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March 19 2015

Are We Thwarting Our Children’s Instinct to Explore?

By Mark Sisson
91 Comments

Needless to say, the topic made for fun water cooler talk this week?. We somehow never tired of sharing our exploits from those years – many exploits our parents to this day don?t know about. (Maybe we never want to give up owning those secrets.) They involved most of us running outside the second breakfast was done and only coming home during warmer days for lunch, dinner and bandaids. We rode dirt bikes at insane speeds over narrow root-lined paths (all without helmets), climbed trees higher than we?d ever admit to our mothers, and got ourselves regularly soaked in muddy creek water. Bee stings were a rite of passage as were eating insects on a dare, getting your first stitches, and instigating the occasional skirmish over certain kid principles. By today?s standards, I?d venture, we?d all be considered ruffians.

Beyond what used to be the typical rough and tumble antics of childhood, however, some stories revealed more compelling dimensions of youthful curiosity. Two brothers would mill around the congregants of a local church (they didn?t attend) on Sundays to make their way to the back door, where they regularly hid rocks or sticks in the door jam and then returned to explore after everyone had gone home. They would walk quietly through the rooms, visiting the empty auditorium, kitchen, gym and sanctuary. There was never any shortage of curiosities to examine in the after-hours darkness where they wouldn?t disturb anything but observe, wonder and bask in the ever present risk of being caught.

Along a similar vein, another neighborhood set of children would every summer day for years traverse a path in the woods and round a 10-foot high fence where they?d fortified a ledge to sneak into the local Catholic cemetery. They?d wander for hours comparing the oldest headstones, observing the numerous statues of angels and saints, admiring the flags and flowers, thinking big thoughts over the stones in the ?children?s garden? where kids their own ages had been laid to rest. Sometimes they?d get bored and hike back to their swing sets, and sometimes they?d be chased back in a thrilling, fearful rush by the cemetery caretaker with his shotgun – or two snarling boxer dogs. Those kids never so much as left a lollipop wrapper on the grass or disturbed a single flower. And no matter how many times the police patrolled their street (they hid their smiles as their mothers wondered why) or how far that fence was extended, they would always create another way in.

It?s funny how much nostalgia these ?out of bounds? childhood adventures tend to evoke, but I think it speaks to how seminal these experiences are in our development. For kids, these kinds of escapades are not, as we so often assume, to wreck or even ?fool around,? but just to observe and wonder at what they see. It?s their time to test physical limits, explore their worlds, sense big questions, even face painful realities of life that adults try to hide from them.

To a child, a walk is never just a walk. They don?t think in wholly pragmatic terms as adults often do. We?re focused on schedules. They?re trying to open up a poppy bud and thinking about Wizard of Oz. We think of tetanus when we see an old dump (not a garbage landfill) like the ones they had in New England where I grew up. They see hours of sifting through ancient treasures they could collect and show off to their friends. We home in on a hundred dangers that could hurt the little people we love. They just feel their innate instinct to play and move through their own environment. Is that too much to ask?

And that?s where emails like this come into play.

I have been a fan of Mark’s Daily Apple for years. Recently my husband and I got in trouble with Child Protective Services?for allowing our kids to walk home from a playground without adult supervision.

This reader?s story is one among a growing number these days, and it?s spurred a movement called free-range parenting. Lenore Skenazy, author of the blog ?Free-Range Kids? (and book of the same name) is often cited as the movement?s most visible leader. Those who support the movement see it largely as a response to the trend toward ?helicopter parenting,? parenting styles that encourage hovering and over-involvement.

Several years back, Skenazy got in hot water herself for letting her son (then 9-years-old) take the subway alone. Her message, in her words, is to balance our fears against realities:

Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don?t have to be quite so terrified! It?s an attempt to figure out how we got so much more worried for our kids in just one generation, and to separate the real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell.

She?s right that things have changed – considerably – in the space of just a few decades. The stories we exchange reveal that, as does our hesitancy we have to let our kids do what we did….

In the late 1960s 41% of kids walked or biked to school, whereas today that number is a measly 13%. One survey showed kids play or explore outside for an average of thirty minutes per week, with half of parents citing safety concerns. To boot, time in outdoor spaces is more often spent in adult-directed, organized activities rather than free play and exploration.

All of this begs the question: where is the ?new? balance between offering our children unfettered, healthy exploration and just irresponsible parenting?

As a parent, I get it. We moved from ?urban? Santa Monica to Malibu precisely because I found myself walking my kids down the street three houses to bring them to a play date. Something felt wrong about that.

The fact is, it?s not just about urban or suburban or rural. I?ve known kids who grew up roaming miles of metropolitan streets and never had a run-in with any significant threat. But I?ve also read tragic stories of kids vanishing while they rode their bikes down a dirt road of their tiny farm community. It?s also about the nature of a particular neighborhood and the people themselves – how much neighbors watch out for kids, including everyone else?s kids. It?s about how well people know each other, how much they prioritize the community, how law enforcement works in a given area, and to an extent how savvy and self-confident kids themselves are.

A U.K. survey demonstrated that the two biggest fears parents have are kidnapping and traffic. I think every parent to some extent feels their heart drop with the mention of either. Media channels latch particularly onto the former, and these tragedies do exist, but The National Center for Missing or Exploited Children states from their latest comprehensive review (1999) that while 200,000 children were abducted by family members, stereotypical ?stranger-danger? kidnappings amounted to 115 that year. Your child has three times the chance of drowning in a pool.

At issue here is how much risk we?re willing to accept for the benefits of exploration. I think first we need to recognize that most people probably have an inflated sense of the ?risk” and no understanding of the advantages. As a result, they don?t view letting their kids explore the world worth any risk at all.

Psychologist Peter Gray cites the importance of risky play (which I believe could also include exploration) for the development of emotional regulation. Research also shows that play facilitates maturation of executive functioning skills – the skills that will help children discern good decisions and organize their behavioral responses when challenged.

When children learn to face minor challenges with success and self-control, they build the confidence to handle additional, more substantial risks. Is it fair to say that walking home a few blocks with a sibling in a safe neighborhood might work the same way?

