A Free-Range Childhood

by Tinamarie Bernard July 29, 2011


By Tinamarie Bernard

Nightmare on Ya’akov Street

A few days before we left Israel, our 3-year-old disappeared in a crowd of thousands. One minute she was standing in front of me watching an entertainer onstage at the Rehovet street festival, the next, she was missing.

“The baby’s gone!” I said to my husband. As the seconds turned to a minute and then more, it was clear she was no longer anywhere near our sides, and in the midst of a foreign city at a street fair rich with color and hiding places for would-be snatchers, my anxiety turned to full-blown panic.

The mime onstage might have wondered if I was trying to mock him or take over the show, but I cared only to gain a better vantage to scan the crowd. The security guard recognized the mother bear in me and backed off as I growled, “My toddler is missing and I’m going to look for her NOW!” All I saw was a sea of faces, some oblivious to what was going on, others keen to my frantic search.

She had vanished before our very eyes. Every celebrant was now a suspect and in my mind, and I feared the worst.

My husband and son raced to lost and found, and a security patrol was quickly dispatched, including someone who came to guide me off the stage. I remember collapsing in a puddle resembling nothing of my former capable self, first on the walk to their offices, second into the offered chair.

Fear sharpens everything and slows time. I wanted to swat at the people who kept offering me water, or telling me not to worry, though in hindsight, their response was essential and edifying; instead of screaming at them, I held my son tight against me.

“You’re scaring me, Mommy,” he said. For a bit, that helped pull me together until I lost it again when he said, “I wish I could take her place and be the one who’s missing.” Ever the protective older brother, he wanted to help search for her, not understanding why there was no way I could let him out of my sight.

It’s only because of the happy ending — she had wondered off on her own accord to see another clown — that I can replay those long minutes, the eight most fearsome in my life.

You can take a mother out of the city, but can you make a free-range parent out of her?


Freer Pastures versus Virtual Realities

There is no doubt that in Israel, children roam with greater autonomy and less parental worry than in the United States, a freedom that translates into life lessons learned the real way. We’ve become so accustomed to virtual reality that sometimes it seems we’ve distanced ourselves and our children from the greatest classroom of all: the great wide world around us. There are essential intangibles to be gained, however, from stepping back into time, or in this case, moving across cultures.

One mother, Madeline Schwartz, says she’ll miss kids’ freedom to be kids when she moves her family from Israel back to the East Coast, where she is from.

Schwartz, a mother of four who has lived in Israel twice, once in Jerusalem and another time near Karmiel, explains that it’s simpler and easier to raise children in Israel vis-à-vis the U.S., in part because there is a stronger sense of trusting the community at large to cover your children’s backs and less scheduling and helicopter parenting. She says she’ll miss not knowing where her kids are at every given moment, and not worrying about them, and not having to sign pages of paperwork for every field trip.

We both relaxed into this style of parenting in our tiny village homes. It wasn’t an effortless education, yet over time and with only 90 neighbors and more than 150 kids fleeing the coop any given afternoon, stranger danger diminished. Sure, there were scorpions, centipedes the size of a man’s index finger and wild boars to avoid, but these were natural hazards that we learned to no longer fear. Hours could go by during which we relinquished the need to know where our children were at any given moment, and that was par for the course among the families. With a few phone calls, little Abie would be found playing in Nadav’s backyard, and the secret hideaway fort in the oak brush was the same one used by older siblings a few years back.

Even city kids in Israel have a “richer social life,” in the words of another Chicago-born mother of three, Shari Tanner. Her teenage daughters seem to spend less time in front of the computer and more time enjoying growing up. Who needs all that screen time when you can take a bus or walk somewhere to hang out with your friends? It’s youth as it’s meant to be for many olim parents who often struggle financially or emotionally on their own accord, but they stay here because of the Israeli style of childrearing. It’s free range all the way.


Comeback Kids

In 2008, Lenore Skenazy stunned many when she admitted in an article for The New York Sun that she let her 9-year-old take the New York subway alone. Within days, she was on the major morning network shows. Some called her the world’s worst mother. Others praised her for restoring sanity in a world gone overprotective despite crime statistics (regarding child abductions) that haven’t changed much over the last several decades.

