Free to roam

If you walk out of our back door and head about 100 yards east, you will find a small, sparsely wooded area, no more than an acre. While it’s certainly somebody’s property, it’s a neighborhood no-man’s land, neither situated near any homes nor tended to by any mowers.

During the spring and summer, my boys and their friends from across the street spend entire afternoons there, building forts, playing hide-and-seek, using their pocket knives to saw logs and whatever else little boys do while roaming free.

For the most part, we let them be. It gives them space to run, and it gives us hours of peace and quiet. Every so often, either my wife or I will take a quick glance to make sure they haven’t wandered off too far. Occasionally, their games will carry them away, and we holler for them to come back and watch for their little legs to carry them home.

Sometimes they return home crying, with a skinned knee or a bump on their head. Sometimes the bigger one is fighting with the little one. But we bandage them up and have them make peace; then we send them back out.

I was thinking about that wooded area after I had read a piece my dad sent me that originally ran in The Washington Post. The story, written by Lenore Sleazy, who writes a blog called Free Range Kids, started like this:

“Two Maryland parents stand accused of doing the unthinkable: They trusted their kids, 10 and 6, to walk home from the park. The children got about halfway there when someone saw them and called the cops.
For this, parents Danielle and Alexander Meitei have been visited by the police and child protective services. Their kids were interviewed at school, without their consent. CPS even threatened to take their children away.
All because we are having a hysterical moment in American society. We believe children are in danger every single second they are unsupervised.”

So the question I asked myself was this: When we let our kids roam, are we doing them more harm than good? Are we putting them in jeopardy? Will the next time we see them be on the back of a milk carton?

While we always worry about our kids, we can’t let irrational fear guide our decisions.

We live on a typical cul-de-sac in a typical, older suburban neighborhood. The houses surrounding ours, all built in the 1960s, aren’t palaces, and they’re not broken down shacks. They’re filled with working-class families and retirees. Some are kept up nicely; others could use some work. On our street, we know and like all of our neighbors. Two streets down, a couple of years ago, a man was shot and killed over what was suspected to be a drug deal gone bad. Several streets in the other direction, another house was raided. Drugs again.

Should we keep our kids locked away because of two incidents in the 12 years we’ve lived in our house?

Maybe we give our kids too much freedom and too much responsibility, but I don’t think so. Olivia, our 12-year-old little saint, was only 9 when she started watching her brothers while we made quick 15-minute trips to the grocery story. Grant is 9 now and has just started staying home with Jacob, our 6-year-old, for short spells.

Are our motives purely to benefit our children? Of course not. It’s much easier to run to the store without having to load the kids in the van and then deal with them whining at you to buy every item on the shelf that will hype them up and rot their teeth.

That being said, it certainly benefits them as well. Whenever we ask Grant to stay home — either by himself or when he’s “in charge” of Jake — this occasionally rotten, wild kid turns into a hybrid between a Stepford child and General Patton. Curtains get closed, doors get locked and his brother is ordered to sit and not move until we get home. He knows never to answer the door or the phone unless he hears us on the answering machine specifically tell him to pick up.

He’s responsible because he knows that’s what we expect out of him. And he beams with pride when we come home and tell him how proud we are of him that the house is still standing (and his brother is still sitting).

That acre behind our neighbors’ houses, with its unmowed grass and fallen-down trees, is an incredible space. We could easily haul our lawn chairs over there and hover over our boys. They would no doubt be safer. They wouldn’t come home with skinned knees or bumped heads. We could take away their Nerf dart guns. And their pocket knives.

And their freedom. And their sense of exploration. And their joy.

For parents, it’s a fine line between keeping your kids safe and not allowing them to be kids at all.

Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.