My Free Range Childhood

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s you could look around my hometown and see kids wondering the streets unsupervised on a regular basis. Among those kids you would almost always find a ten year old me riding my bike to the park or pool down the street, or walking the 1 1/2 miles to the public library or Tasty Freeze. If I wanted to go to the mall or a movie, my parents had no qualms with dropping me and my friends off for a couple hours. If I wanted to go to a friend’s house within town, I didn’t have to wait until I had a ride. My feet were perfectly capable of taking me.

If I wasn’t around town I was running through the woods in my backyard. I built forts, climbed trees, scrapped my legs on thorn bushes, brushed through poison ivy, played war games, had campfires, and generally lived as if I were Pocahontas herself from the time I woke up to well past dark. If my parents needed me they could step outside and yell my name, but I was otherwise left to do as I pleased without their hovering as a distraction.

I was to a tee a free range kid, but that wasn’t what it was called back then. Instead it was simply refereed to as being a kid. My parents always knew my whereabouts. They trusted that I exercise the caution they taught me, and simply let me be.

These days when I visit my hometown I take a glimpse around and realize that while there were once handfuls of kids roving the place, I have seen very few unsupervised children lately. The kids at tasty freeze or the library are almost always accompanied by an adult. Children on bikes seem to be confined to their driveways rather than allowed to zip through the neighborhood.  I don’t remember the last time I saw a kid under 16 in a movie theater or mall by themselves. Times have drastically changed since I’ve grown up.

On one hand I can understand why this is. It is incredibly easy for parents to imagine in very vivid ways the driver of a rusty windowless van sitting at the side of a park, beckoning young children to get in. It’s a chilling thought, but it’s also mostly one of the imagination rather than practicality. We’ve heard it said that times have changed since “back in the day”, but that seems to be an assumption built out of emotion rather than evidence. In fact, when we do look at evidence we can find that times have actually gotten better. The chances of a “stereotypical kidnapping” (a case of a stranger snatching a child) is extremely rare.

In a 2011 report it is noted that homicide rates in general have “declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960’s“, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with the majority of homicide cases against children being the fault of a parent or other family member. If you’ve ever stopped to look at the missing person’s bulletin board at Walmart you can see that most cases of kidnappings involve a custody issue within families, or a runaway situation.

It is heavily unlikely that a child will be picked up at the mall by a stranger, yet I rarely see kids hanging out in the food court alone with their friends like I used to do. What’s far more likely is a stranger meeting a child through social media, and yet there are more children at younger ages carrying their own smartphones and laptops. The idea of allowing children the freedom to explore their physical locations unsupervised is becoming significantly more challenged by the justice system (you can see a few cases here, here, and here). However, the idea of a 12 year old having practically unlimited access to the internet isn’t as widely considered to be neglectful.

It is natural parental instinct to constantly worry over a child’s safety, and it can sometimes be a struggle to make decisions that effect their well being. There is a comfort in having control over a situation, and when a child is under direct supervision it is easier to believe they are doing okay than when they’re allowed to drift on their own. Strangers can’t threaten them, bullies can’t hurt their feelings, and we can step in when they’re about to break a bone. Not only is it hard to trust the world around them, but it is also hard to trust them. It’s almost as if there is a piece of parental subconscious that believes children have no regard for their own well being, and lack any awareness of safety. Whether we want to admit this out loud or not, it is easy to withhold trust unfairly rather than giving them the space to take responsibility over their own security.

Is our knee-jerk reaction to be overly safe the best for their long-term welfare? Hovering over our children will grant us the ability to swoop in when a situation becomes uncomfortable, but at some point the lessons children will learn from their freedom will outweigh the risks taken when parents let go of some control. As I think back on my own experience as a free range kid I strongly believe that the freedom I had as a rover instilled some of the traits I find most useful as an adult.

If I wanted to go somewhere in town, and my grandmother (who raised me) was too busy to drive me, I was told to walk. To this day I maintain a “if you want something done, do it yourself” mentality that has gotten me through a number of stressful situations where I couldn’t rely on others. The idea of walking a mile to get ice cream, or to meet a friend, or to pick up a book from the library, or to buy supplies from the hardware store for a creative project was not foreign to me. I was motivated to abandon a little bit of laziness in place of determination. My schedule wasn’t under the dictatorship of my parent’s schedule, which allowed me the opportunity to learn how to manage my time and efforts. To this day my determination can get me up and going when I need something done my way, and I have always blamed that on the fact that my grandmother told me to walk myself from point A to point B if I wanted to do something bad enough.

