Column: Paganism and the Free-Range Kid

Guest Contributor —  October 22, 2016 — 3 Comments

[Today, The Wild Hunt welcomes author Christine Hoff Kraemer. Over the year, The Wild Hunt welcomes guests, like Kraemer, to share unique viewpoints and practices. Doing so is an important part of our overall mission. If you enjoy articles like this, please consider donating to The Wild Hunt. You make it possible for us to continue to provide a world platform to a diversity of voices, and we’ve got four more fantastic writers scheduled over the next three months and more coming in early 2017. The Wild Hunt is your community news service. Donate today.]

befunky-design2I’m nine years old, and it’s a sunny summer day. School’s out and there’s nowhere to be, nothing I have to do. I say goodbye to my mother, grab my bike and ride to my best friend’s house. “Can Lisa come out and play?” We walk in the woods near the playground. The sunlight filters down through green leaves and dances across the wet-weather creek where we go to hunt for frogs. Birds are singing, and distantly I can hear shouts from the kids spinning the merry-go-round at top speed. My friend has walked ahead, following the creek, and for few moments, I’m alone with the sound of my breath.

Does this sound like your childhood? If you’re my age—thirty-seven—or older, it may. Most children raised in the United States in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s spent a great deal of time playing unsupervised outdoors, often in the company of a mixed-age group of other children.

My childhood experiences of encountering the natural environment on my own, without direction or interference from an adult, are part of the bedrock of my Paganism. The quiet of the woods helped me learn to listen and connect to the land around me. Outdoors, by myself, was the first place that I felt spirit. Being out with other kids also helped make me self-reliant. We knew which houses had trusted adults in them if we needed help, and we knew how to find our way home. Those senses of interconnectedness and of my own personal power are part of what ultimately made me a Witch.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

Today, it is the rare child that spends much, if any, independent time outdoors. Some of this shift is because so many homes now have streaming television and video game systems—engrossing entertainment that discourages kids from going outside to seek fun. But why are parents no longer kicking their kids outdoors for some healthy exercise, far away from these hypnotic screens? The explanation lies in a generational change in American parenting culture.

“You Can Never Be Too Safe”—Or Can You?

Since the 1990s, constant supervision of children has become the norm, especially in urban and suburban areas. American parents have embraced safety as the top priority for their children, to the extent that even minor risks have sometimes been deemed unacceptable. As a result, many of the useful skills that were part of my childhood—small things like learning to use a sharp knife or operate the oven—have been actively discouraged. Today, many parents (as well as police, social services workers, and other authorities) assume that pre-adolescent children are essentially helpless. Children are commonly not permitted to play outside unless an adult can be present.

Journalist Lenore Skenazy was unexpectedly catapulted to national fame in 2008 when she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway by himself. The media picked up the story, and Skenazy suddenly found herself being decried as “the world’s worst mom”… and invited on talk shows. Skenazy used the opportunity to write a book, found a website, and ultimately start a movement: Free-Range Kids.

Skenazy’s book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) advocates strongly for independent outdoor play as soon as the parent judges that the child is ready. It also reflects on an important question: Why are American parents so obsessed with the idea of safety when we are, in fact, living in incredibly safe times? Skenazy rolls out statistic after statistic: after a peak in the early 1990s, crime rates are down to where they were in the early 1970s and are still falling.[1] Yet there are widespread perceptions that American society is much less safe for children than when today’s parents are growing up.

Skenazy argues that this is due to a media culture of fear-mongering that has made parents unable to calmly and rationally evaluate risk, especially when it comes to “stranger danger,” the possibility of child abduction by a stranger. Journalists say that “If it bleeds, it leads”— stories about tragedy and violence draw viewers and, therefore, make money. This is especially true for news stories about strangers preying on children. These tragedies routinely receive national coverage and are then recycled into true-crime shows and made-for-TV movies.

The painstakingly detailed, terrifying coverage of crimes against children gives the impression that child abductions by strangers are common. In reality, they are incredibly rare. As Skenazy reports, stranger abduction is so unusual that children are 40 times more likely to die in a car accident than they are to be kidnapped and killed by a stranger.[2] 2,000 American children die in car accidents every year, yet it is the rare parent who hesitates over strapping a child into a car.

