Raising Free-Range Kids in Pacifica and Beyond

Thoughts and questions about raising free-range kids—safe, self-reliant children—here in Pacifica and beyond.

This morning, my five-year-old daughter Sasha proposed that her eight-year-old brother A.J. should walk her to school sometime. Her timing could not have been better.

I've been wanting to blog about Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids for a while now, but my thoughts on the subject have been swirling around in my head, refusing to coalesce into actual words. Please forgive me if this blog post seems a little raw, but I'd really like to launch some dialog among parents and other members of our community. (And by "community," I mean everyone who might be reading this article. So whether you live here in Pacifica or elsewhere, whether or not you have kids, I want to hear from you.)

When I was in kindergarten, I walked to school with a friend who was also in kindergarten. Without our parents. My husband was chaperoned to kindergarten by his seven-year-old brother. We somehow lived to tell the tale, so why does my blood run cold at the thought of my own kids doing the same thing?

We live about a mile from my kids' elementary school, along a fairly busy street. I have to admit, neither of my kids is very good about looking before crossing the street. Both tend to wander around with their heads in the clouds…but maybe that's because I'm always there to yank them back before they're smashed to a paste?

How old is "old enough" to walk to school alone, here in Pacifica or elsewhere? I'll go out on a limb and say that five is too young, and while I think my eight-year-old could get himself to school, he's not quite mature enough to take responsibility for his little sister. I want to say this isn't because my head is filled with media hype and fear-mongering, but because I know my own children…but I'm not sure. If it were just a couple of blocks, I would give it a shot, but instead I told them, "Let's talk about it again in the fall." After all, we've only got two weeks left in this school year, so why not put it off a while longer?

