The Real Meaning of Free-Range Kids

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

Long before I was given blogging privileges on The Agitator this past month, I was a reader of Free-Range Kids. Ironically, the person who put me onto the blog was Karen DeCoster, who doesn’t have children, but is wonderfully-opinionated and fun to be around.

Lenore Skenazy, who runs the site, became famous four years ago because (Horrors!) she let her then-nine-year-old son take the New York City subway home. I remember when it happened because a number of people were shocked and accused Lenore of engaging in child abuse.

(The thing to keep in mind is that the term “child abuse” in America has changed in definition from actually abusing children to not hovering over them at every second. By actually permitting her child to engage in something that was an adventure without putting him in real-live danger, Lenore was performing a real act of parenting, which apparently to some has changed in definition from guiding children to outright dominating them. Why this has become the New Normal in the USA will be explained later in this post.)

When I heard about what Lenore had done, I loved it. Why? Children need adventure, and their imaginations are able to change things like a typical subway car into a spaceship or a vehicle that takes them into another dimension. (Yeah, some of us who like to ride the NY Subway might agree that the while thing really IS another dimension, but I won’t go there.)

Her act helped me to remember my own childhood in which my best friend, Gary Babe, and I ranged far and wide where we lived. We explored creeks, went ice skating in the winter, and rode bikes from here to there, all without parental supervision. I remember once when my mom let me walk to Billy Fries’s house holding a small guitar — in the middle of a blizzard. That was an adventure in itself, but I still remember that we had fun making music. (Today, Bill Fries is a first-rate professional musician.)

Yes, sometimes we got into trouble. Bikes crashed, we got cut on thorns, we fell out of trees (I was a great tree-climber and falling was an occupational hazard.), and once I fell into Hook Creek on a cold March day in 1961 and shortly thereafter got pneumonia. Being in the crude children’s ward at Crozier Hospital for a week was as terrifying as being in jail, as the battle-axe nurses performed rectal temperature checks and made us use bedpans. But I survived quite well, thank you, as did my other friends, and we have plenty of stories to tell. None of my buddies ever received a serious injury and none were kidnapped, although I am sure that some folks in the neighborhood might have wanted to see the loud and mouthy Billy disappear for a while.

Today, Americans are supposed to believe that danger lurks behind every corner and if we take our eyes off our kids for even a second, tragedy can strike. Yes, children throughout the ages have disappeared or have been abducted, but the actual numbers of abduction are much smaller than what we are led to believe, and often helicopter parenting won’t prevent such a tragedy, anyway.

Why the difference in then and now? If anything, the environment is safer than it was then. If I have to point to once event, it would be the passage of the Mondale Act of 1974, which not only led to scores of false accusations of sex abuse of children, but it also created the various bureaucracies that are dedicated to the “safety” of children. When bureaucrats and social workers occupied the Child Protective Services agencies, they came with the “mission” to protect children from their parents and the children themselves.

One of the things we learn about bureaucracies is that over time, they become imperialistic. As the reach of bureaucratic empires expands, the bureaucrats become careerists and all of the self-preservation that comes with human nature comes to the fore. When combined with the (unfortunate) endurance of the Progressive belief that “experts” should have control over our lives, it is not hard to see where all this is going.

Unfortunately, most journalists have bought into this “the experts know best for us” mentality. In my old days of watching TV (we have not had television reception in our home since 2001), I remember that the Today Show would have Bill Clinton’s head of the Consumer Safety Products Commission director as a guest, and she would tell us what new toys were dangerous to children. The atmosphere was near-worshipful, and no one ever questioned the Great Wisdom of the Expert.

Furthermore, the very self-perpetuating and imperialistic nature of bureaucracies means that people employed in those entities must find reason after reason to justify the existence of their jobs. Creating and sustaining crises is the most effective way bureaucracies can grow and seize more power. The process is insidious, but at every turn, there always is someone in a very public situation (like a journalist) justifying this metastasizing bureaucratic growth.

Without the Mondale Act and the bureaucracies it spawned, does anyone think that the rash of faux child molestation cases like McMartin, Kerns County, Little Rascals, and more would have happened? Would it be as easy as it is now for people with personal agendas (child custody or revenge) to make false accusations in order to make someone else disappear into the prison system, a person who is innocent of the charges but does not command the personal resources to fight the accusations and the army of police, prosecutors, judges, and journalists that are arrayed against him or her?

