Free Range Parenting

I grew up in Bisbee, Arizona, in the Fifties.  In the summer, we kids left the house after breakfast, mostly barefoot, and played outside until it was time to come in for lunch.  We stomped berries from the mulberry tree, we climbed trees, we ate fruit from the trees we climbed, we caught and killed caterpillars.  And we played in the wagon—a non standard Radio Flyer to which our father had affixed an upgraded handle.

We lived on Yuma Trail.  I’m not exactly sure of the exact distance from the top of Necker’s Knob, down Yuma Trail, across Arizona Street, and as far as we could coast up Cole Avenue.  From my comfy chair in our family room in Bellevue, WA, I’m estimating the distance to be somewhere in the neighborhood of three quarters of a mile.  We’d stack four kids in the wagon—bare knees and bare feet included—and fly down the steep grade of the gravel street without a helmet in sight or a care in the world.  And when we got to the bottom, we’d all pile out of the wagon and do it again.  I can assure you that our mothers weren’t outside watching our every move or wringing their hands.  They were too busy working inside.  (My mother canned quarts and quarts of apricots and peaches from our yard every summer.)

This week I heard from a fan writing to me expressing her serious concerns about the shortcomings in Joanna Brady’s parenting skills as demonstrated by scenes from Field of Bones.  She objected to the idea that a five year old was left in a bathtub by himself for an extended period of time.  She was concerned that Joanna went outside to do chores, leaving baby Sage under the watchful eye of nothing but a baby monitor.  And finally she thought is was reprehensible that Joanna went into a house to have a middle of the night conversation with Marliss Shackleford while leaving Sage asleep in her car seat in a locked vehicle in a quiet residential neighborhood.

The words “Different strokes for different folks” were the first ones that came to mind.  Because it turns out I came by my free range parenting skills quite honestly from my mother.

I have no remembrance of this particular occurrence because I was still a baby when a blizzard of massive proportions came through northeastern South Dakota.  We were living on a farm near Twin Brooks.  When the blizzard hit, my father and his brother were taking a load of hogs to market.  They got as far as Summit.  When they couldn’t go any farther, they broke into a local lumberyard so they could keep the hogs from freezing to death overnight.  My two older sisters were at school in a one room schoolhouse a mile or so away.  There the teacher, Wanda Tharp, fired up the wood stove to keep everybody warm and then baked potatoes for the kids to eat.  That left my mother at home with me and with seventeen cows that had to be milked morning and night.

The house had no electricity and was lit by kerosene lamps.  When it came time to do the milking, the snow was so thick that she had to use the clothes line to help guide her to and from the barn.  And did she take me along?  No, she did not.  She left me there in the crib, without a baby monitor in sight.  She told me often enough that when she came back inside, I was screaming bloody murder, but she had done what she had to do.

When I was raising my kids as a single working parent in Seattle, the kids rode the bus (Free Bus Zone) back and forth from the summer program at the YMCA to our condo in the Denny Regrade.  When their grandmother came to visit, she was astonished that my daughter at age eight was able to guide her all around downtown Seattle without missing a trick.  Admittedly that was back in the early eighties.  I’m pretty sure that would not be recommended in this day and age.

So times change.  My mother rode in cars with no seat belts and with a baby on her lap for thousands of miles in which no one came to grief.  Now infants have to ride in infant carriers belted into back seats and far away from the comforting touch of their mothers’ hands.  The babies are probably safer (The federal safety people have declared it to be true, so that must be the case, right?) But how many mothers have been driven to distraction and tears because their disconsolate infants are screeching at them from the back seat?

I will be the first to admit that I was not a perfect mother.  I am STILL not a perfect mother, and those imperfections are like that something which will not be named that always travels downhill.  They leach into the actions and reactions of my characters, often without my even noticing that it’s happened.

I’m glad my readers notice these things and care enough to send their reactions, but remember people, these are fictional characters, and I’m only human.

