Let's Reminisce: The advantages of 'free-range' kids
By Jerry Lincecum
Jul 3, 2018
Print this page
Email this article
Recently I asked a couple of my TOS writers to reflect on their childhood days, after sharing with them a major article I had read in the Wall Street Journal on “The Overprotected American Child.”  One of them summed it up by writing “Who knew that ‘free-range’ could apply to both chickens and children?”  Another wrote: “Being born in the early 1940’s was a good time to be allowed to develop certain skills and powers of imagination without the hindrance of adult supervision.”


The term “helicopter parents” is a cliché, but only so because it captures a reality we have all seen and felt many times.  It’s hard for me to believe, but some parents telephone a child in college to make sure he wakes up each day.  Over 500 WSJ readers commented on the article, and most of them reminisced about their “free-range” childhoods.  They lamented the fact that their grandchildren would never get to enjoy such pleasures as standing up in the bed of a pickup as it sped along a country road or shooting at snakes with a Red Ryder BB gun.


The major thrust of the WSJ article was that overzealous parenting are harming kids by denying their development of independence and autonomy, and it also has contributed to the huge increase in anxiety disorders among youth.  As I reminisced while reading it, one memory stood out: When I was in tenth grade, one of my favorite teachers asked me during study hall if I would mind driving her car down to the nearby post office and getting her mail.  Of course I was delighted, and the fact that I had never driven a car with automatic transmission didn’t stop me.  This mission was accomplished several times, and I look back on it now as one of the more important lessons I learned that year.


Rebecca Shirley recalled this experience:


When I was about 10 or 11, Mother let me ride the bicycle 3 miles to Telephone to my uncle’s store. There was not a lot of traffic on the road and I knew to get off the pavement when a car came by. I had a dime to get me a “big orange soda pop” and a candy bar.  I visited a bit with my uncle and aunt and then rode home. When I got home, Mother told me one of the neighbors had come by to check to see if she knew I had gone to Telephone. That was something new and different, and everybody looked out for each other’s children.

Nowadays, a mother who allowed her child to ride that far from home on a bicycle would probably be reported to authorities for “child endangerment.”  Shirley added:


Things were a lot different back them. I think they were better. Children were taught to be respectful and that carried into their adult lives. There was very little meanness. Children learned at an early age there are consequences for bad decisions and bad actions. But they were given the opportunity to learn by making mistakes as well as good decisions. And, they saw there are always consequences: either good or bad.


The writer of the WSJ article suggests to parents that the ultimate goal should be to have their children be self-sufficient by the time they leave home for college or the workplace.  She says the hardest thing for most of us to accept as parents is the fact that being independent includes the right to make a wrong decision and pay the consequences.  I agree wholeheartedly.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: