Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Should you raise free-range kids?
BY STEVE WATKINS
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Last year, when her son was 15 and her daughter 9, University of Mary Washington sociology professor Debra Schleef left them alone overnight when she and her husband had to go out of town.
“I know some people we told about it were aghast,” she said, “but they did fine.”
Out in semi-rural Spotsylvania County, librarian Lee Criscuolo let her now-grown daughters roam unsupervised as preteens around their 20-acre property and surrounding woods. They rode their bikes down country roads to visit neighbors.
Bryanne Salazar, a Marine Corps wife and college student who lives on base at Quantico, regularly allows—or rather, orders— her 12- and 14-year-old sons to go off on their own.
“They like to laze around the house, but I kick them outside and tell them to go on an adventure most days,” said Salazar. “I’m not always sure where they’re at, but if I get concerned I call them.”
The three local parents firmly believe in raising their children to be independent—at a much earlier age and with much greater freedom to roam than many parents allow. It puts them in the camp of Free Range Parents, whose style promotes independence but draws scorn from those who say giving kids too much freedom puts them at risk.
Criscuolo, whose daughters recently graduated from college, shrugs off the second-guessing. Not that she doesn’t understand the anxiety of area residents. In the mid-’90s, parents were terrified by the abductions and murders of three local children by serial killer Marc Evonitz. He committed suicide in 2002 after the escape of another girl he’d kidnapped. And then came the sniper killings that terrorized the region for three weeks in 2002.
More recently, local authorities reported a series of abduction attempts of children during the past school year.
But violent crime in the U.S. has actually been dropping since 1993, says Criscuolo, a reference librarian. And she says the overall rate of crime in 2009 was about the same as in 1968.
“It’s certainly not zero,” she said, “but there aren’t kidnappers waiting behind every bush either.”
“I’m not saying there is no danger, that children should never be supervised or kept track of,” Criscuolo added. “I’m saying we blow most dangers out of proportion and we don’t worry about the things that are actually more likely to happen to us. We seem to have lost reasonable perspective.”
Statistics clearly show that children are in much greater danger of being harmed by someone they know—a relative, a neighbor—than by a stranger.
FREE RANGERS IN NEWS
The issue of Free Range Parenting gained popularity—some would say notoriety—in 2008, when writer Lenore Skenazy published an essay about allowing her then 9-year-old son to ride the New York subway alone.
It’s been back in the news lately with the recent arrest of a mother in Johnson City, Tenn.—a case that’s been a major topic on Skenazy’s popular Free Range Kids website.
April Lawson, 27, was charged with child neglect after she allowed her children, 8 and 5, to walk to a playground unattended and briefly lost track of them.
The children walked to a nearby friend’s house and weren’t at the playground when Lawson had a friend check on them after an hour of unsupervised play.
(Virginia does not have a statute to determine the minimum age at which a child may be left unsupervised and neither does the city of Fredericksburg, according to police spokeswoman Natatia Bledsoe. See sidebar that follows for general child-supervision guidelines used by local police.)
Lawson’s arrest brought to the surface the tension between parents who want their kids to have the freedom to roam as they did as kids, and those who find it neglectful not to keep closer tabs on children.
Dozens of supporters of Lawson weighed in on the Johnson City newspaper’s website about their own free-range childhoods a generation ago. They were expected to entertain themselves—unsupervised.
Others, who roundly condemned the young mother, made reference to abduction stories in the news as evidence of dangers in letting young children walk to the park—or anywhere—on their own.
Skenazy says abduction fears are largely unfounded. She reports on her website that stranger abduction rates in the U.S. have held steady for years.
There were 115 cases in the most recent year reported. Forty percent of those abducted children were murdered.
While the murder of any child is terrible, Skenazy says, the numbers remain very small in a country of 300 million.
“Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe,” Skenazy writes. “At the same time, they’re also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods—or even took public transportation—they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing.”
Schleef, chair of the UMW sociology department, remembers being allowed to go off on her own at a very early age. “I would walk out the door in the morning and my mother would say, ‘Be home for lunch,’” she recalled. Criscuolo and Salazar had similar stories.
Now Schleef says she has friends who won’t let their children climb trees for fear of them falling and getting hurt.
Other friends won’t let their kids watch Disney movies.
“Too scary,” she said. “They don’t want their children seeing ‘Bambi’ because the mother dies.”
Schleef, who prefers the term “laissez-faire parent,” says she’s a firm believer in letting children learn from their mistakes, but knows that a great many middle-class parents follow the “helicopter parent” model—always hovering around their children, making sure they’re safe.