Likewise, research shows that when kids avoid risky or scary situations (and thereby never get to see that they can do what they?re afraid to do and understand fear as a ?manageable emotion”), they can actually become more anxious as a result.

So, what can you do if letting the kids wander to their hearts? content isn?t a realistic option for your neighborhood – or nerves? How can you offer them the opportunity to feel like they get to cut loose, experiment, walk the edge – and do it without the ?lame? parental hand-holding?

Seek out risks together.

Yes, you get to tag along on this one. The idea here is to learn on the job of life, so to speak. You get to be their guide not just for the safe stuff but for the scary stuff. Introduce it intelligently, let them relish the thrill and then offer perspective.

Likewise, research tells us that kids learn about dangers not from parents selecting all of their environments and choices but from discussing the actual hazardous elements of actions their kids are already in the midst of taking. The point is, kids will find ways to explore – now or later (or emotionally implode, which no one wants). Help them learn to make wiser decisions by showing them how to handle danger now – while you can keep the immediate example from getting out of control.

Check out Gever Tully?s Tinkering School and his TED talk (as well as his book which expands the same idea) on ?dangerous things you should let your kids do.” My favorite has to be ?throw a spear.? Grok would be so proud?.

Call on other guides.

Okay, here?s where you as a parental unit need to hand over the reins. That doesn?t mean pushing the kids out the door to fend for themselves but to give them space and novelty – with the supervision of another qualified individual.

The fact is, kids will do things for other people that they won?t do for their parents. They?ll listen better. They?ll put in a little more effort. The reason? Because the parent-child dynamic can take on some enabling dimensions. Kids begin to assume parents will watch out for the dangers. They?ll cover things if they (kids) really get into trouble. They?ll repeat themselves and nag seventeen times. The result? Kids get lazy and don?t learn to take responsibility for their own safety. Good choices come not just from education but from the autonomy in which they can apply them.

Likewise, parents get attuned to their kids? anxiety, reacting to it when we assume it?s going to set in. Eventually, our proactive ?response? can actually perpetuate our child’s fear. Having the child try things with another adult (somewhat intelligent, compassionate but not coddling would be nice) can help break the established pattern. A child can hear another person differently. While he might have abandoned the activity with a parent around, with a lesser known person he?ll hang on a little longer and have a better chance at learning something about handling himself in this new activity/situation. By extension, he?ll have a better chance at experiencing success and the feeling of competence that comes with it. He?ll also be more likely to remember the guidelines that helped him get there.

Find some homes away from home.

If you can?t let your kids run your neighborhood, make a choice to frequent places where they can roam within a certain vicinity. Maybe that means spending more time with a particular relative or friend. Maybe you could spend part of each weekend at a certain park where there?s enough visibility to satisfy you and enough space to satisfy them. It could also mean choosing vacations in the same spot each year where you feel they can roam within a certain radius.

Find tribal activities for them.

This is another version of calling on other guides. Remember scouting? Have you heard of Outward Bound? How about old-fashioned summer camp? (I?m talking about the old-school live in a basic wooden structure for a week with other kids and camp counselors. Snakes and bats as residents of said structure are a bonus – another water cooler story there.) The group itself is less important than the activity. Look for a mix of structured and unstructured time, lots of hours in nature, and some adventure/skill building. Summer camps in particular own their land, which means your kids are safe unless they break an arm on the obstacle course. (Kidding.)

The old school camps still allow for plenty of free rein – enough independence to explore the fields in the immediate acreage and enough time to raid the cabin over the hill after dark.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have you bumped up against this question in your parenting or watched friends/relatives who have? What?s your Primally modern perspective on giving kids the right amount of exploration? Weigh in on the board, and have a great end to the week.

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91 thoughts on “Are We Thwarting Our Children’s Instinct to Explore?”

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  1. I’m thankful that, having been born in 83, my parents seemed to be the last in my generation to really foster exploration. After school my Mom would literally force us outside and lock the door for 2 hours after our homework was done and before dinner was ready. We (little brother and I) sat and pouted for a while but then we always found the coolest stuff to do (we were probably 10 and 8 when this started.)

    I knew the neighborhood we lived in well. I knew the two best streams to go play near. We made friends with the other kids who lived around us. Nothing bad ever happened. The worst was a guy asking my friend to hop the fence we were walking by to help him with his puppy – and I laughed out loud and told her that’s how kids get kidnapped and we ran off.

    A great book to read along the lines of this topic is Last Child in the Woods.

    1. +1. I think helicoptor parenting has been a scourge on youth. The Last Child in the Woods is fantastic.

    2. I feel the same way about being born in the mid-80s. We seem to be the last group that was allowed by parents and law enforcement to enjoy the outside world on our own terms. I grew up in the suburbs of So. California riding my bike all around town and staying out until dinnertime.
      I always get riled up when I read the stories of parents getting punished for letting their kids have some independence. I live in Hawaii now and used to think that wouldn’t happen here because law enforcement and people’s general attitudes are more laid back. But then I read about a father on Kauai getting probation and fined for having his 8 year old walk a mile home from school. It’s unbelievable!

      1. On Kauai! You’re kidding me! I can’t think of a place where it would be safer to let your kids roam around. Other than perhaps getting pecked by one of the thousands of chickens walking around, I can’t really think of any danger.

  2. Getting into a certain amount of trouble is a right of passage and goes with the territory. In most kids it can’t really be suppressed too much anyway even if you want to. I think a certain number of “mistakes” must be made or one does not fully grasp the whole “I make my own lot in life” commonsense.

  3. This is a topic close to my heart. When I was a boy, I had an entire swamp across the street from my house to explore. I still remember having a rattlesnake start rattling right next to where I was sitting. My older brother told me “Don’t move. Don’t even breathe,” then he and his friends got up and left. I sat there holding my breath until I thought I would pass out, then I oh so slowly got up and ran home. The next day, my mother admonished me to watch out for rattlesnakes as she sent me on my way.

