Passionate About Providence
and the Moms Who Live Here

Then Versus Now: Free Range Or Zoo?

My daughter asked me to write a post titled “Then Versus Now” about the differences between rearing children today and 30 years ago. 

But the thing is, I don’t think I reared my children much differently. I mean, there were superficial differences. I didn’t ignore my kids using an iPhone; I used a real book. My kids got most of their screen time on an Apple II computer and a real TV.  Car-seats were easier to use. But, the similarities are greater. I worked part-time. I wore my babies. I didn’t plan to co-sleep, but my babies insisted on it. And, of course, the only thing that kept me sane was the occasionally wine afternoon with fellow overwhelmed and incompetent moms. 

No, I think the real  ‘then and now’ divide came a generation earlier. Because, my kids, like me, do not have free-range children. They have zoo children.

Let me explain by telling you a story from my grandmother. With my first baby, I visited her frequently. I was bored and lonely. She cooked, held my baby, and talked. She was a vigorous, pragmatic woman, not much given to emotion. But the day she told me this story, she cried. She cried over something that had happened almost 50 years earlier and had turned out fine. 

The accident, she explained, happened at a church picnic. Guys were playing horseshoes, and my mother, age 6, ran though the game. She was hit in the forehead by a horseshoe. At first she seemed okay. Then her older sisters noticed that she was behaving ‘funny.’ My grandmother and grandfather rushed her to a clinic in Fall River. 

“A rich girl,” my grandmother told me, “had broken an ankle falling off a horse, and a doctor had come there to treat her. And he took care my baby first. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have lived. She had a hole in her skull. The doctor did what he could, and told us to pray that it didn’t get infected. It would be six weeks, he told us, before we would know if she was going to survive.”  

“After that, after the longest 6 weeks in my life,” she continued. “I made her little caps that she always had to wear, until the hole healed.” 

Then, with her next statement, she lost me. 

“I used to worry, a lot, that summer, when she climbed trees, and hung upside down…”

“WHAT?” I cried. “You let her climb trees?! With a hole in her head? How could you do that?!”

At that point, she laughed softly. Her answer seemed to carry a gentle reproach to the nativity of a first-time mother.  

“Honey? How? How could I? Have you ever tried to stop an active 6 year old from climbing trees?”

My mother was a free-range kid. 

You see, my grandmother ran a farm. She cooked, cleaned, and canned vegetables. When her kids got old enough, they were given real responsibilities. They collected eggs, milked cows, weeded, and drove tractors. She couldn’t hover and still feed her children. My own mother followed her mother’s example and didn’t hover either. She had 4 children in 5 years, and worked part-time. We spent our childhood roaming the woods and the fields. At the age of 7, I sometimes watched my younger brothers. 

They were great mothers, fierce, gentle, and affectionate. But, today, if mothers did what they did, someone would call the authorities. 

I, on the other hand, was a conscientious zoo-keeper. I approached my children like I approached my career. I hovered. I read multiple articles. I didn’t let them out without supervision. I limited screen time and never spanked. I introduced new foods a week at a time, in case they had allergies. If I had had a six year old with a hole in her head, I don’t think I would have let her leave the house at all, all summer long, much less hang upside-down in trees.  

I did recognize the contrast with my own childhood, and felt guilty, but not wrong. My generation was acutely aware that children get kidnapped or lost in the woods. They’re run over by cars. They have allergies. They get hurt on playgrounds, even when their mothers aren’t looking at their phones. Please God, we prayed, don’t let anything happen. Don’t let them get hit by a horseshoe. Don’t let them fall out of a tree. If only we are vigilant enough, we can protect them. Probably my grandmother and mother also wished they could have done more. Certainly during the worst 6 weeks of her life, my grandmother would have sold her soul for an effective antibiotic. I’m sure she also wished she could have stopped her 6-year old from climbing trees. free range helicopter parent then versus now Providence Moms Blog

But it did turn out fine in the end. My free-range mother survived the horseshoe and the rest of her childhood. I survived mine. My zoo children survived theirs, and likely never even recognized their loss.


Free range or zoo? I don’t know if I raised my children right. And I don’t know how my children should do it. 

But, fortunately, I’m a grandmother. It’s now, not then, and it’s no longer my call. 

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One Response to Then Versus Now: Free Range Or Zoo?

  1. Alicia Simpson July 6, 2017 at 9:32 am #

    At age 5, I would run to play in the old sand pit. I would cross roads, walk through fields with cows in them and play for an hour or more without any adult supervision whatsoever. Mom could not even see us when we were there.

    One winter when I was about 15 a bunch of us skated up the Palmer river, covering more than a mile of the river (I only broke through the ice twice). My younger brother an I used to ride our bikes for miles when we were 9 or 10.

    Free range, we were quite a bit more than merely free range.

    You were pretty good at climbing trees yourself.