Free-Range Kids

12 Years After Free-Range Kids, How Has Childhood Changed?

Smartphones and stranger danger keep kids inside, but the laws are improving.

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The second edition of Free-Range Kids comes out on June 16. I wrote the first edition 12 years ago, after my column about letting my nine-year-old ride the subway alone became national news and I got dubbed "America's Worst Mom." Since then, I've been fighting for childhood independence alongside some fierce allies, including Reason.

What has changed in the past dozen years, for better or for worse, when it comes to childhood freedom?

What's Getting Worse

Kids are being treated like babies for even longer stretches. When Jonathan Haidt, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind, gives lectures, he often asks audience members born before 1982 to shout out what age they were first allowed to leave the house on their own. Many in the crowd answer six, followed by seven or eight.(Personally, I shout "Five!")

Then, skipping the mishmash of the millennials, he asks everyone born after 1995 to answer the same question, and most of the Gen Z-ers respond in the 10-12 age range. "The effect is always huge," says Haidt, a co-founder with me of Let Grow, the nonprofit dedicated to making childhood independence easy, normal, and legal.

This drop-off in autonomy can be traced to several factors.

Crime: Even though crime began to plummet in the mid 1990s, Americans just can't believe it. "In 20 of 24 Gallup surveys conducted since 1993, at least 60 percent of U.S. adults have said there is more crime nationally than there was the year before," according to Pew Research, despite a general downward trend. (Note: 2020 was a unique year, and crime did increase.)

How big a "downward trend"? Violent crime is about half of what it was in 1991. Yes, pandemic times have pushed crime numbers up, but this misperception of mayhem has been going on for decades and it is just hard to fight fear with reality. If you really believe the world is one big, white van driven by a clown with an Uzi, you don't let your kids play outside.

Smartphones: These technological tethers are particularly insidious. A Wall Street Journal article titled, literally, "Raising a Free-Range Child in 2020," suggests equipping the kids with smartwatches that allow parents to track the kids. In fact, one of the pre-installed buttons sends the text: "When are you picking me up?"

A mom interviewed in the Journal piece waxed nostalgic about her childhood down by the creek. Spending time there, "was not just lovely but really important in creating independence and developing confidence," she said, adding, "I wanted to find a way to recreate that for my daughter."

So she gave her daughter a high-tech watch. And when the girl's chain fell off her bike, the girl alerted her dad who immediately came and fixed it.

Presented as a win for autonomy, this is, in fact, the opposite—and the opposite of that mom's independence-building creek-time. The girl didn't figure out how to fix her bike, or how to get home without it working. She called childhood's Triple A: the Always Available Adult.

Constant adult oversight is a stealth reason kids have less autonomy. Parents think they're giving their kids freedom, but it's actually a blanket of surveillance and assistance. The kids know they are never truly on their own, and from what I've seen, they often become accustomed to it. Being on your own starts to seem scary when it is never the norm.

A 7th grade teacher in the suburbs told me that this spring her students were imagining what it would be like to walk to their quaint downtown shopping area, when one student asked, "What happens if I'm walking or riding my bike and I get stuck on the train tracks?"

This child was 12 or 13.

You almost can't blame them. (Almost.) Many kids have been picked up and delivered to school and sundry activities all their lives, like UPS packages. Packages can't get off the train tracks by themselves either.

And of course, the flip side of the tech revolution is another reason kids get so much less freedom. Not only are they obsessively tracked by parents who can check their grades, texts, location, browsing history, school behavior and even body temperature from afar, they also have enough fun tech to keep them inside without going crazy.

Back in the hoary past, if your home was hot, crowded, loud, or boring, your only alternative was to go outside and find someone or something to play with. Now that staying inside is fascinating (hey, it's a beautiful day and I'm at my computer, too), kids aren't champing at the bit. When the couch beckons, parents don't have to worry about their kids flying the coop.

