Confessions Of A Free-Range Parent

How a letter to Santa—and a visit from the department of child services—reinforced my approach.

Illustration by Gary Musgrave

My son Raymond awoke on that early-December day last year with one thing on his mind: Christmas booty. Dressing himself in a pair of sweatpants, a plaid wool coat, and sneakers, the 9-year-old set off on foot for the Noblesville courthouse square. It was a five-block walk to the black mailbox that appears there every holiday season for direct delivery to the North Pole. My husband, Bill, and I had told Ray he could take his wish list to the mailbox before school. Our son was in the fourth grade, young enough to believe in flying reindeer but old enough to have earned the freedom to walk the neighborhood by himself.

Around 7 a.m., Bill was leaving for work, I was getting back from a run, and Ray had returned home from his mission.

“How was it, Ray?” Bill asked.

“Good,” Ray said, teeth chattering and eyes wide. It was so good, in fact, that he wanted to go back to see if the envelope had already been picked up and magically transported north. I acquiesced, but asked him to make it quick—we had to leave for school soon. He hopped down the porch steps and out into the dark, cold morning. Meanwhile, I headed into the house to wake up Ray’s little brother, Leo.

Ten minutes later, Ray came through the kitchen door, out of breath and with a story tell. “I met a grandmother,” he said. On his return, when he was about two blocks away from home, a woman driving in the alley that runs behind our house stopped her car and got out, asking Ray who he was and what he was doing. “I told her my name is Ray Kenley and I’m going home,” he said to me. She informed my son that she had 12 grandchildren, handed him a small flashlight, and then walked him to the edge of our property. Short, with a round face and floppy curls, Ray looks young for his age, so I understood her concern, but didn’t give the encounter a second thought.

I was hurrying through a shower to get back on schedule with the kids when Leo reported that someone was knocking on the front door. The grandmother, I thought. I turned off the water, pulled a bathrobe around my dripping body, and headed downstairs, Ray at my heels. There was no one at the door, but a Noblesville Police Department SUV was parked out front. I unlocked the front door, gave a friendly wave from our porch, and a police officer approached the house.

“I’ve been knocking on your door,” she said.

I looked down at my bathrobe. “I was in the shower, and we’re getting ready for school,” I told her.

The officer told me that the police department had received a call about a little boy wandering around town by himself. I glanced down at Ray standing to my left.

“I was checking on my letter to Santa,” he explained.

I filled in the details, clarifying that my husband and I had given Ray permission to walk to Santa’s mailbox that morning. We’ve lived in this house for eight years, we know our neighbors, and walk to town all the time, I told her. Ray had permission. Old-town Noblesville—what locals here call the downtown area—is basically a modern-day Mayberry, but still the officer seemed flummoxed.

“We don’t get a lot of reports of little kids roaming around downtown in the dark,” she said.

He wasn’t roaming, I thought. He had a destination—and it certainly wasn’t the back of a milk carton. I told the officer that one of Ray’s jobs was to walk our dog, Ruby, and I asked if she thought he shouldn’t be allowed to walk the dog by himself. She backpedaled a bit, perhaps seeing the gray area, and then looked straight into Ray’s eyes.

“There are just a lot of bad people around,” she said.

Flashes of “bad people” drifted through my mind: Hitler, Osama bin Laden, whoever invented those automatic toilets that always flush when I’m still doing my business. None of those folks seemed like imminent threats. I needed to know more, but asking about the bad people seemed like a bad idea. Plus, who knew? Maybe the officer thought she was talking to one—the puzzled-looking, wet-haired woman standing on her porch in the winter wearing a bathrobe.

We parted without further incident. But, a few days later, I found the answer to my question wedged between the front door and its frame: a business card that read Family Case Manager, Hamilton County Office, Indiana Department of Child Services.

