American backyards are the loneliest

A huge benefit of Southern living is we have about 10 months of great weather, perfect for exploring outside. When I was growing up, I remember squeezing in about an hour of Saturday morning cartoon time before it was time to meet up with our friends outdoors. And that was it. We were gone from morning until evening, with the occasional stop for water and food at somebody’s –anybody’s- house. Not at my house though. My mom taught me the words “insurance liability” before I knew how to do long division. But my friends understood my house rules and we were perfectly happy to drink out of the hose in the backyard.


On weekends and summers we would get on our bikes and just ride. A large park bordered our neighborhood with some great walking trails, a playground, baseball fields, and basketball and tennis courts. At dusk, my mom would stand on our back porch and bellow our names one-by-one until we caught an echo on the wind and raced each other home.


So you can only imagine the kind of childhood I wanted for my boys. I daydreamed of finding frogs in their pockets and keeping the pantry stocked with snacks for their friends.


Except it didn’t happen that way.


It seems these days, the packs of kids on bikes riding freely are nowhere to be found. The number of parents on the playground outnumbers the kids. And people spend exorbitant amounts of money on fenced in backyards and playsets that don’t get any action.


What happened?


Well, in 2014 a neighbor called the cops when they saw 10 year old brother and sister Rafi and Dvora Meitiv, ages 10 and 6, walking home alone from the park. The cops picked them up and Child Protective Services was called. Huh?


In 2009 a woman was dubbed the World’s Worst Mom for allowing her 9-year-old to take the New York City Subway alone. On a route he took regularly. World’s Worst Mom? Really? Meanwhile in Japan, children younger than her son regularly run errands and get themselves to and from school.


And then organized sports ruled the world. If you want your child to play, you have to load up the car, clean the uniforms, buy the gear and follow a schedule. Yes, there's a huge benefit to organized sports, but that doesn't make it any less rigid. Free play is free time, and there's no replacement for it.


Soon after, terms like helicopter parenting and hovering were born. Television shows about abduction were added to prime-time lineups. To Catch a Predator showed us all of our children were prey. And every abduction caught on tape went viral on social media. Sports coaches had to ask parents to simmer down and have fun. We parents completely lost our ability to relax and have fun, and show our kids how to do the same.


Then came the counter-culture movement: free range parenting. By the way, free-range parenting is a word that we used to use for all parents. The only reason we all know sentences like, “Close the door because I can’t afford to heat up the neighborhood!” or “You can stay in or you can stay out but you can’t do both!” is because our parents said them to us. Often. The most basic definition of free range parenting is that parents allow their children to roam free sometimes.


People. WHAT DID WE DO?! Yes, I’m looking at you GenX. Us.


We have smothered ourselves under a self-imposed childcare prison where we don’t trust little humans to play outside alone, discover the world around them or make good decisions without guiding them every step of the way. And if you want to throw kidnapping statistics at me, the chance of having your child abducted is .00007%, or one in 1.4 million annually. You know what’s far more dangerous? Riding around with your own child in your car. Yeah.


You are free to be whatever type of parent you like – I’ll admit some children could use a little hovering. And I’m not expert on parenting – I’m only an expert on two little guys that emerged from my nethers. But if fear is holding you back, let it go. Breathe. Give yourself a break. Send those kids outdoors and have the Oreos all to yourself for once.


Here’s my personal experience. I am tired. I work hard. I have an 8 year old and 3 year old boy and no matter what popular opinion says about gender differences, my boys require massive amounts of exercise and sunshine. Hours per day. Meanwhile, I have clients who need me. Meals to cook. Messes to clean. None of that stuff is getting done if my boys and I are sitting in the house comparing fart sounds while arguing like hostage negotiators over why they are only allowed screen time on weekends.


I thought about my own childhood. Latchkey kid, dawn to dusk outdoor play, bee stings, broken legs, barefoot days, tetanus shots, honeysuckle discoveries and spontaneous kickball death matches. Why am I so willing to rob my children of creating their own world because of things that MIGHT happen but are less likely than ever before? When have I ever cared about the Joneses? Oh yeah. Never.


