Musings on free-range parenting, comfort-addicted kids, and under-developed gross motor skills.

On President’s Day I had to go to work even though school was not in session. I was  working on an evaluation report while sitting in a meeting room with a group of other speech language pathologists and we got on the subject of “kids these days”…I was worrying aloud about the fact that even on days when the temperature is around 15 F, the children were still being kept in for “indoor recess”. I felt this was excessive and that we’d do better to keep old snow gear around for kids who didn’t bring theirs and to chuck ’em outside for 15-20 minutes every day. More than a few kids, though, don’t even want to go out.

I ask some of the kids about what they did over the weekend, if they went outside to play at all; some do, but a lot don’t. And to be truthful, my own children will moo about being sent outside sometimes; they’d often rather lounge around inside. I find this odd because as a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out the door, even in bad weather.

We seem to have created a perfect storm of hovering adults and kids who are weirdly addicted to comfort.

One of my colleagues whose age I’d estimate to be early thirties talked about being allowed to walk to and from school by about second grade. Another woman who is probably around my age shared some charming memories of the very rural farm community where she grew up; by the time she was seven years old, she’d wake up early on a summer morning, pack a sandwich and an apple in her knapsack, mount her pony (sans saddle) and head out for the day. She said she’d ride through people’s farms and through woods and end up several miles from home. She said it wasn’t all that unusual to fall off her pony and have to lead it to a tree stump to remount it because she was too little to get back on otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine any seven year old today even wanting to do that, let alone being allowed to.

Should we allow them to? Should we force them to? Should we be free range parents even if our kids would rather be house potatoes?

And it turns out, there are laws in some states about what age a child may be unsupervised:

Alabama None
Arizona None
Arkansas None
California None
Connecticut None
Florida None
Hawaii None
Idaho None
Illinois 14
Indiana None
Iowa None
Louisiana None
Maine None
Maryland 8
Massachusetts None
Minnesota None
Missouri None
Montana None
Nebraska None
Nevada None
New Hampshire None
New Jersey None
New Mexico 10
New York None
North Carolina 8
Ohio None
Oklahoma None
Oregon 10
Pennsylvania None
South Carolina None
South Dakota None
Texas None
Utah None
Wisconsin None

In Illinois, a child must be at least 14 before he may be unsupervised! In my state, a child can’t now be unsupervised until age 11.  By the time I was 11 in 1980, I was already babysitting other people’s kids.

I think one of the reasons we wanted to get outside so badly was because if we were inside, we were often made to do chores, and not just minor ones:

A study of the articles, advice and letters published in more than 300 parenting magazines between 1920 and 2006 has found that most modern-day children are only asked to take on trivial responsibilities, such as feeding a pet, clearing the table after dinner or tidying up after themselves.

“In earlier generations, children and adolescents were given meaningful opportunities to be responsible by contributing not only to their households but also to their larger communities,” said Markella Rutherford, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of the new study, Children’s Autonomy and Responsibility: An Analysis of Child Rearing Advice.

Plus there wasn’t much to do inside since video game systems hadn’t really become commonplace, there were no electronic devices and the internet basically didn’t exist.

I’m not really sure what we can do about all this. On the one hand, I would not let a child as young as seven be gone outside all day. On the other hand, anecdotally children’s motor skills really are looking worse – perhaps from a lack of unsupervised outdoor playtime? There is a wonderful group that comes into some schools now called Motor Moms and Dads and pulls kids out into the hallways to work on gross motor skills with them because they lack some real foundational movement skills. I’m very grateful for our Motor Moms since they’re all volunteers, but could you imagine having needed such a group when we were children?

It’s worrisome and I don’t have any neat, tidy solutions to suggest.

9 thoughts on “Musings on free-range parenting, comfort-addicted kids, and under-developed gross motor skills.

  1. It is a problem and I would say that tv and computers have added to their desire to be indoors. They grow up now being entertained rather than entertaining themselves. On the flip side, I too would worry greatly to let my young child out past my patch alone. Due to the current state of things, children (mine included) seem more immature these days, which is then a vicious circle of not giving them more responsibility!


