'Free-Range Kids'. I don't know about anybody else, but to me the term sounds slightly sinister. I can't help thinking of chickens, piglets and lambs skipping their heedless lives out in sunlit pastures while waiting for their hideous -if humane -end on someone's table. Of course, if you've read Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals, you'll take my romantic notion about what `free-range' means with a sack of salt. But this is not about food.
I first heard the term `free-range kids' a month or so ago, when I was resentfully wiping off cycle chain grease from my hands. I had driven my son and his cycle to his friend's place. (I have been resigned for some time now to driving him around if I wanted him to have any friends at all.) Though these friends stay reasonably close by, I didn't consider it safe for him to cycle there by himself. Hence my annoyance at having to chauffeur the kid and his mode of transport around.
I was also being contrary. ``When I was young,'' I began, aware that I was sounding like every detestable adult I knew when I was a kid, ``we didn't have our parents hovering over us all the time and telling us to be careful.'' My friend nodded sympathetically, and handed me a rag on which to wipe my greasy hands. Then he threw out the phrases ``helicopter parent'' and ``free-range kids.'' And he told me about the concept.
It's the title of a book by American writer Lenore Skenazy. The term describes her approach to a specific kind of hands-off parenting. Working on the premise that the world is no more dangerous than it was when we were growing up, Skenazy suggests that what has changed is our perception of it as being less safe for children than it actually is. This is how she let her son be a free-range kid: she left him -then a nine-year-old -at Bloomingdales, gave him money and told him to take the subway back home. Alone. America was horrified. Other parents thought she was being irresponsible.
It is true that we allow our children less space than we ourselves had. In 2008, in an article in the Daily Mail titled `How children lost the right to roam in four generations', David Derbyshire wrote about the members of one family in Sheffield in the UK. He discovered that in 1926, while the oldest member of the family, then age eight, was allowed to walk six miles to go fishing, the youngest member, in 2007, also eight, was only allowed out 300 yards without supervision.
In my time, I would have cycled the distance I had driven my son, but I wouldn't and still won't -let him do the same. He goes for music lessons to a place nearby and I drive him there and back.
Could I bring myself to let my son walk to his music lesson, allowing him to take the time out to explore his surroundings -which, for what it's worth, consists of overflowing drains, potholes, traffic and a few shops along a very busy main road -and become a confident and self-reliant child in the process?
I suspect not. I certainly want him to become a self-reliant young person, but sending him out alone to walk or cycle on Hyderabad roads is more likely to turn him into a gibbering wreck of a human being.
I could be wrong. I suspect I am. What if I taught him to take buses, to ask for and remember directions, to use a public phone? What better way to teach him to live in a city than to allow him to navigate it on his own instead of protecting him from it as if it were a temporary residence we'd leave behind us some day?
Suspicion and fear take root easily enough. The ways in which cities have changed are evidence of it -gated communities, extra security and the ghettoisation of once-mixed localities. Anyone who makes a case for resisting this tendency to fear everything in order to be safe is worth listening to. Besides, I don't want to be a helicopter parent.
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)