Why these parents want their kids to have an 'old-fashioned summer'

Days spent playing outside with friends used to be a hallmark of summer – and some parents are trying bring back unstructured, unsupervised play as child development experts warn about the harm caused by overprotective parenting.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
A young girl rids a tricycle under a cascade of water from an open fire hydrant in upper Manhattan. Free-range parents say cities – with their public transit systems, playgrounds, and parks – offer a wealth of chances for children to develop independence.

When parents ask Julie Turchin why she allows her two daughters so much independence – including freedom to roam their California neighborhood and walk home from school – she often cites an experience she had when she was 9.

She and her friend had been dropped off in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., with a plan to take the subway home. When the T broke down, the girls inadvertently got on the wrong bus and ended up at Ruggles station – not a great part of Boston at the time. They got off, consulted a map, and made their way back to the right place – 1-½ hours late, but very proud of themselves.

Six years later, when Ms. Turchin got separated from her high-school classmates in Russia, she didn’t panic, but used her broken Russian to figure out the transit system.

“It wasn’t a big deal, because I’d been figuring out how to get home, lost on the subway, since I was 9,” says Turchin. That experience “gave me pride, independence, and a skill that’s important to have later in life. That’s the kind of stuff I think we don’t give our kids, out of fear they’ll end up [at] Ruggles.”

Days spent playing outside with friends, and without parents, used to be a hallmark of summer vacation – and parents like Turchin are trying bring back elements of those old-fashioned summers for their own kids. It is, however, more complicated than just telling kids to come home when the sun goes down: For one, there are usually no other kids outside to play with.

But more child development experts are warning about the harm that’s caused by overprotective parenting and fear-based decisions, particularly as kids get fewer chances for risk-taking, unsupervised free play, and time away from adults.

“Children throughout history have always played and explored largely with other children away from adults,” says Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn.” “That’s how their learning occurs, it’s how they practice skills…. We have more or less done away with the culture of childhood.”

Part of it is the reality of having two working parents with busy schedules, but there’s also the fact that it’s hard to find friends who also are free to roam, homework is more abundant, and activities like soccer ramp up in intensity at a far earlier age.

“It feels like everybody is operating at a faster pace,” Turchin says.

So much scheduling means many kids spend far less unstructured time outside, says Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of “Balanced and Barefoot.”

She started to get concerned when she saw so many kids who were having issues with falling, paying attention, and poor balance. She realized they were spending little time outdoors, and, when they were, much of their behavior was restricted: Schools didn’t allow kids to hang upside down on the monkey bars; parents didn’t let their kids spin in circles or roll down hills or climb trees.

“We’re taught to do no harm, but we’re at the point where we’re restricting children in many ways … and it ends up negatively affecting their development,” says Ms. Hanscom, who ended up founding a nature program, TimberNook, to help kids get unstructured time outside.

A spate of articles and books in recent years have touted things like the benefits of dirt for developing children, the need for parents to step back and parent less, and the importance of free play and risk-taking outside.

Some neighborhoods are working to create an environment where it’s normal for kids to play and bike on their own. And while it’s impossible to quantify – and most “free-range” parents still feel like they’re swimming against the current – many parents are speaking out about why they’re intentionally choosing to step back.

Statistically – no matter what the perception may be among a public glued to 24-hour-news reports – this is an incredibly safe time to be a kid. Violent crime has been on a downward trend for a couple decades, rates of physical and sexual abuse against children have been falling, and the danger of kidnapping by a stranger remains, as it’s always been, very low.

'Getting out of your children's way'

Danielle Meitiv’s daughter, now almost 9, has been biking by herself to school since she was 7. When they went to Europe last summer, her kids explored Paris on their own, within a defined area.

Several years ago, she was still regularly walking her kids – then 6 and 10 – to the bus in the morning, after a harried get-out-the-door routine familiar to many parents.

On a day when she had a conflict and her husband was out of town, she told the kids they’d have to do it on their own. They did, with no prompting. The next day, she was set to walk them to the bus, but her daughter announced that wasn’t happening: They were going on their own.

“From that day until the last day of school last month, I think we’ve had one fight in the morning,” says Ms. Meitiv. “I didn’t even realize I was doing for them what they could do for themselves…. Parenting is literally getting out of your children’s way from birth to 18.”

Not criminalizing parents

That attitude can come with risks, as once-normal parenting decisions are sometimes criminalized or judged harshly.

Meitiv learned that the hard way, when she and her husband found themselves investigated by Child Protective Services two years ago after they allowed their 6- and 10-year-old children to walk to the park together. Their case gained significant attention, and Meitiv says, ultimately helped get both police and CPS policy changed in Maryland’s Montgomery County.

Now, officers who see children walking alone have the discretion to ask them if they’re OK and make a reasonable judgment about whether they need help, rather than automatically picking them up and calling CPS. CPS workers no longer automatically consider certain parenting styles neglect.

Meitiv notes that working for that change is the main reason she and her husband went public, instead of just hiring a lawyer to quietly get them off.

“The majority of people who get in trouble for having kids unattended are poorer, or from other cultures with different parenting styles,” says Meitiv, who is now running for a seat on city council. “We didn’t want to get off the hook; we wanted justice.”

Indeed, free-range parenting is a luxury that that some lower-income families don’t feel they have. Disproportionately, poor families, especially families of color, can find themselves under a microscope by child welfare authorities. In recent years, single mothers in South Carolina and Florida were arrested and briefly jailed after allowing their children – one a 9-year-old and one a 7-year-old – play at parks on their own, even though they had phones and their parents knew where they were.

'Underestimating kids, overestimating danger'

These sorts of cases only underscore the reason for an understanding of the independence that children are capable of, says Lenore Skenazy, chair of the Let Grow Foundation, and author of “Free-Range Kids” (the book that helped coin the now-popular term).

“The sooner it becomes normal again to see kids running around, riding their bikes and playing in the parks unsupervised, the sooner we remove an easy excuse for the authorities to investigate anyone not living up to the current, middle-class, ‘hyper-parenting’ ideal,” says Ms. Skenazy.

So much of the current prevalent parenting model is based on fear, she says. “It’s underestimating kids and overestimating danger.”

Kepfram Cauley and Ellie Thomas, who live in Manhattan, knew from the beginning that they wanted their son, Ahsaan – now 9 – to have the same sort of freedoms Mr. Cauley had when he grew up in the city.

“Being a parent is teaching my child how to live in the world, not to protect him from it,” says Cauley.

Ahsaan takes himself to school, two subway stops away, each morning, and – once his parents succeeded in getting permission from the school – gets home on his own. The biggest risk, says Ms. Thomas, isn’t “stranger danger,” but rather “the well-intentioned stranger that wants to help him.”

When he first started playing outside at the playground across the street, when he was 6, they had Ahsaan carry “dog tags” that included their phone numbers and let people know he was fine and had their permission. They do sometimes get questioned – occasionally belligerently – but they’re convinced that, rather than endangering their son, they're helping him gain the skills he needs as he grows up.

“It seems to me a lot of people parent out of fear, and not with forethought,” says Thomas. “Even though I understand those reactions, I try not to let them drive me…. You give them the tools to live in the world.”

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