    Our kids walked, bicycled, and scootered to their elementary school every morning, often by themselves, though I would walk with them occasionally. We have several parks near our house, that I wanted to send them off to in the morning during the summer, but someone told us there was now a law against doing so. When did that happen?

    They’re now teenagers. One of my biggest challenges is prying my son out of his bedroom and off Minecraft. I often wonder if he would be a more active teen if he had spent more of his childhood wandering. We go backpacking in the summer, but it’s the everyday life of my children that seems unhealthy to me. (My son also loves to back brownies, cookies, etc. He does not believe me that sugar is poison. When I tried to ban it from the house when he was a toddler, he would get it from an elderly neighbor he helped with her chickens. I would find piles of candy wrappers behind his bed in the morning.)

  4. Perfect timing! My 12 y.o. was in her “climbing tree” yesterday, and the branch she was standing on snapped off and she plummeted to the ground. She pulled a muscle in her arm, so she’ll take it easy at basketball tonight. My husband started going on about not climbing that tree, but I love that she was in that tree. While grateful that she wasn’t seriously hurt, I’m glad that in the future, she’ll be better able to judge what branches can support her weight. I still recall as if yesterday my big fall from a tree, caused by my skirt getting hung up on a branch. Warm memories, primal-style!

    1. Haha I thought girls only climbed trees while wearing skirts in these fantasies I have!

        1. I’m sure the lady in question could make that assessment if she wished without needing you to “protect” her. A little bit of friendly joshing is par for the course around here.

        2. The one with her skirt caught in the tree was the mother, not the child (albeit when she was little). Calm down.

  5. Finding that balance of safe vs. adventure is a tough one for parents. It often felt like my kids and I were both pushing those boundaries together. I remember one summer day when the three boys came home scratched, dented, dirty and elated. They had chased each other through the woods with “swords” (sticks) and then all run down the hill as fast as they could. Repeatedly. And it’s a steep hill. My brain went instantly to falling and impaling themselves on the sticks, tripping on old wire fence, tumbling head first onto a rock. I broke into a cold sweat. They had only been gone an hour!! I look back and am thankful they were scratched sufficiently to make it “awesome” but not really hurt. But what if they had been, is the broken record in my head. I would have felt awful if one of them had broken a leg, I would have never forgiven myself if it had been worse. And yet the next day they headed out to do it again. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to lock them indoors. I find I have to push those boundaries of trust, faith and good old fashioned denial every day just to let them out the door, but so far (knock knock) they come tumbling home no worse for the wear. I know they will remember mom as a terrible nervous nelly… right up until they are standing at a door watching their own kids walking away from them.

    1. This comment describes exactly how I feel as a parent to a young boy.

    2. As a mother of three now-grown boys, I can say with some confidence that if the kids get some room to explore, once in a while they might get hurt. That’s not always an awful thing, though: injuries, even a trip to the ER, can be very useful learning experiences for young people. There are positive attributes to injuries, etc. – the kids learn where their personal physical boundaries are, learn where they can push, learn a little about personal physics (uh, yeah, the branch might break and you might fall on your butt – but you probably won’t take that risk again & choose a larger branch to stand on). Life is, and should be, full of risks. Learning how to assess risk and avoid taking stupid chances is an essential part of growing up. Kids that don’t get this training end up being fearful adults.

  6. It’s okay. The politically-correct nanny state lot will be easy pickings for those of us with rougher, more natural upbringings, when TS inevitably HTF.

  7. Wow this post sure did bring back fond memories of my childhood. I’m always joking around about how lucky I am to be alive today given the things I did with my friends and siblings as a child. From eating poisonous poke berries on a dare to lighting campfires with camping fuel and strike anywhere matches, riding bikes down constructions mounds onto pits full of boulders wearing shorts and sandals and, of course, no helmets. Those days are gone and I wonder how much more well rounded today’s kids would be had they experienced that? Would they really be any different? Would I be different had my parents had more regard for my safety? Great post Mark.

  8. We have also had problems with the law as well as busybody neighbors. Our daughter is homeschooled 8 years old and we allow her to ride in our hood on her bike. It was a pretty cold day but she wanted to bundle up and ride her bike. We let her. She can figure out when she is too cold and will come in if need be. Well a busybody neighbor called the police and the officer said it was too cold and was referring us to social services. It’s just ridiculous. We will have a bunch of fat pansies on our hands in 20 years.

    1. Ha! People ride bikes in Minnesota, IN THE WINTER. If it’s not below zero windchill, it’s not too cold.

    2. What????? O.K. the neighbor was stupid, but the police????? Isn’t a person, even a child, allowed to be outside in the cold? Are mid-winter ski vacations illegal? Are we losing it as a society? You should have threatened back with a lawsuit.

    3. Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry that happened to you. What jerks.

  9. I remember back in 1982 my parents had to attend a convention in D.C. for three days. At the time my brother and I were 12 and 9. Each morning our parents would safety pin $20 into the inside of our pants for safety money in case we lost or had our “walking around” money stolen. We would leave the hotel around 8 AM on the subway and get back sometime late afternoon. We went all around the capital, even out to Alington cementary. I’ve mention to my father on numerous occasions that if I were to do the same thing with my children I’d be behind bars. It makes me sad that our children have to be protected from everything that we took for granted. Luckily we had a family farm of 85 acres that we could take them out to explore the marsh, woods, barns and animals. Ah the good ole days

  10. Here’s my take, as a wondering, bicycle-to-school child of the 60’s who raised three kids in the 90’s…the nationalization of the media (CNN, Fox) has made all news LOCAL news, increasing the PERCEPTION of increased danger to our children. And we, as good parents, try to protect out children from this perceived increase in threats and over-supervise.

    While every community has an unfortunate event occasionally, today any event in every community makes national news. If a child is harmed in Michigan, we hear about it in California. And New York.

    It’s really not that much more dangerous out there now, compared to 40 years ago…and it’s possibly more dangerous for kids to be confined inside and given access to the internet.