Homework: A 2004 University of Michigan study found kids are spending an extra 7.5 hours a week on schoolwork than they were 20 years earlier. A more recent study found that younger students were getting three times more homework than was recommended by education experts. You can't ride your bike to the 7-Eleven if you've got a math test coming up, science project due, and reading log to fill in. (And, remember, no more hiding your F's in your pajama drawer, as an unnamed relative of mine did: Your parents can see every grade on every quiz.)

Extracurriculars: Children who might once have had some time to, say, play by the creek, are often now in organized activities. The children's sports industrial complex has become a $15 billion dollar business (though, once again, COVID-19 has mixed that up some).

The more that kids are in adult-run activities, the more it feels to parents and kids as if it is only natural to always have someone, preferably a specialist, teaching a child something. Free time starts to look like time that could be better spent getting a leg up. Who's going to get that scholarship: The kid pointlessly climbing a tree or the kid in travel hockey?

911 calls: Many parents worry, quite reasonably, that some busybody could call 911 to report an unattended kid. Next think you know, child services are knocking at the door.

As parents started contacting me to say they had been investigated for letting their kids play at the park, or walk home from the playground, or even shoot hoops in their own backyard, I wrote about their stories. In fact, Reason is the first place the public heard about the Meitivs of Maryland, the Debra Harrell story, and the dad given hard labor for making his son walk home from the grocery store at dusk.

These stories got huge play, which is good—no parent should be second-guessed for making everyday decisions that do not put their kids in serious and likely danger. On the other hand, I never meant to make parents even more worried about their reasonable parenting decisions coming under formal scrutiny. But that does bring me, at last, to the good news about childhood independence.

What's Getting Better

New laws: Just last month, Oklahoma and Texas, passed so-called Reasonable Childhood Independence bills. These say that kids have the right to some unsupervised time, and parents have the right to give it to them—by choice or by necessity. For instance, if I want my son to feel confident and competent because I let him "free-range," that's fine. But a stretched-thin single mom who works two shifts and can't be home with her seven-year-old for an hour or two after school? She's covered by the new laws, too. Giving your kid some unsupervised time can no longer be considered neglect when it is simply poverty.

Texas and Oklahoma joined Utah, which had passed the first free-range parenting law in 2018. Let Grow has another five or six states on our radar for next year, and in some of them—Colorado, South Carolina, and Idaho—the bills have already been drafted. Click here if you'd like to see the laws in your state, and here if you'd like to help us get some good ones passed. (And here if you would like to donate to the cause).

New research: The rise in childhood anxiety is so scary and sad that some psychologists and educators are beginning to research novel ways to fight it. Long Island University Psychology Professor Camilo Ortiz is undertaking a study this fall that will treat children diagnosed with anxiety disorder with a dose of independence. He will give these kids the Let Grow Project: The assignment to go home and do something new, on their own, without their parents. If, as I've seen happen, the kids grow bolder the more they do some things on their own—run an errand, ride their bike, walk to school—well, then we've got a simple, new, free way to help a whole lot of anxious kids and their parents. After all, parents change as much as the kids do, once they see their hothouse flowers blossoming with pride and confidence. A pilot project in the Boston Public Schools this summer will also be measuring The Let Grow Project's impact on students' social-emotional growth.

New partners: In 2017, Haidt, Free to Learn author Peter Gray, and Daniel Shuchman, former chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and I co-founded Let Grow. All of us were worried that overprotection was undermining kids. Gray and Shuchman were particularly concerned that groups promoting civil discourse and open-mindedness at the university level represented late-stage interventions. So our nonprofit is focused on developing resilience much earlier in childhood, as a vaccine against fragility. Our school programs, thought leadership, advocacy, and outreach are all dedicated to making it easy, normal and legal to give kids back some fortifying independence.

New Word: The phrase Free-Range Kids has made its way into the dictionary. It gives people a name for "a style of child rearing in which parents allow their children to move about without constant adult supervision, aimed at instilling independence and self-reliance," as Dictionary.com says. Giving kids some freedom to explore, play, and even screw up a bit isn't slacker parenting or neglect. It's "Free-Range."

