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Growing up a free range kid and living to tell about it
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

I confess. I was a free range kid.

I was allowed to roam a four block area of our immediate neighborhood in Roseville as a 5-year-old that included Dry Creek and its adjoining floodplain although I had to tell my mom where I was going.

By the second week of kindergarten I was walking 12 blocks to - and then from - Cirby School that including crossing busy Douglas Boulevard with the help of a crossing guard.

After we moved to Lincoln, the one-way walk as a second-grader stretched to 15 blocks including crossing an even busier Highway 65 that had extensive truck traffic as well as the Southern Pacific Railroad main line that headed north out of Roseville.

I learned to ride a bicycle without a helmet and later as an eighth-grader pedaled around the narrow foothill roads east of Lincoln without a helmet as well. Most of that time I was by myself ending up seven miles from home while collecting aluminum cans and glass beer bottles to earn cash before turning back.

In the summer growing up we could stay out until dusk started giving way to darkness. It also was okay to walk six blocks to McBean Park to the swimming pool, Little League field or the playground solo even though to get there it meant crossing McBean Park Drive that doubled as Highway 193 that had a logging truck whiz by at least once every 10 minutes in the summer.

We even played with toy guns and - when needed - improvised by using our imagination to turn a finger into a Colt .45.

As a 10-year-old I was often left alone at home to take care of my 2-year-old sister.

On top of that I had chores, had to earn my own money for my clothes starting at age 14, and spent most of my childhood when I had free time in unstructured activities either by myself or with friends.

Now all of that would be considered child neglect or even child abuse. It would be more than enough to send my mother away for 20 years in prison in today's world. As for the finger-as-gun routine it would have gotten me locked up as a juvenile delinquent or - if stupid enough to point a "loaded" finger at recess - kicked out of school.

Today walking to school is becoming less and less common while rare are spontaneous gatherings of kids who may simply walk down the street looking for another kid to play with as parents either prohibit such "dangerous activity" or they only allow their kids to come in contact with other kids in organized activities or during supervised play dates.

Roaming the neighborhood under any circumstance today is looked upon by some as a reckless act that could trigger calls to Child Protection Services.

And we wonder why kids get so hooked on electronic devices and prefer texting over face-to-face communication.

A year ago this month parents were investigated by CPS after allowing their 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son to walk a mile to their neighborhood park in Silver Spring, Md. Concerned neighbors called police who said the kids told them their mother allowed them to walk around the neighborhood unsupervised.

The siblings' mother Danielle Meitiv who works as a climate scientist, told the Washington Post after the CPS launched an investigation into their fitness as parents, "The world is actually safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had - basically an old-fashioned childhood. I think it's absolutely critical for their development - to learn responsibility, to experience the world and to gain confidence and competency."

The mother who coined the term "free range kids" with the book published by the same name was splashed across New York City newspaper headlines when she allowed her son to ride the subway alone at age 9.

Lenore Skenazym, who hosts Disney channel's "World's Worst Mom" TV show, was quoted earlier this year noting, "Thanks to a crime rate that is the lowest in 40 to 50 years, our kids today are actually more safe than when we ran around as kids, yet no one arrested our parents for letting us play. It's the new belief that ‘if a child in not 100 percent supervised, get is 100 percent in danger' that is driving this corrosive, crazy idea that kids cannot do anything on their own. What's more, the idea that the state cares more about our kids than we do is bizarre. Yes, I do want the state to step in in cases of starving, beating or pimping out kids - but not when there's an issue of ‘tsk, tsk'."

Skenazym noted a number of parents "shove fear down their (kids') throats at every juncture."

Reasonable fear can be healthy. It keeps us from playing chicken on the freeway.

But when fear is all consuming it can paralyze us.

Raising a kid to live in fear without a chance to build independence or take chances to learn new things on their own certainly does little to help them grow into secure and confident adults.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.