And so, dear readers, I pose my questions for you: what do you think? If you're a parent, are you raising free-range kids? Why or why not? And if you're not a parent, what's your opinion?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Cath June 07, 2011 at 09:39 PM
You may want to spend some time this summer making them responsible for street crossings; that is, when you are all out walking together, tell them they have to look at every corner and tell you when it's safe to cross. Don't step off the curb until they look to your satisfaction and tell you it's safe. This fall is when my younger kids will walk themselves to school. At 8 & 10, they're old enough, and probably were last year, too. It's just our early start time and the difficulty getting out on time that's stopped us so far. But my 3 walk themselves to our big park, the beach, the burrito place, the movie theater -- and it's heaven! They love it, and so do I! Cath
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 03:09 AM
You bring up an interesting point, Bilini—love the name, by the way—that maybe part of what makes us nervous is what other parents might think of us. I was talking to another kinder parent this morning, and she said that one reason she won't drop her twins off is that she's afraid other parents will see them walking into the school on their own and freak out. Which sadly is probably true. I think part of what holds me back is that Sasha is only 5. I would be fine with having A.J. walk to school—not that he feels ready, anyway, he still wanted me to walk him to class up until a couple of months ago—but not Sasha. By the way, I think 10 is DEFINITELY old enough to go get ice cream with a friend.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 03:12 AM
You definitely provide a yardstick for me, Cath! I love that you give your kids so much independence, and they are confident and happy as a result. Please expect to be one of my parenting gurus for...well, forever. A.J. told me this afternoon that he thinks they'll be ready to walk to school unchaperoned when he's 10 and Sasha's 7. And you know what? that sounds totally reasonable to me.
gemini moon June 08, 2011 at 04:31 AM
Just last week my daughter interviewed me about my parenting for an English project. The subject was my parenting. She asked me specifically if I had a hard time letting my kids out of my sight after seeing an attempted abduction of a 2nd grader while walking my first grader to school...or when Elizabeth Smart's abduction was a neighborhood story. I told her that I've consciously chosen to allow my children to live boldly instead of in fear. If my son hadn't been allowed to wander the downtown library by himself when he was 8, he never would have met the stranger who claimed to be one of the smartest men in the world. And years later I wouldn't have been called into the living room by my son yelling, "Mom! It's the man from the library!" And I wouldn't have come into the room to find him watching a documentary about Kim Peek, the original Rain Man. I've assured my kids that most people are mostly good most of the time and most kids are mostly okay and mostly safe most of the time. And if I don't trust my kids enough to learn the parameters of safety while they're still mostly under my watch, how can I suddenly trust them to handle *life* when they're out on their own. (cont.)
gemini moon June 08, 2011 at 04:32 AM
pt. 2 So far I'm really happy with the results of the honesty and freedoms my children have been raised with. They make better, more educated choices than many of their peers and they talk with me about all of the choices teens face, for good and bad. Bottom line, they trust me. And I believe that their trust is greater because they themselves feel trusted.
Tiff June 08, 2011 at 04:47 AM
So I did some soul searching on this topic, and for me what it really boils down to is even though they (at age 6) could definitely navigate their way to school and not get mowed over by a car, what if something did happen? Could I live with the fact that I decided it was OK and something awful happened? Did I exercise good judgement as a parent? The kid next door got hit-maybe bumped is more accurate, by a car crossing the street in front of our houses. He was 8 or 9 at the time. Too scary! He was only slightly injured, but it changed me. I am going to say kindergarten is too young. End of first grade (they will be 7) is a maybe, and second grade is quite probable for my kids.
Erika June 08, 2011 at 05:48 AM
Tiff, I saw your kids walking back from the lunch room the other day and I was impressed how they really watch out for each other. I could totally see them walking to school together at 7. As for mine, I really shouldn't take my eyes off Mark, at 4 he is still to unpredictable. Alana at 6 could handle the responsibility, no problem. That being said, the idea of letting either of them out of my sight, or the sight of another responsible adult freaks me out. I feel like that's the reason I don't work outside our home, so I could be the one with them. They are still so young. Emotionally, I'm not ready to let my kids have anything close to free range.
katdodge June 08, 2011 at 06:02 AM
hey there! well, I walked to school every day when I was a kid. I lived in the sunset and had to walk six blocks or so. Sometimes by myself.. sometimes with my older sister. We are still alive and relatively unscathed.. (we did get flashed once and a pigeon tried to land on my sis's head every morning for one year- it was a rescue and the poor thing thought my sister was his rescuer, but I digress..) The thing about now.. let me put my "curmudgeon" hat on.. is that there are more drivers now since the 70's/80's....AND they are multi-tasking, in a hurry and not looking out for the little ones.. that's where I have a problem.. your kids may be ready to be out there but people are just dangerous with their driving.. thats all I have to say... for now..