47 thoughts on “Free Range Parenting

  1. I am so happy you responded about parenting. I completely support your responses, and find it mirrors my own experiences. My Mother’s job, was driving a VW Bus, with wooden benches lined up in the back for children going to private kindergarten, in the late ’50’s. No seat belts, no injuries, no drama.
    Keep writing your wonderful books, and authentic words that warm our hearts with each page. Thank you.

  2. Loved reading Field of Bones. I have lived in AZ for over 40 years. I grew up in Wisconsin playing outside all day long without parental supervision. We were miles away from home at times and had a lake and railroad tracks to play on. I view my childhood as terrific. My parents were hard working and raised us to think, use our heads to figure things out. We all survived and I raised my kids the same way. Keep Joanna Brady doing her thing and raising her kids your way. Thank you.

  3. Thumbs-up to your response. I, too, was raised much like you in FL During Summer vacations my brother and I would get up at dawn, dress in shorts/t-shirts and maybe sandals, grab some saltines…and head out for a day of pure playing…swimming w/friends and our dogs in Lake Sebring, roaming thru the fruit groves, eating fresh pick oranges/grapefruit/guavas/coconuts and arrive back home for a late supper…
    Later in life my children road in cars, standing/sitting with no seat belts or helmets; no worries, no drama…Ahhhhhh for the good ole memories. Thanks

  4. I remember those times too! No car seat for my son who road in the back of the station wagon on a “bed” we built to keep him comfortable. I grew up with no bike helmets, drank from the hose and we never worried about playing outside and went all over town. I know that things have changed and kids today can’t do what we did and I love that you show Joanna is trying her best. Great response to your readers.
    Love your heartfelt stories keep writing them!

  5. Memories of my childhood. We were carefree and, thankfully, safe from government regulations that say we were not safe. Please do not make Joanna a modern day woman.

  6. As someone who grew up in the 50s and early 60s my experiences mirror yours. I remember being a latchkey child at around age 9. My mother was a nurse working shifts and I frequently came home, let myself in, did my homework and started supper before my dad got home around 5:30. We had neighbors who were at home in the event I needed “help” but I was responsible for myself. I think it made me more independent.

  7. I too lived a free range childhood in a small WI town. No helmets as we sailed downhill on our bikes. School closed because of snow and cold? Go out and p,at anyway. No seat belts, playing outside, climbing trees! We made our own fun with our imagination! I read the book and didn’t think anything of leaving the baby inside a locked car or in the house with the monitor. Does that make me a bad mother? My son will soon be 34 and he’d say I did a pretty good job. Sounds like you did, too.

  8. Very well said. I think I’m happy that I had my children in the 70’s & 80’s. With our 24 hour news cycles & instant communications, today’s Mothers are bombarded with visions of natural disasters, mass shootings and tragedies. It’s no wonder they feel their children must be constantly supervised and have their days filled with scheduled events. Looking back,
    we were raised & raised our children in a more relaxed manner in very different times. Today we know more but we also fear more. I think it’s sad.

  9. I am in my mid 50’s and I had a free range childhood. My Dad worked for a guy who had a daughter my age and at 4 years old we had the run of the farm with rules (not that we abide by them all the time). One of our families had a collie dog (I always called it a Lassie dog) that seemed to be our babysitter. The dog seemed to know we were not supposed to go running up and down the feed alley because we would spook the newly arrived cattle. He/she would stand in front of us when we would try to go down the alley and herd us away from there. When it was silage harvest time my Mom would help driving truck in the field. I would get off of the school bus, get my after school snack and go out in the backyard to play or wait for one of the trucks to come in and catch a ride out to the field with one of the drivers (my Dad, his boss, the boss’s son or the other hired hand). The silage pit was outside our backyard so there was usually someone running the tractor and packing the silage down so there was an adult around but not watching every move I made and I learned to watch for the trucks and not be in the way. My Mom also would leave my younger sister and I in the car while going into a store.
    I wish kids now days had the freedoms I had growing up and were able to learn responsibility and consequences without needing a parent watching over them all of the time.