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

Is Skenazy arguing that allowing kids independent outdoor play is 100% safe? Not at all—but she argues that in most cases, it is safe enough considering the benefits. In Free to Learn, educational psychologist Peter Gray writes that free play is the primary way that children develop emotional resilience, learn to solve problems, and develop social skills—and that to develop these skills, outdoor play with friends is ideal.[3]

Being able to explore freely outdoors gives kids opportunities to explore their world, make up creative new games, and build community through befriending their neighbors. Play unsupervised by adults encourages self-reliance and gives a sense of competence. Children who run their own errands or can spend an evening alone are learning the street smarts and self-care skills that they will need as adults—and today, cell phones means they can do it with their parents only a quick call or a text away.

It’s probably no surprise for Pagans to hear that being outdoors is also hugely beneficial to our health, but this fact is now becoming well-known in mainstream culture. Recent studies suggest that time spent in natural settings improves short-term memory and concentration, increases energy, encourages creativity, reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system, and more.[4] Too much indoor time can actively harm one’s health as well: dangers include vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of diabetes and depression.[5]

The Free-Range Parenting Movement in the Courts

The right to raise our children with our religious and spiritual values should be fundamental. Pagans who want their children to spend time in nature independently, however, need to be prepared to educate disapproving neighbors and deal with suspicious law enforcement. Because of today’s overprotective parenting culture, parents who allow their children to walk to school or play outside unsupervised may find themselves being interviewed by Child Protective Services or even arrested.

In 2014, Debra Harrell was arrested and jailed for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park while she was at work. According to news coverage, the daughter had a cell phone and a key to her house, which was a brief walk away. She had asked to go the park as an alternative to what she had been doing for most of the summer: playing on a laptop at the McDonald’s where her mother was employed.

Skenazy documents this and many similar cases on the Free Range Kids blog. Fortunately for Harrell and her daughter, however, Skenazy was not the only one taking notice. Media outlets as large as CNN picked up the story, noting potential racial bias against a “mother of color.”[6] Harrell received pro bono legal assistance to secure her release, keep her job, and restore her custody of her daughter. Happily, in the summer of 2016, a Facebook group formed to help raise legal funds for the Harrells reported that the jury had declined to indict and that there will be no further action taken against Harrell.[7]

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[public domain]

It is exciting to see that as such cases receive more media attention, government decisions are often coming down in favor of families’ right to give children more freedom. In 2015, the Meitiv family of Silver Spring, Maryland were repeatedly harassed by local authorities after allowing their six-year-old and ten-year-old to walk together in their neighborhood.[8] After the Meitivs announced their intention to sue, Maryland officials clarified that so long as there is no specific and substantial threat of harm, children walking or playing outside unsupervised do not require the attention of Child Protective Services.[9] This statement is a tremendous victory for the Meitivs and may help protect families with free-range parenting philosophies in the future.

Free-Range for an Uncertain Future

As reports from government agencies and scientists mount, we can no longer be in doubt: climate change is already causing volatile weather patterns, rising temperatures, and flooding. These shifts are impacting agriculture, clean water supplies, housing and more in ways that will ultimately affect us all. For those of us in the United States, our grandchildren—perhaps our children—may need to learn how to live in a lower-tech, less comfortable environment than we enjoy today. Some may be at the mercy of the elements in a way most of us have never experienced.

When my husband and I discuss the education of our son, now just a toddler, this global reality is never far from our minds. We want to encourage our son’s independence, resilience, creativity, and persistence. We want him outdoors as much as possible, learning to use his body and forming relationships with the animals and plants he finds there. We want him to feel supported and loved, but we also want him to be able to take care of himself.

Because there is so much pressure to keep kids indoors and supervised at all times, we’ve realized that if we want our child to be competent, self-reliant, and comfortable in nature, we will have to create opportunities for independent outdoor play deliberately. When I imagine my son at twelve years old, I see him able to ride his bike to the store to buy milk; I see him able to catch, clean, and cook a fish over a fire he made; I see him able to mow a lawn, operate a smartphone, care for a dog, and bandage a burn.

We’ve started out by putting him in a nature preschool where the children play in the woods and learn to recognize animal signs and identify plants. I hope that in the future, we will continue to find support for our parenting with other free-range parents, alternative schools, scouting, and Pagan groups.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

What Can I Do?

Are resilience, self-reliance, and love of nature some of the Pagan values you want your kids to have? Want to protect your parental rights and form communities of support for free-range parenting? Here are some positive steps to take.

