Until I read about myself—well, not me specifically, let’s just say my ilk—I never knew I had become a “free-range” mother. Of course, my immediate association is that I should get chickens of the free-range variety and much as in theory I’d like to have chickens—so local, such fresh eggs, such the planet loving thing of the moment to do—I know in my heart of hearts, I’m just not a chicken lady (nor a cat lady, nor a dog lady, nor a horse woman). But reading the New York Times article, entitled Why Can’t She Walk to School? I learned I am part of either the lunatic, laissez-faire fringe—or, possibly, the vanguard of the next parenting trend. In a nutshell, “free-range” parents let their kids act independently, specifically in ways that involve their children getting around some without parental escorts.


My first “free-range” experience occurred when my eldest son, Ezekiel, now nearly fourteen, was five and wanted to walk—I am pretty sure it was a snow day—to his friend Zekey’s house around the corner (yes, for such an unusual name, our ‘hood is filled with Ezekiel’s: two circa age fourteen, one nearly twenty-four year-old one grew up two blocks away, as well—and what’s more my Ezekiel shares a birthday with Big Zeke, exactly ten years apart). So, for this first solo walk, there were no streets to cross. Given how often I’d escorted him to and from Zekey’s, I knew my Ezekiel knew the way. Before he left, I called Zekey’s mom, Candice. “He wants to walk on his own,” I said, sounding, I’m sure, somewhat surprised. “I’m going to let him. No streets to cross and with the snow, no traffic anyway.” Candice thought it was great and agreed to call me when he reached their house. Five minutes later, if that, the phone rang. Ezekiel had arrived snowy and safely. What was the best part? He felt so competent, so independent, and so free. What’s my task as a parent? It’s to help him feel all of that, so that when he leaves my nest eventually, he won’t just fly, he’ll truly soar.

The back-and-forth between Ezekiel and Zekey’s houses became a source of excitement and accomplishment for both boys. One day, I was surprised when a neighbor with two kids, both older than mine, remarked, eyes raised in judgmental (not meanly so) parent-mode: “Do you think that’s really safe?” she asked. “You never know who might be out there.” Fewer than ten houses, all close together, separate our houses. I almost blurted out, “Really? You think he’s going to be kidnapped between my house and Zekey’s? Really?” But, I bit my tongue. I realized that somehow granting this tiny measure of independence had struck a deep (deeply nervous, and I thought, neurotic) nerve.

Fast-forward: the current incarnation of Zekey/Ezekiel comes from my six year-old Remy and his pal, Gabriel. Between our house and Gabriel’s family’s house there are four other houses—and our street. Like many places to cross the street, ours is both fine and imperfect. It’s fine in that there’s not a ton of traffic; it’s imperfect in that if many cars are parked near the corner the sightlines are obscured and you have to step off the curb before checking again to cross safely. They’ve been going back and forth for months, now, and at this point, neither house requires a phone call. Their crossing habits really are that careful and good. Some days, they practically seem to have a game called, Let’s-go-to-Remy’s-let’s-go-to-Gabe’s. They carry their handy “kits”—plastic carrying cases filled with many small plastic items and other treasures—between houses and sometimes they travel for snacks or the most appealing dinner.

For Remy and Gabriel, this feels like a perfect measure of independence: they can come and go, often as they please; though the distance is contained—one we deem safe—they enjoy the pleasures of self-determination and some freedom within these confines created by our little block’s worth of separation. Remy also travels back and forth to his pal (cousin, we call her in the friends-as-family rubric), Emily’s house, a couple of blocks down our street on the very same side, only tiny dead end streets to traverse. He sometimes wanders over to see his friend, Ethan, just four houses the opposite direction of Emily’s. Remy knows he can, with a friend, walk around our entire—fairly large—block, too.

I’ve walked to school with my kids for years now; their school is close enough for us to do so year-round. Given that they are capable street crossers, I stopped requiring Remy to hold my hand (save for the biggest streets) before he finished preschool. The toddler, someone so feisty and amused by the prospect of dashing into the road, she could require one of those Draconian child leashes, is another story. By now, even the six year-old could, if he asked to, cross any street between home and town (including big, wide, continually trafficked Elm Street) solo (he hasn’t and I doubt he will for a while). Last year, there were a couple of instances in the spring when Lucien, in fifth grade, and Remy, in kindergarten, ended up walking home from school on their own, sometimes with me lagging behind enough not to see them. When they went ahead, my heart did not race. I trusted them.

Sometimes, I’ve even pushed for independent. When he was in sixth grade, Ezekiel was afraid to cross Main Street downtown. Our Main Street has zebra crossings, and pedestrians have the right of way (although it is true, not all the cars act like pedestrians have that right, so pedestrians must be assertive or at the least, decisive). So, I stood on one side of Main Street, coaching Ezekiel a generous handful of times, waiting until he was willing to try on his own before cutting him loose. A summer camp experience right downtown and a volunteer experience at a downtown theater (for PACE, the Performing Arts Center of Easthampton—during which he ran errands in town for the director—and to do that, you must cross streets, thank you so much, David Oppenheim, for helping encourage Ezekiel’s sense of being able) nudged independence along.

Having dubbed this past summer, the summer of self-sufficiency, for my finishing fifth and finishing seventh grade boys, I was really gratified to see Lucien get back and forth to tennis on his own or with friends, on his bike or on foot, and Ezekiel walk to his Paintbox Theatre gig solo.