After I got over the horror and my husband his shock (“We’re moving,” he announced), we called the number on the card to set up a time for the case manager to visit the following week. Over the next few days, I thought hard about what had happened and how I felt, basically telling anyone and everyone I encountered. Perhaps that’s not what you’re supposed to do when you’re about to get a visit from DCS, but it was suddenly my new cocktail-party story. And, for the most part, I got the responses that I craved:

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Granny should mind her own business.”

“It’s the culture of fear.”

“So, what are you getting Ray for Christmas?”

Others, though, probed to the point where suspicion usurped support with questions, some worthy of a seasoned prosecutor:

“Was it still dark outside?”

“How cold was it?”

“How far did he have to walk?”

“I wouldn’t have let my 9-year-old go to town by himself, but that’s fine that you did.”

The more often I told the story, the more I began to look at the situation from all angles. I wasn’t angry that a stranger approached my child and inserted herself in his business or that the police officer suggested that my parenting methods were unusual and, perhaps, reckless. What upset me was that both women seemed to see the worst in my neighbors and me. Even though Ray told her he was close to home, the grandmother called the police to follow up on what she must have considered an unsafe family situation. And worse, the police officer told my son that people in his neighborhood are bad. Was that supposed to scare him into believing that strangers are out to get him so that he would be safer? Is a scared kid a well-adjusted, happy kid?

If you want to label me, you could say my husband and I have a free-range parenting style. It’s a thing. It’s even on WebMD, where they describe it as “a new, hands-off approach to raising kids,” although it’s obviously not new at all. As free-range parents, we allow our boys  liberty to explore, accept some risk, and learn from their mistakes. It’s closer to how we grew up, before “helicopter parents” began hovering over their fragile children to protect them from anything uncomfortable or unfair in the world. Our parenting direction wasn’t based on the latest trend or research. In fact, we didn’t even discuss it much. It emerged and continues to evolve as the kids get older, based on our values.

I was raised in the country outside the city limits of a small town in Tennessee. I’m the middle child in a family of five. As kids, my brother and I lured our little sister on adventures into the woods to play war, trailed by at least three dogs. My father was a dentist and my mom a homemaker and artist. They were loving and protective, but didn’t hover and didn’t fear strangers. My dad is the kind of guy who would strike up a conversation with a Czechoslovakian opera aficionado named Voy on a flight out of New York and then invite him back to Tennessee to try some country ham. (This actually happened, and they remained friends for years.) Lulls in conversation give my mom hives. The impulse to say hello and assume the best of strangers, including growling dogs, is strong with her. There were no “bad people around” when I was a child.

Bill grew up in Noblesville. His grandparents raised his parents in Noblesville. Bill’s father was the disciplinarian in the family and his mom the nurturer. When Bill was 11, he and his buddies would ride bikes to the White River to fish until past midnight. No one ever called the police on them or their parents. On frigid days, strangers slowed their cars to offer rides to him, his twin brother, and little sister as they walked to elementary school. Unlike his siblings, Bill jumped at the chance for a ride. Refusing the comforts of a heated car didn’t seem very smart to him. After he accepted his third or fourth ride, he learned his lesson, as his typically angelic mom spanked him in the front yard for all the world to see. These days, that mom would be condemned, and I can assure you my mother-in-law lives up to her spotless reputation. These days, the person offering the ride would be labeled a pervert, at the least, and would more likely be reported to the authorities. If an unfamiliar adult offers to help a child, clearly they have bad intentions. 

This modern-day fear of others and assumption that the world is a dangerous place isn’t grounded in anything tangible. In fact, a 2010 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center reported that certain types of abuse cases have been declining since the early 1990s, contrary to what the news and our Facebook feeds suggest. From 1990 to 2007, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse declined 53 percent. From 1993 to 2005, sexual assaults on teenagers decreased by 52 percent. Other crimes against children ages 12 to 17 also declined, including aggravated assault (down 69 percent) and robbery (down 62 percent). While the fear of what a stranger would do to our children if they only had the chance is pervasive, it’s misguided. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of children under age 5 murdered between 1976 and 2005, only 3 percent were killed by strangers. The rest of the victims lost their lives at the hands of people they knew.

