LEWISTON — When Karen Lane’s daughter was about 3 years old, she wheeled her own little suitcase and carry-on through the airport next to her mom, the portrait of an independent traveler in miniature. An astonished stranger called out, “Does she carry her own skis, too?”

Well, yes, Lane thought, a little surprised. If they’d been skiing she would have.

When her daughter was a preschooler, Lane started letting her use the McDonald’s restroom by herself. In second grade, she was allowed to walk to a nearby Lewiston store alone. At 11, she and a friend began journeying a mile or two from home, and at 12 they were taking the bus to the Auburn Mall.

Now 13, she’s flown to San Diego alone. Twice.

Lane was careful about each step of independence she gave her daughter. She watched, evaluated, stood ready to swoop in at the first sign of trouble. She made sure her daughter had a cellphone and a plan for where she was going, how she was going to get there and what she would do if she ran into trouble.

But when it came down to it, Lane believed, the rewards for her only child far outweighed the risks.

“It’s important for her to learn how to be in the world, how to be independent. In a supported way,” she said.

Lane is one of a growing number of parents giving their children the kind of freedom common to kids in the 1950s but virtually unheard of in recent years. The kind where a 5-year-old walks to school alone or a 9-year-old treks a couple of miles through town to meet a friend, or a 10-year-old and his 6-year-old sister walk home from the playground.

Nationally, the movement has a name: “free-range kids.”

“Our children are smarter and safer than our culture tells us they are and they are not in constant danger,” said Lenore Skenazy, a New Yorker who started a blog and wrote a book on free-range kids after she gained national attention for allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the city subway on his own.

But not everyone approves of giving their children such freedom, even if it was the kind of freedom they enjoyed growing up.

“Maybe it’s not necessarily the world has changed, maybe we’re just more aware of it,” said Miranda Sepulveda, a Lewiston mother of two. “I just think that kids are bound to get hurt; they’re bound to get in trouble.”

‘America’s Worst Mom’

Parenting philosophies tend to come and go. What’s embraced by one generation is abhorred by the next; what’s widely accepted as gospel becomes a forgotten trend a few years later.

In recent years parenting has tended toward the protective, with parents arranging and overseeing play dates, driving kids to and from activities, supervising — or joining in on — the playground, and generally not letting children out of their sight.

The extreme end of that trend has been called “helicopter parenting” for the way parents hover.

In 2008, Skenazy did the exact opposite of helicopter parenting. She let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone.

For weeks he’d been asking his parents to take him somewhere and let him find his way home by himself. Ultimately, they agreed. Skenazy gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, quarters for a pay phone and $20 in case of emergency. Then she took him to Bloomingdale’s, which sat on top of a subway station on their local subway line, and left him in the department store’s handbag section.

He returned home 45 minutes later, ecstatic, having taken the subway to a crosstown bus and the crosstown bus home.

Skenazy, a journalist, wrote a column about her controversial decision. Reaction was swift. Within days she found herself the focus of interviews on The Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News.

Some called her actions neglectful and abusive, pointing out that her son could have been mugged, kidnapped or killed. They dubbed her “America’s Worst Mom.”

Others lauded Skenazy for boosting her son’s confidence, fostering self-reliance and supporting real-world problem-solving skills by allowing him independence in what was likely a low-risk situation.

“Considering the crime rate is lower than when most of us were kids . . . why shouldn’t we?” Skenazy said.

She now runs FreeRangeKids.com, a website and blog dedicated to discussions of “how to raise safe, self-reliant children — without going nuts with worry.” She’s also written a book by the same name and is host of the new Discovery Life channel reality TV show “World’s Worst Mom,” which teaches overprotective parents how to loosen the reins.

As one of the most outspoken and visible proponents of free-range kids, Skenazy often gets letters and email from parents who encourage independence — or at least try to when it seems like the rest of the world discourages it.

In December, Aimee Gerbi, an Orono mother of four, wrote to Skenazy about how her 9-year-old daughter walked a mile from home to meet a friend, only to be stopped by police who were concerned she was running away. Her daughter’s friend, also 9 and walking a mile to meet up, was stopped twice.

“Because, you know, all the kids walking on their own MUST be runaways because that’s just how it is, right???” Gerbi wrote.

It wasn’t the first time Gerbi’s parenting style has raised questions. A neighbor called police when Gerbi’s then-10-year-old daughter was struggling to wheel her 1-year-old sister around the block and the stroller tipped at a bump.

When that same daughter was 11 and got anxious and upset about going to an event in Camden, Gerbi stopped the car and let her walk the mile and a half back home. Before Gerbi’s husband, who was at work, could meet their daughter on her walk, police had picked her up. Later, Gerbi said, a Maine Department of Health and Human Services worker showed up at their door.

“We kind of went through the rigmarole, but it was really sort of upsetting to have police now investigating me, child protective services investigating me,” Gerbi said. “The woman was in my house for about 30 seconds before she went, ‘This is ridiculous. There’s nothing here for me to investigate at all.'”

Nationally, police and child protective service investigations have made headlines when they focused on children walking or playing alone. The most recent involved Maryland parents under investigation for neglect for letting their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk home from a park a mile away.

It’s unclear how many similar situations lead to 911 calls or DHHS investigations in Maine.

“Child endangerment is determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a wide range of factors, including each child’s unique level of development and responsibility,” DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said in an email. “Excessive use of blanket rules and regulations would render impossible the delicate balancing act that must occur between child safety and parental rights.”

Gerbi, who teaches parenting classes, understands why someone might be concerned about a child alone. She’s glad people are watching out. But to her it feels like it’s gone “a step too far,” from protection to over-protection.

She’s working to raise money to bring Skenazy to Maine to speak about free-range kids with police and others mandated to report child abuse, neglect and endangerment.