Furthermore, like its sister act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Mondale Act has made it easier for authorities to demonize men. Lenore has written much about that awful situation and the real tragedy that the “all men are dangerous molesters, kidnappers, and rapists” mentality that the laws and bureaucracies have created.

So, what does this mean relative to the title of this post? Free-Range Kids literally strikes a blow against the new Evil Empire. (The old Evil Empire, the U.S.S.R., depended heavily upon snitches and an internal spy system complete with anonymous “tips” that someone was being subversive. During Stalin’s Terror, the best way to make a troublesome neighbor disappear or to gain revenge was to tell the authorities that so-and-so had denounced Stalin. The Gulag would not have been possible without this internal network. Today, we see that same kind of thing at work in our “child protection” system.)

What is FRK really saying? It is saying that people closest to the situation usually are the best people for making the hard choices. It really is OK to let your child have some adventure. Lenore didn’t drop off her son in Hong Kong and tell him to make it back to the USA on his own; no, she let him get on the subway in order to let him take what already was a familiar route home. He didn’t have to panhandle or play music to get subway fare. He just needed to do what he already knew what to do — except this time he did it on his own.

Lenore’s choice was a blow against bureaucracy. At the time, she didn’t see it as that, but that is what it was. It was a small step in reminding us that childhood is an adventure that the government should not disrupt just because somewhere real life might intervene in ways we don’t like.

Perhaps “helicopter government” has prevented a tragedy here and there, but that same “helicopter government” has created huge calamities that have cut a swath of destruction. The Little Rascals Trials were the most expensive trials in the history of the State of North Carolina, yet NONE of the charges were true. Innocent people went to prison, lives were ruined, and the wrong people were empowered. That whole sorry affair helped to build up a false atmosphere of hysteria that still affects the lives of those involved two decades later.

Nothing can create the Perfectly Safe Society for Children. Not CPS, not Free-Range Kids, not The Agitator, not helicopter parenting, nothing. Life has its risks and we make choices, sometimes the wrong ones, but often the right ones when left to our own decision-making authority.

I close with a wonderful memory of nearly 30 years ago. On a warm Sunday in early March, I sat down to watch the finals of the ACC basketball tournament, a game featuring North Carolina State (which would win the NCAA championships that year in dramatic fashion against heavily-favored Houston) and Ralph Sampson’s University of Virginia Cavaliers. From what I hear, it was a very exciting game, an ACC classic.

However, I never got to watch it because my oldest daughter, Leah, who was about 40 days short of six years old, just before the tip-off asked me to take her rock climbing on nearby Lookout Mountain (near Chattanooga, Tennessee). I got up and we drove to an area that is littered with huge boulders, some more than 40 feet high. Leah and I climbed for about two hours and we still talk about that magic time.

Yes, there were some risky places where a fall could have meant injury. No, we didn’t do “technical” climbs or perform the antics of the famous rock climbers. We just did a dad-and-daughter thing and what we did that afternoon was better than watching a thousand ACC championships.

No doubt, a CPS bureaucrat or social worker would have been all over me for “putting your little child in danger.” Yeah, we could have been hurt, no doubt about that. But we took precautions and we did something very important: we helped build our relationships with each other.

Today, Leah is 35, a wife, mother of two, and a very successful person in the work world. She is independent, personable, and a good decision maker. She makes twice what her father makes, and I am not badly-compensated by any means. I’d like to think that our “free-range” afternoon in which we quietly defied the child protection bureaucracy helped contribute to her present situation.

Ultimately, Free-Range Kids is a reminder that our children are not helpless, and that a little bit of adventure for kids (and parents) can be a good thing. My sense is that Lenore’s children are going to be independent, respectful, cooperative, and fun to be around. Why? Because they are learning some important lessons on their own.

William Anderson

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43 Responses to “The Real Meaning of Free-Range Kids”

  1. #1 |  MPH | 

    “My sense is that Lenore’s children are going to be independent, respectful, cooperative, and fun to be around.”

    “Independent” is something that the control freaks in government can’t allow. If your kids grow up to be independent, they might actually decide that there’s a lot of unneeded government sitting around that needs to be discarded.