Lucien and some of his friends are making their way to school together—no parents—pretty often this sixth grade September. They find one another at their houses by biking over. When they are dropping by, the air’s a bit… giddy, from this newfound ability to just go. I love it, and I see in these 11 year-olds’ faces, a luminous glow of freedom and competence. They are not hugely adolescent, Lucien’s friends, not sulky or secretive, and so their delight is not furtive in any way; it’s, well, joyful, and I have been smiling ever since school started, because I see this independence dovetailing with their other ideas about themselves in the world: they have had, for years, a Save the Earth club. Now, they are starting a newspaper for their school. They call one another to ask about homework. They get a parental assist with goods, and then have a lemonade stand.

The 11 year-olds also enjoy doing things with their families and friends together; yesterday, Kate stopped over and for about half an hour or so, she and Lucien completely amused toddler Saskia. “Kate!” Saskia calls out when Kate walks through our mudroom door. “Kate’s house,” Saskia points out when she’s being strolled along. Last week, Kate and Lucien went home after school to bake pies for the sixth grade picnic with Kate’s (awesome) grandmother, Pat. I contend the freedom—they biked home and met Pat, who had her car and then they biked to Lucien’s to get peaches for the pie—fuels their connectedness back to us, too.

Yesterday was a pitch perfect illustration of how practicing independence, at its best, feels: Lucien was on his bike and the rest of us—me, Saskia, Remy, Gabriel, Gabriel’s little brother, Noah, and mother, Ellen—were walking so Lucien kept riding ahead, then circling back, saying a hello, and riding ahead again. He ended up at Gabriel’s house—with Noah and Ellen—for lunch. Remy and Gabriel came to our house to retrieve an all-important tin container for a new “kit” and ended up playing at our house for quite a while. Eventually, Remy and Gabriel migrated to Gabe’s and Lucien came home minutes after Kate popped over. It was pretty dreamy.


For most of us free-rangers, the “places” our kids travel solo represent very familiar territories: a few houses away to a neighbor friend’s house, the corner store, the school bus stop, school itself—a walk, bike, or bus ride away—or some sort of practice, class, or other extracurricular activity. Think about how many wonderful stories for children are predicated upon a measure of independent travel: from Rosemary Wells’ Bunny Cakes to Beverly Cleary’s tales of Ramona or Henry. And even if the journey is far, we make sure our kids are well prepped, by taking a preview trip—or trips—with our kids to ensure their comfort navigating their sovereign journeys. In these times, with the current generation of parents worried about strangers, it’s not like our kids are unfamiliar with “stranger danger” and the ploys of kidnappers: they have been taught to refuse offers of treats or puppy viewings, drilled not to help a stranger and just keep walking, yell, run toward the street. In fact, they are all too aware of all sorts of other causes for concern, from protecting “private” parts (my six year-old recently asked, “What makes some parts private? It’s all your body”) to avoiding germs and car exhaust and fake food.

When I think about the anxieties my kids or their friends have expressed to me, I feel, frankly, really, really sad. Here’s why: for the most part, with the giant exception of having experienced some parental losses (and for a very few of our kid friends, having been in lower Manhattan when the Towers came down), my children’s cohort has enjoyed pretty charmed lives (knock wood). There have been some sad things, like divorce, the occasional broken limb, and certainly some turmoil kept private. Fortunately, we live in a pretty sweet small town, and even my faraway, big-city dwelling friends have not experienced major violence (nor have their children). I feel extremely grateful, mind you, to worry so little—in reality, if not always in theory—about our personal safety. This doesn’t mean I am advocating to my children to trust everyone and every place. I am not. But I would like—even in a more “dangerous” place—for my kids to retain an overall trusting attitude about people’s goodness (because I actually believe in people’s goodness). My rational mind knows that the world I watch (more avidly than I might care to admit publicly) on Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit—in which strangers routinely, it would seem, destroy lives in the most horrid ways imaginable—isn’t the world I inhabit (not that those horrible, ripped-from-the-headlines things don’t happen; I know they do). Nor do I think it’s all fairies and ponies. There’s a balance to strike between protecting one’s children and rendering them incapable of coping with the world (and the world does have some dangers, no denying it). The awesome grandmother, Pat, told me about canvassing for Obama last fall in Philadelphia’s Germantown, a sometimes dodgy part of town (where I went to middle and high school). She’s a white-haired, white woman and she was walking around in a predominantly black neighborhood. Some women on a bench waiting for a bus asked her, “Do you know where you are?” She waved them off. “Where are you from?” she was asked. She replied, “New York City.” The women nodded their heads. “Okay, then,” they said, “You’re fine.”

Do I get worried when my kids get in a car—the riskiest mode of travel, statistically—or on their bikes or even when they cross big streets solo? Sure, sometimes, I do, and I have those kid-runs-into-street-and-I-can’t-catch-that-child nightmares just like every parent in the universe. Someday, even though they are not being raised near Germantown or in New York City, I want them to be able to canvas for their candidate. I want them to live the lives they dream. Well before they choose where they live—or even what risks they feel comfortable taking, there is this; I knew those statistics highlighted in the New York Times article—and they make you want your kid to get to school by foot or bicycle or scooter: “In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. In many low-income neighborhoods, children have no choice but to walk. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent. Experts say the transition has not only contributed to the rise in pollution, traffic congestion and childhood obesity, but has also hampered children’s ability to navigate the world.” I am compelled by encouraging my kids to be greener, fitter, and freer. What’s surprising is how, when the kids are freer, I become more confident about them in the world, not more afraid.