    1. Very good point about risks of the internet. I do have to say though that ultimately, people can get killed in accidents and that is what people are afraid of. It used to be that it wasn’t considered reasonable to curtail healthy activities because the rare person was killed or maimed. But you have to have philosophy or religion to be able to live life with perspective about mortality and accidents. A lot of people now have neither. It was a short cut when everyone was religious or the philosophy was at a critical mass so that peoples’ minds didn’t go straight to ” but if I’d only…”

  11. I love this post. I, too have fond memories of doing crazy things. Riding my bike on the trails behind my neighborhood, swimming in the buffalo bayou. Riding my bike EVERYWHERE. I wasn’t allowed inside the house during the summer. I had a few bumps, bruises, stitches, broken arm, and I was bitten by a snake and a dog (on separate occasions). But these are fond memories. I don’t remember the pain of those “failures” as much as I remember the thrills (from a big jump on my bike to finding a field of Texas bluebonnets. Heck, even the snakebite was thrilling.)

    I have lamented this protective culture a lot as I raise my children.

    One thing I do is take them on hikes. I have to exercise great constraint. I try not to say “be careful” or slow down. Instead, I let them explore. Admittedly, this isn’t quite the free-range experience I had, but it is better than the current alternative.

    One more thing. Is walking to school REALLY more risky than getting in a car? Is playing indoors or in front of a screen REALLY riskier? People tend to forget about the risks of being sedentary. People tend to forget about the dangers lurking online. This is why I love this primal lifestyle and community- it helps me make better decisions!!!

  12. The Nature Principle by Richard Louv covers lots about this topic! I think children (+all of us) need to spend as much time outside as possible!

  13. We used to go to the field behind our house and turn over rocks looking for snakes. My wife lectures me about telling our kids these kinds of stories.

    1. So true! before the Nanny State, childhood was pure freedom. When we were of age to get work and the extended freedom of having and income and perhaps a set of motorized wheels. We went to to the Social Security office and obtained a card and a personal 9 digit number in order to get an entry level job paying $3.25 an hour. Now a child is state property. When a child is born it cannot be removed from the maternity ward until it has a Taxpayer Identification Card(formerly Social Security card). It is essentially a registration as federal property. That child’s future productivity belongs to the the state. Then the forced state education system ensures that this property is indoctrinated to consume and is just capable enough to fill out the forms and comply with regulations. These robots live up to whatever level of income they may obtain to fulfill the mindless consumption of convenience spwnding that feeds the dragon of bureaucracy.

      1. Interesting enough, my husband and I both got our social security numbers in the 80s….my husband was at least 10 when he got his.

        When our daughters were born, the apartment complex and insurance gave us 30 days to give their social security forms to them.

      2. My mother was a hip Berkeley psychiatrist in 1974 when I got my social security card at 15 years old. She cried when I had to get it.

    2. Couldn’t have said it better myself. They want our vote and our tax dollars, not our opinions.

  14. When I was a kid, my mom and my aunt (both raised on a farm) used to take us berry picking in the forest. We were told to go away and leave them in peace but not get lost. For the next couple of hours, we kids (usually about 5 or 6 of us) would roam the woods, picking berries (and mostly eating them) and having small adventures. We always found our way back. I’ve tried to give my son the same kind of freedom. When I was in London, England, on business last year, I turned him loose in the urban wilderness that is London (he’s 16). He spent an entire day travelling the city and managed to find his way back at our assigned meeting time. As a result of adventures like this, he has a lot of confidence in his ability to navigate unfamiliar territory and enjoys being out and about on his own.

  15. We are fortunate that we live in a neighbourhood of free range kids! There is a park right behind our house (and more houses on the other side of the park) with over a dozen kids near the same age as our own. On any given day (summer and winter), there is a herd of children wandering around – and you know that at various times parents are peeking out their windows to check on them. Most days in the spring/summer/fall we have to drag our kids into the house at bedtime – usually covered in mud or dirt.

  16. Wow, did this article bring back some memories that my parents still no nothing about. Its unfortunate that society as whole has changed so much and the media keeps adding fuel to the fire. Those memories are something I’ll cherish forever.

  17. First thing jumped out to me was the sentence “the second breakfast was over” and I thought of Hobbits and their second breakfasts…but the Hobbit thing is related to this post: they were a country loving people who spent a lot of time gardening and roaming the Shire (and Buckland etc). Our 19th and 20th c. urban and suburban planning has failed in not providing environments conducive to outdoor exploration and other healthy pursuits.

    The Living Future Institute, among others, is addressing this. Rapid change got us into our predicament, but rapid change can get us to a better place too.

    1. +1
      I was wondering if the second breakfast made them skipping lunch, haha

  18. Early/mid 80’s there was a concerted widespread media push about the horrors of ‘latch key kids.’ Laws, and parents scared out of their common sense followed. No idea who was behind the initial stories, but it sure has softened up the nation and built a world of nonsense(CPS, social workers, lawyers, and daycare type programs that never end.) Funny thing was when the scare mongering started I didn’t realize they meant me, as my parents didn’t lock the house and us kids didn’t have a key. I wrongly assumed the ‘problem’ was with some other population of kids that lived somewhere where you locked your house during the day. Sad but my biggest worry now when my 10 year free ranges is CPS.

  19. Excellent article! My children still bring up stories of adventures they had that I did not know about like climbing over the roof from the mulberry tree. I homeschooled 5 children [born between 79-86] and their afternoons after school were outdoor times.

    When my eldest got her driver’s license she wanted to go on a road trip with one of her younger sisters. She had the money for expenses from her job [they all had to have a job to pay for their own car insurance or not drive]. We only found a family to house them and left them take off to Florida. It was very hard letting our first on her Cinderella excursion. But it was great for her.

  20. When my 21 year old son was 10 and we lived in Santa Monica he would ride his bike about a mile to school. I later found out he was the ONLY one at his school who did this and I was accused of being lackadaisical. Sadly, not one kid on our block played outside either. When I grew up in LA we would roam our urban neighborhood in packs.

  21. So true! As a child of the 70’s/80’s in South Texas all year long we were never indoors and rode our bikes everywhere having grand adventures. Now, I try to let my daughters do the same thing, but am called an irresponsible parent. Let’s start a massive rebellion, shall we and let our kids roam free and gasp! use their imaginations.

