Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free to Roam

When I was young, I'd walk myself to and from school. Sometimes I'd go with friends, other times alone. I remember doing it as early as kindergarten. After school I was sent out to play. Everyone was. All the neighborhood kids would be out--tossing a ball, having snowball fights, jumping in leaves ... each season brought new games. We were never bored.

When the street lights came on, or parents called out from doorsteps, it was time to go home. Simple.

Here it is 30 years later. I live on the west coast (no seasons) in an urban environment with two children of my own. And times have changed.

Would I consider letting my kindergarten-age child walk to school alone (never mind that school is 5 miles across town)? No. No way. How about playing outside? I allow them to chalk up the sidewalk in front of our house, or ride down the block on a skateboard or trike... but I'm RIGHT there. Either outside with them, or watching, perched at the window, at the ready to tackle anyone who dares mess with my kids.

At the same time, I'm loath to instill this fear in them.

The New York Times recently took this topic on and opinions on what is “right” run deep. The article reminds us of Julie Pat who, 3 decades ago, let her six year old son walk to the bus stop himself. He was never seen again. However, Lenore Skenay, author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry,” argues that our fears and anxieties are negating the joys of walking to school and the discernment of self care. Independence.

So when my son, almost nine, said to me one day, "mom, I want a kaiser roll. Liam and I will walk to the bread store to get it." Oh, really? I looked at the boys, thought about the 2 block walk to the bakery and heard myself saying, "let me get you some money," and I sent them on their merry way. From what I gather from our conversation afterwards, they ran to and fro, were followed by "a crazy dude" and were faced with a major dilemma upon discovering the shop was out of kaiser rolls. You know what though? The DID it. And they felt proud. They also had something to talk about for the rest of the afternoon and at school the next day. It was an adventure.

Since then, on Wednesdays, when I volunteer at Joe's school and stop to get a coffee, Joe asks if he can walk to class rather than wait with Maia (age 4) and me for my drink. I let him. It's an active two blocks with lots of parents and kids on their way to school. I feel comfortable with it. Furthermore, those few moments that my son is alone, independent, free -- add significantly to his confidence and self esteem. He can do something by himself! Which means that he can do OTHER THINGS by himself. I'm also seeing a greatly increased effort on his part to make his own breakfast or read to his sister.

A lot of people may thing what I'm doing is wrong: turning my son free on the streets of Berkeley ... It's ok. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I'm not sure mine is the right one. But it certainly is the one that seems best for my child.

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