  2. #2 |  tim | 


    I’m not sure I get your point – the biggest control freaks I know are Conservative “small-government” Republicans.

  3. #3 |  Bones | 

    “I’m not sure I get your point – the biggest control freaks I know are Conservative “small-government” Republicans.”

    Agree completely.

  4. #4 |  William Anderson | 

    Gee, I had no idea that Michelle Obamawas a “Conservative ‘small government’ Republican.”

    One thing I did not address in this post was the utter politicization of our society in which EVERYTHING is classified as “Republican” or “Democrat,” and the two groups demonize everything about the other. Bones and tim have managed to prove that point much better than I could have done in a post.

    Think about your mentality, people. If you insist on seeing everything purely through politicized eyes, then I feel quite sorry for you because you are going to insist that every bad thing that happens is because of a plot by people on the other side of the political fence.

    This is something the ancients once called pathetic, and your posts, folks, are just pathetic. Pathetic.

  5. #5 |  William Anderson | 

    For that matter, Walter Mondale was a Democrat, and Janet Reno, who helped create the hysteria of day care child molestation, also is a Democrat. Ed Jaegels, who promoted the witch hunt in Bakersfield, is a Republican. This is not a political party issue.

    Again, folks, if you cannot look beyond partisan political nonsense, then you really have no business posting on a blog like this which is not a partisan blog. The Daily Kos would be more to your liking, because you can indulge your partisan fantasies there.

  6. #6 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Lenore Skenazy, who runs the site, became famous four years ago because (Horrors!) she let her then-nine-year-old son take the New York City subway home. I remember when it happened because a number of people were shocked and accused Lenore of engaging in child abuse.

    Wanna know what real child abuse is? Child abuse is racking up a huge debt (and openly and aggressively advocating even more deficit spending) and then leaving the problem to children who have no say in the matter and who may not even be born yet. THAT’S fucking child abuse. You can’t tell me that anyone willing to do that is concerned in the least about justice or the welfare of children.

    I know I’m off topic, but that’s what pops into my mind when I hear the term child abuse. I remember seeing the story about Lenore on the news and I knew immediately that I was going to like her.

    America has become the land of competing hysterias, none of which do anything to improve the well being of ordinary people or protect them from danger. They are just a new incarnation of the lynch mob.

    **Disclaimer for the lame brained: I am not claiming that physical child abuse doesn’t occur nor am I advocating parental recklessness.

  7. #7 |  Mairead | 

    I’m 72. As a girl I walked or rode my bike everywhere. I did get thoroughly lost once at age 10 and had to tearfully ask a traffic cop for help. But I was otherwise quite self-sufficient. I explored caves, had fun getting acquainted with crawfish and turtles in the river (which river I more than once crossed over under the bridge, on the maintenance catwalk which was just wooden planks with an easy 50-ft drop to the river. I studiously watched where I was putting my feet), went swimming at the local lake in summer, knew the location and stock of every branch library in the city, and generally felt my childhood freedom was a blessing.

    But I’m working-class, and grew up in poverty, disorder, and, too often, foster homes; my freedom was all I had.

    Low-end working-class parents, even if present, don’t have the luxury of constantly monitoring their children. That’s a class distinction — it says that the family has a big enough income from the father that the mother can spend her time at home making sure her kids are made neurotic and fat by never being unsupervised. It’s terrible for her and worse for the kids, and the only payoff is that they and she will stay out of the clutches of Authority (unless her kids become too fat or neurotic).

  8. #8 |  TomG | 

    When I was between 6 and 8, our family lived in England for awhile. My brother and I explored several castles with our parents, got to see Stonehenge with no barriers, and visited Lands End when it was still just grass…nothing to prevent a careless fall except attentive parents. It was a great time.

  9. #9 |  Bramblyspam | 

    A minor gripe of mine… when Radley has guest bloggers who don’t sign their pieces, it’s impossible to tell who wrote ’em!

  10. #10 |  Or gone | 

    Sometimes bureaucrats go too far, so that is why we shouldn’t have any laws or agencies to protect children.

    I see.

  11. #11 |  Not Sure | 

    “Sometimes bureaucrats go too far, so that is why we shouldn’t have any laws or agencies to protect children.

    I see.”