    Oh yeah, I’m also a bad parent because I do let them play every day after school, usually in the Rio Grande, and they are not in any structured activities.

    Boy are we weird!

  22. To the person who wrote “I let my kids walk home from the park and got in trouble with Child Protective Services,” if you live in the DC area, my husband, kids and I have followed your story. We’re outraged by the way you’ve been treated. Way to teach your kids to be responsible and allow them a little independence! I gave my kids similar freedoms 2 years ago (they are going to be 12 and 10 in a month), either with each other or a buddy. Stay strong!

    1. Yeah Kim, I’m that Maryland mom who’s in trouble with CPS because my kids went for a walk. Thanks for the encouragement – we’re going to keep fighting!

      1. I wondered if it was from the same story I’ve been following as well. My son is 8 and it’s frustrating that I find myself more concerned by who’s going to call the police or CPS than something disastrous happening while he’s at the park. Kids NEED to learn to be responsible and get outside and play. Ignore the helicopter parents as best you can.. You have a ton of support from people that want to raise responsible, smart, resourceful children. 🙂

  23. This is such an important aspect of primal living. Those of us that have lived through the changes in society see that real food and natural physical activity is just the tipping point of reclaiming our human existence from the industrial economic machine. I grew up in an affluent middle class neighborhood. Families had dads that worked and a stay-home-mom. Mom was home because there was only one family car and one income was enough to raise a family. We stayed out of the house because if we did not, mom put us to work cleaning toilets, hanging laundry, doing dishes, raking leaves, etc. If we got caught with pushing the limits of childhood mischief, mom gave us the wooden spoon. Today I live in an affluent middle class neighborhood. Moms that do not need to earn an income are drive-around-and-spend-moms(DAAS). They live to serve their kids. The kids are inside playing their X-box while immigrant servants clean toilets and cut lawns. The DAAS parents(sometimes dads too) hop in the 2nd leased SUV, drive down to Subway to buy whatever foot-long their video game wizard demands. If today’s child gets into mischief, D-A-A-S parents deny the neighbors observation with the claim that their little angel would never do what the neighbor saw them do. Quite frankly kids today know CPS has outlawed the wooden spoon along with the spiritual value of personal responsibility. To me, the primal movement is more than a diet and rebellion against sedentary convenience. It is a spiritual reclamation of our birthright to be an independent and responsible human being. I apologize in advance if this comment offends any agents of the Nanny State.

  24. I played, explored, got hurt, and got in trouble with my friends. But I had a blast. They are all still good friends. And when asked where my mom was while I was doing all the things I did as a kid I always reply, “at home”. It was only a mile to school. I hardly needed my mom helping me get there. That would have been quite embarrassing. When my sons were born in 1992 I hoped that they would explore, play, get hurt, and get in trouble with their friends just like I did. And for the most part they did. When they got hurt or in trouble they knew where to find me. At home. But they have some stories, some they tell me and some they certainly don’t. And they learned things that are important like testing a limb before putting all your weight on it, how to support a ramp properly so your bike can jump good, how to use a stick to check the depth of a creek, when to run away and when to stand your ground with the neighborhood bully, and how to use what is around them to make what they need. They do have scars, have broken bones, and got introduced to the police but they survived and became good men from it.

  25. My fond memory is midnight bike rides. We would sleep outside at a neighbor’s house whose parents weren’t overly watchful, and got up at about 3am for work. Around 11pm or later we would leave the tent or lawn chairs and go far afield on our bikes. Sometimes lifting our shirts as we coasted down the pathways. We must have been about 10 or 11.

    Things are so crazy today the kids cannot even play tag at recess! It is not just about free ranging, but the entire range of overprotective, nanny state, helicopter state, helicopter parenting. And many of those in the nanny state or others don’t even go outside themselves. Outside is a world they do not inhabit. I live in Miami and there are people who never open their windows, year round. In Miami, I call this “our summer” the late fall, winter, early spring, the time to be outdoors, and many are, but many never come out. Much of society lives in an artificial bubble, it would not occur to these people there is a problem in not allowing a child to roam. Just as they see no value in open green space.

  26. What a great article. I would have to agree. We were just discussing this the other day as a family. When my sister and I were kids we’d spend the entire day gone. We were expected to be home when the streetlights came on. Otherwise we were running around exploring with friends. There were stitches and broken bones, but everything turned out well.

    Back then though, and maybe it’s just the town I lived in, the neighbors kept an eye on things. They knew us and we knew them. We knew that if we did something we weren’t supposed to, our parents knew by the time we got home. Our neighborhood would have a bbq a couple times during the summer. Everyone came and the kids would run around for hours with no care. The neighbors knew each other. They spent time with each other. Now we get home from work and go inside and watch TV, text, play on the computer, but we don’t interact with our neighbors. If you don’t know who your neighbor is, you don’t care as much about what is happening to them or their family.

  27. This trend is so sad. I truly pity today’s children and feel luckily to be a 1970s kid.

    I wonder … so what happens to these bubble-wrapped kids when they head off to college? If your parents don’t teach you how to manage risk as you grow up, what happens when you have complete freedom? Disaster, I’d reckon.

  28. Not only are kids no longer free range during their playtime, but the playtime is no longer free-range. The old play before dinner is now structured into discrete goal-oriented tasks: for younger kis it’s playdates. (When I was young, if you made an appointment to play, it was considered a “party” and you bought a gift.) For school age kids it’s soccer practice, piano lesson, math tutor, drama club etc, usually with Mom cheuffeuring everyone around. Gotta make those connections, get the better grades, swim your heart out to the college scholarship, etc. I swear kids have resumés before they have driver’s licenses.

  29. It’s a scary world when yo look at the changes. Thank goodness for Waldorf education.

    1. I was thinking along similar lines. Thank goodness I homeschool. I feel like these types of educational choices really help.