  10. Being female and the oldest of 10 kids means I did not get to go free range. I think parents practice on the older child towing the line. The brothers had the free range distinction. We had some really doozy hills where we lived. The boys rode bicycles, with no brakes, up and down those hills, wearing Safeway Slider tennis shoes that barely had the rubber sole attached to the cloth top. You drive that road now and the hills have all been mostly filled in and smoothed out. We must protect people from themselves and their poor choices, don’tyouknow! I remember mom driving and swatting at all the kids in the back seat. Ran that car and me, riding shotgun, right into a telephone pole. Ouch. But at least our houses had one heater.

  11. My goodness. I for one learned something from this book. I’d never in my life been in a keyless start car until I bought one a few weeks back and thanks to JA, I knew to step on the brake before pushing the button. Showed the salesman that I “knew what I was doing”. and it worked!

  12. No knee pads, no helmets, no hovering parents and we all survived and from what I have seen of my peers we have done pretty well.

  13. Amen!! I survived several trips from Michigan to AZ and/or CA back in the 50s without seatbelts or anything else. I remember the grandparents even picking up hitchhikers god forbid and we weren’t murdered. Different times for sure

  14. I grew up on a farm in Central Iowa in the 40s and 50s. My sister and I spent a lot of time outside in the summer, but didn’t go barefoot because chickens often flew over the fence that was supposed to keep them out of the yard around the house and it wasn’t fun to step in poop in the grass. We made our own fun and tried not to get underfoot of my grandmother who didn’t really like children. It was a good way to grow up. Made us independent.

  15. I was raised and raised my children in your “different time” world also! Sad that the world has changed so that we feel we cannot take our eye off our children for ANY length of time, with out electronic babysitters.
    I feel so sad for the kids. They are missing out on so many delightful, fun, character and lifebuilding skills!
    Keep on writing it as you ‘see’ it J. A. Jance. Your books are wonderful!

  16. Oh, such wonderful childhood memoried, that no generation after us will get to enjoy the freedom of living and playing as we did. It makes me sad to realize that our grandchild seldom got to play in a sand pile, or roam the neighborhood all day til the gong sounded to summon you home and wash up for your meal. Back when a can of Campbell’s soup feed a family of four. Where egg sandwiches were served often and you laid on the floor to watch the first black and white tv that got delivered. Barefoot and free. Boy, those were the days and I sure wish we could back to them. Thank you for such a wonderful blog down memories lane. Could you write a Mayberry series for our generation?

  17. I didn’t even notice Joanna’s parenting faux pas. I guess I just accepted it as normal. When I was 8&9 I and a kid a year younger would take our 25 cent allowance and hike over the southern California hills to a little store on highway 99 to buy candy. When I later went back to that town for college, I figured that I would see that it really wasn’t that far. WRONG. It was at least a mile and those hills were not an easy hike.

  18. I love all of your books and grew up in the same period of time that you did. During my growing up years we were expected to be able to able to take care of ourselves and entertain ourselves and our younger siblings.We also were expected to help around the house with our chores before playing. We also didn’t have phones to call our friends and play games on. Times we definitely different then and I often wish we could go back to the simplicity of those days.. Please keep writing your books your way. We all love them.

  19. I don’t think any of those things Joanna did with her kids in Field of Bones was wrong. A five year old is big enough to play in the tub alone for as long as he wants to. Modern baby monitors have sufficient range to allow a person to go outside and do chores and even see the baby as well as hear her while you are working. And leaving a sleeping baby in a locked car at night? What’s wrong with that? As long as you are nearby and only gone for a few minutes, I don’t see anything wrong with it. Those of us who were raised in the 1950s are more laid back about parenting, I guess.

  20. We raised free range children in rural Michigan in the 70s and 80s. Our three, neighbors’ 6 kids, 4 kids, and one kid, were a pack. They knew which berries were getting ripe, built forts in the woods and swamp, and had fabulous adventures. The youngest and her friend would ride horses for miles and be gone for hours. Memories and life-long friendships were made that they still share as adults.

