Little did my parents know in the 1970s they were on the cutting edge of child-rearing. We were free-range children way before the term became popular.
In case you have somehow not heard of this term, free-range parenting is defined by Wikipedia as “the concept of raising children in the spirit of encouraging them to function independently and with limited parental supervision, in accordance of their age of development and with a reasonable acceptance of realistic personal risks.”
When I was 5 years old my mom would walk me across the highway to our barn and pasture, and I would go get my pony and ride it. According to my mom, I learned how to saddle and bridle my pony by playing with my Johnny West and Thunderbolt action figures.
Neither of my parents knew anything about horses. They just knew they had a 5-year-old who screamed “I want a pony!” until they gave in and got her one.
They could have freaked out and not let my ride the pony unsupervised (Mom did watch from the window). There were numerous ways I could have easily died. I did have to wait at the highway’s edge for my mom to come back out and make sure I got across the road okay.
But, the year I turned 5 we moved to a road that only had four houses on it and wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. After that, my parents didn’t have to worry much about us getting hit by cars. Our deaf white cat lived to be a ripe old age, and he always lay in the middle of the road sunning himself.
Once we moved to that farm, my brothers and I roamed extensively. We explored hundreds of acres of woods and farmland. It didn’t all belong to us, but in those years our neighbors never cared if we were in their woods, as long as we behaved and didn’t find all of the mushrooms during mushroom-hunting season.
I graduated from my pony to a horse, and the world was my oyster (or so I thought). I rode that horse for miles. I had no cell phone. Had something happened, no one would have known where I was.
The good news was that I would have been hard-pressed not to find a house where the people didn’t know me, if something did happen. And since there weren’t cell phones I always knew our home phone number.
I often went fishing in a huge lake several miles from our house. I would tie my horse up while I fished. One day I came back and the horse was gone. I hiked home and the horse was in the pasture.
Mom hadn’t even noticed the horse was in the pasture, which I guess is a good thing, as otherwise she would have worried about me.
When I was in sixth grade I could walk from my grade school to a small store a few blocks away, as long as I had a note from my parents. My friends and I would go during recess and stock up on tiny plastic bottles filled with colored flavored water and dots of candy on waxed paper. We had to cross a railroad track and a busy intersection to get to the store.
My parents’ rules were simple: be home by supper, be polite to our neighbors, don’t mess with things that weren’t ours, don’t talk to strangers (if only four homes are on your road, a stranger would really stand out) and don’t do anything that would make anyone have to call our folks – because, boy, would we be in trouble.
I know my parents had a vague idea where we were at all times. And I do know they worried.
One winter I fell through the ice out on that lake. Luckily, I was close to shore and my brother, Andy, was with me and was able to pull me out. Andy immediately went to a neighbor’s house and got me help and the neighbor took me home.
My mom went white as a sheet when she found out what happened. I was immediately placed in a bathtub filled with hot water while Mom cried, which made me cry, even though it hadn’t seemed that scary until then.
To this day I won’t go out on ice on a pond or a lake. I don’t care how safe someone thinks it is; I remember falling in and, thinking back on it, I know my outcome could have been tragic.
Still, I’m glad I grew up the way I did. I would not have changed those experiences for anything, and I attribute them to being a self-reliant person today.