Not only was responsibility and character built through free-ranging, but I also feel I had a better sense of safety than I would have, had my parents chosen to hover. If they were going to let me out and about unsupervised, they were going to be sure I knew how to handle myself in various situations. My freedom provided opportunities for us to discuss the common sense of keeping safe, and had I spent my childhood with an adult helicoptering over my every move I doubt it would have been as effective. I would have grown up with the expectation that my parents had my safety and well being covered, rather than understanding that I share responsibility in taking care of myself. When I walked through a neighborhood without my parents I was well aware that I needed to be cognizant of anything suspect.

And yet, I also believe that it helped me keep reality in perspective. The majority of people out and about are generally good, and I was comfortable accepting help from strangers when I needed it. Asking to borrow an unknown person’s cell phone at the library to call home when needed (which I did once or twice) is a far cry from climbing into the back seat of a windowless van. Rather than encouraging fear and over caution, my parents allowed me to have a healthy mix of common sense and a comfort in seeking help when I needed it. It is without a doubt necessary to teach  “stranger danger”, however, as we go through life we will find that strangers are significantly more likely to lend a helping hand rather than carry evil intentions. Had I been more sheltered I would have been less able to accept that help. As I grew into the person I am today I couldn’t count the number of times simple acts of kindness from strangers helped make my life a little easier, and in turn my comfort has allowed me to be on the giving end of these interactions . A dear friend and role model of mine once said to me that it is easier to instill caution than it is to get over fear, and I could not agree more. I didn’t start off afraid of the world around me. Instead I became aware of true dangers after I saw that most people at the library, or the park, or the public pool were regular humans. As an adult I realize that if something were to ever truly go wrong while I’m out and about, it would be these strangers who I would call out to for help.

But aside from the lessons and responsibility I’ve gained, the true benefit of my free range life was having a real and genuine childhood. I have been bumped, bruised, and my skin has been permanently scarred, but with each injury I have a history that I wouldn’t trade for the world. With my parents inside the house and unable to disrupt our activities in the middle of the woods with their watchful presence, the other kids and I shared a world that no one else could ever experience. No one could understand the battle lines of our war games, and our inside jokes will never make sense to an outsider. We trusted each other in a way that is incredibly unique among children, and encouraged each other to take new risks and overcome challenges. We developed teamwork and comradery while building forts and attempting the crazy ideas we came up with. We knew how to be silly, we knew how to be brave, we knew how to productively argue with one another, we knew how to encourage each other, we knew how to pick ourselves up when we fell, we knew where to find adventure, we knew how to make the most out of our carefree days. We knew how to live, because those were the first moments in life we were free to be who we were separate from authority.

Someday my son will experience something I could never be part of. He will have a world separate from anything I could understand, and there will be things he won’t be able to find the words sufficient enough to explain to me. My hope is that I can trust him enough to look out for himself, and that wherever we are at that time it is a place where I feel comfortable unleashing him. If I’m able to do that, I know he will learn things I could never teach him. They would be the type of things a child only learns while their parents are not looking. They are the things that will help shape him into the person I want him to be.

Sponge Painting

It’s a very simple and cheap activity. All you need are:
* Sponges (make sure they’re not the kind with soap already soaked in them)
* Cookie cutters (or anything that can be used as a stencil)
* Marker
* Scissors
* Paint and paper

Having an entire box of cookie cutters, I had my choice of shapes. I choose a few, traced them onto the sponge, and then cut them out. The cutting was significantly more difficult than I anticipated, so I would personally recommend staying away from shapes that are more complex. Once the sponges were cut we were ready for our art project.

At 1 1/2 years old, stamping is a concept my son only partially appreciates. He thought it was neat, and even discovered that it worked better if he brushed the paint onto the stamp rather than dipping it on to the plate.

Mostly he enjoyed smudging the sponges around the paper, creating his typical blend of color across the page. The end result was not unlike his other paintings, except that you might find a recognizable shape such as a star or elephant somewhere on the paper.

That’s not what matters though. The important thing is that he got to explore a new way of doing a familiar activity. It allowed him to experiment, and once the sponges are rinsed out and dried we now have new materials to add to his art supplies.

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Why Homeschool?

