Beaver Cleaver: A Model Free Range Kid

I just watched the first six episodes of the first season of Leave it to Beaver with my older boys (Marco – 6-1/2 and Nico – 3-1/2). The extent of Beaver’s freedom, then 7 years old and in second grade, would astonish parents of today:

  1. Beaver walks on his own to and from school, as well as to many other destinations, every day.
  2. In two of the first three episodes, Beaver wanders on his own for so long that his parents get worried and search for him. Once they find him, they have a talk with him, but they don’t consider limiting his freedom for a moment. He goes out on his own the next day in both episodes.
  3. In episode 4, “The Haircut,” Beaver’s dad gives him money and sends him out on his own to a barber shop for a haircut.
  4. In episode 5, “New Neighbors,” Beaver expresses some vague anxiety about going outside, so his dad implores him to “Go outside!” Later, Beaver’s parents learn that he’s afraid of the man who just moved in next door, but they make no attempt to keep him inside.
  5. In episode six, “Brotherly Love,” Beaver makes a plan on his own to go fishing with an elderly fire chief named Gus. He says nothing about this to his parents, but when Gus shows up at the door, his parents expect him to go, no questions asked, even though they hardly know Gus at all.

My boys are really loving watching Leave it to Beaver, and I must admit, I really am, too!
I consider this to be far more than a mere nostalgic experience. I want my boys to have much more freedom than most children do these days, and this program shows what a childhood with a great deal of freedom could be like. So, it acts almost like a tutorial for our kids and us parents on what to expect.

It looks a lot more fun than today’s childhood, but it also opens many more possibilities for problems. Rather than becoming frightened when these problems emerge, Beaver’s parents treat them, by and large, as “teachable moments.” Indeed, Beaver does learn valuable lessons in each episode.

All on his own, he navigates the streets, meets adults and maintains friendships with them, and uses money to buy things. In sum, it’s clear to me that Beaver learns far more about how to deal with the real world than practically very child today. This is ironic considering the common conception of Beaver’s childhood as being overly sheltered.

Yes, the fact that Beaver always ends up totally safe and sound at the end of every episode, that every scary situation turns out to be nothing, is an unrealistic portrayal of the real world. However, today’s local news and television programs, which are flooded with portrayals of violent crimes, also present an unrealistic portrayal of the real world.

So, what’s more realistic, and therefore more useful? I’d say Leave it to Beaver is by a longshot. The violent crime rate in the United States is decreasing every year, and in 2010 it was at about the level of 1972. (See the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.) Thus, it’s already lower than it was when most of today’s parents were kids, and if current trends continue, it’ll be at “Leave it to Beaver” levels in a few years.

Rather than watching the hysteria of today’s local news and television programs, I’d rather my boys watch Leave it to Beaver to get ideas on how to have a free range childhood. Of course, my wife and I can, and will, fill in the gaps by telling them what to watch out for.

Just last weekend, inspired by Beaver, Marco walked twice on his own to his friend’s house 2-1/2 blocks away. What do you think the kids who watch the local news or CSI did on their own last weekend?

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9 Responses to Beaver Cleaver: A Model Free Range Kid

  1. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Hi Mike… what are the chances? I rented the season-2 DVD this week and my kids and I have watched half of it. Same trend, so far as The Beav’s degree of freedom.

    I was glad to get the show because last summer two road cyclists went zooming down our street and were overheard to say… “See! What did I tell you? This is the ‘Leave It to Beaver’ neighborhood. And by that, I think he was referring to the kids more than anything… the adults certainly don’t look or behave much like June or Ward!

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    @Michael – Ha!!! It’s super-fun, eh? The Beav’s our idol…

  3. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    And Wally’s a stud… just started shaving in the last episode… good times… kids love it. So much better than 99% of popular video appropriate for kids.

  4. mary_roscoe says:

    Leave it to Beaver was one of my favorite childhood programs. This weekend we talked about Lenore Skenazy and Free Range Kids with our now grown-up daughter and she reminisced about her childhood in Barron Park in Palo Alto. She and her brother bicycled to Bol Park and checked out crayfish in the creek or visited the resident donkey.