That sounds like bragging, so I'll leave it there. The fact is, there are plenty of forces keeping kids inside, supervised, scared, distrusted, and in a way, disabled. ("How will I get off the tracks?") But there are so many people concerned about stunting a generation's growth that we are now a force to be reckoned with, too.

And since our way gives kids and parents more freedom, more trust, more power and more hope, we are going to win.

NEXT: The 'California Dream' Isn't Dead. Yet.

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  1. 12 years ago, 9 years old … just about time for an update on how well he’s doing, and especially how he compares to helicoptered kids his age. (I was a free range kid, walking to school a mile away by 3rd grade, walking all over town to visit friends. Rural town — septic tanks, fuel oil heating, but piped-in water, no wells.)

    1. When I was a kid, we would have to walk five miles to school, up hill both ways.
      Our dad used to beat us every night before bed and then feed us a handful of cold gravel for breakfast every morning.
      My entire family lived in a closet….Living in a cardboard box was a dream for us.

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      2. Strangely enough, from where I live now, it actually is uphill both ways to get in or out.

  2. “And since our way gives kids and parents more freedom, more trust, more power and more hope, we are going to win.”

    Changing a few laws in slack-jaw states, losers in America’s culture war (Oklahoma, Idaho, Texas, South Carolina), doesn’t sound like a path toward victory in modern America. It sounds more like alignment with the disaffected, dwindling fringe.

    1. Artie’s still mad because nobody abducted him as a child, so his pain as an adult will remain undiagnosed depression.

      1. He wants to know why his father didn’t molest him – did he not love him enough?

    2. Lemme get this straight. You’re opposed to tens of millions of kids being allowed to play unsupervised and grow up normally, just because a writer at Reason is in favor and some other writer at Reason very briefly censored you for writing “cop succor” years in the past?

      1. Yes. All within the state for our dear reverend. He’d be for socialized creches but the mainstream Progressives won’t go for that. Yet.

  3. So we need more laws to do what people did decades ago as normal individuals. Yep hard left wing marxism is alive and growing.

  4. When I was seven or eight, after I walked home a mile from school, on streets that mostly didn’t have sidewalks, I’d dump my books and go out to play anywhere where I was within the sound of the conch shell horn my dad would blow to call me to dinner, and he could really get some volume out of that thing.

    1. I walked a mile and a half. Only got in trouble once for getting home too late. Nice empty lots across the street to play in. There was a row of ancient pine trees, one hundred feet tall or more. I climbed to the top, could see several towns over I was so high. (A tornado came along one year and ripped them out. Sigh).

      It was dangerous. I won’t talk about it, but my brother died doing what any kid at the time would do. A kid a couple blocks over shot his face off with his dad’s gun. But the answer to the danger is not coddling.

  5. “Who’s going to get that scholarship: The kid pointlessly climbing a tree or the kid in travel hockey?”

    Who’s going to learn to be a plumber and have the balls to start his own company and become a millionaire, and who’s going to sit in a cube and bitch all day long?

    1. IDK, the ‘free-range kids’ argument goes off the rails a bit there. It’s not like hockey parents are calling DCFS because my kids aren’t spending enough time on the ice or I’m too busy. The majority of the hockey parents I meet are of the “It’s expensive and exasperating, but the kid’s love it.” variety. If they want to spend their time and money on expert instructions for their kids, as long as it’s not a situation where the kids spends 16 hrs. a day on the ice only with breaks to get berated for their mistakes, I don’t see the issue.

    2. Same thing with the smart phones/watches. One kid is going to text you “My bike broke, can you pick me up?” another kid is going to text “Can you get me a tire and tube for my bike and some master links on your way home?” along with a pic of the tire dimensions and, when you get home, tools and bike parts will be spread all over your garage. Which text you get has very little to do with the phone as the latter kid had one of the “When are you going to pick me up?” smart watches and it allowed him to roam further and play longer while still being on time for and participating in other activities.