  30. Good post. Yes, learning to handle situations is empowering and increases confidence. In the 60s we had a “camp” beside the canal and built rafts to get across. I was aged between 7 and 12! We also knew how to avoid and then send away the man who hung out and exposed himself to us. Our parents knew nothing of all this at the time.
    During my own sons growing, we were involved in a wonderful music and dance camp community where everyone had extraordinary freedoms which also resulted in learning about our responsibilities to each other. Another very important aspect of this topic.
    I feel that politically, the power plan is to keep us all in fear in our separate boxes!

  31. I actually gave my kids a ride in the back of my pickup truck.

    Please don’t call CPS on me.

  32. A great book to check out is “Bud & Me: The True Adventures of the Abernathy Boys”. In 1905, Bud & Will Abernathy, 5 & 9, raised by their widowed father on a ranch in Oklahoma, set out by horseback alone for Washington DC to see their friend “Teddy” get inaugurated. They had a certain amount of money for their use which they had to manage, as well as a general set of guidelines. They made headlines across the country, and 6 years later were hired by promoters to cross the country on horseback in 60 days from Coney Island to San Francisco. A great book to read with or without kids.

  33. I have to say that I have been a helicopter parent with these issues, and now my 8 year old is dealing with a lot of anxiety and does not know how to talk about his emotions, or he doesn’t want to try anything new for fear of getting hurt. I feel really bad about my approach because I was trying to control his safety, but I am now wanting to change that. How do I break this fear and anxiety in my 8 year old son is now my biggest concern! I am more worried he won’t know how to deal with life than keeping him safe.

    1. Firstly don’t guilt trip yourself. We all do the best we can at the time. His anxiety may have nothing to do with your “helicoptering”. Then, perhaps start out by doing “risky” things together. Have fun together, perhaps with other friends/family around to take the pressure off 1:1 situation. A group picnic where he can see you having fun climbing a tree, without pressure on him to do it. And so on, gently introducing him to seeing others taking risks, enjoying it and coming to no real harm (if all goes well!). Take it gently…

    2. Check out Free Range Kids (.com). Start little by little. Can he cross the road by himself? Let him walk to the end of the street alone, then a bit farther, then farther, etc. Make sure he knows the neighborhood first. Is there a park you can walk to together? Teach him to be comfortable in his sense of direction and place. Give a time limit at first, then extend it. Does he have friends in the neighborhood? Have them come along and teach them to stay together always. It will take a bit of time, but with days getting longer and summer coming up soon enough, you will have the time and daylight to get comfortable. Once you show that you trust your son, he will also begin to trust you, and likely open up to you. If you don’t, he may grow up to be incredibly anxious and fearful of his own decisions, or to even make his own decision. Teach him independence now. You can do it. My kids know I trust them until they give me a reason not to (they are a 14 year old girl and boys ages 13 and 9). I do worry, of course, but I can’t be consumed by it or they will not grow into creative, independent, thoughtful, problem-solving, social adults. Best luck to you!

    3. I think it’s great you can admit that your parenting style contributed to your son’s issues. I am a teacher and a lot of parents seem to have a hard time accepting that they might be the cause of their child’s anxiety.

      I agree that you should start little by little. And accept that part of pushing him out of his comfort zone means letting him be uncomfortable without making a big deal of it. As a teacher I can tell you that most kids are way better about managing anxiety and not making a big deal out of things for teachers than they are for their parents. This is because a) teachers are less uncomfortable with kids being disappointed/sad/upset/less than perfectly happy than a lot of parents today b) teachers don’t have time to have long discussions with kids every time they’re upset c) kids don’t want to look anxious in front of peers d) kids (humans, really) don’t continue behaviors that don’t get the reaction they want.

      Keeping this in mind, I would give him opportunities to push himself physically, socially and emotionally in a situation where you’re not there to see him or “save” him. This could mean sports, karate, gymnastics, capoeira, etc. And if he doesn’t like it at first you HAVE to have him keep going.

      Again, kudos to you on recognizing a problem and trying to fix it. I’ve worked with plenty of kids whose lives have been so controlled that they fall apart in the face of actual adversity because they’ve never dealt with failure or discomfort and adults have done everything for them. I applaud you not wanting that for your son.

  34. I grew up in the 50’s & 60’s. I look at what’s going on in our society and it boggles my mind. Between the nanny state, fear and tech, humanity doesn’t have a chance. We, like many of you, ran free much of the time, I feel so lucky to have grown up when I did. Living a few blocks from the Rio Grande river we would go looking for quicksand…..never found any but we did find, friends, dirt, fun and an independent way of thinking. I remember when houses had front porches, when the big thunderstorms came through we all got blankets and hung out on the porch to be closer to it, I still to it today. The kids today, growing up around so much fear won’t have the ability or personal power to question all the things that try to control us, like government.

    1. Radiolab did a great piece on quicksand, and how the fear/fascination with it dates to certain age groups probably due to the number of cultural references (I grew up in the 70s, also relate to searching for quicksand). Re your point on not having the ability to question control, linked to that is the complete lack of interest in privacy, which leads to more control by the government, business, or whoever.

      1. I heard that episode and it was really great! It would have never occurred to me that those fears have a contextual element. I was born in 81 and quicksand was still a thing in my childhood. And maybe speaking to the shifting generational fears – as kids, we’d also make a game of looking out the window at the passing cars and deciding which ones were kidnappers (ie those in windowless vans). What?!?!

  35. Not to mention the very SAFE playgrounds. No more merry-go-rounds (someone likely flew off or barfed once), no more teeter-totters, no more tall metal slides; now it’s all SAFE with recycled tires to cushion one’s butt when one trips on a step or uh, falls off a plastic slide. Really, despite the fancy design thoughts that have gone into making playgrounds safer, the number one injury at parks is still some variation of tripping and falling (without the help of any safe equipment, short of legs/feet). I was very sad when they turned our local meadow into a standard cookie-cutter “park” sans any imagination whatsoever.

  36. I grew up in a foreign country, and I certainly was allowed to explore and to be outside by myself. I was also able to travel around the city by myself – when I was 8, I was expected to get home from school by myself, take the bus to the subway station by myself, meet my mother at the subway station at the right time, and go to music school with her. I was always on time.