    They often roamed around the neighborhood alone or with friends – more than I remember. My daughter said she wandered down unfamiliar streets in the neighborhood and remarked that these experiences gave her a sense of confidence as an adult with being with the unknown.

  5. Lion's Whiskers says:

    Wow, thanks for the walk down Memory Lane, Mike!

  6. RobertH says:

    Not having grown up in the US, I haven’t watched “Leave it to Beaver” before, but I think I get the idea. It certainly sounds like it sends a much better message to young children than all of the violent stuff on TV.

    From a parent-educational perspective, “Leave it to Beaver” however won’t do much or anything to change people’s mind. Most will write the show of as cute and nostalgic, persisting in their belief that today somehow life is wrought with more dangers for children, most notably child molesters lurking at every street corner and even in their neighbor’s homes.

    So deep-seated are those fears thanks to constant negative media coverage, that even encouraging statistics of general crime trends like those cited by Mike have no effect on people. There are even more specific statistics that show that the rate of child abductions by strangers has remained fairly constant over the last fifty years or so. But I doubt that even if they broadcast those statistics during prime time, it would make much of a difference at this point. Once fear sets in and our reptilian brain takes over, we are almost immune to reason.

    Hence I continue to ask myself what can be done to turn this trend around. One thing that might actually work would be a film along the lines of “Race to Nowhere.” That film strikes an emotional chord with parents to wake them up the fact that our schools are harming our kids. While not everyone agrees with the message of the film, the message comes across loud and clear and it is difficult not feel deeply saddened by some of the personal stories of depression and suicide told my students and parents. In any event, “Race to Nowhere” has been hugely successful, more so than any book on the same topic, and there are many excellent books on the topic.

    One reason why films like “Race to Nowhere” reach the audience is because they actually send a negative message – if you don’t do X, Y will happen and Y is bad for you. This is because humans have been shown to register and process negative message (of any kind) much more readily than positive ones (if you do X, Y will happen and Y is good for you). Another is that the film focuses on the personal stories of a few select students. This makes it easy and natural for the audience to connect and absorb the message.

    In any event, I wonder whether a similar film about the short-term and long-term consequences of locking our children in the house would have a similar impact. Instead of telling parents about the wonderful benefits of raising freerange kids, you basically would need to scare them into realizing that the other alternative will tend to hamper their kids’ future success. And instead of rattling off positive statistics, the film would have to expose parents to the sad lives of children who essentially never leave home without adult-supervision and to the passive, insecure mindset this tends to create among children.

    No, it wouldn’t be an easy film to make, especially the part showing long-term consequences, which are of course hard to track and attribute. But something along those lines is pretty much what it’s going to take to make a difference. Like Mike, my wife and I have considered writing a book on this and other parent education topics, but we abandoned the idea (at least in part) after seeing “Race to Nowhere.” No book will ever come close to the impact that film – which, btw, was made by a parent! – has had.

    That’s not to put down your upcoming book, Mike. I, for one, certainly look forward to reading it. Personally, I prefer a good book over a film, even a good film, any day (remember that we don’t even own a TV set 🙂 ). And so will many other parents who read books. Unfortunately many parents don’t read books, much less non-fiction.

    To end on a positive note: I am just reading a great new book by Susan Engel “Red Flags or Red Herrings?: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become” Highly recommended. A truly insightful and much-needed book.

    Robert

  7. mary_roscoe says:

    Check out the film “Play Again” at http://www.groundproductions.com/playagain/index.php

  8. RobertH says:

    Wow, that does look like a good film, I just watched the trailer. Thanks for pointing it out!

  9. allboys says:

    Sorry but there ARE 130 child stranger abductions in the US every year, and 10’s of thousands of legitimate cases of physical/sexual abuse of children, usually by people they know at least slightly. Then there are thousands of parental abductions in child custody cases.

    I grew up in a “leave it to beaver” neighborhood in a small town, and while I turned out all right, there was a nasty old man neighbor on the street that got to many of the kids at one time or another.

    Now I live in dense suburban neighborhood, and there are registered sex offenders in every town, and those are just the ones that got caught.

    My young kids are not going anywhere alone. That said, they have a huge amount of fun, and roam the neighborhood plenty, just with a guardian at most 100 ft away. When they are older and make better decisions then they will earn more freedom.

    TV is a false role model.