    With all due respect, no- you don’t.

  12. #12 |  Dr Duck | 

    @9 — Did the post you read not have this boxed at the end?

    “This entry was posted on Saturday, September 1st, 2012 at 10:23 am by William Anderson and is filed under Nanny State. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. “

  13. #13 |  En Passant | 

    #9 | Bramblyspam wrote September 1st, 2012 at 12:17 pm:

    A minor gripe of mine… when Radley has guest bloggers who don’t sign their pieces, it’s impossible to tell who wrote ‘em!

    At least if you don’t read down deep in the comments and find the author’s confession. That’s not fair to slow readers, or people with attention deficits, or even to defenseless kids who haven’t developed enough patience to find out. Or me. Damnit!

    I say we lobby Congress to pass a law to require it. Or maybe find some office in the Department of, well Education, or maybe the FTC, or the FCC, or somebody anyhow, to make a regulation punishing the omission with some jail time.

    It would prevent random violence too. If the government had a law, we poor downtrodden readers wouldn’t be tempted to form roving gangs to assault random people named William Anderson and pound them with cluebats.

    Be sure to try the veal. And don’t forget to tip your waitperson.

  14. #14 |  En Passant | 

    #12 | Dr Duck wrote September 1st, 2012 at 1:00 pm:

    @9 — Did the post you read not have this boxed at the end?

    I’m not #9, but that message doesn’t appear on the main page, only on the individual post link.

    And the font size is too small for old people to see. That’s another reason regulation is desperately needed — to save the lives endangered when people have to wander through their house half blind looking for their eyeglasses.

  15. #15 |  En Passant | 

    #7 | Mairead wrote September 1st, 2012 at 12:00 pm:

    I’m 72. As a girl I walked or rode my bike everywhere.

    I’m not many years younger. But even when we were kids, the trend toward helicopter parents with overactive imaginations had begun.

    In fact, in 1957 Robert Paul Smith wrote a best-seller about growing up a generation before that, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing.

    I’m surprised that some government bureaucrat hasn’t tried to ban it yet.

  16. #16 |  a_random_guy | 

    I do think some posters deceive themselves about the politics. You cannot blame this on the Democrats or on the Republicans, because they are two faces of the same coin. The Republicans want to control you for your own good, whereas the Democrats want to control you for society’s good. Either way, it’s all about government control of individual choices. Does it matter why the government takes your freedom away? Either way it’s gone…

    The most distressing thing is that this is all done with our full permission and encouragement. If any significant portion of the population really, truly objected to helicopter parenting, government nannyism and zero tolerance school administrators, it would stop. Unfortunately, the Free Range Kids movement is a tiny drop in a desert; there are just too few of us. Read the article about the woman walking her child to school, at the school crossing where the police don’t bother to enforce the speed limit. Her child is apparently the only child walking to school, since she describes the crossing as leading to the main school entrance! Every other parent is stuffing their kid on the bus or, worse, driving them personally to school.

  17. #17 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    En Passant,

    If you liked WHERE DID YOU GO?, may I strongly suggest that you dig up CRANK and TRANSLATIONS FROM THE ENGLISH by the same hand? He also wrote a classic article titles LET YOUR KIDS ALONE in one of the June 1961(I think) issues of Life that’s worth seeing if you can fine. I ran into it because my high school had many bound volumes of the magazine.

    For General Disputation; The stereotypical Republican Right is supposed to be much exercised over who you sleep with and whether you practice birth control or get an abortion. Frankly, I don’t really see much evidence of this. They do object to redefining the word “Marriage” to mean roommates who occasionally screw, and those that believe that a fetus is human object to infanticide. I don’t agree with either bunch, but feel that the Left is less than forthright when it characterizes them.

    The stereotypical Democrat Left is supposed to be greatly in favor of all kinds of business regulation and, lately, to be invasively concerned with peoples’ diet. I see a good deal more evidence for this caricature, but it is a caricature.

    However, there are buttinskis all over the political spectrum raging from the Westboro Bab-tists to Mayor Bloomberg. They all strike me as having the moral stature of pond scum.

  18. #18 |  Mattocracy | 

    A gripe of mine. When people ask the question ‘why?’ in something they write then go on to answer this question. Asking ‘why’ for yourself is completely unnecessary. Just say what you think.