We moved into a new neighborhood a few months ago. My 8 year old couldn’t wait to explore. After weeks of unpacking and dwindling patience I finally just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Go. Just don’t leave the neighborhood, and don’t go inside anyone’s house no matter what.” His eyes got shiny like I had just opened up the Indiana Jones ark of the covenant. He threw on a helmet and disappeared. It was magic. I figured he’d chicken out and be back home within minutes.


I was wrong. Two hours later, I was in a panic driving around this strange new neighborhood looking for my kidnapped son. Dear sweet golden fleece Baby Jesus I am the idiot fool who sent my son to the wolves and I beg your forgiveness for my stupidity, I prayed silently. I made my child a statistic. Some terrible pedophile had him in the basement looking at kiddie porn and he wouldn’t be discovered for 12 years.


Yes, I do have an active imagination. Why do you ask?


About 90 seconds into my sweaty panic search, I found my son super easily. His bike was in the front yard of our new neighbor, and he was playing with their boys on the front lawn. As I focused on swallowing my heart back down from my throat to its rightful place in my chest, I coaxed Pete to get on his bike and head home. I waved to my neighbor, trying to play it cool, and she hollered, “Send him over earlier next time. He’ll have more time to play.”


Oh my goodness. Send him over? She thought I sent him over? This was The Lost Child of Georgia! I was ready to start a manhunt.


OK. I panicked. I admit it. It’s hard letting go. He’s only 8. He’s just a baby. But he had a taste of freedom and he wasn’t giving it back. Over the next few weeks, he found another 8 year old friend, and together they discovered a new creek behind our houses, learned a back way to the neighborhood pool through the woods, ruined a couple of pairs of shoes, earned a new scar above his eye and managed to avoid all my fears, like catching poison ivy, breaking a limb or drowning in the two-inch creek water.


Within a month he had worn the rubber off his bike tires and popped a hole in one of them. His bike became so worn we brought it to the local bike shop for new handlebar covers, new tires and a new seat. My son had joined the free range life. And he couldn’t get enough.


I’m still tethered to my sweet little three year old. He’s the type who likes to run and stand in the middle of the street when I’m holding 18 bags of groceries cutting off my arm circulation. He requires full-on Super Stallion helicopter mode whenever we are outside. But he's already learning the rules. I imagine in a few more years, I’ll be having the occasional panic attack about him, too.


As I see my son learn and grow through his personal experiences, it’s teaching me a few lessons, too. I’ve been to all the various classroom where he spends more than 7 hours of his day. It’s decorated in a fun way and there are plenty of breaks for music, art, gardening and lunch. But it’s not freedom. It’s not the freedom that comes with deciding to turn right or left and not knowing what happens next.


My co-author Angie shared a great article about the Wildness of Children, and one paragraph caught my eye:


When we first take children from the world and put them in an institution, they cry.  It used to be on the first day of kindergarten, but now it’s at an ever earlier age, sometimes when they are only a few weeks old.  "Don’t worry," the nice teacher says sweetly, "As soon as you’re gone she’ll be fine.  It won’t take more than a few days.  She’ll adjust." And she does.  She adjusts to an indoor world of cinderblock and plastic, of fluorescent light and half-closed blinds (never mind that studies show that children don’t grow as well in fluorescent light as they do in sunlight; did we really need to be told that?)  Some children grieve longer than others, gazing through the slats of the blinds at the bright world outside; some resist longer than others, tuning out the nice teacher, thwarting her when they can, refusing to sit still when she tells them to (this resistance, we are told, is a “disorder.”)  But gradually, over the many years of confinement, they adjust.  The cinderblock world becomes their world.  They don’t know the names of the trees outside the classroom window. They don’t know the names of the birds in the trees.  They don’t know if the moon is waxing or waning, if that berry is edible or poisonous, if that song is for mating or warning.


Some children grieve longer than others, it said. But they adjust. And they do. We all do, don’t we? School is a necessary part of life, but do the cinderblocks have to be? No matter how you paint those cinderblocks, those little bodies know that the true call is outside in the wild. Waiting to be discovered.


Call me foolish. Call me free range. Call me one happy mama with adventurous kids.


But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does unto know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. -Job 12:7-10