While there are heartbreaking, horrendous stories of negligent and abusive parents bringing harm to their children, Bill and I are not those people. Bill has been an English teacher at Noblesville High School, his alma mater, since 1996. He has thrice been voted most influential and inspiring teacher at NHS. Bill is so transparent that he accepts every friend request on Facebook, for all of his students and former students to see. If he needed a character witness to stand up for him in court, people would line up to volunteer.

I cringe at the thought of sounding like a crazy, defensive mom, but I consider myself a citizen in good standing, too. I work as a freelance writer and marketing contractor. I spearhead neighborhood block parties and teach Sunday school. Long-distance trail running is a passion of mine, one I trace back to my youth running around in the woods. I’ve run as far as 100 miles in 29.5 hours, and talk about my ultra races with my kids because I want them to exercise and crave adventure and try things that might scare them—that’s how you grow. When Ray asked to walk to town by himself to deliver his letter to Santa before school, I was heartened by his plan. He had hatched his own little adventure, which, to me, outweighed any potential threats. I would never do anything to put him in danger.

On the evening of our appointment with the DCS case manager, I vacuumed rugs and wiped down counters. I checked the kids’ shirts and faces for stains. We were told it would be only 30 minutes. Ray had been anxious for days, asking me what would happen if Bill and I were found guilty of something. The woman who arrived looked to be in her 20s with long brown hair, casually dressed. Bill, Ray, and I sat at the dining room table, across from an oil painting of the boys, barefoot and giggling, side by side on our porch steps. I found the whole thing interesting, like being a player in some sort of social experiment.

I offered her a drink—water, of course. She declined. She was here to talk to us about the “alleged neglect.” The polite woman continued to move her mouth and make words after that, but I don’t remember what she said. All I heard was that I was being accused of neglect. Call me naïve, but this is the first time I took this process and the potential of being punished seriously. “Neglect” struck me as a grossly severe accusation. According to the State of Indiana, “child neglect results from the inability, refusal, or neglect of parent, guardian, or custodian to supply a child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education or supervision.” Investigations of abuse or neglect conducted by case managers like the woman in our living room may be substantiated or unsubstantiated, with the child’s safety guiding the determination. Families receive services based on the severity of the abuse or neglect, an assessment of the child’s and the family’s needs, and an assessment of the relative safety and risk to the child in the home.

The expectation to do what is right for our children is intense, and most of us heap pressure on ourselves and feel guilt without being judged by others. But there is more than one way to be a good mom or dad.

For the most part, the meeting felt like we were going through the motions as the case manager took notes. Bill and I did most of the talking, unless a question was directed at Ray, like “Do you feel safe in your home?” Leo darted in and out of the room, looking suspicious. (Maybe he had something to hide.) Ray answered in short responses, rehashing the fateful Santa letter incident as best he could. At one point, without any context or prompting, he blurted out, “There’s no abuse here!” I smiled at the case manager like this was all very natural. Did that sound coached? I wondered. Ray warmed up quickly, seeming to enjoy having a rapt audience. As Bill and I bit our collective lip, Ray started speaking freely about how his mom and dad weren’t helicopter parents, how he had freedom and would make mistakes. I told the young woman that he was repeating my words. On the inside, I was very proud of him.

The case manager then pulled out a form titled “Family Support / Community Services Plan.” Parts had already been completed: adult household members, minor household members, and a description of the circumstance (“lack of supervision; neglect”). The bottom section was titled “Safety plan” and was explained as a contract parents and guardians sign to ensure the safety of their child or children. It is not legally binding, the woman told us, but a note on the form states that “Any non-compliance must be reported immediately to the Hamilton Co. Department of Child Services and may result in further action.”

Written in the case manager’s handwriting, the agreement was about parental responsibility, the importance of supervision and safety, which all seemed like reasonable expectations. And then it included the line, “I am willing to make adjustments in my home to prevent my child from exiting the home without my knowledge.” My husband and I looked at each other, knowing what the other was thinking. We are not putting our kids on lockdown in their own home. They are not prisoners, and we don’t want to be prison guards.