      Until they invent a phone that cleans up the garage itself, “Make sure to clean up when you’re done or I’ll have to take your phone away.” will have to do.

    3. It doesn’t matter. Just expose the kids to various activities until they find the key that fits. There is one there somewhere.

      Oh and teach them how to swim. That is very important.

    4. I think you’re right there is a connection between coddling as a child and resentment politics as an adult.

  6. Then, skipping the mishmash of Generation X,

    Kids so free range that even free range kids advocates respond “WTF? I’m not touching that!”.

  7. Okay, I keep seeing these stories. These scare stories about parents getting in trouble for not helicoptering over their kids. I’ve read the articles, and not just from Lenore.

    But I really don’t see any of this. And I’m in a suburb in metropolitan California. Surely if it’s happening everywhere it must be happening here?

    There’s an elementary school about half a mile away. And every morning I see kids walking to school WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS. Hell, I see them using the public bus WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS. Hellfire, I been on the frigging BART subway and seen kids riding WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS.

    So what’s up? Is this kind of shit only happening in the more affluent neighborhoods where people are all named Tad and Buffy?

    It’s not that we’re short on karens, they absolutely run this place. I see them studiously observing who does or does not wear a mask.

    Is it because the local police departments ignore the 9/11 calls about kids being off their leashes? Dunno.

    I just want to know where this stuff is happening, because it’s not happening here.

    1. ORLY? Do you have kids? More importantly, are they… vaccinated?

    2. Good, so it’s not pervasive yet. Which means we can nip it in the bud before it takes over and a whole generation grows up thinking it’s valid.

      In my town I’ve never seen a white supremacist driver plowing into a crowd, nor have I seen any BLMers mostly peacefully burning down a business. Doesn’t mean those things aren’t real and worthy addressing sooner rather than later.

    3. I live outside a small town in SW Arizona – before I moved I saw kids in the housing development I was living in driven to the bus stop (the place is only a half mile across) and then parents would wait in the car for the bus to arrive.

      They’d be there in the afternoon to pick the kids up.

    4. Always encouraging to hear that. It seems to be mostly like that where I live too (but you’d kind of expect it there).

      Still shocking how many fat children you see. But that’s another topic.

      1. No man. Please tell me you aren’t going to replace no-unsupervised-play policing with no-sugar-no-snacks policing.

    5. “the local police departments ignore the 9/11 calls about kids being off their leashes?”

      I’m sure that’s a big part of it. In places where the police are overwhelmed, they’re less likely to interfere in your life in all sorts of ways. If you live in an affluent small town where the police show up in less than a minute when called, they’re going to be up in your business.

      1. I also suspect its a Woke thing. And despite California having the reputation of being Woke, outside of the universities it really isn’t. Places like Ann Arbor or Brooklyn, on the other hand, are full of white parents demanding to be microregulated. California Latino don’t want any of that shit.

        1. Mexicans and Central Americans are basically southern US rednecks turned up to 11.

  8. Skenazy can’t even mention ‘decline in biking’ (and the causes for that) as a major reason for the loss of kid autonomy?

    How the fuck is the kid going to get from their home – to the place where they are going to play free – in a manner that is itself evidence of the kid’s independence. Does Skenazy expect parents to drive them there and then drop them off to play freely? Or are they supposed to stand around waiting? Or this the generic ‘assume transporter beams are provided by the market’ (like in the olden days when I rode my transporter beams on my own to school 5 miles – uphill both ways)?

    This is not mere forgetfulness. It is a profound deception that ‘free range kids’ has nothing to do with ‘mobility of kids’. Oh no. It’s all about the attitudes of parents.

    1. And laws. Don’t forget the laws and rules.

    2. A lot of the decline of the mobility of middle-class kids is the rise of isolated, cul-de-sac suburban manufactured neighborhoods designed around automobiles, that can’t be escaped without getting on a highway.

