I was so glad to see this thread when we got home from the grocery store this afternoon! I've been reading the Free Range Kids website for a couple of months now -- and probably should stop reading it because the comments get me so rattled.

It seems that a lot of the parents posting there want their young children to be able to walk or ride the city bus to school alone -- or go to the park alone, or whatever else it is -- because they're busy and don't have time to go along, not because their child is ready and wanting to do those things. I've spent the past sixteen years parenting with the idea that if my one of my kids needs me, it's my or my husband's job to drop everything else and be there. And there have been very, very few times (honestly, I'm not sure I can think of ANY) when we weren't able to manage that.

My idea of "free range" is that my sixteen-year-old should be able to (if she's in the mood) take my eight year old into the library to pick out books. But she can't, even if I'm in the car in the parking lot. Because some other parents dump young kids there all day and made the library come up with some super strict policies on what is and isn't allowed. And they will, or so I'm told, take kids who aren't in compliance with those rules to the police station next door. My seven year old is technically able to be in the children's section alone now, if I'm elsewhere in the building. But he doesn't look seven and if someone asks him how old he is, they're likely to get a deer in the headlights sort of look. So he'll always be close to me or an older sibling who can answer for him. (Do the rest of you follow rules like that based on how old your child is, or how old other people will think he is? I'm assuming it's best not to borrow trouble.)

Sandra's story about the outhouses in national parks made me think. Depending on the time of day or how far the walk is, I won't let either of my youngest two go alone. I'm not worried about psycho killers lurking in the bushes, but I do worry about drivers not watching for a small child crossing the road in the dark. If we're at the parks near home and using the porta potty, no one goes alone. Because they're isolated and because I worry about who else might be in the park. (I think that's left over from our last neighborhood where it was very likely that there would be someone scary around. We haven't had any problems here, but I'm still a bit cautious.)

Last summer, we had a gorgeous campsite a little closer than the river than I was comfortable with. The outhouse was directly across the road, within easy shouting distance, so I asked my two oldest to watch the two youngest while I ran to go potty. I might have overempathized the importance of keeping the little ones away from the river, but it was hot and the water was high and I was worried. When I got back to the tent, my daughter was playing with her little brothers and some rocks, doing a great job of keeping them away from the water -- and completely oblivious to the coyote walking slowly through the campsite ten feet behind them. Not that I think anyone was going to get eaten, but it was a great lesson that we can't warn them about everything.

Now the boys are playing outside, where there might be -- but probably aren't -- cougars. Or coyotes. Honestly, I worry more about the neighbor's dogs.