We asked the case manager to revise the contract to replace the lockdown line with, “I will ensure I am aware of my child’s whereabouts at all times, and will ensure my children understand the importance of making sure I know where they are.” The interpretation of “whereabouts” seemed slippery enough to suit our free-range tastes.

As we wrapped up the appointment, the woman whispered that she had one more thing to take care of before she left. I led her to the kitchen, where she peeked inside our pantry and opened our refrigerator to make sure we had enough food to feed our children. After she left, we put on our coats and walked to town the five blocks for our annual visit with Santa Claus.

Last summer in Florida, I watched my boys swim in a gray ocean after a long night of heavy storms. Ray and Leo smacked their backs into the giant waves, diving through them, letting them drag their whole bodies under the water and then erupting to the surface. The undertow pulled them fast and hard horizontally down the white beach. Every few minutes, Ray would motion to Leo to come out of the water so they could get back in front of where I stood, so I could keep a close watch. A handful of times, I would wave them in when I felt they were getting a little too bold. Taking a book to the beach is futile when you have two little boys to watch.

“You’re really good at giving your kids freedom,” my little sister said. She sat beside me on a folding chair, pregnant with twins and a toddler at her feet. Her feedback was validating.

I looked up. They were too far out again. Leo was way too far out. I started walking and then running toward them, waving my arms. “Come in! Come in!” I screamed, moving into the water. Ray began swimming toward the beach, but Leo didn’t move. He was just a tiny head bobbing on top of the water. He couldn’t go anywhere. I threw off my hat and sunglasses and swam as fast as I could toward him. Ray saw my panic and went back to Leo, lifting up his 7-year-old brother as best he could. When I made it to Leo, I told Ray to swim directly to the beach. The waves kept coming as I held Leo. I couldn’t touch the bottom of the ocean, and two giant waves took us underwater. I swam hard, telling Leo he was okay and Ray to keep swimming.

When we reached the beach, we sat side by side for a long time and watched the ocean that had so quickly turned dangerous. I told them they were very brave and strong. It was the most terrifying day of my life. Had I been reckless? Did I think my kids were inherently smart enough to stay out of danger? Should I have told them more about rip currents and the threat of drowning? Yes, I should have been more careful. After lunch that afternoon, I retreated to my room and had a long cry out of earshot of my kids.

What Ray and Leo now refer to as “that time we almost drowned” was a dark day in my life as a mother, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to start trying to remove every risk in their lives. That would be impossible, and it wouldn’t help them grow up to be responsible for themselves or, perhaps one day, children of their own.

I still wonder about that grandmother’s and the officer’s motivations, and I wonder what their words and actions say about our society. I believe they meant well. The grandmother likely thought Ray was in a home where his best interests weren’t at heart. She might have considered it her legal obligation to call the police, as any individual who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of neglect must make a report or be subject to a Class B misdemeanor. I imagine the police officer was using her 10 minutes on our porch to attempt to connect with a young boy she believed had never been taught to be wary of strangers. She had her moment, and she was going to make it count: “There are just a lot of bad people around.”

The expectation to do what is right for our children is intense, and most of us heap pressure on ourselves and feel guilt without being judged by others. But there is more than one way to be a good mom or dad. While my brother needed a wooden spoon to his backside every once in a while, all I needed was for my father to say, “I’m disappointed in you.” Parents are good, for the most part, and deserve the benefit of the doubt—especially the free-range kind. And children are not helpless, unless we raise them to be that way.

On Christmas morning, Ray didn’t get the iPhone or cache of Nerf guns he had on his wish list to Santa, but he and Leo did get the Xbox. Now they can avoid reality, contact with actual strangers, and experiencing their own adventures by sitting in front of the TV. At least no one will call the police. But my hope for them is that they won’t be afraid of the real world, so Bill and I will keep on parenting the way we think is best.