changed? I think it’s a combination of factors. You had highly publicized child abductions in the 70s and 80s, then the war on drugs (your 8 year old might be smoking crack!), and more recently helicopter/tiger parents where every activity and friend must somehow guarantee the child’s future success, so parents must be around to monitor that the kids aren’t simply just playing, if there is even such a thing amid all the sports, homework, and extracurricular activities…

      1. It has to be exhausting. Maybe that’s the change. Other aspects of marriage/work life have gotten so easy that they have time to over-invest.

      2. I think fewer kids and later child birth plays a role in this.

        When families were huge, there was hands off approach by necessity. There also comes with it some idea that if something bad happens to one, you have seven more to pull you back into life.

        Have one or two and each one is so much highly regarded and, if late enough, can never be replaced.

        1. Shifting reproductive strategies from r (many offspring, low parental investment) to K (few offspring, high investment)

    7. I walked or rode my bike to school about 2 miles each way as a kid, from about 4th grade on. Then suddenly, in our 8th grade year, we weren’t allowed to leave without a parent or legal guardian. (Circa 1991)

      Luckily, that lasted less than a month. The dad of one of the kids in the group I biked home with was the school principal’s boss.

  7. There are still places like that. Just get out of the highly urbanized coastal areas, and those universities hotspots. Most of America it’s just fine if your kids aren’t supervised 25/8.

    I’m in the middle of Silicon Valley, and I see kids walking to school all the time. It’s normal. Maybe they’re not as “free” when I was a kid and left home in the morning to not return until sometime around dinner. There was not worry that I would be kidnapped, the worry was that I might get stoned.

    Think back to Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin is always off in the woods without parents. So what? It was normal in the 80s. In places where there are still wood I suspect it’s still normal.

    1. Our woods have copperheads and coyotes, so that makes some parents a bit paranoid around here…

      1. My ‘woods’ had rattlesnakes and coyotes. FYI, coyotes are pretty much harmless. Even North American wolves aren’t anything to worry about. Now European wolves… that’s a different story.

        1. The parks in California have plenty of rattlesnakes. They leave you alone if you stay on the trail. They even have a rattle to warn you if you get too close. The biggest risk is if your dog goes after them — there are training classes for dogs to avoid them.

      2. A rabid raccoon or opossum stumbling out of the woods in the middle of the day was a treat when we were old enough to ‘deal with them’. Pretty confident in my kids handling such occurrences appropriately despite (AFAIK) never having been exposed to it. 1-2 decades prior to conception, kinda hard to say how I would feel about my grandkids stumbling across one at any given age.

        1. How are your grandkids going to stumble across a rabid raccoon from the rec room with a game controller in their hands?

      3. The elementary school that I went to taught us to identify and stay away from rattlesnakes.

        When they started doing blasting to put a highway through, they added blasting cap posters to the rooms and hallways. The first kid who found a blasting cap brought it to 3rd grade, and was a hero for years. The teacher took away the cap, the janitor came and got it, the fire captain cruised over by a little later and confirmed that it was a blasting cap, and an hour later the construction company sent someone to give us a demonstration on the playground, blowing it in front of the assembled students and doing some serious special effects to a mannequin donated by some parent’s clothing shop. The only disappointment was that the kid who found it wasn’t allowed to turn the crank on the blasting machine, but the grownups decided that this would create an incentive for bringing more.

    2. Even for adults who learned the buddy system and navigational skills in the Scouts 50 yrs. ago, taking a cell phone isn’t a terrible idea.

  8. Because the books are steeped in systemic racism. Catch up, Lenore.

  9. In rural areas, children still play outside by themselves. I’m six or so miles from the nearest convenience store and when I venture out, I see children having a lot of fun. Last week, there were two boys around 8 and 10 years old with a dirt bike in a mud hole in their driveway. They were revving the engine and slinging mud everywhere. They were both covered in mud and laughing at each other. It looked like fun!

