Trust Your Kids: Raise Them Cage-Free!

by Julie Hall at ProgressiveKid

Parents are a jumpy bunch these days. Even before I had my daughter I was troubled by the prevailing attitude among parents that the world has become a place too dangerous to let kids be kids anymore. Popular opinion seems to be that it is now too risky to let children do time-tested things like play outside unsupervised, climb a tree, explore on a bike, or walk to school alone, all things my friends and I enjoyed as kids. Once I became a mother I began to witness first-hand the stifling paranoia among other parents about their kids’ safety and to see the effect it was having on kids. Not surprisingly a new major study by Play England, part of the National Children’s Bureau of Great Britain, found that half of all kids no longer climb trees and 17 percent have been instructed by their parents not to play tag or chase. Although 70 percent of adults reported having had their biggest childhood adventures outside in natural settings, only 29 percent of children have such opportunities today. Depressingly, most children reported having their biggest adventures in playgrounds.

With his 2006 book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv alerted our generation to the alienation of children from nature and the damaging effects of childhoods spent mostly inside, citing obesity, depression, and loss of self-esteem. Likewise, the recent British study points to the importance of risk-taking to “increase the resilience of children,” and “help them make judgments.” Although most parents today had such opportunities for outside play and risk-taking as children themselves, many of them are failing to make the connection between their own vital developmental experiences and their children’s need for the same things.

Why? Media fear-mongering in recent decades has given the public a distorted sense of the dangers of contemporary society. If we believe what we are told by ratings-hungry “news” outlets, human nature has suddenly turned inexplicably bad, predatory perverts are everywhere, and child molestations and abductions are rampant. The fact is that most sexual and physical abusers are family members—not creepy strangers. This is confirmed on the American Psychological Association website. Abduction rates are declining, with most being by family members or other acquaintances of the child. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Justice violent crime against children actually has dropped by nearly half since 1973. Human nature has always been a mix of astonishing cruelty and equally astonishing kindness, dolled out in varying ratios across our species’ population but averaging out to generally benign behavior.

Whether stirred by media hype and/or disconnection from nature and the nature in ourselves, contemporary parental fear is unhealthy for our kids and debilitating for parents. It reflects a fundamental loss of confidence in the general decency of others and, even more sadly, in the capability of our kids. To make matters worse, parental fear over children’s safety often obscures or even supplants our commitment to our children’s broader well-being. Tending to our children’s safety helps keep them out of harm’s way (though there are never guarantees). But simply keeping them out of harm’s way is not enough for kids and, as studies remind us, not even always healthy for them. Rather than focusing obsessively on kids’ safety, tending to their well-being helps give them skills and awareness that they require to be confident, capable people that develop into high-functioning adults.

How we foster the well-being of our children must be answered by each of us, depending on our values and the personalities of our kids. A great place to start is to have more faith in the resiliency of our kids—and ourselves—to bounce back from hurts, mistakes, failures, and false starts. Without such difficulties, there can be little healing, learning, triumph, and success. This kind of faith is really a faith in nature itself. It is a faith in our own animal selves and in the natural cycles of living—struggling and growing, protecting and challenging, exerting and resting, acting and reflecting, falling down and standing up again.

The topic of raising kids free-range, a term used by Lenore Skenazy on her thought-provoking website Free Range Kids, came up recently in an online mother’s forum I belong to. One mother expressed in extreme terms what many were feeling when she said she would “lock and chain” her kids to her because of “perverts on the loose” in a “rabidly changing world.” She called free-range parenting “science fiction.” Unfortunately mothers with such an approach to parenting become a far greater threat to their kids than the world at large. Thanks in part to the often grotesque influence of television and other negative media messages, parents unwittingly make their children helpless, soft, dull, and cynical to boot.

There is no fiercer mama bear than me, but I also know that my daughter requires a reasonable level of freedom to grow and gain the confidence she will need to thrive as an adult. And setting that aside, life is simply so much richer when it is lived fully, with dirty feet and skinned knees. There is nothing sweeter than knowing she is in the raspberry patch out back grazing at will in her bare feet, without anyone to answer to but the universe before her.

Julie Hall is the author of A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids: Understanding Climate Change and What You Can Do About It, a poet, and cofounder of the green online store ProgressiveKid.

©2008 ProgressiveKid


One Response

  1. Last Child in the Woods ––
    Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
    by Richard Louv
    Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
    November 16, 2006

    In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

    But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building “forts”, farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what’s to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

    It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though (“conveniently”) never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, “Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!”, at

    It should also be obvious (but apparently isn’t) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don’t learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building “forts”, mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

    On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: “Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back.” Then he titles his next chapter “Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?” Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are “nature-lovers” and are “just hikers on wheels”. But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It’s not!

    On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one’s health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one’s experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the “civilized” world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I’ve been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can’t remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

    It’s clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


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