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 02:10 PM
Rachael, THIS right here is how I want to parent. The only problem is *I'm* chickensh...er, scared. I think I might have this tattooed on my forehead: "I told her that I've consciously chosen to allow my children to live boldly instead of in fear." Once *I've* learned how to live boldly, I'll be able to allow my children to do the same. I think I'd better get on that. Thank you so much.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 02:12 PM
You've really hit the nail on the head, Tiff: it's a question of could I live with myself if something happened? Our next-door neighbor's daughter was hit by a car when she was very small. I'd give more details, but I don't want to out here if she wants to keep her privacy. ANYWAY, that very real-life example haunts me whenever we cross the street, or whenever I think of sending my kids off on their own.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Well...Mark is only 4! And is a total flight risk. :-) A.J. is almost 9, remember, so it's a different ball game. You are not a helicopter parent AT ALL, believe me.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 02:15 PM
This is another excellent point, and one I hadn't thought about before: all those idiots driving with their cell phones and texting gadgets and whathaveyou...get off the damn phone and drive! See, you're not the only one with a curmudgeon hat. I'd like to hear more about that pigeon...
signe newman June 08, 2011 at 02:22 PM
Well, I am an aunt, not a parent. And as you know, we suffered a great loss in the family almost two weeks ago, when my brother, father of two children, passed away suddenly. They are only 2 and 3, so of course walking to school was out of the question. Letting them out of our sight was out of the question, even here in good 'ole Iowa. We were constantly hovering and headcounting and worrying about stairs and doors (they are smart kids). UNTIL, we invited a 9, 7, and 5 year old over. For once in that two week period we were able to quit worrying about the kids. They adore older children, and the 9 year old is a girl, used to looking after her little brothers in the yard. For 3 hours all of us women were able to sit on the deck and let the kids run free, knowing the little ones just wanted to be with the big ones, and that the eldest (or the 5 year old..5 year olds love to tattle) would tell us if something was wrong. That was the biggest gift ever, that 9 year old looking after all the little ones, organizing games, etc. Just to give us a bit of peace. She is awesome. Love you, Janie. In answer to your question, I think 5 is a little young to go with just an 8 yo, but maybe in a pack of kids? We also sent my dog outside with the kids, as he is a herding dog, and would never let them go in the street. Not practical for walking to school, I just wanted to share. I know that fear, and I know the feeling of release and peace. You'll have it someday.
jackie June 08, 2011 at 02:35 PM
the problem where we live is that no one else walks. When I was in kinder,everyone walked so it was a loose pack of kids. My kids are going into 5th and 3rd and I really think they should be able to walk by themselves. Yesterday, I left them at the park while I went to the store. They didnt want me to do it. Which was awful to me! I did leave and they didnt miss me at all.I hate how scared we are and how veal like my kids are.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 02:42 PM
Oh Signe, I love this so much: "I know that fear, and I know the feeling of release and peace. You'll have it someday." I think your story captures beautifully how we can only really let our kids range free when we know they'll be safe. I think that's what I'm aiming for: free-range within limits that I can handle. Much love to you.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 02:43 PM
YES, Jackie, that's our problem too: nobody else walks. If it were a big herd of kids, it would be a different story. Good for you, leaving them at the park. I think they can totally handle that now...well, they did, didn't they?
Todd Fahrner June 08, 2011 at 03:53 PM
just think if all these families drove instead: http://bikeportland.org/2011/05/27/massive-inspiring-school-bike-train-this-morning-in-north-portland-53823 the boy's been walking the 2 blocks to school alone since he was 6. recently (he's 8) we've sent him alone on trips to a store to buy milk. but by the time i was 9, i was walking 10 miles alone, exploring. we'll backpack this summer, in hopes he'll get a spark of wanderlust and realize that the planet and his legs are a formidable match.
signe newman June 08, 2011 at 04:26 PM
I say just let Sasha hold your hand a little bit longer and practice free-range parenting in the yard. Then maybe down the block, while they don't know you are watching. You are well on your way there, and I know they are well socialized children (when did talking about children become like talking about dogs?). Give it another year and cherish it.
Bilini Beard June 08, 2011 at 05:11 PM
The part about "what if something happened? Could I live with myself?" Somehow I think that doesn't go away no matter how old they are. And no, of course we couldn't live with ourselves. Couldn't live with ourselves if they got run over while holding our hand anymore than if they were a block out the door.
Gwendolyn Holden June 08, 2011 at 07:31 PM