Since then, she’s written the book “Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry” (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and founded the blog by the same name, a haven for like-minded parents who “believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence.”

“Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage,” she states in the introduction to her blog, a dynamic community where parents share stories and encouragement, as well as criticism, of free-range upbringing. “The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.”


Learning to Set Nuanced Boundaries

After our daughter was lost and found, I thought about the concept of free-ranging kids even more. Clearly, vanishing in a crowd is different than playing outside the house or being with the neighbors for an afternoon of unscheduled play.

Boundaries are good for children and parents. Living in Israel for two years taught me that where we set them often depends on our tolerance and ability to modify fear. Did I become a full-range free-range mother in two years? By Israeli standards, I’d still be labeled a worrywart (as the security personnel pointed out); In San Diego, I think I’ll medal for less meddling. This I know for sure — my friends and I who are moving back stateside have the highest intention of setting nuanced boundaries that encourage our children to be self-reliant and safe.


Risk Tolerance vs. Risk Management

It doesn’t take long to remember our own bygone days before the era of warning labels and disclaimers, but figuring out how we learned to be so afraid is a trickier subject. In the words of one commentator on FreeRangeKids.org, ”for some reason, we now believe the risks of childhood can and should be completely eliminated. What we’ve gained is the perception that we are in constant morbid peril. What we’ve eliminated is our tolerance for any risk, and independent thought.”

The pendulum may be swinging toward something more rational as parents discover sites like Freerangekids.com. Skenazy shares stories — parents who won’t let their kids walk to the mailbox at the front of their lawn for fear of kidnapping, or others who insist children call the minute they get to their friend’s house a few doors down — to point out just how frightened we’ve become. Considering that the number of kidnappings and crimes against children, according to her research, has remained fairly steady over time makes one wonder: is the world really dangerous today than 40 years ago?

In my opinion — as a parent and not as an educator or specialist — we would do well to re-educate ourselves, and figure out the difference between managing away all risk versus tolerating a reasonable amount.

For example, Skenazy points out that it’s important for kids to learn that it’s okay to talk to strangers, which is something altogether different than cultural norms and driving off with someone who your kids don’t know. Not everyone is the boogey man; all friends were once strangers, too. Talking to strangers in appropriate, safe ways as opposed to fleeing from every unknown person requires a mental shift for many parents. Is it a risk worth taking?


Teacups, Crispies, Free-Rangers

Finding our way through this muddle as parents may have as of yet undetermined long-term benefits to the next generation. I’m referring to a June 2011 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” written by psychologist and author Lori Gottlieb. At its core is the concept of resilience, a skill some consider missing in the last couple decades’ worth of parenting.

How much hovering and protecting is good for children, and how much stifles them to the point that they are unable to cope for themselves? According to Gottlieb, university administration officials have coined a few terms to describe applicants who came from homes in which they were either overscheduled with activities or overprotected (or both). One group is so burnt out by the tender age of 18 that they have no motivation to achieve anything further; they are called “Crispies.” The other category of students are like fragile porcelain ‘Teacups” that break under the slightest bit of academic pressure. I wondered: Can free-ranging be an antidote?

I asked Gottlieb if she had uncovered a connection between how kids faired in college and the type of parenting they’d encountered as youngsters. “It’s a good question,” she told me, worthy of further exploration, though she hadn’t focused on that correlation herself.

My instinct — honed by growing up with a longer leash than the standard of today — tells me we don’t need social science to figure it out. Neither do our children. What could help is a paradigm shift in which we educate ourselves about the real prevalence of dangers as opposed to being overwhelmed by the doom and gloom of the news; empower our children with resiliance so they have the toold to handle more of life’s challenges, and reclaim good sense before we waste more precious time with worry and want. Our kids may even learn a thing or two about being self-reliant and about getting along in this wide world we live in. And that’s one of the best educations we can give them.


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