    1. OMG! I bet these kids’ parents voted for Trump too. The horror

      1. I dunno, nobody slings mud like Democrats . . .

      2. I’m sure they did. I live in a very conservative county. Population around 12,000. We have one red-light, one elementary school, one primary school, one middle school and one high school. Not much happens around here. Although about fifteen years ago, we had an armed robbery at a local store. Both out-of-county perps were shot by the store owner and were found deceased in aisle 4. That’s about the extent of the excitement in the past few decades.

        1. And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone.

  10. That’s because kook leftists have taken over normal human functioning brains and turned them into withering flowers.

  11. “Mom, How Come the Kids in These Old Books Are Allowed Outside Without a Parent or Cell Phone?”

    Because in those days if some asshole bureaucrat walked up on the porch and said he was going to talk to the kids alone, Dad would have busted his wrist with a baseball bat and kicked his ass down the street, then told the cops to come get the child molester. And the cops would have locked the bureaucrat up.

    1. Now the cops are on the bureaucrat’s side and it could well be the cops who knock on/bust down your door

      1. Yep.
        I understand 1930’s Germany a lot better these days.

  12. When the mom asked what she had done wrong, the cop replied that letting her kids play outside alone is always considered neglect.

    What happens when you let guys with no balls carry guns. The cops could tell the bureaucrats to fuck off that isn’t their job or just ignore it, like they with do the 4th amendment, but they don’t.

  13. I remember reading a book to my son when he was really little a few years ago about Biscuit the puppy. A girl takes her puppy into town to buy ice cream and the mom is in each scene but has no role in the story. I thought that was kind of weird, then it occurred to me, maybe they did that in case some kid gets the idea to take her dog out by himself, something bad happens, and the parents sue the publisher for encouraging the child to leave the house without his/her parents.

  14. When I was a kid, back in the 50s and early 60s, I could go anywhere within the sound of the conch shell horn my dad would blow to call me at supper time.

    1. Same. My father had two really loud whistles he could do with two fingers in his mouth. One was for us, and one was for the dog.

  15. I remember how horrifying the vision of that one neighborhood in “Wrinkle” was, where the kids were bouncing the balls in time with each other, and the terrified mother saying “Our children NEVER drop their balls!” She thought that Meg and Charles were social agents.

    I haven’t read the book in 50 years, and that is the only part of it that I remember, other than the lesson on tesseracts.

    Back then, it was fiction.

  16. I’ll also chime in with a “when I was a kid…”. We were allowed/forced to play outside without supervision, coming home to dad’s whistle. Funny thing is, now that I’m in my late 30s with a kid of my own, when I tell my mom about what we did back then, she usually responds, “if I had known that’s what you guys were doing, you wouldn’t have been allowed.”

    1. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, so 6 and 7, my best friend David’s was way out of earshot of home. His was the last house before the woods started.. Home by dinner if you want to eat. Home by dark or there’s hell to pay

  17. Because mommys used to stay at home with the children so they could raise them to know right from wrong.

  18. I grew up reading the Hardy Boys, the Three Investigators, and Encyclopedia Brown. I also roamed pretty much everywhere that was within roughly a 40-minute radius of home, much of it wooded. I never got lost, never got kidnapped, and turned out all right (apart from hating authority). Grownups today be crazy. Just leave kids alone.

  19. All we had to do was tell someone where we were going.
    In the summer they’d dump us in a park or a movie so we’d be out of the way of shopping, buying groceries, etc.
    Nothing bad happened to us.

  20. One issue that can make this better, is adults should not call the police if a child is playing alone at a park or are alone in a parked car. Trust that parents gave them permission. Only intervene if a child is truly in danger not simply unaccompanied.

    However, reading an interview with a 1980s Mom, a few things made “free range” possible that don’t exist now. 1). Most women were at home when children were young. Your child was not really unmonitored. He was at your house or one of their neighbor kids houses, the park or the pool and you knew where they were. If something bad happened, while an adult wasn’t watching 24/7, an adult wasn’t far away and could give aid.
    2). People knew their neighbors and had trust and believed their kids would be safe wondering the neighborhood.
    3) Neighbors could develop relationships with children and it would be considered a positive thing. Parents would call each other and tell each other if a child was misbehaving.

