Unless you’re still hibernating, you’ve probably heard the story about the boy, 10, and his sister, 6, who the police picked up in Silver Spring, Maryland, because they were too young to be walking home from a park. The kids’ parents had told them to be home by 6 p.m. Between being held up by the cops and Child Protective Services, those kids didn’t reunite with their parents until 10:30 p.m.
This got me to thinking about the way my parents raised me, in the days before the government became involved with child rearing.
My two younger brothers and I were born and raised in Sedro-Woolley, a town of maybe 3,000 in western Washington. All three of us graduated from Sedro-Woolley High School. We were “townies,” although I never felt like one, probably because we lived within easy walking or bike-riding range of woods and farms.
Things were a little different then. Many of the locals had never left the state, let alone the country. We knew almost everyone we saw, if not by name, at least by sight. For the first few years of my life, Mom’s parents and Dad’s parents were all alive, living only a mile or so from our house. Either church or family figured into most of our activities.
I grew up in what would now be considered a sheltered environment. There was little crime. This was before television and computers, so we played outdoors a lot. Even though our house was on a corner lot, and the main street into town was so close that a log truck rumbling past would shake the house, I can’t remember my folks being outwardly worried about us playing outdoors. They simply warned us about playing near the road, and turned us loose.
Our back yard provided all kinds of outdoor adventures. We were free to dig and build whatever our fertile minds could dream up. During one weeks-long rainstorm, we built a huge raft, using every nail and scrap of wood within dragging-home distance. When the expected Great Flood didn’t come, Dad told us to take it all apart and put back where we had found it.
At an early age, we learned the rewards of cooperation and self reliance. Both Mom and Dad had been raised in the country, and I think they raised us the way they’d been raised. We were given chores, but after finishing those, we were free to do pretty much as we pleased.
It wasn’t long before we were venturing away from home, into nearby vacant lots and “wilderness” areas. At an early age, I was walking a mile on the railroad tracks to fish for trout in the Skagit River.
From about second grade on, my brothers and I walked 11 blocks to school, rain or shine, as did most townies. Country kids rode to school in a bus, but I didn’t envy them. Walking was always interesting, and often an adventure. Nothing much escaped our notice.
While taking a shortcut through an alley one day, I saw my first real fist fight, two drunks going at it behind a tavern. Bloody, violent and senseless, that fight left an impression. All my life, I’ve avoided fighting.
I suppose my folks would be called “free-range” parents because of the freedom they gave us, but we weren’t truly free.
We always had to be home by supper time, when Dad came home from work. We were allowed to go out at night, as long as we told them where we were going and when we’d be back.
Over the years, we earned our parents’ trust. After earning that trust, they gave us more freedom.
Because I was given so much freedom as a child, because I was allowed to learn life’s lessons on my own, I’ve always felt a strong urge to pull against any reins that I felt were unnecessarily tight. I think this is why I resent seemingly foolish rules and regulations.
Freedom was one of many things my parents gave me. Looking back, I wonder if they had any idea of how much that gift would affect my life. A feeling of freedom is one of the main reasons I live in Alaska.
I only wish Mom and Dad were still alive, so I could tell them how much I appreciate what they did. And more to the point, what they didn’t do.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.