Monday, April 07, 2014

1929: When free-range kids were really free range

In 1929, when my Grandpa Bob was 10 years old, his parents sent him to California to spend the summer with his grandparents and his aunt and uncle. And by send him to California, I mean they put gave him a roll of cash and put him on a train.

My mother rediscovered one of the letters he sent to his parents upon his arrival in Los Angeles. He used a typewriter and covered two full pages describing the four days and three nights he spent heading west. There was a lot of eating consomme and sliced tomatoes in the dining car, sleeping in a berth and getting dirty on the observation deck, but there was a little drama too. My grandfather played cards with a girl ("you needed worry she wasn't good looking"), repeatedly forced another kid out of his seat by yanking on his feet, and interacted with a drunkard ("I forgot to tell you that when I was coming back from the diner that the drunk man that I told you about in my cards grabbed my arms and said where have you been"), and befriended an old lady ("remember that last time we went we saw a boy talking to another lady and you said that I would never talk to any-body like that buy you got fooled because I did.")

As my mother noted as she sent along scans of Bob's letters, "His parents were not exactly helicopter parents."

It's amazing to think about how much freedom and responsibility used to be granted to children and how much less freedom each successive generation of parents grants their own children. I consider myself a free-range parent, but I don't think Zoe would be ready to travel for three days on her own in a year or so. And even if she was ready, I'd surely be arrested and charged with child endangerment for trusting her with the trip.

The culture around children and freedom as changed so much that I worry less about the safety of leaving my kids unsupervised for short periods or letting them roam the neighborhood than I do about what other people might think. I just read a blog post about a woman unwilling to let her 12 year old son go to the ice cream parlor with his friends. There's another 4th grader on our block who isn't allowed to walk the 2 1/2 blocks to school without an adult. There are so many parents out there allowing so little freedom that I worry that our culture is raising a generation of future basement dwellers unable and unwilling to leave the house unattended.

Zoe asked me this weekend if she'd "get a whole bunch more freedom in 6th grade." I responded that I like to increase her independence slowly but surely and all the time. I explained that I'm always giving her a little bit more rope, and that as long as she behaves responsibly and shows good judgement, I'll keep letting out more and more rope. Next up: taking her 6 year old sister to the ice cream parlor.