We kids of the late-1930s grew up as ‘free rangers.’ We lived and played in neighborhoods that were virtually threat-free, except for those we perpetrated upon ourselves, or in my case perped upon me by a sinister looking lady dressed in black who regularly walked by our house, and who, if she could get her hands on me, would pinch my nose.
She would become known as the dreaded: “Pincher Woman Nose.” I know today of course that her’s was a loving gesture, not a vicious, unwarranted attack on my cute vertebrate olfactory organ. Other than that, our neighborhood was a “safe zone” into which we were all “shooed” each summer morning by loving mothers with the admonition: “Be back by lunch!”
All this came immediately to mind recently as I read about the ‘free-range parenting’ issue going on in Utah where the State legislature has just passed a new law allowing “a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.”
I did a little further research and found that “free-range parenting” was the brain-child of a New York City mother who, in 2008, allowed her 9-year old son, at his insistence, to find his way home alone from a Manhattan shopping trip, via the subway and bus system (which he did without incident), and then wrote about it in her column in a NYC newspaper. Her story went viral across the country.
Pow! She was either the world’s worst mother, said some; or ‘good for you’ for teaching your son independence, said others. Later she wrote a book in which she used the term “free-range” describing her approach to parenting. The opposite being “helicopter parenting” in which the parent (s) ‘hover’ over their children and their activities.
I would have never known (didn’t know til this week) that I was a ‘free-range’ kid, but I’m glad I was, and that my Mother was not a ‘whirlybird’ pilot. We were free to roam, to scrape knees, cut fingers, occasionally break bones and always came home tired and dirty. We organized our own neighborhood games and activities, even our softball team; bought our own team shirts, and administered the rules.
No parents, no little league, no fancy uniforms. We figured it out ourselves, some times fought it out. And yes, we even had B-B gun wars in the woods down in the hollow occasionally. If you didn’t own a Red Ryder or Daisy B-B gun, what good were you? Coulda shot an eye out, of course, but never did. And all of us had less lethal six-shooters or G-Man pistols. Those were the days when kids could play good guys-bad guys, cowboys and Indians, and things weren’t done or not done because they were politically correct, day or night.
After dinner, we were out until after dark, playing games involving both boys and girls. Kick the Can and Capture the Flag were favorites, as was the simple game of ‘May I?’ Which much later took one giant step forward from being a child’s game to the pop music charts. Don’t remember all the rules at this late stage of my life, but it required asking permission to cross from one side of the street to the other. Otherwise, we didn’t very often ask “May I ?” We just did it. In fact, as I came to learn, it is often better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Never will forget the night, during a round of hide-and-go seek, that I ran ‘free ranging’ pell mell through the darkness across the neighbor’s backyard, leaped off an embankment onto an adjacent dirt tennis court, but forgetting that at one corner some old rusty chicken-wire was still strung between poles to keep tennis balls from going off the court.
Smashing into the chicken-wire face-on, knocked silly, and recovering on my backside on the lawn, I decided to call it a day. When I got home, Mother took one look at me and said: “What on earth have you been doing? Go look in the mirror then wash your face and get ready for bed.” Ah, in the looking glass, the faint rusty imprint of the chicken-wire was still lightly etched on my face.
Free range experiences like that I now know were what helped me navigate the ups and downs of business life, and make me eternally grateful not to have been helicoptered by overly protective parents. When I was about to leave the NYC area after a decade in the advertising game, to return to the good old Buckeye State and a new job, a friend and quite successful young Manhattan lawyer invited me out for a goodbye lunch; then said he’d asked me for a very personal reason: “How can you just up and move away like this? I mean just change your life, go to a new job, and start over again?”
And then confessed: “I could never do that.” The very prospect he told me, frightened him to death. I didn’t know then but I may have helped create someone’s future advertising slogan when I rather lamely replied: “I don’t know. You “just do it.” That’s what free rangers do.
Mel Grossman is a county resident and guest columnist.