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I went to public school, and for the most part I had a pretty decent time. When my husband and I first started dating soon after I graduated, he offhandedly mentioned the idea of homeschooling future kids. At first I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the idea, having just come out of high school and having a tiny bit of withdrawal. As time passed the idea grew significantly more appealing, and I quickly found myself more attracted to homeschooling.

Unfortunately a scary factor with taking on such a huge responsibility has nothing to do with how I’m going to provide a wholesome education. The challenge I find myself facing has more to do with how society reacts to my child’s education. I don’t know how often I’ve heard debates regarding the legality of homeschooling, or the accusations correlating homeschooling with child abuse. It’s so funny to me, because when I think about what a parent is risking by sending their child to a standard school (private or public), I cannot honestly see how such a choice is a better option. I’m not saying homeschooling isn’t without it’s struggles and concerns, and I’m not saying all parents should home school, but I do feel that if a person is ready to criticize a family for their decision regarding homeschooling, they should think about the package that comes with the other options available as well.

So, here are my responses for common criticisms I’ve personally received regarding homeschooling, and a few reasons why I feel it is the best option for my family:

1) What about socialization?
This is the number one complaint people have against homeschooling. I understand the concern, and it is a concern. I know of a couple home schooled kids who demonstrate the stereotype of a socially awkward person who never really learned how to communicate and interact with others . You know what though? I knew kids in public school who had those same habits and behaviors. I also knew kids in public school who had plenty of friends, but gained those friends through sketchy and shallow methods.

There are also the kids who come out of homeschooling as confident and pleasant people. They are the type of people who will light up any room they walk into, or make friends with complete strangers in a moment’s time simply by being engaging and friendly. Not every parent who chooses to home school does so for the purpose of sheltering their children from society. These days, there are communities for home school families. There are also a variety of extra curricular activities that get children out and among other kids.

When a parent chooses to home school, they usually know socialization will need to be a priority, and it will be something a parent will need to concentrate on. It should not, however, be a concern that is restricted to parents of home schooled children. Parents who send their children to public school need to be concerned with the socialization their child receives as well. Homeschooling may result in a lack of socialization, but to criticize homeschooling because of that issue means putting too much faith in the socialization a child receives in standard school. Public school produces the type of socialization that results in vanity, a lack of self confidence, bullying, and stupid decisions for the sake of impressing others. To pretend a public schooled child will be better off than a home schooled child is a serious assumption. With a strong family supporting a child, it is possible to get through public school without much damage, but it’s just as possible to successfully home school as well.

2) Will it be a decent education?
While talking to a friend of mine who was home schooled, I asked her what her perspective was regarding her experience (she is a very bright and successful person, and I really valued her opinion). She replied with words I could never forget:

“When you’re home schooled, the world is your classroom”.

One of the reasons behind our decision to home school is the fact that we want our children to have a different educational experience than what a standard school can offer.

The word “exploration” often comes to mind when considering the method of learning that children should be given, but that is the last word that comes to mind when thinking of the method traditional school uses. In a standard school setting, think of how much time a child spends in a chair learning from a lecture, book, or power point. Not to mention, schools are being thrown into testing hysteria. Teachers are so harshly pushed to teach by the test that schools end up concerning themselves with whether or not children will be able to fill in a scantron the correct way, rather than trying to instill valuable knowledge.

In my high school there was a unique program called “studies” that a handful of students had the opportunity to take. It was a two hour period where History and English were combined into one class. The entire structure was different from other classes I had taken. More often than not we were up and out of our seats experiencing our lessons through alternative methods. We participated in simulations. We did experiments. We acted out scenes from history and literate, and we debated complicated issues. It was ground breaking, and I had never learned from one class the amount of things I learned from the studies program. Unfortunately, there was always the threat that the studies program would be eliminated. The school, for whatever reason, was never too sure about the existence of the program, and a couple years after I graduated I had heard that it was cut. It had been a unique experiment in a dull and failing system. A diamond in the rough so to speak, but there is just no room for that sort of thing in many public schools.

That opportunity opened my eyes to the fact that education could be so much more than retaining knowledge from a book or lecture. It could be an experience. When I say I want to home school, I don’t mean to have my children sit in their pajamas at the kitchen table doing whatever work sheet happens to be in a book. I mean to do all that I can to involve them in what they are learning. With home schooling, I have the ability to turn education into something so much more than sitting in a classroom taking notes. Are we learning about American History? We can hop in the car and drive over to DC and see the Declaration of Independence. Are we learning about geology? There are some awesome places around here where you can find very rocks to hold in your hands and observe up close. Are we learning about the solar system? Get up and go to the planetarium.