  19. #19 |  Henry Bowman | 

    Great article. In the future, be aware that “none” is singular, not plural.

  20. #20 |  derfel cadarn | 

    I feel deep sorrow for todays children, without people Lenore and FRKs children will have no adventure and will miss the majority of the needed requirements to growup. Look around you at a lot of the people you know and ask yourself are they adults ? Think about it the answer will surprise you.

  21. #21 |  Jake | 

    Bravo to Lenore and William, both of whom make important contributions to good sense and liberty.

  22. #22 |  Blaze Miskulin | 

    @ 19

    “be aware that “none” is singular, not plural.”

    Not correct. “None” is quite frequently plural–and correctly so.

  23. #23 |  Kant | 

    I do have one considerable disagreement. with the post. the idea that putting experts in charge should be written off as “(unfortunate) endurance of the Progressive belief”. The idea that we shouldn’t want the most qualified people for the job, I find particularly absurd.

    Now I’m not saying the people in charge are the most qualified (or at all qualified). nor do i disagree with the idea that bureaucracies are power hungry machines, or that they do more harm than good. And questioning where government should and shouldn’t have authority is an important conversation to have…

    But in spite of all the harm done in the name of good intentions, and done by bureaucracies trying to justify their existence; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to put the most qualified people in charge. (that also doesn’t mean they should go unquestioned, they absolutely should be questioned)

  24. #24 |  William Anderson | 

    This has nothing to do with wanting “the most qualified people for the job.” First, we ask, “What job?” Second, we ask, “In charge of WHAT?” Third, the notion that some “expert” in Washington should be making decisions that only parents can make, or assuming that people from CPS care more about your child than you do is utterly absurd.

    Bureaucracies are not led by “the most qualified people,” whatever that means. They are led by people who enjoy having power over others. I would wonder if Kant ever has had any encounters with bureaucrats.

  25. #25 |  Over the River | 

    Well, this is all find and good, but will someone please think of the children?

  26. #26 |  Mairead | 

    19 Henry Bowman: In the future, be aware that “none” is singular, not plural.

    Fowler, Modern English Usage, p 394: “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun [none] is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs etc.; the OED explicitly states that plural construction is commoner.

  27. #27 |  Steamed McQueen | 

    Mr. Anderson:

    You best friend growing up was Bill Fries? THE Bill Fries AKA C.W. McCall?

    Now I know why he’s such a good storyteller!

  28. #28 |  Warren Bonesteel | 

    My problem with the author’s opinion is that ‘free range’ kids seem to make a habit of trampling all over my formal garden, throwing trash on my property …and otherwise interfering wth my enjoyment and use of my own property.

    I suppose …that the author assumes good parenting skills on the part of the parents of free range kids is implied in his work? otoh, The assumption that our social contracts are still in good order is less than accurate and bears no resemblance to reality.

    Nostalgia is ok, but we shouldn’t base our assumptions, or social and political philosophies, upon memories of a daydream of better times.

  29. #29 |  William Anderson | 

    This Bill Fries is a musician living in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania.

    As for the last post, we see the non sequitur trotted out time and again. I never wrote about “social contracts” because there is no such thing as a “social contract.” The “social contract” is a contrivance by people in power, created so they can claim that when they engage in massive wealth transfers, the people who are harmed can be told that the harm is done in the name of the “social contract,” which then supposedly legitimates the government’s behavior.

    I’m not sure how the author of that comment is able to draw out a conclusion that I am telling kids to trash someone else’s property. Allowing a child to engage in independent behavior is not the same as telling them to stomp on a neighbor’s flowers.

  30. #30 |  Other Sean | 


    One thing I like about hooligans is they have a great eye for people who’ve lost perspective concerning the importance of yard care.

    Hell, I’m almost 40, but after reading your curmudgeonly comment I’d be more than willing to salt your rose bushes and give you a truly vicious lawn job.

    Have you seen “Up!” yet, because really, you should…soon.

  31. #31 |  kant | 

    #24 | William Anderson | September 2nd, 2012 at 1:53 am

    If you had bothered to read my whole response and not just the first couple of line then reacted, you would have noted that I addressed most of your subsequent response.

    This has nothing to do with wanting “the most qualified people for the job.” First, we ask, “What job?” Second, we ask, “In charge of WHAT?”