      1. It’s odd because the initial loops and lollipops nested-street design of suburbs was intended to fix the urban grid design which broke for peds and bikes and horses when cars started going 25+ (and in practical terms 35 because cops give a 10mph ‘break’). Suddenly kids could no longer play stickball on the street and people dreamed of a place where their kids could play outside AND in greenery.

        Something did change in many burbs in the 80’s. idk (I’ve lived in cities with grids mostly) maybe – arterial intersections there have definitely gotten wider and right-turn-on-red (so cars no longer stop or look). Those are not at all friendly for peds/bikes. Made worse by those ‘safety islands’.

  9. I grew up able to go to the pool, and the little store, I was able to bike to the library and my grandmother’s house. In the summer we didn’t come in until the street lights came on. My boys were getting themselves off to school by themselves at age 8 and 10. We worked and left before them. I was able to take buses with friends. I remember when the subway kid hit the news I was quite surprised by the response. It surprising to me how many people don’t allow their children any type of autonomy. I loved climbing trees and am grateful I was allowed to.

  10. Lenore is here to sell her book and her shtick on how to raise your children because Reason lets her. We all remember the days when we were allowed to just meander down to the swimming hole and aunt bea would have some warm apple pie and ice cream when we got back.

  11. The things my brothers and I did when we were kids would have gotten our parents arrested and charged with willful child neglect.
    I grew up in Northern Michigan and it was the greatest. We wandered the forests, swam in the lakes and did what a lot of things other kids would have been jealous. We lived in a rural setting so some of you may have done as well and know what I’m talking about.
    By the time I was ten, we were walking a mile and half to go swimming….BY OURSELVES! No less. I would ride my bike to the next town with a neighbor friend which was only seven or eight miles but it was fun.
    We built forts in the woods, trampled all over the place without parental supervision. We launched rockets and even made our own ski run.
    Of course my older brother was the engineer of the family so we had lots of extra things to get involved with.
    I feel sorry for so many kids growing up in urban and suburban environments where they really have no where to go.
    I believe my mum was glad to see us get out of the house on those days when we could.
    I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
    Oh yes and my older brother the engineer designed a slot car track which we raced on for years.

  12. Thank God I was a Free Range Kid. Me and my two brothers could go anywhere and do most anything as long as we were home for dinner at 6:00 PM sharp when dad came home from the office.

    Of course, we were well prepared to do this as my wonderful parents taught us how to camp out (In a pup tent, not a fifth wheel) in a sleeping bag in the woods, how to safely both start and put out a fire, with no matches, bike to school faster then the school bus, how to shoot a gun properly and complete gun safety, etc. Of course, they both were military officers and fought in WW2, so we did have discipline and “Captains Mast” after dinner was not a place you wanted to be invited to. Said another way, they simply wanted us to be ready for life, and whatever it might bring. They succeeded .

    Today, we have brought up our children the same way and they, in turn are bringing up their kids the same way. Seems to be turning out well. So ground the helicopters and shut off the bulldozers. Your kids DO NOT need them, they need to learn life skills and not be afraid of life. That is the greatest gift you can give your children. Don’t squander your precious time.

  13. Author seems a little confused about generations. Gen X was born between 1965 and 1980. Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996 and Gen Z was born after 1996. So Haidt was comparing Gen X and Gen Z and skipping millennials.

    1. My god! If she can’t be trusted to keep straight which generation is which, how in the world can she raise 10 year old gen-x kids in 2021?

      Ok, boomer.

      1. Ironically she’s the boomer and I’m a millennial.

  14. I found the comment on excessive homework funny. After all we’ve been through in the last year, the author is relying on “education experts?” Haven’t we learned in the last year that relying on any subject matter “expert” (particularly in education) without question is both naïve and dangerous? It’s those same “education experts” that keep parents from letting their kids walk home from school.

  15. One of my co-workers about ten years ago had kids who were in college and she was doing things like registering them for their classes!

    That they couldn’t register for classes themselves was quite shocking to me.

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