Free-range parenting creates self-sufficient adults

ABOUT THE COLUMNIST

Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.

Those of us of a certain age, especially we Boomers, like to wax nostalgic about the good old days when we were allowed to play outside until the street lights came on.

We talk about how when we broke the neighbor’s window, she whipped us. And when she told our parents, we got another whipping. Sometimes we got as many as three whippings before we ever made it home, and no one got mad but us.

And then we hear about parents like Meredith Hegarty and Sonia Fuller who grant their children the same freedom and oh brother. We wag our skinny little fingers in their faces. Times have changed, we tell them. You ought to know better.

We ought to stop it.

There's been a lot of talk about so-called Free-Range Kids, a movement that happens to be the antithesis of the helicopter-parent era.

It was founded by Lenore Skenazy, a former newspaper columnist who achieved mommy-blog infamy seven years ago when she wrote a column about letting her 9-year-old son, armed with a map and a MetroCard, navigate his way home in Queens from Bloomingdale's. Skenazy published a book and now has a reality show, "World's Worst Mom," on the Discovery Life Channel, in which she swoops into the homes of overprotective parents and persuades them to let their offspring do such things as, God forbid, ride the city bus alone.

Skenazy’s goal, she said, is to change the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnappers, germs, flashers, bullies and baby snatchers.

It’s understandable that in a time when we have a 24-hour news cycle and alarmist TV show hosts like Nancy Grace, we could’ve scared ourselves and our children back inside. But if you didn’t think your parents were negligent in sending you outside to play, then you shouldn’t feel bad about sending your own kids out either.

It's true times have changed, but the world is not nearly as dangerous as the news would indicate. FBI stats show that crime is down considerably since when we were kids playing outside. In the last decade, the number of violent crimes declined by nearly 15 percent. And it's still true that a child is more likely to be abducted by a relative than a stranger.

The child abduction cases Nancy Grace reports are horrible and heartbreaking, but so too are the arrest cases of free-range parents.

One local dad who had been arrested for letting his kids walk home from school refused to talk on the record for fear of retribution.

“I think I better lay low,” he said.

Meredith Hegarty, a middle school teacher and single mom of two boys, age 9 and 12, worries less about the police and more about what other parents might think of her parenting style.

Until now, she never considered herself as part of a movement. It’s simply been her goal to raise self-reliant, responsible kids, who view the world as their oyster, something to be embraced, not feared.

And she’s doing it pretty much the way her parents did. She allows her boys to roam unfettered and unmonitored. They can ride their bikes. Wander through the woods. Walk to the park. All she asks is that they stay in touch via phone.

Hegarty is a good parent, but she often feels she’s an anomaly. She isn’t. There are plenty of parents in metro Atlanta who parent this way.

Sonia Fuller, for instance, is part of a group of Grant Park-area parents about 100 strong who coordinate joint activities — playing in the park, bike rides — so parents know where kids are, but they don’t hover.

All three of her sons, ages 15, 10 and 6, are allowed to bike around the neighborhood, walk to the library and play in a nearby park unsupervised. Jake, the oldest, has been known to meet friends at Six Flags, and has even used Uber by himself to get home.

Imagine that. These days, not only do we over-schedule our kids, we runs ourselves ragged trying to be three places at once. And when they grow up and can’t make simple decisions, we wonder what went wrong.

Free-range parent or not, we can never know for sure how our kids will turn out, but as a middle school teacher for almost 20 years, Hegarty has seen the handwriting on the wall and it doesn’t look good.

“I think we’ve forgotten we learned our problem-solving skills from experience,” Hegarty said. “I think we’re not doing our children justice if we don’t allow them the freedom to navigate the world on a small scale before we let them loose in this big world.”

She’s right, you know. What’s sad is most of us won’t realize it until its too late, until Johnny is 24 and constantly flying off the handle because he doesn’t know how cope emotionally or socially.

Children have a right to some unsupervised time and parents have a right to give it to them without fear of being arrested.

One last thing. I miss the sight and sound of kids playing outdoors. I say we let ’em loose now so that it’s the norm again. Not a criminal offense.

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