Will children receive a decent education through homeschooling? It depends on the parents and tutors, just like it depends on the teachers a child happens to be placed under. As for me, I want the type of education for my children that is not restricted by a desk, liability, bureaucracy. I want to give them the type of education that the world has to offer.

3) You’re trying to push your religion on your children
I often internally laugh when people say they want to raise children to make their own decisions and form independent beliefs from what they (the parents) believe, because let’s be honest, no one truly lives by that, nor should they. Parents are a child’s number one teacher, whether they want that responsibility or not. They should be the ones who take charge in setting morals and foundational world views for their children.

With that said, I know of the parents who would intentionally hide a variety of subjects from their children in order to “protect” them from questioning their faith. However, that parenting flaw is no more dangerous than the idea that parents shouldn’t push their beliefs on their children. If parents don’t stand for something, their children will fall for anything.

There is a middle ground. It is possible to instill beliefs in children, while at the same time being honest with their education. Personally I think it is a disaster waiting to happen when children are hidden from certain subjects that might test their faith. They will not be in the nest forever, and eventually they will have to face those issues. A lot of homes schooling parents realize this. I am not keeping my child from public school in order to hide potentially faith breaking subjects. I want my child to know about Evolution. I want them to know the teachings of Bart Ehrman and Friedrich Nietzche. The difference, however, is that I want to present what I believe to be true as well.

In the end, I want my child’s faith to be their own. I don’t want them to believe in something simply because mommy and daddy told them to. I want them to take hold of it for themselves, test it, and persevere with it. I want them to have the type of faith where they are not ignorant of what else is out there, and yet they still stand strong in what they believe. That does not mean I leave them to draw their own conclusions. If children are supposed to be completely independent when it comes to their decisions on what to believe, there would be no point in school at all.

As parents, people are supposed to do the best they can to instill what is right and true into their children. That is exactly what I will do. That does not mean I hide from the criticisms, or the information that might stir a number of questions. It just means I present what I believe to be true, and why I believe it to be true. I offer the chance that maybe, just maybe, we are right and the standard is wrong. If my children come out with the faith of their parents, it is not because they were deceived. It will be because they have the evidence, both for and against, and made their own decisions based on that.
4) Family
Think about the amount of time a child actually spends with family when they are placed in public school. They might have a rushed breakfast with the parents (even that is often not the case). They get to school around 9:00 AM. Finish school around 3:00 PM. If the child is “well socialized”, they will probably have an extra curricular activity that might end by 5:00 PM. Kids get home, possibly have a meal with the parents. They then get up from the table and go straight to homework. By the time they complete their homework, it might be about 8:30 PM (and let’s not fool ourselves, this is pretty early for a high school student. Realistically we may be talking until 10 or 11, possibly midnight). Maybe two or three waking hours on a week day where a child might have time with their family. Sure you have weekends, but children have friends they might want to spend time with (it’s the whole socialization thing).

Some families are not okay with this. They may see a value in being able to have time for a relaxed meal vs.a rushed one. They may want to have flexibility in random family fun nights. With the schedule set by a standard school day you really have to twist an arm in order to find the time for families to enjoy one another, which is sad considering you only have 18 fast paced years before a child is packing their belongings and making a home someplace else.

Homeschooling in and of itself is family bonding. Families not only learn together, but they don’t have to conform to a schedule set by some system that accommodates millions of other families. They can take vacations when it is most convenient for them rather than when it’s most convenient for an administration. They can rearrange their schedule so that they can enjoy a night of board games or bowling, and not worry about a bed time. I want to enjoy the time I have with my children, and I especially want my children to enjoy their time with me. Families shouldn’t have to sacrifice their time together for the sake of their child’s education.

The decision to home school is often misrepresented, and misunderstood. It is often written off based on stereotypes and preconceived ideas. However, for those parents who choose to learn a little bit more about the home schooling option, and to explore what it can be, they often find something they believe to be better for their children. These parents often understand the concerns that accompany home schooling, and choose to work through those struggles rather than give in to the alternative.

It is not an option for everyone. Some families would benefit more from a standard form of education rather than home school, and that is okay. A child’s education must be a family by family decision. What works for one family may not work for another. In either case, however, there are struggles. It is important to recognize the fact that there are challenges in whatever decision a parent makes regarding their child’s education, and to assume that those challenges are without benefit could mean missing out on a truly valuable educational opportunity.