Wednesday, August 18, 2021

When does free range parenting become neglect?

I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Free range describes fairly well how I and my siblings grew up. I can remember walking home from school when I was 5, the walk was probably only half a mile but it was alone or with my 7 year old sister. It also required crossing at least one road. At age 7, I can remember roaming the neighborhood and surrounding fields with a group of kids around my own age or just a little older. Climbing trees and catching frogs. I can remember at 10, playing along the canal or in the local park with other kids but no adult supervision - we even played on construction sites. You could argue that back then it was safer for kids to be free range; and to a point I agree. If you tell me there were no pedophiles back then I will just laugh, without any amusement. My sisters and I frequently were accosted by men, young and old, exposing themselves, most often in the park, but also on the streets. We thought it was mildly amusing. We were lucky, that was all we were exposed to.

There was very little traffic compared to now, but it only takes one car to kill a child. Of course, we did know how to cross the street and I can't ever remember not following the rules we were taught almost as soon as we could walk. There were most definitely accidents. One kid had his eye taken out by a homemade arrow. One broke a leg falling out of a tree.

My own children had slightly less freedom; but still were pretty close to free range, except when very young. That was in part due to the fact that everything had grown bigger. More traffic, further distances from home to school and shops, but also people grew more aware of the dangers - I suppose these were magnified by the growth in population and changes in laws governing what constituted child neglect. 

Imagine my concern when I recently observed a small boy, I am guessing around the age of 7 if that, wandering off along the lake shore, alone. We were at the fishing well and sticking to the outside dock, away from the somewhat rowdy family inside the covered well. Covid-19 and the Delta variant were alive and well and kicking Texas' ass; while we were vaccinated we were also very cautious. The people inside the well were not masked so we stayed outside and clear of them. Among their party was the aforementioned 7 year old, his parents and a group of teenagers. The 7 year old, no mask and no life preserver, wandered out with a fishing pole and headed down the dock walkway towards the shore. He started casting at that point, but couldn't stay still. He moved about 10 foot along the bank and cast again, repeating this as he got further and further away. His father followed him down the walkway - I was relieved because I thought he was going to keep a close eye on his son; instead he climbed into his truck and drove off. 

The red arrow points to the marina in the distance
At this point I was no longer interesting in fishing. I was watching the child disappear through a clump of tall weeds and head up the hill towards a marina in the distance. I expected his mother to come out of the covered area looking for him and so kept him in my sight for as long as I could. He disappeared over the hill and I was in a quandary. In Texas you have to be very careful how you approach total strangers. While they can be extremely friendly, pointing out to them that their child has wandered off and you believe they are in danger, could get you shot. I decided to keep tabs on where the child was and be prepared to risk getting shot if he fell in the lake or otherwise needed assistance, or if the parents suddenly decided to care about where he was, at least I could tell them. 

It was another 20 minutes before the mother emerged and I was relieved, thinking she would gather up the child. Instead she got in her car and drove off! I could see the kid coming back along the shore, still casting every 10 feet or so. My guess is that if he fell in the lake he would do just fine, probably could swim like a fish if his casting skills were anything to go by. He would most like get out and continue fishing. 

Finally, he headed back over the hill and down towards the fishing well. As he reached the walkway, his mother returned and told him that it would soon be time to go as tomorrow was the first day of school. It was now approaching 8.30 in the evening. 

I was left wondering exactly where the line between raising kids to be independent and plain neglect, is drawn, and where does it cross the legal line? I do believe that kids should be raised to be able to take care of themselves, to fight back against bullies and generally be prepared for the harsh reality of being an adult. But there is definitely a line beyond which we move into a area where the risk to their safety far outweighs the benefits of independence.

It appears, as with everything else in the US, the laws vary by State. This is an interesting article on the subject. It seems that most laws specify leaving a child alone at home, or in a car. There is some mention of 'abandonment' which I suppose could apply here. I was also interested to discover a recent movement of Free Range Parenting which does seem to be getting some parents into problems with the law. There is even a Facebook page for the concept. Don't get me wrong, I am equally strongly against 'mollycoddling' which can do as much harm. I don't know where I stand other than to say I couldn't take my eyes off that little boy as he wandered along the lake shore. 

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