    I’m currently expecting a child, and thinking about how I can let him/her develop independence the way I did without getting in trouble. I am not worried about hypothetical kidnappers, but I am sure as hell worried about CPS. I think it’s sad that kids are watched every waking moment of their lives, and it’s definitely not good for them. But how does one let a kid play outside and feel unsupervised while still keeping him/her safe from nosy CPS-calling neighbors?

  37. In my rural neighborhood my kids ran free and nobody got arrested. This was in the 80s and 90s. Kids could still do that here, but I rarely see them even outside, much less roaming a perfectly safe and fun neighborhood.

  38. I was born in ’54 and was outside as much as possible. Now, living in the “city” my son is out as much as possible if I can watch out for him. I’m not afraid of him getting stolen, I’m afraid of the neighbors who may call the authorities because he’s out there in the trees, riding without a helmet, trying his hand at making a zip line, writing in the street (dead end) with chalk, throwing the leaves or fallen petals from the flowers up into the wind….. you know, dangerous activity of a juvenile delinquent. So I monitor his outside time and get the thumbs up from the “reporters” who like it that I’m out there now and then. One even told me that they shouldn’t play in the dirt…. uh, it was the only dirt available so too bad lady.

  39. Instead of having “child protection services”, they should take all the kidnappers and rapists they catch, and send them to a just end on the gallows – all these “child protection” people would certainly have a lot more time on their hands.

  40. Ok,

    I’m gay and I don’t have kids, but…..I was able to roam like you Mark and am so grateful to have had that outlet. I was an only child and I actually cherished time alone to be with my thoughts and explore.
    I still love to go hike new parks, and go places to do just what you said, “observe and reflect”.

    One thing I just witnessed a few weeks ago was a family at the beach. Oh boy did that kid have fun….NOT.
    The mother told him not to sit in the sand. The kid briefly sat to look at something and quickly got up and brushed himself off as the mother scolded him for getting sand all over himself when she had expressly forbidden him to sit down in it. The kid showed he had no sand on him, so the father finished with, ” That’s not the point, your mother told you not to and you did it anyway….”.
    Then as they were leaving the kid picked up one of their chairs and was told, “That’s too heavy you’re going to hurt yourself, put that down!” To which the child replied, ” It’s not heavy at all, see.” Here’s the kicker, are you ready?
    The mother then says, ” Great, then you can carry it to the car.”
    I felt like starting a fundraiser for his therapy.

    Which brings to mind the Michael Jackson interview with Martin Bashir.
    Michael shared that he liked to climb a favorite tree and write songs and Martin went after him like it was perverse for an adult to want to climb a tree. It made me truly sad. Michael did a lot of strange things, but that wasn’t one of them.

  41. I was telling someone the other day I could never buy a house in the city where I work (pop. 30,000) because kids need to have yards to run around in and wooded areas to explore. Heck, I’m 31 and I need that! And by the sounds of what others are sharing, boy am I glad my rural neighborhood is surrounded by cornfields on all four sides. :/

  42. >Okay, here’s where you as a parental unit need to hand over the reins.
    >The old school camps still allow for plenty of free rein

    Funny that with these references, no one mentioned the obvious. Get your kids on horses! Horseback riding can be an adventure, and a thrill. Kids learn responsibility for another living being, and can make friends and do fun stuff (trail rides, shows, timed events). Also learning how to control a large, powerful animal can really boost a child’s confidence. When I was a kid my parents did make sure I wore a riding helmet for safety, but there were still plenty of risks and thrills involved.

  43. I’m not worried about my kids. I’m worried about CPS taking my kids away for “neglect”. The threat is real. I wish we lived in a different world where I could let my kids explore more. I do the best I can, without trying to raise eyebrows and putting us on the radar for “neglect”. Not only that, *no one* else lets their kids play and explore. So there is no safety in numbers or community looking out anymore. It’s one thing when ALL the kids are playing in a crowd and another when it’s just my two boys. Our kids are so micro-managed these days, once they do get freedom as young adults, they take it too far. Kids need responsibility that increases slowly over time…not all their responsibility taken away, and then handed over completely one day when they turn 18. We’re harming our kids!

    1. I know. We live in a semi rural neighborhood where people have 1.5 to 5 acres. And I never see any kids outside! Seriously. It was not optimal for my three home schooled girls because there were aren’t too many windows facing the road for instance. So the rule was they had to stay together and they had to stay away from the road. So they could run up and down the creek corridor and even through other people’s property because no one driving through would ever see them. And, they stayed together. People would tell me their kids weren’t allowed to play at the creek because of snakes. I couldn’t believe it.

  44. I grew up on the outskirts of Adelaide, South Australia. My Mum & Dad bought land and built in a new estate which was surrounded by creeks and trees. My brother & sisters spent most of our free time outside, building “cubbies” (cubby houses) in the bush, digging in the sandy soil and building dams when there was water in the creeks. We had a wonderful time. There were scratches & bruises and the occasional broken bone – all accepted as par for the course. We all walked to school on a regular basis – 1.5 miles in Primary School, and then 3 miles if we missed the bus in high school.
    As an adult, I moved to interstate, and brought up my 4 boys (during the 80’s) in a regional country centre in NSW. They were rarely inside during the day, we were lucky to have a large undeveloped yard, where they rode bikes, played ball games, dug holes & constructed. Today, they are all still active adults who encourage there own children to be outside & active. They are also very creative people (though in different ways) and have good leadership skills. I am sure that is another benefit of their “free range upbringing”.

  45. At our children’s summer camp we see how good it is for kids to have time and a safe place to explore nature. Counselors supervise, and there is a nurse to handle injuries, but kids are free to yell, run, get dirty, and jump in the lake to cool off. They play old school games like dodgeball and capture the flag. They chop wood and learn to make campfires. They love it!
    Some parents tell me their 12 year olds aren’t ready for even a week away at camp. Some parents admit THEY can’t let go of control of their kid for a week at camp. Both are sad.
    Combat Nature Deficit Disorder–let your kids play outside.