    Well your whole post seemed to revolve around the question, how did we get to where we are? What specifically and what generally in our culture lead us to this point of fearing every shadow and every boogieman.

    Generally speaking, I was responding to your criticism of the use of experts as societal leaders. As a culture I was saying when we have to select a person for a job (be it, president, governor, mayor, the head of a bureaucracy) that it should be someone who can properly accomplish the tasks demanded by the job. Yes, unfortunately some bureaucracies are necessary. If that had not been intentional, then the use of scare quotes was unnecessary and you should have said that you disagree with the progressive belief that government should control our lives.

    Third, the notion that some “expert” in Washington should be making decisions that only parents can make, or assuming that people from CPS care more about your child than you do is utterly absurd.

    This isn’t a question of the use of experts but whether or not government (federal or local) has certain authorities. I’ll just point you to the part of my post in which I addressed this

    And questioning where government should and shouldn’t have authority is an important conversation to have

    Bureaucracies are not led by “the most qualified people,” whatever that means. They are led by people who enjoy having power over others.

    Again I’ll just point you to the part of my post where I address this

    Now I’m not saying the people in charge are the most qualified (or at all qualified). nor do i disagree with the idea that bureaucracies are power hungry machines, or that they do more harm than good


    I would wonder if Kant ever has had any encounters with bureaucrats.

    Seriously, Will? are we not keeping things civilized?

  32. #32 |  FWB | 

    Worse, the federal government was given ABSOLUTELY no authority to get involved with such personal actions as rasing families.

    Spend some time. Study the Constitution. ALL that the federal government is allowed to do is explicitly stated. 99% of what our government does is patently ILLEGAL. The feds have almost no authority over individuals. But they do what they do because 99% of the people have no idea of where their authority ends.

    Learn the truth. Quit voting for azoles who violate the Constitution for ANY reason.

    We the People OWN this country. We the People have he legitimate authority.

    In our system of government, contrary to ALL other systems, We the People are in charge and our government only has the power to do what we allow. But We the People are ignorant and let the azoles do much, much more than they are authorized to do.

  33. #33 |  William Anderson | 

    In a society like ours that is dominated by bureaucracy, we come to believe that credentials equal qualifications, and the best way to earn those credentials is perpetually be in formal academic classes. We are working toward a formal degree, such as a doctorate or J.D., working toward an official certification, or engaging in formal and official continuing education.

    Nothing else will suffice, and certainly not real knowledge. In my line of work, I am involved in accreditation, and accrediting agencies care nothing about what an academic official actually does and certainly not how effectively he or she teaches. Instead, qualifications depend solely upon the academic degree, a number of formal hours in a field of study, and publications in peer-reviewed journals.

    Notice that actual knowledge and effectiveness in an area of work mean absolutely nothing in that scheme of things. In the area of official government child protection, a person is given enormous decision-making power, yet the qualifications for assuming that power are tied solely to time one has spent in a classroom or writing formal papers.

    One would think that such activities would ensure better decision-making, but do they? Today, the police are much more “professional” and “better-trained” than they were generations ago, but what do we get out of it? Police brutality is worse, the attitude of police toward citizens is much worse than it was in the days of the beat cop, and police unions and the ties to politicians ensure that cops rarely are held accountable for their wrongful actions. (When there are legal payouts and settlements, the taxpayers are held responsible, not the individuals or organizations that actually engaged in the wrongful behavior.)

    Likewise, we have seen a whole class of “child protection” experts arise, complete with a string of letters after their names showing off their formal training, yet does anyone here really trust CPS at all? Would any reader welcome a visit to one’s home by a CPS worker, who supposedly has all of the proper qualifications for the job?

    What do we mean by expertise for a job? Furthermore, have we even considered that many government positions exist for the sole purpose of intervening in the lives of individuals and families in ways that people on the end of that intervention find to be just plain wrong? No, we prattle on about “qualifications” as though a bunch of letters after a name ensure that decisions made by these people always will be just and right.

  34. #34 |  Other Sean | 


    I remember, back when I was a little kid dying of boredom in a public elementary school, one of my teachers muttering on about the superiority of ancient China as a social system. She said everything there was “based on qualifications”, unlike America where “lucky fools get rich selling pet rocks and Rubik’s cubes.”

