Free-Range Parenting Isn't Safe For Black Kids

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse

I took my oldest daughter to her ballet class, leaving the younger three kids with my husband who had just returned home from work. I gave my daughter a quick peck on the cheek and watched her dash off into her classroom, and I settled into a plastic chair in the lobby with a new book.

The place was busy with parents and kids streaming in and out of the door. I was just opening my book when I heard shrieking. Four little girls were playing chase through the lobby, running into adults, weaving in and out of rows of chairs, and knocking over brochure displays and a basket of crayons. Two of them weren’t wearing shoes.

I was certain at any moment, I’d hear one of their parents step in. But it never happened. For 45 straight minutes, the girls acted like they were at a trampoline park rather than a dance studio lobby. Then it dawned on me that the little girls could dash around freely. Because they are white. And they are allowed, even encouraged, to be “feral.”

Their behavior was appalling to me. Not because I’m some sort of pearl-clutcher or perfect parent either, but because in my heart, I knew that this wasn’t a matter of manners, but a matter of race.

Before we walk into any public place, I give my kids a talk. I remind them to say please, thank you, and excuse me when appropriate. I remind them that they will not run around, remove any clothing, or speak disrespectfully or loudly to anyone, certainly not an adult. When we leave someone’s home, the correct departure statement is “Thank you for inviting me.”

If we’re headed into a store, my kids are reminded to always, always have their purchased item and receipt placed in a bag. My children know they can’t take toys they own into a store, and they certainly cannot sample a snack we’re buying until the item is paid for and we’re back in the car. Other store rules include not touching items unless they plan to purchase them and not walking around with their hands in their pockets or their hoods up on their coats or sweatshirts.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Black people have to work twice as hard to be just as good? Yep.That’s systemic racism for you. And it’s in schools, businesses, organizations, politics. Everywhere. My kids’ rules are different from those of white kids, and it starts when Black kids are young.

My kids do not have the freedom to be feral or free-range, also known as wild or carefree. Their melanin ensures that society will view any “feral” behaviors as threatening or suspicious.

Yes, it breaks my heart to have to raise my kids in the way that I do, but it’s my job. Though it’s the opposite of what I grew up with and knew.

When I was a child, my family and I lived fifteen minutes from town. In the summers, my siblings and I would ride bikes, climb trees, and swim. We wore our swimsuits all summer long and never shoes. We’d come inside at sunset, covered in dirt with bits of grass in our hair, and head straight for the bathtub. No one ever called the police on us, stopped to call us a name, or give us a second-glance. We were white, and we were free to be “feral”.

The privilege extended throughout our lives and in every situation. We were never denied a job due to our race, followed in a shopping mall on suspicion of shoplifting, or pulled over by police for driving while white.

I cannot offer my kids this same life. They aren’t allowed to play outdoors unsupervised. Their toy Nerf guns are allowed in our lower level only, never outside, even in our own yard. They don’t explore the toy aisle at the store while I shop for groceries.

It’s not because my kids aren’t responsible, independent, or polite. It’s not because I desire to be constantly helicoptering over them. It’s because I know that moms of kids of color have a responsibility to raise children in a way that many white people do not understand. I never know when there’s a Cornerstore Caroline lurking around the corner. That’s not paranoia. That’s not hovering. That’s reality.

This is the America we live in. Of course, I pray that one day things will change. But I have to parent my kids for the world that exists. Not the world I hope for. And for now, that means the free-range movement will not be something we can partake in because it simply isn’t safe.

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