I think it's so important to let kids roam free as much as possible, although I find that it's harder and harder these days, so we almost have to make it intentional. Structure some unstructured time into our schedule I guess. On the National "leave your kids at the park day" encouraged by freerangekids.com May 21, we had two ball games and the PEF fundraiser. I hate to say it but we have little time to be free range! I try and encourage free range-ness as much as possible, but I find that my kids are the ones who are resistant. I would have thought that they'd jump at the chance to go down and get some ice cream at Fresh and Easy, but no they'll have none of it! I'm not sure how we got here. Pacifica has it's challenges with kids walking to schools with it's geography, I'm sot sure when I'll allow my kids to cross highway 1, but I'm not planning on doing it any time soon. (They're 9 and 7). But I have absolute confidence that they can make it from the car to the classroom in the morning, or from the classroom to the car in the afternoon all by themselves. And kids, by the way, I'll get there when I get there, you certainly can wait 15 minutes by yourself on the playground while I'm standing in an enormous line at Costco. I think the media is to blame with some of our fears, Amber Alerts, CNN live news. I'm all for Amber Alerts but can we also add in statistically how many kids played outside that didn't get abducted that day into the media reports?
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 09:18 PM
Right ON, Todd. I have to say, if we lived two blocks from school it would be a no-brainer, and I never would have written this.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 09:19 PM
Lovely, Signe. I think that's exactly how we'll approach it. I'm going to take Cath's advice and spend the summer working on being safe pedestrians, together, because my kids have their heads in the clouds. Before I set them free, I need to make sure they're at least looking where they're going.
Stephanie Trelogan June 08, 2011 at 09:20 PM
Another good point, Bilini. And my neighbor whose daughter was hit by a car was WITH her daughter at the time. There simply are no guarantees.
ian butler June 09, 2011 at 12:31 AM
I always preferred for my kids (who are now teenagers) to be out and about where something might happen, than stuck at home where nothing will! Great article and an important discussion.
Stephanie Trelogan June 09, 2011 at 01:19 AM
What the what? I already replied to this...grrrr, must've forgotten to hit "Submit." ANYWAY, Gwendolyn, I was on tenterhooks waiting for your thoughts, since that discussion we had over margaritas is what got me thinking about all this in the first place. I think you're right about the media. Not that journalists are necessarily *trying* to fearmonger, but what makes a news story is *news.* The problem is that most of us now have access to the news at all hours of the day, and reports can be updated minute by minute. The result is a veritable flurry of horrible stories every time we log on to the internet. No wonder we're so freaked out! It would indeed be useful to hear how many kids *didn't* get abducted...but of course that isn't news, so it's not reported as such. For instance, how many people really know that the majority of child abductions are committed by family members or acquaintances? We automatically think the worst of strangers—hey, I do it, too—when stranger danger is perhaps not what we should be so worried about. Then again, after walking to school with my kids this morning, I think what *I* need to be worried about is teaching them how to cross the @#$%ing street! Meanwhile, I am up for having that glass of wine while the kids range free in that field...
Stephanie Trelogan June 09, 2011 at 01:21 AM
And your kids lived to tell the tale, didn't they? Not only that, but I'll bet they're more confident and better able to deal with the world than kids who have been raised in a bubble of safety. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Ian.
Maggie Markham June 17, 2011 at 02:27 AM
My kids walked about a mile to school together, 3 of them at ages 5, 81/2 and 10. They crossed a busy street with a cross walk and we had done it many times together before I let them do it alone. ( I use to tell them that sometimes I followed along to make sure they were paying attention, watching to make sure the cars saw them before they stepped out etc.) They are in their 20s now and confident, healthy adults I'm proud of. But even 15 years ago there were parents around who wouldn't dream of letting their children walk to school. One time my daughter's friend stayed with us, I think they were 3rd graders and she was really nervous and excited about walking to school. She had never been allowed to walk anywhere without an adult before that. I agree with comments about raising fearful kids. The world is not as scary as news, movies and tv make it out to be.
Ryan Teves June 17, 2011 at 01:03 PM
I love the discussion and I think we all look back with nostalgia at the times when kids did stroll in little groups... to school.... or to the candy shop. I really think that type of freedom is invaluable. Whether or not it is possible obviously depends on the town you live in, though. Some towns simply aren't safe enough, while some, like Scotts Valley, still have this type of lifestyle. Let's keep fighting for it, though, it is such a healthy thing. Ryan Teves author of "In Defense of the American Teen."
Stephanie Trelogan June 17, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Thanks so much for your thoughts, Maggie. It's crazy how hysterical parents—and I include myself in this—can get about giving their kids the smallest freedoms. Many generations of kids, yours included!, have lived to tell the tale of walking to school by themselves. I'm looking forward to giving my kids more and more freedom, and I'm thrilled that this blog post as sparked conversation with other parents.
Stephanie Trelogan June 17, 2011 at 03:04 PM
You are so right, Ryan. I think our little town does afford this freedom, so long as we parents can let go. But isn't that what parenting is mostly about? Letting go? Off to go find a copy of your book...the teenage years aren't all that far off, after all.


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