    Years later, while reading some book on public choice which gave me my first acquaintance with the concept of rent-seeking, the memory came rushing back and I thought: “So that’s what you had in mind, you nasty, tenured old bitch!”

  35. #35 |  rangerjagc | 

    This is the most on-point article I have read in ages. As a kid, I biked or walked all over town, including a number of miles to my first (underage) job doing odd jobs at a neighbor’s dog kennel. Built a raft to try and float down the Minnesota river. Etc.
    As an adulty, I have defended parents against uber-aggressive “Child Protective Services” in North Carolina courts. Amazing the damage which can be done by a cabal of primarily single or divorced middle-aged women (many of whom, amazingly, did not have children) who clearly know more than anyone else about parenting can do when unleashed on poor parents. Immediate withdrawal of children, obscene and rigorous classes and visits and stupid requirements. Unfortunately, the elected judges often took the easy route of siding against an individual family and with the forces og government. It nearly always set up an unequal and onerous situation which had very little to do with the true welfare of the children.

  36. #36 |  KristenS | 

    I wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint 1974 as the watershed, as I was a very free-range kid in Vermont and I was born in 1972. All of my friends and I were given lots of latitude in how we spent our non-school days. But I wonder if there is a difference between parents’ atitudes in semi-rural/rural environments (like suburban Burlington, VT) and urban environments?

  37. #37 |  Bill Wells | 


    The notion that the American government is a limited government is a myth. Back in 1824, the Supreme Court ruled in Gibbons v Ogden that the powers in the Constitution were to be given the broadest possible interpretation, which effectively nullified the limits the Founders intended. The result is the Leviathan of today. Nothing short of reversing that decision and abandoning its descendents will fix this fundamental flaw in American government.

    In theory, the public could undo the damage….but the pulic is too busy sucking at the government teat to want to.

  38. #38 |  Athena | 

    As a child, I was granted a great (and perfectly reasonable) deal of freedom. I’m turning 30 this week, which put my childhood in, statistically, the most dangerous period for juveniles since we began collecting crime data on a consistent basis.

    In the 80s, stranger-danger and molestation fear campaigns meant that I had a code word (“Snaussages!”) to prevent me from walking off with someone not authorized and a current picture filed with the local school district (I’m not really sure what that was supposed to do). I also had the freedom to play at the park across the street by myself or with friends at the age of 5 (*Gasp!*), ride my bike to a friend’s house roughly a mile away at 6 or 7 and play in the woods at the end of my block to my heart’s content (until they found a couple of dead homeless people in those woods… I had to find somewhere else to play for a while).

    In the 90s, gang violence pushed juvenile homicide rates to the highest we’ve seen. Still, my track record as a responsible child earned me the ability to hop on the bus and go downtown (Seattle) just about every weekend. Did bad things happen? Of course. But they were bad things I survived. More importantly, they were bad things I may not have survived if I didn’t have the judgment my previous freedom allowed me to develop (the lack of unsupervised play is having a quantifiable negative affect on executive function in American children, according to research).

    However, as has been mentioned, helicopter parenting had already taken hold during my youth. Especially on my block, it seemed. The two other families with children my age kept their kids on an insanely short leash. Now that I’ve got a little one of my own, I need only look back at their “transition” to adulthood to remind me of my allegiance to free-range parenting. These kids hit 18 like it was a brick wall. Unfamiliar with freedom prior to legal adulthood, they had no idea what to do with it. Dropping out of school, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancies and a number of other unfortunate choices were made right out of the gate. Two young ladies remain lost to this day. Another took a decade to pull out of her self-destructive spiral. These were good kids from solidly middle-class homes, and I can’t help but believe that the way they were stifled as children created the adults they have become.

    The fact that so many parents today are unwilling to afford their children the freedom they enjoyed as kids breaks my heart. Not just for the joy and adventure these kids will be missing in the near future, but for the disastrous effect it will have on the adults they turn into.

  39. #39 |  ArbutusJoe | 

    A couple of weeks ago, two young women were killed when a train derailed in Ellicott City Maryland, close to where I live. They were killed exactly where me an my older brother used to play on the tracks, climbing around on old rusty box cars, throwing rocks at each other and finding old “torpedos” to set on fire.

