The Dark Side of Free-Range Parenting (Hint: not everybody gets to do it)

(The word “dark” in the title is ironic. Wait until you read the whole piece to call me a racist.)


Have you read Lenore Skenazy’s incredible stuff about free-range kids? Lenore (we’re on a first name basis — I know her cousin and all) let her nine year old son ride the subway in New York City all by himself without so much as a cell phone or a tracking device. When I was like three and my sister was four we flew in a plane from Southern California to Washington State all by ourselves, but a 45 minute subway ride is cool too.

Anyway, Lenore wrote a column about it and all hell broke loose. And I mean LOOSE — with two O’s and everything. People who had never even met her took to the interwebs to tell her she was the worst mother in America.

Instead of fighting back in the comments section, as is traditional,

(“Your the werst mother in america!”

“Learn how to spell and use good grammer, dipshit!”

“You know who else let kids play hopscotch without any supervision? Hitler! That’s who!”



she started a blog called Free Range Kids.

I love that blog.

A collage of people wearing Dolphins, set against a background of 1970’s corduroy orange. You’re welcome (According to Google images, only white people and Richard Simmons wore Dolphins).

It makes me feel like I’m wearing my halter top and my Dolphin-style shorts (because they didn’t sell the real Dolphins in the Sears Catalog) and roller-skating all day long from house to house to house while my brothers scour the neighborhood for abandoned pools to skateboard and break their collarbones in. Some days Mrs. George would make us all lumpia full of gluten and lard and we’d sit under Mr. George’s workbench near the rusty nails in the garage playing Monopoly and eating lumpia until the street lights came on and we had to skate home.

I so wanted to raise free-range kids (and chickens) because you get quiet time to yourself your kids develop a sense of independence and capability.

(Wait. Are we not using strikethrough anymore?)

The problem is that being a free-range kid is a gift best imbibed by those who can claim privilege, usually of the white kind.

In case you’ve been studying the mating patterns of the Antarctic Sheathbills (incidentally, the name of my 80’s cover band) and didn’t get the memo, people of color are targets on a whole different kind of range right now, if you get my drift.

You don’t get my drift?

Read this. Now this. Top it off with this.

(C’mon, at least read the captions you see when you hover over the links.)

I know. I know what you’re thinking. You’re pretty sure those people were poor or committed crimes or looked like someone who was poor or committed crimes or was sitting near someone who wasn’t poor and didn’t commit crimes and that makes it perfectly acceptable to shoot them — plus Morgan Freeman said we should stop talking about race and he’s black (And the spokesman for all black people, after all).  Also there was that one black cop who shot that one white-but-maybe-Latino-according-to-his-brother guy who was possibly-but-not-yet-proven unarmed. Do you see the internet lighting up about that one? No!

(So, that pretty much sums up my summer in Facebook posts.)

People! The United Nations is pissed at us! North Korea is laughing at us. You have to be royally messing things up when Kim Jong Un thinks you’ve gone too far.

What, though, does all this race talk have to do with Lenore and her train-taking thug of a son?

Because it is the reason my kids cannot be the kind of free-range kids that Lenore (and I) wants all kids to be.

Even though, as Lenore tells us, abduction rates are lower than when I was wearing Dolphins, and people are generally helpful should someone need it, these free-range privileges have distinct borders.

People (of all races) who live in neighborhoods where it’s not even safe to open the curtains, much less ride a bike up and down the street, and any black person of any age anywhere of any economic status and any background wearing any outfit, and heading to any place, cannot confidently let their kids, especially their post-pubescent kids, have the run of the neighborhood.

The stakes are too high right now.

Yes, as so many have gone to great lengths to shove down our throats mention, there is indeed gang crime plaguing many cities, crimes that are devastating and seemingly uncontrollable despite the best and most persistent efforts of black parents, teachers, clergy, business people, supporters, you name it, in those same cities.

