There is a nationwide debate emerging from a recent report about “free range” children. And, as is often the case in our country, the facts of the article reveal that every state, county, community, neighborhood, and person has a different view of when children are responsible enough to wander their own neighborhood and/or be left alone at home.
The first thing that occurred to me when I read this was that I would have been a foster child if my parents had lived in many of these communities. They not only left me alone at an early age, but let me walk home from school (kindergarten), play in the neighborhood (5+), and even babysit my younger brothers and the neighborhood kids. I had my first baby-sitting job when I was nine! My dad used to drop me (12) and my brother (8) off at one of our fields, a mile from the house, and leave us to irrigate until noon when he picked us up for lunch.
Yes, there were always rules about where we could play and how far we could go, especially in the neighborhood. We lived in various cities and towns until I was in high school, so it wasn’t a matter of knowing the area or the people in it. Most of my “free-range” depended on my parents’ confidence in me. They knew I generally followed their rules and I had earned their trust. My dad could whistle quite well and if he whistled I’d better be close enough to hear it and get home within a reasonable amount of time. As an example of how adamant he was about compliance with his rules: I was once fifteen minutes late from a date when I was in high school and came home to find him pulling out of our driveway to find me!
I don’t remember when I first let my own children have any free range. I suppose, like my parents, I based their freedom on their responsibility and our circumstances, not a particular age. No rule or law or guideline is going to determine whether your child can be trusted at eight or at eighteen. You can’t predict good judgment by a date on the calendar. Nor can you determine that a parent is neglecting their child by observing only one small aspect of their life.