  46. Brings back memories, as a kid in the 60s living in Philly I would roam the city streets alone for hours. I’d explore the back ally’s playgrounds. Nothing ever happened except once I saw 2 raised beds that looked like graves in someones back yard that scared me and I ran home.
    Next day back at it.
    My son used to get up and go play, I never saw him until lunch time then back out again. Riding his big wheel down very steep trails no helmet. He is now a healthy young man.
    Thanks Mark

  47. I wonder if a contributing factor might be that many families are smaller, which increases the sense of isolation. I have a son, almost 7. He loves nature, but refuses to go outside by himself. He says he is lonely by himself, or that it is boring. He’ll happily spend hours outside with a friend, or a babysitter, or any adult.

    We have a large yard (in north TX), but our neighborhood has no sidewalks. No neighbors have kids outside playing. It is a car culture – people drive their trucks from house to house when trick or treating, even. It really saddens me.

  48. I live right across the street from a country club golf course with a badass sledding hill. The club leaves the main gate (around the corner from my apt) open all winter so anyone can come in and sled or hike anytime they want. That said, there is an opening/swinging door in the fence that I can view from my vantage point…the slack in the chain that keeps it locked is just wide enough to throw a sled through and then shimmy through in a big snowsuit. It’s hilarious to see how many kids opt for that point of entry rather than just going around the corner to the “official” entrance. Totally brightens my day to witness that little act of rebelliousness and adventure.

  49. I’m technically an adult now, free to roam, and people have called the cops on me for such dumb reasons. Here are two crazy ones:
    – sleeping outside, like under a bridge – I was woken up by cops the other night. Even if I had been imbibing a lot, ought it to matter to anyone else if I kept to myself? I asked them to just drive me back to my campsite but they of course drove me to the station. Now I have an upcoming court date for public intoxication rather than the usual ticket the OPP (“Ontario Party Poopers”) are supposed to give, just for crashing under a bridge.
    I strongly suspect with what seems like good reason that there is a group of local police out to get me though, or at least once in a while when they’ve got nothing else to do or see an opportunity to abuse their position.
    – climbing trees – This happened twice. I know the first person was concerned, even though she shouldn’t have been, and I’m not sure about the other, the cops said he/she was concerned too. I didn’t get in any trouble at least.
    Pushing phone buttons to call in the cavalry to interfere with someone’s innocent activity and try to get them in trouble makes some people feel like they’re gods.

  50. Hey Mark!

    Really interesting topic – probably my favourite for the reasons you discussed at the beginning of the post.

    Where I’m from, parents can be fined if their children are found climbing the trees in the local park. A waste really because there are never any kids in the local park anyway.

    I think realistically the threshold of what we allow our kids to undertake on their own should be pushed way further. But nobody can make those recommendations because the last thing we want to be held accountable for is someone’s kids going missing/getting into danger.

    Most of us (well not *us*) feed our kids processed foods, coca cola and buy them an iPad instead of letting them go outside, yet then we worry about our kids hurting themselves or suffering in some way.

    Anything can happen in life, and if it does, that’s a huge shame. But I’d rather something happen to me or even my kids some day then either of us exist in fear for the duration of our lives.

  51. Man, my friends and I scoured every crevice that could ever exist in whatever neighborhood I happened to live. I rope-swung atop old WWII bomb-shelters, ran black-ops operations in camoflage makeup atop school buildings, tore holes in each and every one of my jeans on trees, rocks, fences, logs. I swung, flipped, jumped from swingsets (now being removed in my neighborhood–too “dangerous”), rode my bicycle through treacherous paths and down courage-testing inclines, and I followed train tracks for (what seemed like) miles. My parents had to go out on search and rescue in order to feed me. And for my friends that had “those parents” where you had to check in every ten minutes…I always had to wonder what the heck was wrong with them! I lived for playing outside. And even if we did own a video game system, it didn’t have the pull that it has on kids now…it wasn’t something we were shackled too. But nowadays I don’t ever see any kids playing outside. It reminds me of the Cat Stevens song, “Where Will the Children Play?” but that’s the problem Cat, THEY DON’T PLAY; they vegetate.

  52. I am 56 and was raised completely freely. We never came home until dinner and my mom worked (doctor).
    I home schooled our three daughters partly so they could have more freedom and real experiences and grow up with more adults and multi-aged community. About 15 years ago when my oldest was always climbing trees outside of home school Chess Club here in Austin, mothers would come running in to tell me she was in a tree. I grew up climbing VERY high trees and I just didn’t really think about it. But I started to get nervous so I decided to get it on the record that I had talked to their doctor about this and he shared my belief that kids are too protected these days. So we kind of agreed on some guidelines for tree climbing and I had him note in the record that we had discussed this.
    It may sound paranoid but at that time we were hearing about home school parents being blamed for accidents. Like there should never be any accidents! Parents didn’t used to be blamed for accidents very often. In fact, if you were overprotective you were considered to be a bad parent.

  53. Hoping to hear from Mark and/or anyone who has an informed opinion about this subject.

    My family and I live in an apartment complex that has 3 large grassy areas (with a few trees, flower beds and some shrubs. We often go barefoot in the grass and play with the kids (2 and 4) in the grass. We felt good about being in contact with the earth and hopefully picking up some good dirt “bugs.” We usually get to the grassy areas in the evenings and on saturdays and sundays.

    BUT….yesterday (a Wednesday) I had to run back to the apartment during the workday and I saw landscaping company crews spraying the grassy areas with chemicals that were a bluish-green color and another group was rotary-spreading little pellets. After a few tries, I found a crew member who spoke english. He said the “stuff” was just fertilizer and weed control. He said its perfectly safe for humans and animals after it dries, which is why they do it during times that little to no people are using the areas.

    But I would like the opinion of Mark and others. Is it safe, at any time (dried or otherwise), to play in grass that has been treated? And, even if safe, does anyone know if chemicals that make the grass “pretty” kill the good bacteria in the grass and dirt?

    Thanks everyone.