Raising ‘free range’ children

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Free range chickens, animals allowed to roam relatively free rather than been cooped up in cages, are all the rage these days. Supposedly it makes for tastier meat, bigger eggs and a longer life span for the birds if you’re raising them for eggs rather than meat. I’m not a scientist, or even a dietician, so I can’t debate or dispute any of these claims but having observed chickens who have spent their lives penned in a cage that barely allowed them to turn around and those who were raised in the chicken yard on our small farm, I think the free range chickens have a better life no matter how short it is.

Thinking about this recently got me to thinking about how we raise our children these days. We don’t keep them in cages but we might as well. They are, for the most part, scheduled to a fare the well. Up in the morning five days a week, clean up, eat, and rush to the bus stop to get to school. School is scheduled from start to finish, with even play breaks timed and monitored. Then, after school there are the ‘activities.’ Sports, music lessons, other extra-curricular activities designed to burnish their records to make them more competitive for college admission, or with some parents, just to keep them out of the house for a while.

When I was a kid, we were free range children. Sure, we had to go to school, but when school was over, we were allowed to go outside and play. Kids nowadays are often not allowed out of their yards without adult supervision until they’re in their late teens, even on weekends. At six or seven, I often played in the forest behind our place, fishing, hunting, picking berries, or just walking and enjoying looking at the scenery. Sometimes I’d hang out with friends and we’d play games, or sometimes—most often, in fact—I’d wander off by myself. I remember when I was eleven, my friend William and I walked ten miles to the next town to my grandmother’s house and to visit his uncle who owned a funeral parlor in the town. If an eleven year old kid did that today his parents would be in danger of being arrested or visited by child protective services.

Now, I know that the situation today in most countries isn’t like it was in the 1950s when I was growing up. There are more dangers out there than even existed back then. But if we can promote free range chickens, we should be able to promote more free-play activity for our children at a minimum.

For starters, stop over scheduling your children. No child needs to have scheduled after school activities five days a week. In order to develop, mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially, children have to be allowed unstructured play time. It’s how they learn to get along with other people and think for themselves. If everything is scheduled for them they might grow up to be adults who have to be told what to do. Trust me, during my fifty years in government and since, especially during the past twenty or so years, I’ve encountered a lot of people like this. Not an original thought in their heads. And, they don’t know how to enjoy themselves unless someone has arranged things.

That is the truly sad thing. People who are bored unless they’re given a detailed agenda and who can’t think of a ‘thing to do.’ It’s really bad when the people in question are kids. I’ve met them. I’ve interacted with them. The conversation goes something like this.

“I’m bored,” says eight-year-old.

“Go find something to entertain yourself,” I say.

“What?”

“Think of something.”

I can’t think of anything.” Pouting. “You tell me.”

“No, if you can’t think of a way to amuse yourself, you’re out of luck,” I say with a note of finality.

“You’re a doody head,” he says, stalking off.

Now, in my day, that would’ve been a different conversation. It would have gone something like this.

“Can I go outside, dad?”

“What do you plan to do?”

Shrugs. “Oh, something.”

“Don’t go far.”

“Okay, see you later.”

Later might be an hour or four, but it would be in time for supper. That’s how to raise free-range children. – NWI