Raised by Wolves, or Free Range Kids? Either Way, They Learn and Live. At Least So Far.

A simple dry magnetic pocket compassImage via Wikipedia
NOTE: This is an older post that disappeared somehow, so I republished.

For years now I’ve told people that my children are being raised by wolves. I’ve now learned a much healthier-sounding term for my parenting approach: I’m raising free-range kids.

I found this term through the Cult of the Bicycle blog, which picked up on a text reference on the Free Range Kids blog to letting kids go out and ride their bikes. (You can buy it on Amazon)

Following that link, I was THRILLED to find other moms like me who don’t make their kids live in an antiseptic, antibacterial, padded, no-sharp-corners, experience-free bubble.

I've never been a "smother" and I don't think that makes me either neglectful or crazy. My kids are learning lessons from real-life experiences that I could never convey through verbal instruction (the effectiveness of which, after all, assumes that they listen to you).

One example (and I’m sure my daughters will jump on here with comments to clarify, expand, correct, and shoot down my fuzzy memory and factual assertions)—

My daughters are now 19 and 15. They've been riding on transit in our city of about 200,000 for the last 5+ years.

When my 15-year-old started at age 10, it was because she was attending a citywide gifted program that didn't have school bus service, and I simply couldn't drive her to and from school every day. (My bike commuting habit was not the only factor.)

She had already ridden the bus downtown with her older sister a few times, and we had a bus stop at the end of our block. I rode the bus with her the first day. We got to the central plaza and I showed her where to catch the second bus she needed to transfer to in order to get to her school.

When we came to our stop, we picked out landmarks so she could recognize it again. I showed her how to get from the stop to the school (a 2-block walk), and told her how to get back. I instructed her to sit up front, close to the driver, and tell the driver if anyone bothered her.

Turns out I should have come down and ridden home with her that first time, because she thought it would be easier to just get on the bus on the same side of the street where she got off in the morning.

This, of course, meant that she was riding farther away from home instead of back. The bus driver recognized that she wasn't getting off as he passed stop after stop, heading farther and farther east until she was the only person on the bus.

He asked her where she was supposed to end up, explained that she needed to catch a bus going the other way, and helped her get off at the right stop and cross the street to catch a bus headed back downtown to the plaza, where she could then catch another bus to come home. She got home safe and sound with an adventure to talk about.

Sure, it gave me some heart palpitations to hear about it afterwards, and I kicked myself for not riding home with her that first time. But--SHE MADE IT JUST FINE (and geez, it WAS a gifted program she was heading to/from....).

My kids have had plenty of adventures. No broken bones or concussions, and only a couple of small scars, one set definitely caused by free-range behavior: a wild bike ride down a bluff at dusk when she went off a trail by accident (same Gifted Kid who got on the bus going the wrong way).

Gifted Kid, in fact, started riding her bike to school a couple of years ago, a distance of about 3 miles on some fairly busy streets. My husband and I rode with her the first day and explained the funny nature of the one-way streets she would have to deal with in order to come back along a different street than the one we were taking to get to school.

That afternoon I got a call from her cell phone. “Mom, I’m at some corner.”

Shades of the bus ride—she had gotten turned around or missed a key intersection or some such, and was heading south when she should have been heading west. The steepness of the hill she was facing stopped her, as she was pretty sure we hadn’t come down something quite that steep in the morning.

I’d commuted by bike that day too, so I hopped on my bike and rode to her after determining where she was (not a particularly high-rent district, in case you want to fill in some stereotypes and assumptions about the people who live around there).

When I got there, she was talking to a nice young woman who had gotten concerned when she saw a relatively young kid sitting on the curb with a bike and a cell phone, apparently lost.

The woman smiled at me and said she was just keeping GK company until I arrived. I thanked her profusely, and GK and I rode home.

No kidnapping or rape or assault, no drug addiction, no pregnancies. They have good grades, extracurricular activities, talent, manners—all the characteristics you hope your kids will demonstrate when they’re a few months old and screaming their heads off while they cut teeth.

They also have street smarts, they know how to handle an unwanted come-on much better than I did when I graduated from college, and they have great self-confidence. They've developed an internal moral compass and are quite clear about their values and priorities. They are far more comfortable being around people very different from themselves in age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and level of hygiene than I was at their age when I had had no such exposure to the wild, beautiful, and sometimes scary variety of the world.

I share the belief of the Free Range Kids author/blogger that most people are good, and nothing has happened to change this. Statistically speaking, my kids and yours are in more danger from people they know than from total strangers.

I could keep them safe from “everything” and send them out into the world completely unprepared to function as adults, but what would be the point? Better to learn, live, and pick up a scar or two along the way—as well as a better sense of navigation. Right, Gifted Kid?
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