    The local news covered these two girls’ death, but they didn’t run a story on the utter joy I had playing down on those tracks, experiencing true freedom…danger and all.

  40. #40 |  Mohammed Chang | 

    My father once took me and my sister sledding at a golf course that had a big hill in the middle and let the public use it for sledding free of charge in the winter. My sister, going down head first, ended up colliding with a kid at the bottom of the hill and needed to get stitches on her lip. The most terrifying part of the whole ordeal was when the woman from child services that was stationed at the hospital pulled us each into a room and drilled us about our father.

    My sister and I both came into the hospital in full outdoor winter garb, having come straight from the sledding hill. It should have been obvious my father was telling the truth, but the woman from child services wasn’t going to let that get in the way of interrogating two school children (for our own benefit, of course).

  41. #41 |  rmehlinger | 

    This is going to be unpopular around here, but here goes: The fact is that despite the stories of prosecutorial and CPS overreach we hear, and that Radley does a great job of bringing to light, child abuse, sexual assault, and rape remain very serious, very large problems in this country. I advise you to take a look at RAINN’s statistics for a very sobering picture: 1 in 6 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and 1 in 33 men, though I would not be surprised to learn that the latter is a substantial underestimate (

    Many of these assaults occur during childhood. The rise of CPS and other bureaucracies aimed at preventing abuse also resulted from a culture of willful ignorance regarding domestic violence that persists to this day. The bureaucrat who interrogated Mohammed Chang and his sister? She probably knew that this wasn’t a case of abuse. And you know what? Her job probably insisted that she could not exercise her own personal judgment on the matter until she’d interviewed them, for three reasons:

    1. As Weber stipulates, bureaucracies aim to be machinelike, and to minimize the unsupervised exercise of personal judgment by their employees, to ensure predictable, uniform results. This is a *feature*, not a bug.

    2. Abusers are crafty, and have power over their victims. They can and do make things look innocent.

    3. As stated, there was (and sadly still is) a culture of looking the other way. People have natural inhibitions in this culture against interfering in others’ “private business”, even when such interference is entirely necessary and justified. Requiring the bureaucrat to conduct the interviews whenever a specific set of circumstances are met, regardless of his/her personal judgment, helps to counteract that culture.

    Again, as Radley has unceasingly pointed out, this system can be and has been abused by overeager prosecutors, vengeful ex-spouses, fame-seekers, ambulance chasers, and fabulists of all stripes. But it exists to counter a very, very real problem, and has had great (though still inadequate) success in doing so.

    A conservative, not a libertarian

  42. #42 |  marie | 

    rmehlinger, I don’t think anyone objects to getting the abusers and rapists off the streets. What I object to is going after people other than that. Plus, the bureaucratic approach you like is what lead to mandatory minimum sentencing. MM and three strikes laws are the justice system’s version of zero tolerance laws. That approach is stupid in the schools, and stupid here, too.

    As for the great success you tout, I’d like to know the ratio of truly bad people to people who just got nailed with a bureaucratic system.

  43. #43 |  Warren | 

    CPS is like alot of other agencies and organizations. At the time of their inception they were badly needed. As they performed their duties, identified problems, addressed those problems, their power grew. Now while there is still a need for their service, it just isn’t as drastic as it once was. So, they stretch and overextend into issues, and create false problems to deal with.

    Yes, CPS needs to be there for the child that is at risk, or is in danger. BUT, CPS should not be redefining the definitions of risk, danger, and abuse to cover normal parenting decisions. Such as walking to school, taking care of a younger sibling, playing in the park, biking the town and so on.

    Parents that have confidence in their children, should not have to fear CPS. Too much power, in the hands of people, that are allowed to use their own judgement.

    Once had CAS, Canada`s version of CPS, show up. My wife`s ex called, because his bio-daughter had told him the dog sleeps with her. He didn`t like that, and this caseworker wanted to open an investigation into the hygeine of the home. CAS thought I would just allow this. I am not a hoop jumper, and informed the lady, `I understand you have a job to do. But it is her dog, her bed, and her choice. No one else`s. If you do not like that, by all means start your investigation. Mind you, you will not be granted access to our home, without a warrant, and a police officer to serve it, and witness your activity in my home.` Never heard another word from them.