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Stephen Gottlieb: Free Range Children

It never occurred to me that I’d be talking about “free range children” as if they were a species of fowl and the big question was whether to let them out of the coop. But apparently it’s become an issue.[1]

I was brought up in New York City – in the heart of Brooklyn. I believe I was walking to elementary school in the second grade. It was about half a mile. My folks showed me how and watched as I showed I could. By the time I was ten I was playing stick ball two blocks away and squash closer to a mile away. I remember crossing the busiest street in the neighborhood, by myself, thinking only of sharing the impending Dodger victory with a friend, who met me instead with the news that Bobby Thompson had crushed our dreams. I was nine. I think they moved a couple of years later and I got on my bike and rode several miles to his house. He and I would ride to the shore and into Queens, as far as the sleepy little airport then called Idlewild – it’s now known by its initials, J.F.K. By junior high I was taking the bus several miles to see the orthodontist in a different part of Brooklyn.

Not long after, I’d travel with friends to the National Tennis Tournament at Forest Hills, in Queens, and had the pleasure of seeing many of the greats of that age, some at very close range. Or off to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers.

I thought of New York City as my oyster. It was all within a bike or a subway ride away.

Our children grew up in Albany. We taught them how to do things, gave them guidance and the opportunity to show they were responsible, plus a cell phone or, before cell phones, the knowledge and money to call if they needed us. And they told us what they were doing and with whom, before if they knew. We spent lots of time with them and were always available for them, but children need opportunities to fledge their wings and to grow.

We taught them how and soon they walked themselves to school – elementary and high school. Junior high was further away and they rode the bus. They ranged around the neighborhood on foot or by bike to see their friends. Our son bought himself a bike with money he earned as a paper boy for the now defunct Knick News. I admit we were sometimes bothered by the rides he took, initially with a bike-riding friend, from our house to Schenectady, or, gulp, to Ballston Spa. Of course as a three year old child he had showed his grandpa how to get to the airport in West Virginia by bus so they could have lunch watching the planes take off and land. The one trip that really made us gulp was when he announced that he’d used his money as a paper boy to buy himself a ticket to visit his grandpa in Florida. We were not confident of grandpa’s driving ability anymore and our son was too young to drive. But my wife and I were too proud of him to stop him from going. We wanted to encourage, not squelch him.

We did not raise free range children. We raised strong, resourceful and independent children, and we’re very proud of them.

[1] Andrea McCarren, Parents in trouble again for letting kids walk alone, USA Today, April 13, 2015 http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/13/parents-investigated-letting-children-walk-alone/25700823/; Camila Turner, Arrests for leaving kids home alone made every day, The Telegraph, March 27, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11498123/Arrests-for-leaving-kids-home-alone-made-every-day.html; Caitlin Schmidt, Florida mom arrested after letting 7-year-old walk to the park alone,

CNN, August 1, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/31/living/florida-mom-arrested-son-park/.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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