  1. Educate yourself. Read the Free-Range Kids blog at freerangekids.com, or check out the work of Daniel Pimentel, a professor who is writing about parenting philosophies and the law.[10]
  2. Get to know your neighbors, and make sure the people around you know that your child is permitted to play outside independently. You can even download a “Free-Range Kid” membership card that your child can give to other concerned adults.
  3. Join the National Association of Parents at parentsusa.org. This nonprofit group works to protect the rights of parents to raise their children as they choose.
  4. Educate your community. To head off neighbors’ concerns, offer to give your neighborhood association or community group a presentation on the benefits of free-range parenting. Distribute safety statistics, and arm sympathetic friends and fellow Pagans with them too.
  5. Organize a Free-Range Kids Project in your Pagan group or at your kids’ school.[11] FRK Projects provide support for kids to do something new on their own. Parents connect with each other around their worries and hopes, and the community as a whole gets to discuss parenting philosophies and form new friendships.

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Notes:
[1] Skenazy, Lenore. Free Range Kids (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 182-183, or for updated statistics, check Free-RangeKids.com
[2] Skenazy. pp. 228. [For citations, see “Strangers with Candy” 209-210.]
[3] Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2013).
[4] Friedman, Laura F. and Kevin Loria, “11 scientifically proven reasons you should be spending less time in the office,” Business Insider 30 June 2015.
[5] Skenazy. pp. xx-xxi.
[6] Wallace, Kelly. “Mom arrested for leaving 9-year-old alone at park.” CNN.com 21 July 2014.
[7] Support Debra Harrell group, Facebook.com 30 July 2016.
[8] Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “A ‘free range’ family fights back: ‘The police coerced our children into the back of a patrol car,’” Salon.com 15 April 2015.
[9] St. George, Donna. “Md. officials: Letting ‘free range’ kids walk or play alone is not neglect,” The Washington Post 11 June 2015.
[10] Pimentel, David. “Criminal Child Neglect and the “Free Range Kid“: Is Overprotective Parenting the New Standard of Care?,” Utah Law Review (2012).
[11] For more information, see Skenazy’s article, “The Simple School Project that Sets Kids Free,” published in The Huffington Post 7 Oct 2013.

[About the Author: Christine Hoff Kraemer is a religious studies scholar specializing in contemporary Paganism, sexuality, theology, and popular culture. In 2008, she completed her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University. Christine is an instructor in the Theology and Religious History department at Cherry Hill Seminary. Her books include Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies and the collection Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy (edited with Yvonne Aburrow). She is also the proud parent of an extremely high-energy toddler.]

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  • D. Horrell

    Outstanding article. As a person who grew up with the freedom of a free range child (then this did not require a name, you were just a kid growing up) it is difficult for me to grasp that to do so now requires the steps above, but we are where we are so let us go forward as outlined. As the essential ties that keep us connected to nature grow fewer and fewer it is imperative that effort is put forth to keep our children entwined with the natural world from whence all comes. Great article, bless all the parents in meeting their challenges with love, patience and a dogged determination that wins the day. May your children know the grace and peace of wild things and may they learn to rest in it’s beauty and to be free.

    In closing I turn to the mind and pen of Wendell Berry:

    When despair grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting for their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    Wendell Berry

  • ❝You can’t childproof the world. You can only worldproof your children.❞

    I don’t know who said it first, but it makes sense.

    I’ve no kids myself. As a freedom advocate I’ve been watching the free range kids movement for a few years now. Lenore Skenazy does good work for good reasons.

  • kenofken

    I feel very fortunate to have grown up as a free range child in the 70s and 80s. We didn’t learn hardcore Alaskan level bush survival skills or anything – it was the suburbs, but there was still a fair amount of undeveloped land here and there to run around on. We trespassed extensively on a vast Catholic seminary that our subdivision backed up on 🙂

    I think part of that lifestyle derived from different parental attitudes of the time, but also because there wasn’t a whole lot to keep you inside. There was no consumer level internet. The computers were pretty rudimentary to say the least and in very few homes, VCRs were just becoming a thing, and our video games – old school Atari, could only keep you engrossed for so long. Maybe you’d sit through an hour of after school cartoons or whatever, and then it was up and out – swimming in the summer, pickup games of street baseball (almost always with a tennis ball due to the proximity of windows) and running around the woods for games, sledding, fishing and a bit of delinquency in the mid teen years. From probably about age 12, most of the guys were given primary lawn mowing responsibility for the family, and it became a good source of pocket money for those willing to take on a few other lawns each week.

    Of course my memory is probably selective for the good aspects, but I’d do it all over again, and I’d dearly love to escape to one of those days even now. It always struck me as very sad somehow to meet kids in middle school or younger whose time was so programmed that they had to keep daily calendars like a Fortune 500 CEO,with their days programmed down to the minute and their eyes glued to a screen pretty much all of their waking hours.