With summer waning and kids back at school, I find myself lamenting the restricted lives American children lead these days, and the disappearance of what’s been called “the free-range childhood.” In my mid-fifties and with a nine-year-old daughter, I’m both old enough to remember the old regime of childhood and contemporary enough to be complicit in the new one. Though I wince to admit it, I’m as culpable in the demise of the free-range childhood as any other parent.

But first: do you remember what it was like, that kind of childhood and that kind of summer? Out the back door, grab your banana bike, zoom off into the street. Pull a wheelie or two out of pure exuberance. See if Ricky or Chip or Craig are around. Start a game of tackle football in someone’s yard. Scavenge wood for a tree fort. Ride down to the cove at the foot of the street and chuck rocks in. Whatever.

The free-range childhood is my mother, shouting from the porch, Be back by five! I don’t have a watch, but I’ll know from the slant of the sun. Plus, she has a bell she rings, and I’ll hear it and lope home, like a hungry dog, for dinner. The free-range childhood is long, aimless days – blank slates on which you and your pals would scrawl the messy, adventuresome script of childhood.

In today’s childhood, however, everything is planned in advance, and there’s very little “whatever.” One day last weekend our daughter had exhausted her screen time, had read for two hours, and was climbing the walls. We hadn’t scheduled anything for her. So what was she supposed to do? I wanted to tell her, Just go out exploring! You’ll find someone! But I didn’t, because it doesn’t work that way any more.

What killed the free-range childhood? There are plenty of culprits: balkanized, choice-based school systems, so that neighboring kids often attend far-flung grade schools; changes in parental work that place a premium on scheduling; the educated class’s cult of “productive” activities for children (the violin lesson, the computer camp).

And, of course, safety fears. We live in a city neighborhood of narrow streets bordered by major traffic arteries, so that a child on a bike faces a perilous obstacle course. And there are other worries. A high crime rate and incidence of registered sex offenders. Two group homes at the bottom of our street. And so on. Our attempt to introduce more freedom into our daughter’s life runs up against some daunting urban realities.

Yet friends in the suburbs say it’s the same thing there: everything scheduled, nothing spontaneous, and kids spending way more time inside the house than out. This is no mere matter of a few over-anxious helicopter parents. Remember the notorious case of the couple in Silver Spring, MD – one of the safest cities in the country – who were charged with neglect for letting their two kids, aged 6 and 10, walk unescorted to their neighborhood park? Our society and its institutions have drawn the lines in close. In fact, research repeatedly shows that childhood today is no less safe than it was four decades ago, and your child’s chance of being plucked off the street by a nefarious stranger are minuscule. So why do we act as if harm looms at every turn?

I recall a summer day when I was my daughter’s age and rode my bike to the park, taking a shortcut through the woods. As I navigated the tricky path, I met a man walking. He fell into pace with me. He was in his late twenties, I’d guess now – a jazz musician, he told me, whose band was playing at a club downtown.  He and his band members traveled around in a big Oldsmobile convertible and one time had taken all the seats out and driven around in it like a big bathtub, he said, just for fun. He told me his name and where his band was playing. “You should get your folks to bring you.”

I was in awe.

Even then my parents would have scolded me for talking to strangers. And of course this kind of encounter forms the core nightmare of today’s parental worries. That’s why we’ve taught our daughter to get away immediately from such a situation, and to yell “Stranger! Stranger!” if she feels threatened.

But at what cost? Theorists across a range of disciplines write about the importance of serendipitous encounters and exchanges, the churn of unplanned contact that makes for robust cities, robust work cultures, robust lives.  These days we have moved all of that online; what remains of the free-range childhood is fully a thing of cyberspace and the social network. The physical world is a mere adjunct, even relic, where nothing unanticipated happens. 

Our daughter has one friend, a neighborhood boy, who defies today’s protocol and shows up at our house without prearrangement. When the doorbell rings and he’s standing there, asking if our daughter can play, I feel a rush of sentimental affection, glad to see this smiling and crewcut anachronism at our door, an emissary from my own free-range childhood of long ago.

What shall we call the system we deploy now? The cage-fed childhood?  Frequently I wonder, What sort of bird will it produce?



Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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