My 12-year-old son has just walked out the door to the bus stop with a Nos Energy Drink in one hand and a pocket full of Halloween candy for breakfast. He also falls asleep with the TV on, a TV which is IN HIS BEDROOM, does not willingly read books, and sometimes gets to steer the car on a quiet, suburban drive. He rides his bike around with a band of friends after school and on weekends, and sometimes they end up at the H & H Mobile Gas Station, on a busy corner, where they buy drinks and plan the filming of thrillingly viral YouTube videos. He is allowed to attend “all-nighters” at the F.R.A.G. Center, a local hangout for computer gaming geeks, and frequently trades on Craig’s list, where he has made some bad trades, but also gotten himself a bike and a better cellphone. He has seen “R” rated movies, and sometimes listens to music with lyrics that would send his grandmother into apoplexy.
He has grown up in a neighborhood of undergraduate student renters, and as a little boy, used to ride his motorized Jeep around, meeting and greeting, and often being invited in for some ice cream or a little Nintendo. We always knew where he was, and we received apologies for everything from the bong being out when he came into the house (“but we hid it right away!”) to treats given at dinner time. His student friends bought him Christmas gifts, giant bags of candy for Halloween, and, on one memorable occasion, a group of leggy, stunning party girls made him an amazing trick-or-treat bag which is used to this day. Some of them, all grown up and married, still come by to see him.
Before you judge (and I can hear the indrawn breaths from here), I will tell you that there is a balance in this life. Just yesterday I took him for a dental cleaning. His shots are up to date, and he is required to do his homework before playing XBox Live. He has good grades, good friends, and is kind to animals, grandparents and small children. He often fixes himself a plate of celery, carrots and ranch dip as a snack, loves broccoli, and is generally fairly charming and polite. He is, to quote one of his teachers recently, “a hard kid not to like,” and I attribute a great deal of his ease in the world to his breadth of experience, positive and negative.
My friend Will, with whom I grew up, recently used the term “Free Range Children” to describe the way he and I were raised in the 70s; there were certainly rules, but we were also encouraged to be “out of the house” and to find things to do on our own. There were no play dates; I honestly cannot remember my parents arranging my social activity once I had hit second grade. We rode our bikes all over town, played games in the backyards until after dark in warm weather, and spent hours in the woods near my house, sledding in winter, building forts and finding troves of decaying pornography in summer. There were very clear boundaries and expectations at my house regarding manners, kindness, and the value of intellect, but no one ever supervised my homework, suggested social alliances, or enrolled me in programs to “improve”me academically. We were a mixed-faith household, and it was always clear to us that we had our options open as far as choosing or not choosing to practice religion. I have to say that my atheist father is one of the most moral and compassionate men I have ever encountered, and that he and my Jewish mother raised two children with strong moral compasses despite the absence of organized religion.
I was required to brush my teeth, take piano lessons until fifth grade and write thank-you notes, and I was discouraged from having Barbies (which my parents found moronic), but in general, I was “free-range.”
There is, of course, tremendous pressure on contemporary parents to “helicopter;” to protect children from all possible harm, to shape their experiences, friendships and education in a way that increases the probability of future happiness and success. At its lowest levels (and I can agree to disagree with you about this) it involves sheltering children from “inappropriate” content in movies, games and music. My own experience was that, as a voracious reader, I had read all kinds of things (including the incredibly explicit sexual exploits of Frank Harris in a book someone had left at my grandparents’ house) by the time I was in the fifth grade, and that I did not, as a result, become a nymphomaniac who uttered strings of expletives that would make a sailor blush. I also spent a fair amount of time trying to tune in a porn channel that occasionally presented its grainy self on our downstairs TV set, squinting to figure out whether I was looking at a breast or, perhaps, an elbow.
Sam has become neither a potty mouth nor an axe murderer as the result of his exposure to violence in games and movies, or to “bad” language in rap and hip-hop songs , although I often take the opportunity to explain to him my own personal objection to the way women are objectified in certain music, or to the casualness of killing in games and movies. I have to trust that we have raised him well enough that his brain is not, at this point, merely a malleable puddle of mush to be shaped by whatever blows down the cultural pike. (He is actually more likely to be damaged by that particularly tortured metaphor than by listening to Fifty Cent). My husband and I are watching, we are available, and I know we both value those “teachable moments.” I vividly recall the “Preachers’ Kids” of my youth who went absolutely wild in high school, and the people who were not allowed to have sugar growing up, and subsequently ate nothing but Captain Crunch in the college dining hall; it is our choice to allow our child to have some exposure to the worst of pop culture now, while we can talk about it and maybe provide a parental inoculation against the worst effects.
A level up from media control is academic and social micromanagement. I am less flexible on this topic. I do not believe that children have to have certain teachers, be with certain friends in classes, or have specific curriculum, without which they will fall behind and find themselves doomed to work as grocery store baggers. I also believe that part of learning to function in the world is being allowed to fail while the parental net is still there; better to find out what happens when you don’t do your homework when you’re in fifth grade than when you are in college. My parents intervened precisely twice in my 13 year public school career, provoked once by the second grade teacher who believed I was dyslexic and told me that I should stop writing imaginary stories and “write about something real, like dolphins.” We would always intervene to protect Sam from a situation that was damaging to him academically or personally, but having to make new friends in the classroom or deal with a cranky teacher is a part of life, like meeting new co-workers or roommates, or working for a difficult boss.
The highest level of parental control involves physical freedom, and it’s complicated. There are places where children are not safe outside, and, sadly, their parents do right to keep them close to home and under watchful eyes. We don’t live in one of those places, and although there are busy streets to cross, and probably the average amount of stranger-danger, Sam is now completely free-range. There were streets he wasn’t allowed to cross until he was a certain age, we have to be able to get in touch with by cell at all times, and he has to wear a helmet, but he can go. I have seen in my own childhood, and among Sam’s friends, the effects of the restrictions imposed by fearful parents, and while I fully (!) understand the impulse to protect what you love most in the world, there is no way to accident-proof life. Bad teachers, bad influences, bad words, and bad accidents happen, and one chooses either to insulate one’s offspring for the longest possible time to keep them safe and happy, or to let life unfold, running behind the two-wheeler with a hand ready for a fall, but clinging to neither bike nor child.
The summer after Sam was in first grade, he and his friend John rode down the big hill we live on, into the intersection below; Sam on his bike and John on a scooter. At the foot of the hill, John rode into a moving car, and was killed. When John’s father, who I admire beyond words, came over the next day to tell Sam what a good job he had done to run for help, he said to me that John had probably known he was doing something dumb, but that he had “died being a boy, and having a great ride.” I haven’t heard anything wiser since.