  2. I found this and thought to share. This is what can happen if a kit goes unsupervised.

    I think they’re speaking Russian but, I hope that they’re not saying any bad words.


  3. Two thoughts seem applicable here:

    A few years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine printed a review of the latest work on Vitamin D. It was determined that our requirements were actually many times what the recommended daily allowance listed. Many doctors are now recommending thousands of international units daily as opposed to the RDA of 600. It also pointed out that cases of Rickets were being seen in northern areas and this was attributable to modern culture of electronic media and lack of outside recreation for many urban children in winter.

    The majority of children medicated for attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity are still boys. I thoroughly acknowledge that some are outside the norm but fifteen minutes to half an hour of running around outside screaming like maniacs every day seemed to make most of the classes more tolerable when I was a child. It also gave the teachers on “playground duty” a chance to socialize and have a couple of smokes.


  4. Hi Lucien,
    Thanks for the info about Vitamin D; I hadn’t even thought about that.

    One of the most worrisome aspects of this isn’t so much that parents are over-protective; that’s only natural given how few children modern parents have. What’s really worrisome is the increasing number of children who don’t even want to go outside.

    It’s sometimes the case that not only do I have to cajole my kids to go outside, but I have to agree to go out with them; that’s something I can’t recall my parents ever having to do. We were chomping at the bit to get out, no adult exhortations required! And in my house, we don’t have television (we have an old TV hooked up to a DVD player, but no antenna/cable/dish service) or a video game system; I can only imagine for folks who have those distractions, it’s even harder to get the kids to go outdoors.

    I’m always surprised at school when I say to a kid, “Oh, aren’t you glad you get to have outdoor recess today?” and he says, “Naw. Not really. Too cold.” Of course, it’s not all children; some still seem to love being outside and running around.

    It also gave the teachers on “playground duty” a chance to socialize and have a couple of smokes.

    Ha! 🙂


  5. In Illinois, a child must be at least 14 before he may be unsupervised! In my state, a child can’t now be unsupervised until age 11. By the time I was 11 in 1980, I was already babysitting other people’s kids.

    When I was 6 and starting 1st grade, the girls from the house up the street were charged with getting me on the bus after school. They were only a couple years older than me. By the time I hit that age, I was already walking home.

    At age 11 (1981),* my younger (!) brother and I would walk or bike to the local pool by ourselves, stay there half the day, come home for lunch, and go back again until the pool closed at 9 pm. Again, by ourselves.

    Plus there wasn’t much to do inside since video game systems hadn’t really become commonplace, there were no electronic devices and the internet basically didn’t exist.

    We were playing the video games at the pool (after swimming for a couple hours first… we played games after we got a cheeseburger and a drink, and then got back in the water), and we also biked our way down to the local video arcade.

    so yeah, we spent time indoors playing Them Awful Video Gamez, but we got exercise to and from. Even when all the kids in the neighborhood got Ataris, we still often walked or biked to each others houses and gamed socially.

    * I would have been going to the pool by myself at an even younger age, but we didn’t get a pool pass until that year.

    P.S. And I was the indoors kind of kid. The other kids spent even more time doing stuff than I did.


  6. It strikes me that one big reason that kids aren’t allowed to go outside when it’s cold is they simply don’t have decent winter wear, and, for that matter, how fun is it to go outside in the summer when you’re covered in a plastic like polyester?

    Pretty darned sad when I consider that we were better dressed in the SEVENTIES than kids are today. :^) Plus, I think that we had better bikes, too. The old Schwinns were tanks, but unless you let them rust out, they would last forever. Can’t say that about the junk at Wal-mart and Target today. (and yes, it carries the Schwinn name at times, but it’s not the same at all….trust me, I work on bikes as a hobby)

    Agreed as well that hovering is an issue, and I’ve got to watch it myself–it is as if the attitude is that you’ve got to catch every little sin the kiddoes commit in order to be a good parent. Nope, you’ll get enough information to know whether they’re growing up right with a glance into their room, I’m afraid. :^)


  7. Pingback: Should grade-school aged children be allowed to walk home from the park without an adult? | The Sunshine Thiry Blog

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