  21. I can’t believe that we are still alive let alone our kids. I could tell many similar, but different stories but that would fill an entire book. At young ages my kids were heading for the park, riding with no helmets, the list goes on. I will share this one though. When my oldest son was 5 he walked alone to school about 5 blocks away in miserable South Dakota winters. One day, because of having to go potty, he made the trip 3 times. I learned later that it was 27 degrees below zero and this was before we even knew about wind chill factors. Only God knows how cold it really was? I remember Mom and I in the basement washing clothes on the old wringer washer. Younger brother, about 3 or 4, was playing outside. We weren’t worried! Later he told us about the man who flew through the air. We found out that there was a bad accident at the intersection just 2 houses from us. A pedestrian was badly hurt and did fly through the air. We all would have been arrested in this day and age for what we let our kids do. Love your stories Judy.

  22. My early years we lived in a trailer park, as they were called at the time, that was pretty big. There were kids of all ages playing at the playground, tall slide and swings, located a distance from the last homes. We went to friends and they to our home. Once my older brothers and their friends let me tag along as they went down a path to a pond where they let me know about copperhead and other snakes so I would not go by the water. Then we climbed a little hill with a huge reservoir (at the time i was told it was the ocean) and they told me to stay down as the enemy would shoot us. I’m sure those guys really got a chuckle out of our adventure that day as I was 5 or 6 and they about 12.

    The baby monitor worked well for me when my grandson was over. I could do outside chores and hear when he awoke from his nap. Once I could not figure out what was going on and raced in to find that he discovered, and activated, a new toy that was in the playpen.

    I always enjoy your books and look forward to the next one.

  23. You cannot please everyone. People have their own ideas about raising kids. I don’t think they have the right to criticize another persons life unless a safety issue was raised. We had a hill in the back of our house that shot down and around a turn about. I want to say it was at least a quarter of a mile. I rode that hill on my bike at least a thousand times with “NO HANDS” . Of course no helmets and most of the time barefooted also. We tend to use the standards of our youth to raise our future kids. I was raised on a series of Air Force Bases, yes we had problems with some nastiest people but most part we felt protected and safe.
    What I don’t understand is why you feel this women’s opinion is important? Your Obviously a wonderful Mother/Grandmother all you have to do is look at your kids to see that they are good human beings who treat their Mother with kindness. If you had been a lousy mom you’d never see them. In other words dismiss this other women’s opinions and keep writing fabulous book, Hugging your kids and keeping yourself healthy… Sorry this is so long but I hate know it all’s who just have to tell you what’s what…. Have a great week..Jan

  24. We lived in a different carefree era. I smiled at strangers and made friends. I rode in the back of pickup trucks. I most of all love your writing style and your characters. Don’t change a thing.

  25. Please keep writing the way you do and keep Joanna real. Other opinions are fine, but they are OPINIONS, nothing more. From another free range parent who raised good kids contributing to society and who earn their way without expecting someone to give them everything.

  26. We lived on a river, so I had my own row boat. Rowed up and down the river, rode my bike everywhere in town. Not many kids in the area, lots of cousins though, rode the bus 6 miles into another town, if we wanted to save money we walked. Either walked back home, or caught a ride with our neighbor. He worked for the railroad, so we spent time exploring the station. Raised my boy the same way. Never knew where they went on bikes. They came home one night from a trip to the coast. 65 miles away. Had great childhoods, both my boys, my husband and I. Keep the stories coming, don’t change Joanna.

  27. I am with You! I grew up during the Great Depression and WWII. Everything you say about your Mom is so like my farm-raised Mom. So parallel. We lived in town in the mid-west so when we ran out barefoot on a summer morning Mom said come home for lunch when the noon whistle blows, come home for supper when the 5 o’clock whistle blows and come home for the night when the street lights come on. I raised my kids in the 50’s-60’s and I agree with every thing you said. No snow flakes we or our mothers, just good old mid-western practicality and necessity. Just keep on being the YOU that we all love!

  28. The things I did with my children, now give me heart palpitations with my grandchildren. None of us were or will ever be perfect parents. I was a single mother of four. I was a teacher, and came home tired, to cook supper, help with homework, get baths and kids to bed, then grade papers. My biggest regret was I was often not as patient with my personal children, as I was with my school children.

