Free-Range Boys

Down in East Tennessee where I grew up, we had the Great Smoky Mountains standing tall out there in the distance. But then we also had “the foothills” which lay between us and the big mountains. In later years they build a fine and scenic road along those ridges called the Foothills Parkway. It has great views of the higher mountains and is a resource often overlooked by visitors. It is also a great bicycle ride.

Down on our side of the foothills was an area known as Montvale Springs. There had been a YMCA summer camp there, and before that a luxury hotel. Local tradition had it that the area was first discovered by Sam Houston, who taught school nearby and later became governor of Texas. Close to the remains of the camp there was Montvale Lake, a small mountain lake with an old concrete dam and cold mountain water.

Morton and I were out there one February day just messing around. We hiked down to the lake and walked out along the top of the dam. We were somewhat at loose ends and looking for something to do. Even something crazy like jumping off that dam and down into that winter-cold water. Fully clothed. Gosh darn!

Someone said, “I dare you” and we jumped. Wheee! Oh my gosh!

The jumping distance to the water was not extraordinary, but the water temperature was. We appeared on the bank in a very short time, but soaking wet and shivering. No one had thought about the lack of any shelter or warmth nearby. It wasn’t long before we were wondering why on earth we had done this.

Why had we?

There was another day with Morton that was quite the opposite of that cold one. It was HOT. We were on the Maryville College campus where my father taught. We were walking around and came near the tall water tank that stood up behind Pearson’s Hall. I never knew if this tank supplied water for just the college, or for the town in general. This question did not concern Morton or myself as we considered this situation and what to do.

We approached the water tank, observing there was no one around. We found that one of the tank’s four legs had a ladder. It might be cooler up high there, yes. We started climbing. Up we went like two young squirrels. The day was looking better now.

From the top of this tank, we had a great view of the college and the town of Maryville. We could see the Blount County courthouse and the line of buildings along Main Street. We also discovered that there was a swinging trap door at the top of the ladder.

It would be locked, of course. We could check on this, though. So, we checked. But, no, it was not locked. We swung open this door and looked down inside.

Yes, there was water. Lots of water. And, yes, there was a ladder going down, just like the one we had come up on. What to do?

It felt cool down there. Cool on this very hot day. This water may have been pumped out of a cool nearby spring.

On this hot day and having already come this far, we climbed down the inside ladder. We hung our clothes on its rungs, and went swimming in our underwear.

I know this does not seem like the right thing to have done. This being the same water that would be coming out of people’s kitchen faucets, filling bathtubs, boiling corn, brushing teeth, filling the dog’s water bowl, and washing hands. And I swear I would never recommend it today to any young boys faced with the same opportunity. “No, boys,” I would say. “Don’t do what I did, and you won’t have to regret it like I do.”

This is just a story, boys. Just something you read about in books and magazines. Go on back to your homework now.

And if a young boy should ask what you are reading about on the internet just now . . . ?

Well . . . I’ll leave that up to you.


Some may be wondering how two young boys can be running around like this and unsupervised. Why aren’t their parents looking after them?

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I used to live, we had a case some years ago where neighbors observed two children walking unaccompanied to a nearby park and called the police. The children, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, were aged 10 and 6. The parents were brought before the Child Protective Services to explain their neglect. It turns out they were quite good parents who were teaching self-reliance to their children. The case sparked a national debate and was later dropped in some embarrassment. What was accused of being “parental neglect” was actually just the opposite.

In the small East Tennessee town where I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s, children were not supervised, managed, and watched over as they are now. Kids were expected to entertain themselves, not to be entertained. We walked or rode our bicycles to school unaccompanied. Our parents kept no calendars of activities they had arranged for us. Homework was our responsibility to manage, along with various household tasks, known as “chores.” No chores done meant no allowance money handed out. “Go out and play” was our instruction, and the rest was up to us.

Today’s child rearing experts can find fault with this system, but that’s the way it was. We may have been self-managed and done some things we should not have done, but many of us turned out okay regardless.

Related Resources

Here are some highly regarded books that discuss the overprotection of children and youth and the importance of developing self-reliance:

1. “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” by Lenore Skenazy
• This book is a pioneering work advocating for the free-range parenting movement. Skenazy argues against the overprotection of children and encourages parents to allow their children more freedom to explore and learn independence.
2. “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
• Lukianoff and Haidt explore the consequences of overprotection in schools and parenting, discussing how this approach can lead to increased anxiety and decreased resilience among young people. The authors provide insights into how to foster self-reliance and critical thinking.
3. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth
• Although not solely focused on overprotection, this book delves into the importance of resilience, perseverance, and developing a strong character. Duckworth’s research highlights how fostering grit in children can help them become more self-reliant.
4. “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” by Jessica Lahey
• Lahey, a teacher and parent, discusses the benefits of allowing children to experience failure and learn from it. She argues that overprotection hinders children’s ability to develop self-reliance and resilience.
5. “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” by Julie Lythcott-Haims
• This book provides a critical look at overparenting and offers practical advice for raising self-sufficient and independent children. Lythcott-Haims draws on her experience as a dean at Stanford University to highlight the pitfalls of overprotective parenting.
6. “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids” by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross
• Payne and Ross advocate for a simpler, less hectic approach to parenting that encourages independence and self-reliance. The book provides strategies for reducing the over-scheduling and overprotection that can stifle children’s development.
7. “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” by Pamela Druckerman
• Druckerman explores the differences between American and French parenting styles, noting how French parents encourage independence and self-reliance in their children from a young age. The book offers insights into fostering a balanced approach to parenting.


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