    My cousin lives in Massachusetts for a few years while her husband was in law school. However, they made the decision to move to Montana to have children because they could create a scenario that would give children more freedom. If you live in a dense urban area, even if you want to give your children freedom, you probably need to wait until they can safely navigate heavy traffic.

    1. On my dad’s first day of first grade, my grandfather saddled two horses and rode with him to school and then waited all day for school to be out and then he rode home with him. After that, my dad rode the four or so miles each way by himself.

      There were, of course, a handful of other school kids, but only about the last half mile of the trip to school would there be anyone else to ride with.

      He did that through all kinds of weather until he was in high school.

  21. The odd thing about the move to shelter children from everything is that the world is much safer now than it was 50 years ago. Crime rates are much lower, and it’s much easier to check in on your cell phone or call help if something goes wrong.

  22. In The Cricket in Times Square, the kid goes across New York City by himself to Chinatown to go get a cricket cage. Modern kids books are still filled with kids off on their own on adventures. It makes for a horrible disconnect between the book protagonists and the readers.

  23. They have not just stolen childhood, they are now masking it to. Two year old!

  24. The author is stating facts that bear out in several studies. However, the author offers no explanation for why parents have been consistently choosing to exhibit over-protective behaviors, and why this over-protective state is increasing in its territorial restrictions generation by generation. As a result, it leaves the parent, not considering the possible fallacy and foolishness of being over-protective, but rather having a sense of exasperation that the author is dealing in ideologies and not realities on the ground and in real time.

  25. They grow when they get a chance to do, to see, to try, to run, and even to fall.

    totally cool. How about getting hit by a fucking car? Do they grow from that experience?

  26. It’s still pretty wide open in the town I live in.

    About ten years ago, I was at one neighbor’s house about 6 pm. She said that she hadn’t seen her daughter (10-12 or so) since lunch time and that it was about time for supper. Sure enough, her daughter came in completely unharmed after spending the afternoon at the city swimming pool and then over at a friend’s house.

    My office is half a block from the city park. It’s not unusual to see kids as young as 4 or 5 go by on their way to the park accompanied by an older brother or sister who is maybe 8 or 9 years old.

    My niece has a 2 year old daughter. She can’t wait for the daughter to be able to cross the street by herself so that she can run over to the park whenever she wishes.

    A few years ago, my sister came up for a week and brought her oldest grandson who was about 12 at the time. She and I were sitting in my office talking when the grandson said that he wanted to go to Dairy Queen. My sister told him to go ahead.

    He didn’t understand that so he repeated that he wanted to go to Dairy Queen. Again, my sister told him it was just a few blocks down the street and to go ahead.

    He said a third time that he wanted to go to Dairy Queen. Again, my sister told him to go ahead.

    It finally dawned on him that he could actually go to Dairy Queen by himself and he took off. While he was gone, my sister said that in the town he lived in, he wasn’t permitted to leave the yard without an adult present. When he got back from Dairy Queen, he went into detail telling about his trip down to Dairy Queen and back by himself. He loved it.

    Then he said that he wanted to go to the park. My sister pointed toward the park and said to go on. He asked again and she said to go on. This time he went and had a good time in the park.

    I guess for a few years, this was his favorite town in the world — a town where he was free to be a kid.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t even have a key to my own house. I don’t need one since I don’t see any reason to lock it.

    1. Also, a grand niece of mine used to go to weekly event for girls located at a nearby church. It was some weeknight and in the evening it was well after dark by the time it was over. After the event, she would walk the few blocks from the church to my office and wait for her parents to come pick her up after a while.

      One Friday night when she was in the first grade, she was all ready to walk to the football field by herself to watch the football game. Her parents showed up just in time to take her to the game with them.

      At lunch time in elementary school and junior high, she likes to run from the school to my office for lunch and often brings friends of hers along. She never has had to get permission from anyone to leave the school at lunch time. Next year, she’ll be in high school.

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