  29. My Mom went to high school during the depression. Her parents had a little cafe in Barnsdall Oklahoma. They lost their house and lived in the back of the cafe. I was born in 1939 and I lived in Tulsa with parents. We’d go to Barnsdall every weekend to visit Grandpa and Grandma. We had a two door coupe with no back seat. Mom would fix me a bed under the rear window and I would sleep there during the trip. When I was. 2-3 I stayed in Barnsdall with grandma and grandpa. Every day around 1 o’clock grand ma would shut the jukebox down and everyone had to quit playing pool cause it’s tme for Carol Ann’s nap!! And the customers paid attention. I learned to carry dishes for Grandma and by 5 yrs I could run the old register and make change to help out. Life was great in the old days, no cell phone ringing constantly!!! Keep writing and keep Joanna and her stories going!!!

  30. My dad never owned a car so when l was in third grade l was old enough to take the city bus by myself to the YWCA for swim lessons the buy a Coke at Woolworths while waiting for the bus to go home…….
    Surely would NEVER have let any of my four children go anywhere alone. Drove the to and from Buena High every day! Helicopter mom?

  31. Perhaps this dear and gentle reader would be interested in lobbying Congress to mandate seat belts for all students on school buses. Times change, people as well, often more slowly.

  32. My kids survived, in spite of me, and they still love me. I’m sure my Great Grandchildren will all survive too, since everyone in my clan learned all life’s lessons as they grew up. I was always there in time to clean up their messes, and I never told them they had any limitations.

  33. I was also a free-range child. If my folks had know some of the things we were doing—-God help us! But we survived. And so did our kids. I’m just now hearing about the things they did. And they are still here and in one piece.

  34. I had a free range childhood and loved every minute of it. I grew up in the 60s and 70s. We did learn early on never to tell my mother what we were doing until after we did it. She was scared of everything. We climbed the mountains behind the house. Loaded the FlexiFlyer way beyond the weight intended so we could go faster down the street with one friend stopping traffic at the crossroad. We took blocks of ice we bought to the park to slide down the grassy hill. Went through drain pipes and met rattlesnakes and hurriedly backed up. Came home banged and bruised and happy every summer in Glendale CA and learned to pick ourselves up and be self sufficient. We loved it. Thanks for bringing back good memories.

  35. I remember thinking about how J P Beaumont was babysitting two young girls in his apartment and how unlikely the scenario of an adult male bachelor babysitter would be (in today’s world) and then he even goes away and leaves them on their own (the bubblebath incident). All this makes so much more sense now!

  36. I guess I wasn’t a very good mother either! Single parents do it all! We do the best we can. I had to work full time and overtime to support us. We survived. I get it that someone might find Joanna questionable but personally I found both situations to be normal. A mother can wear many different hats and and make them work! Did she also write about how much she loved the story? I loved it!!
    Kathie

  37. I became a J A Jance fan over 20 years ago when a clerk in my favorite bookstore, noticing what I was buying that day, suggested I might also enjoy Jance. I have become a big fan of each series you’ve created and an even bigger fan of the author. I know this is largely due to my having grown up during the same time and in similar circumstances. I too was born in the Midwest, grew up in a large family, read nearly every children’s book in the local library at a very young age and was the first member of my family to attend college. The similarities in our lives go on and on.

    This latest blog once again reinforces my feelings that although we’ve never met, I believe we have so many things in common that we would be great friends. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your experiences. I will be forever grateful to that bookstore clerk who introduced my to my favorite author.

  38. Oh goodness! I am a new Grandmother and I am shocked (too strong of a word), at all the gadgets my daughter and son-in-law, bought when first baby was arriving. As well as the cameras in both children’s bedrooms, as well as in the downstairs.
    I grew up in the 60’s, latch key child. Ran the summers from dawn until dusk. I know the world has changed, but I wish we could go back to a time when children road bikes, played in the dirt pile and used their imagination, instead of an iPad or video game.
    I have read EVERY one of your books, for the PURE enjoyment!!!
    If you are going to read your books with a critical eye, then maybe only read text books. That need to be accurate on every minute detail!!
    LOVE your books, come to Colorado for a book signing. For the new generation of Mothers, good luck, and stop being so hard on yourself.

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