How Old is TOO Young: The Free Range Parenting Debacle

How Old it TOO Young The Free Range Parenting Debacle

I sat in complete bewilderment this past January and again a few weeks ago, as I read about the Maryland couple who allowed their 10 & 6 year old children to walk to the park by themselves and now have to deal with Child Protective Services for “substantiated” child neglect.  Neglectful parenting?  Does no one remember getting to play until nightfall pretty much their entire childhood?  When did that become neglectful parenting?  These Maryland parents, Danielle & Sasha Meitiv, are teaching their children how to mediate minor risks in order to learn independence and how to thrive in this world.  What is wrong with that?

As I sat stunned thinking about this couple & their children, my heart remembered the story of an Oklahoma man who let his 10 & 6 year old travel across 3 states by themselves and I couldn’t help but think how the authorities dealt with that father.  What?  You haven’t heard of this story?  It’s an absolutely amazingly, true story about two boys ages 10 & 6 – the exact same ages of the children in Maryland, who walked home from the park.

The Abernathy Boys Story

Let me fill you in on the basic details – Bud & Temple Abernathy had heard about exotic places in New Mexico from their father and his travels.  They wanted to see them for themselves so for close to a year Bud memorized the route and all the towns they would have to go through to reach their destination from Oklahoma to New Mexico.  Once they felt like they were ready, they approached their father with the idea.  Although after thinking about it, their father said yes, he thought he would dissuade his sons by making them go on a ride to Tipton, OK.  Instead of being deterred, the boys enthusiasm level was only escalated and so to be a man of his word, their father let them ride on horseback to their destination in New Mexico.  He reminded them of what a difficult ride it would be, gave them sound advice not to push their horses to hard, provided them with money & supplies for the trip and reminded them to say their prayers at night.

It was a very hot and difficult journey, one where the boys slept out under the stars sometimes being encircled by wolves, yearning for a fresh, cool drop of water, but having to settle for a not so tasty warm sip from a canteen, if they had enough water that is.  Word had gotten out that these boys were making their way to New Mexico.  Some folks along the way were welcoming and encouraging, others were better left behind. At one point on their way back home, they were even shadowed by outlaws.

Abernathy boys after their first adventure out of state by themselves at the ages of 10 & 6.

Abernathy boys after their first adventure out of state by themselves at the ages of 10 & 6.

After making a successful trip to New Mexico and returning to Oklahoma, the boys were met by the US Marshal of the area.  He sized them up, hugged their necks and greeted the boys with the proudest smile a father aka US Marshal could have.  Yep, these boys, instead of being taken to the nearest Child Protective Services office were given a parade! (Click this link to see the kids a year later in New York riding in a parade behind former President Theodore Roosevelt.)

Even President Taft wanted to meet them and congratulate them on their journey! Yes, these boys did not do something typical in those days.  They went on more than a walk to the park and the people of this great nation realized that these were learned children, who had navigated some tough terrain and successfully come out on top.  There were reporters & celebrations wherever these boys went.  Their adventuresome spirit was encouraged, not scolded.  They were their father’s pride and the nation wanted to see more.

About a year later, the boys traveled from Fredrick, OK to New York City!  Can you imagine the difference in culture they faced back then?  But, because of all they had learned they were still able to navigate their new surroundings without a hitch.   They even talked their dad into letting them drive a hand cranked Brush car back to Oklahoma from New York – by themselves!  They rode motorcycles and by the ripe old ages of 11 & 7, they were challenged to cross the entire United States of America starting at the east coast & ending at the west coast.  If they could do it in 60 days, they would collect $10,000!

The boys drove this Brush car to Oklahoma from New York by themselves.

The boys drove this Brush car to Oklahoma from New York by themselves.

Bud & Temp’s story is an awesome one to read to your kids and honestly, I love it myself.  Temp’s wife wrote down his narrations in a book called Bud & Me.  You can check it out in any Oklahoma library or find it locally at Full Circle Bookstore.

A Statue of Temp & Bud in Fredrick, OK.

A Statue of Temp & Bud in Fredrick, OK.

A Statue in their Honor. After you read about their adventures, you can take your kids on an adventure down to Fredrick, OK where a statue of the boys will salute you.  You can even see a small exhibit about their journey’s and the hand cranked Brush car they drove in the Pioneer Townsite.  Then, go have some more adventures of your own by visiting the bison & Mt. Scott in the nearby Wichita Wildlife Refuge.

Absolutely beautiful bison refuge!

Absolutely beautiful bison refuge!

