IN THE ARLINGTON middle school cafeteria, Michael Thompson asks if anyone wants to share their sweetest memory from childhood. I raise my hand and tell the group how, when I was eight, my friends and I discovered a frozen pond way back in the woods. We raced home to get our ice skates and laced them up in the hollowed-out trunk of a towering tree. And then, accompanied only by the sounds of our voices, laughter, and the scratching of our blades, we skimmed the ice, unsupervised, for hours. “Why,” Thompson asks me in front of all the parents, “is that memory so sweet?” Without thinking, I say, “Because my parents didn’t know where I was.” “Your parents didn’t know where you were. So that experience was wholly your own,” he says. Then: “Would you let your own children do that?” “I don’t even let my kids out of the house,” I blurt.She's just kidding about that last part, but makes a free-range kids argument you hear more and more lately.
But what calling up my sweetest memory made me realize is that while today’s middle- and upper-middle-class children have an unprecedented array of opportunities, their experiences are often manufactured by us.Of course almost all of us were free-range kids when I grew up. Growing up in suburban northern California several of us played in an abandoned field that nature had reclaimed with oak trees and blackberries. Southwest of the field was an old olive orchard that had been similarly reclaimed. This plot had not seen human intervention in decades. Huge trees and cattails had grown in a swampy area in the middle and the olive trees kept growing wildly in their grid, with nature filling in with whatever kind of vegetation nature wanted to grow there. A creek, complete with toads, bullfrogs, minnows and dragonflies separated the two acreages. We built forts, raced our bikes, shot bb guns in the field and the orchard. Of course our parents made rules to follow on where we went, how far, when to return and reporting where we were. And we pretty much got our asses kicked if we didn't follow the rules. But our parents thought nothing of our unstructured activities. It was considered completely normal. There was no such thing as extra curricular activities to help us get in the right college. Kids didn't have resumes in those days. We were also allowed to go on hikes to explore other undeveloped land. We'd have to follow busy streets for a mile or two to get to the other areas. No one ever even broke a bone, no one was kidnapped or killed. Nothing more serious than cuts and bruises from dirt-clod fights.