“Another term I’ve heard is ‘snowplow parents,’” she said. “They consider it their job to remove every obstacle, real or imagined, that might be in their children’s path.”
She knows one 16-year-old who has never been left alone. Ever.
PARENTING AS CLASS ACT
Schleef says to a certain extent the debate over Free Range Parenting is an upper- and middle-class phenomenon. Many of these parents have the time and opportunity to worry about their kids’ every move—and to practice helicoptering or snowplowing.
For working-class parents, long hours at work and limited income often mean they can’t be around as much, and may not be able to afford after-school care or summer camps. So they practice Free Range Parenting by default. Or, as frequently happens in inner cities, they order their children to stay in the house or apartment with doors locked during work hours, Schleef said.
Salazar, the Marine Corps wife, is one who found herself free range parenting early on by default.
“A secret I’ve kept from most friends is that my sons were staying home alone for little bits of time as young as 6 and 7,” she said recently. “I found myself raising two boys in a city with no friends or family, and a husband deployed to war. Both kids were sick the first day I left them home. We were out of food and medicine. I told my sons I needed to run to the store, and gave them their father’s cellphone to call me if they needed to. My youngest son started crying. My oldest seemed excited for the chance to be alone.
“I felt like the worst mother alive. I remember walking the aisles of the store thinking, ‘What if someone found out what I’ve done?’ After 45 minutes, I returned home with the supplies we needed and found my kids exactly where I’d left them, in front of the TV in their underwear with a box of tissues. That’s when I knew they’d be OK, and so would I.”
Lenore Skenazy’s “Free Range Kids” website: freerangekids.wordpress.com.
The New Yorker magazine reviewed parenting books that explore the phenomena of helicopter and snowplow parents: newyorker.com/arts/
National SAFE KIDS Campaign, which advises that 12 be the cut-off age for leaving a child home alone: safenetwork.org/homealone1.html.
Steve Watkins is an award-winning author, yoga teacher and former professor. He writes the Fit After Fifty column for the Free Lance-Star. stevewatkinsbooks.com.
STATE DOES NOT DICTATE AGE FOR EASING SUPERVISION
BY STEVE WATKINS
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
According to Fredericksburg Police Department public information officer Natatia Bledsoe, all of the cases city police officers have investigated this year involving lack of supervision involved toddlers or younger.
“We just don’t get the calls for older kids unless they are playing in the street,” Bledsoe said in an email. “Allowing children above the age of kindergarten to have ‘free range’ does not seem to be a concern that is brought to the attention of the PD.”
Bledsoe said Virginia does not have a statute that determines the minimum age at which a child maybe left unsupervised and neither does the city. If police have concerns about inadequate supervision, they generally refer the case to Child Protective Services. Here are the Supervision Guidelines used by city police:
Age 7 and under: Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.
Age 8 to 10: Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening.
Age 11 to 12: May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.
Age 13 to 15: May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.
Age 16 to 17 years: May be left unsupervised. In some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods.
A CHILD ADVOCATE’S PERSPECTIVE
BY STEVE WATKINS
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Spotsylvania County’s Jill Payne has spent most of her adult life deeply involved in the juvenile justice system, the past 15 years as director of Fredericksburg Area CASA—Court Appointed Special Advocates—advocating for abused and neglected children and teens.
She and her husband, Eddie, have been de facto parents to many of those children while raising their own sons, Nick and Benn. Benn starts college next year, and as he prepares to leave the nest Payne has found herself reflecting a lot on what it means to be a parent.
“I have never been a fan of the trending parenting philosophies that alternate between the restrictive ‘helicopter parent’ to the ‘let them do what they want’ parent,” she said recently.
“My philosophy has always been to get to know my child well enough to know how much freedom they can safely enjoy, tempered with the discipline that will allow them to be a person that the rest of the world can tolerate.
“If we allow our children too much decision-making freedom before they understand that freedom comes with responsibility, I think that we set them up for failure. Some little people are good decision makers while others need more guidance and structure.
“Following a philosophy without considering the needs of the child just seems like bad parenting to me. Yes, we did have more freedom when we were children and we all know how excellent we turned out! Our moms put us outside in the morning and we knew to wander home around lunchtime. But my parents also took long trips over treacherous mountain roads as we slept in sleeping bags in the back of a box van.
“Just because it worked then, doesn’t mean it works now—we are smarter and more educated and maybe a little less willing to take risks.”