A Yearly Celebration. If you visit Frederick, OK on the first Saturday in June every year, you will get to celebrate the boys exploits including their trip from Fredrick to New York City as well as commemorate when Teddy Roosevelt visited Fredrick to go on a hunting expedition with the boys father, Jack Abernathy, who was famous for catching wolves alive with his bare hands.

Can you imagine if those Maryland children had been given the same amazing opportunity as the Abernathy boys?  Their poor parents would probably be in jail right now.  How sad that this world is trying to turn parents into helicopters instead of encouraging the independent spirit that fosters creativity, awareness of people & nature, a sense of self worth and confidence!  I truly hope that this case gets the national attention it deserves and CPS starts focusing on parents who are truly neglecting and abusing their children instead of parents who are fostering growth.

Yes, 1910 was very different from 2015.  For example, there were no cell phones so constant contact or low jacking children was out of the question.  If anything happened to the Abernathy boys it would take hours to travel back to their father; possibly days.  Every time period carries it’s own challenges but when has it ever truly been 100% safe.  Life is full of dangers & risks and we as their parents need to teach them how to thrive in the world we live in, not slink back in fear.

Now, I’m not saying you have to send your youngest child out the door, but start encouraging children to assess and logically think through risks that are appropriate for that child’s maturity level. Each child is different and as their parents we need to assess and determine what are acceptable risks for them to take.

The Dangers

Now, I completely understand there is another side to this argument – THE DANGER ZONE!  So, I will briefly go there.  This world has and will always be dangerous.  There are and always will be people who are selfish and will hurt others.  But does this mean all the good non-harmful people should hide away and be silent?  Should the peaceful people not have the loudest voice and the strongest presence?  If we teach our kids to live in fear now, when will they grow out of that?  The answer is never.  We have to teach our children to navigate this crazy world and if we teach them to do it as children, it will become second nature and they will be able to evaluate their surroundings and the people that come in and out of their sphere.  They will learn how to deal with all different sorts of people and circumstances, and they learn best like we all do, through experiences.

When I was young, somewhere between ages of 8-10, it was our custom to go out and play and return later in the evening.  Especially during the summer, kids from streets away would come play together.  One night, one little girl didn’t come home.  We were questioned about her whereabouts but that particular night she hadn’t come to play.  Horrifically, they found her body in a dumpster behind a nearby grocery store.  My heart still aches for her and her mother, who was working that night.  As children, we were confronted with the horrific reality of what happened and could happen.  I vaguely remember talks of being aware of our surroundings and being cautious, not being overly trusting and always telling our parents before we went off with someone we knew or didn’t know. But when I look back, I don’t remember our routine changing much.  We still played outside till the street lights flickered on…maybe there were more adults present.  Maybe initially we were told to stay closer to home, but eventually our adventures returned back to normal.  We weren’t put into a protective bubble.  We were coached and the next summer when we had a lemonade stand and a guy in an 80’s brown van drove up, hopped out the large side door and offered us all teddy bears, we didn’t hop into his van but stayed back behind our table.  Thankfully, when the neighbor stepped out, he drove off and nothing happened.  That’s the role of a neighbor – being concerned and showing concern to the children.  Not calling the cops on them, but actually interacting with the children to protect them and help when needed.  Let’s get to know each other again and help each other out.  If you feel like a child is in danger, talk to the child.  Ask if the child is lost or needs help.  Most kids will honestly let you know.  If they run away, they think you are the danger so don’t take it personally.

The Statistics

The FBI Crime statistics actually show that murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault have steadily decreased since 1995.  My personal feeling is with the rise of criminal case TV shows and the incessant reporting on the bad instead of the good in the media, we fear that our world is actually getting worse, when the statistics necessarily support that.

My Thankfulness

I am so thankful to my parents for letting me explore and enjoy the adventures of childhood.  They allowed me to feel comfortable not only navigating my neighborhood and town, but as I grew, I was able to use what I learned to navigate through 23 countries.  I began traveling out of the country without my parents (although sometimes with adult supervision) starting at the age of 14 and then went on to live in 3 different countries.   Over the years of traveling abroad, I experienced many scary situations – accosted by drunken men, bomb threats, mugged, etc – but I’ve also experienced some of the best moments of my life and I would never trade those amazing moments in order to simply avoid the bad ones. 

Life can be rough.  Let’s train our children for how to deal and be aware of what is happening around us, so that they too can experience all that life has to offer.  

What is your take on the Free Range Parenting Debate?

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