The Free Range (Parenting) Distinction – WILDER ONES

This Story was submitted to WILDER CHILD by Brendon Tomasi

In a time before live media broadcasts and video games, everyone was raised free range.   Our parents were all raised free range – it was the only way of being raised.  It was the good ole days of riding a bike to the park, to a friend’s house or the store when penny candy was only a penny.  You could build forts, scrape legs and be pre exposed to a slew of forbidden activities without anyone being sued, just as long as you were back by dusk.

In agriculture the term ‘free range’ describes the conscious effort to return to raising livestock under pre-industrial conditions.  The philosophy rails against the confinement of factory farming made possible by vitamin A and D supplement implementation in the 1920s (fun fact).    Free range parenting on the other hand has only been an official movement since 2008.   In similar fashion, free range parenting is the conscious rebellion against children living their entire life indoors.  Recent generations have experienced major cultural influences that changed the way we parent.  Shouldn’t we seek to raise our children with the fullest toolkit to decide for themselves which attributes to hold on to, let go of and which to consciously revive and reimagine for the life they wish to share?  You may still be wondering; why must we distinguish free range parenting from…. Parenting?  In order to do this, we are going to have to confront some inconvenient truths about our culture.

The Free Range (Parenting) Distinction - WILDER CHILDLike most cultural shifts, there are few discrete quick and easy answers.  I begin my examination in the 1920’s with Edward Bernays who worked on the Committee for Public Information for Woodrow Wilson and became known as the “father of public relations.”   He personified the most base human desires (sex and fear – using his uncle Sigmund Freud’s cutting edge psycho-analytical theories) to engineer consumer consent and manufacture demand.  He suggested that the media could be used as a tool to keep people afraid and entertained so that they would be easy to control.  Orson Welles’ 1938 staged radio broadcast called “The War of the Worlds” tested the credulity of the public and the media’s influence on them.  It is unclear whether Welles was purporting propaganda or rebelling against it.  He succeeded in momentarily rousing the public of believing everything heard on the radio.  After the streets were cleared, it was business as usual, it seemed there was no lesson learned.

By the 1960s, 90% of American households owned televisions.  Media was supposed to bring us closer to the news, but inevitably brought us further from it.   Using Neilson ratings and polling techniques to gauge public interest, networks identified their target market and focused their aim.  Daytime timeslots were explicitly marketed to white suburban stay-at-home mothers and were inundated with soap operas and sensationalized stories.  No crime pulls the heart strings of mothers more than child abductions.  In spite of only 7% ( of child abductions perpetrated by strangers, these stories generated moral panic throughout households and was coined “stranger danger.”  The constant coverage of the horrific kidnapping and murders of Etan Patz (1979) and Adam Walsh (1981) solidified the media’s role in convincing parents “this could happen to you,” “do you know where your children are?”  Etan’s face started the trend of appearing on milk cartons to raise awareness and bring these stories into our households.  Adam’s father, John Walsh, became the host of the FOX network’s America’s Most Wanted.   The show did great work to help reunite children with their families but societal pressure to hover over children lest the parent be accused of neglect emerged.
At the same time, the rise in technology brought video gaming systems to households.  In 1977 Atari hit the market and Nintendo in 1983, which sold more than 90 million consoles combined.  Video games kept children indoors while continuously engaging their decreasing attention span.  Parents knew their kids should be outside playing, but they knew their kids were safe, they knew their kids weren’t causing any trouble and they were protected from the sue-happy nation we were becoming.

The external (outdoor) motivator being the fear of abduction pushed to keep children indoors while the internal (indoor) force of technology pulled children to stay indoors.  The combination of external and internal factors work to solidify this new species of indoor child we see with the millennials.  This synthesis is the foundational principle to catalyze change.
The push/pull synthesis of forces doesn’t end here.  Further setting children indoors was the rising inflation beginning in the 1970’s that pushed mothers to leave the households for a paycheck.  At the same time the ‘quiet revolution’ of the suffragette movement pulled women out of households by encouraging them to pursue college and careers of their own.  These factors worked together to pull mothers out of the household, leading to the absurd question of “How can I hover my child if I have to work?”

The unfortunate result was hot dogs and TV dinners.  Microwaves prepared the food and TVs nursed children to sleep.  From the time children returned to an empty home from school they feed their technology addiction, maybe spend a short time with other family members for dinner, maybe not and then return to their technology – a stark contrast to the description of a day in the life of a child a few generations ago, as described a few paragraphs ago.

What we have lost and what we stand to preserve by giving our children the freedom to explore the natural world around them is an intelligence both intuitive and rational.  Without being told what to learn, natural inquiry guides children and adults alike.  Every stone and tree branch is a tactile teacher about our environment.  Discovering how individual parts of an ecosystem work together to benefit the all becomes evident and imbues humility, respect and self-reflection on every level.  Whether our cells work together in our body, individual humans make up the community or humans as a whole to benefit the ecosystem.   With little guidance from adults (and the assistance from google) a child’s inquiry becomes a skillset whether it is learning plant species, animal tracking, the formation of landmasses, and foraging for food.   The ensuing gratitude compels us as Stewards of that which provided the very opportunity for us to exist – that is why nature has always been considered the great mother and regaining that connection with our mother is everything we stand to gain from raising our children in nature.


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