[Quick lesson — Oppression 101, from a White Girl’s View (corrections welcomed by those who have been oppressed because of your race — hint: if you’ve never had a total stranger ask to touch your hair, it’s probably not you): When a country spends several centuries and a whole lot of time, energy, political clout, and money oppressing, violating, devaluing (in every cents of the word — see what I did there? Because part of the oppression is keeping money away from as many people of color as possible?), and silencing an entire race of people, the people become understandably angry. As oppression continues to pile on, that anger can turn into rage, and sometimes that rage causes civil disharmony because, as was the plan since the slave owners first unloaded human beings from the boats and separated them away from their own tribes so they would be weakened by a lack of communication, they are divided by systems put into place by their oppressors.]

Here’s MY quite possibly misinformed, potentially ignorant perception about the gang crime, though: Because those of us who live outside of the borders of heavy gang activity can at least make reasonable assumptions about where the crime is concentrated (fears are, I assume, much more complicated for families who struggle to find safety in neighborhoods that are unsafe for anyone), even more frightening than gang crime for a parent of black children are the possibilities of targeted, sometimes deadly, often life-altering (see every link above) treatment of black children.

Let me paint a picture: white kids are just as likely as black kids to get a scowl from Mr. Crankypants when they trek across his begonias, but black kids are more likely to be screamed at, fought with, shot, reported, or incarcerated for it. If two white teens start chasing each other in the mall parking lot, someone will likely honk at them, maybe wag a finger. Two black kids running? Well, you get the picture. Tell me you get the picture!

(Hint: people will assume they’ve committed a crime.)

Horsing around in public is not allowed for black kids.

(Cue the outrage that I could be so negative when what I should be teaching my kids is that rainbows and velveteen bunnies will shroud them in a protective layer of glitter and the perfumed breath of Disney characters every where they go.)

Trust me when I say that there was a time when I really thought that a parent could protect a child with sheer optimism, when I figured I could let them be kids for as long as possible before doling out the realities of systemic racism and white privilege in tidy little packages.


(I am so sorry to all people of color everywhere that it took raising black children for this white lady to care this much. Oh sure, I expressed outrage at racism before, in the same way I expressed outrage at Shell Oil and their participation in Apartheid, Starkist Tuna and how they were killing dolphins, and Nestle for causing babies in Africa to starve. I cared oh-so-very-much and made fliers of outrage to post around town and wore strongly-worded pins and everything — until I needed gas or craved a tuna casserole and some chocolate milk. Then, it was like, “Weeeeell, I’m not a dolphin myself so just this one time can’t really hurt.”)

Discrimination never comes in a tidy little package, just as free-range parenting is never simple for a parent of children of color. Every single time that my kids walk out that door, I spin through the discussions in my head. Did I tell them what to do if a cop stops them? Do they have their ID? Did I remind them to be polite? Not to swear too loudly? To keep their music low just in case? Not to walk anywhere without two other people accompanying them (one to stay with the detained/injured and one to go get help)?

Did I tell them how much I love them?

It’s not that I necessarily focus on the fear that my children might be shot or incarcerated every time they go out alone (otherwise I’d have them on permanent house lock-down), though I know that the possibility of that is greater for my Haitian-born children than for the child born to my white, freckle-faced womb. And I know that a whole lot of people might then smugly point out that time they drew on the doctor’s chair with a Sharpie as cause enough for whatever horrors befell them. I know that a crazy large percentage of the country is not watching out for their safety and believing in them, wanting them to succeed, and take the reigns of leadership for the future.

So perhaps more insidious than anything, I fear that every time they go out into the world, they will be chipped at, broken down piece by piece until they start to do more than just experience the racism — they start to feel it, live it, be swallowed by it.

Every person who crosses the street or clutches their purse when they approach, every store clerk that keeps their eye on them, every cop that slows done to look them over when passing is a reminder that there is no free range living for children of color in the United States right now.

It is yet one more aspect of our culture that strips inalienable rights from people of color, making it harder for children to grow up with voices they can feel confident about throwing into the mix of what is supposed to be a melting pot (or tossed salad; or is it a banana split? I can’t keep up).


P.S. NOW, you can call me a racist, but only if I can call you one too.