“Parents always say to me, ‘What if there’s that 1 percent? What if your kid needs help and they ask the one person in the white van who’s out to get them?'” Gerbi said. “I’m like, OK, so now it becomes an odds game. I know that the odds of that are really, really, really, really, really, really slim. Really slim. Beyond slim. Almost statistically insignificant. My response to that is: ‘What if I don’t? What if I never let my child ride (her bike) to the library? What if I hover over her ’til the day she turns 18?’ Then you’ve created an adult who can’t ride a bike to the library.”

‘Not anti-safety’

Gerbi and other parents of free-range kids say they’re thoughtful and careful about the freedoms they allow their children, even when those freedoms make other parents cringe.

Gerbi doesn’t give her children cellphones on their journeys, but she role-plays worst-case scenarios beforehand: What if you fall off your bike on the way to the library? Who do you know along your route who can help?

She allows her oldest daughter to walk to a nearby swimming hole in the summer, but she’s told her not to go in the water without an adult present, and Gerbi trusts that she doesn’t.

When two of her children were 5 and 2, she let them practice rowing together in a boat in a harbor while she watched from shore. They wore life jackets and she considered the situation safe because the boat was in a protected part of the harbor with an incoming tide and wind blowing toward shore, so it couldn’t leave the harbor.

“The thing to note about free-range parents is that we’re not anti-safety,” she said. “My kids are required to wear helmets when they are on bicycles. My 3-year-old is still rear-facing in the car seat. We’re all about safety. They wear life jackets. There’s definitely safety, but there’s not restriction. That’s the difference.”

In Lewiston, Lane has also been careful about the freedoms she gives her daughter, now 13. She doesn’t like applying the term “free-range” to her parenting style. To her that sounds neglectful.

“Maybe ‘supportive of ranging,'” she said. “Prepared roaming.”

Lane started allowing her daughter small doses of independence when she was a preschooler. Her own suitcase to wheel through the airport. The responsibility to “keep an eye on mommy” when they were in a store.

As she got older the freedom and responsibility became greater, and Lane followed her daughter’s lead. When she was 5 or 6 and asked to stay in the car alone while Lane ran an errand, Lane let her, but she kept an eye on the car. When she was in the second grade and wanted to go to the neighborhood store alone, Lane let her, but only when Lane was home and only after she introduced herself and her daughter to the store clerks and gave them her phone number in case of a problem.

“That goes both ways, if she had a problem or if she was a problem. Because part of this is teaching her how to behave in the world and letting her know that people care about how she behaves in the world,” Lane said.

It didn’t always work perfectly, especially when she was very young. The first time Lane’s daughter stayed in the car alone, she got scared and started to cry. At Marden’s one day, she lost track of her mother and asked a store clerk for help — only to realize with a wail that she didn’t know her mother’s name when the clerk asked.

They’re situations Lane regretted, but not for long.

“That moment I heard her wail ‘Mommy,’ absolutely. That moment that I came back to the car and she was crying? Absolutely. Short term,” Lane said. “Long term she was OK. It made her more careful about when she took those steps. Was she really ready? Could she really handle it? I’m grateful for that. Because she’s not going to go if a friend is drinking and wants to go someplace. She’s going to think. And she’s good at it.”

Free-range proponents point out that most adults enjoyed quite a lot of independence when they were children, especially in Maine. They went out to play in the morning and didn’t come home until dinner. They rode their bikes into town, alone, miles from home. They roamed woods, playgrounds, parks and libraries alone or with other children.

“We had our predators, but we knew who they were. We were afraid of them and we’d tell each other,” said Debbie Caldwell, 74, who grew up in Farmingdale and is a free-range advocate. “But that’s the thing when you’re a free-range kid, you can tell the difference (between trustworthy and non-trustworthy people).”

Proponents point out that crime rates then were a lot higher than they are now. And they’re right.

Crime rates have dropped steadily in recent decades, both nationally and locally. In Lewiston, the crime rate is less than half what it was in the 1980s. Statewide, the crime rate dropped 9 percent in 2013.

Nationally, crimes specifically against children have declined, too, dropping by about two-thirds since their high in the early 1990s, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. While Maine-specific numbers aren’t available, New England states tend to have among the lowest rates of crimes against children in the country, according to the center.

When kids are the victims of crimes, it’s most often at the hands of people they know. In 2014, eight children were killed in Maine — all of them in domestic violence incidents involving a parent, caregiver or other adult living in the same house.

Experts say parents may feel like the world is more dangerous than when they were children, but that’s likely because parents are better informed and more aware now than in generations past.

“That’s a big change between the ’70s and ’80s, in terms of what we hear about on the news and the Internet and other ways,” said Patricia Williams, a University of Maine at Farmington assistant professor who specializes in parenting, families and child development. “That clearly for parents just heightens the anxiety.”

Williams has taught college since the mid-1990s, and she’s seen firsthand the growth of protective parenting. The results haven’t always been good, with young adults who don’t know how to resolve a roommate conflict on their own, who consult their families rather than make independent decisions and who expect their professors to always be immediately available like their parents were.

“My kids are now 14, 17 and 19,” she said. “As a parent, clearly even I worried about all those (criminal threats) too. But I do now worry — especially since I do teach young adults and college students — about their ability to be able to be independent, their ability to make their own choices, to be faced with challenges on their own.”

Not my kids

But while crime rates have dropped, experts say kids are still the most victimized members of the population. And there may be fewer crimes against children precisely because parents are now more protective.

“People are more aware of the risks and are more protective of kids and we have more programs to keep them safe,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH. “We are much more aware of all the various perils, like sex crimes, than we used to be.”

With that in mind, some parents say their children will never be allowed the kind of independence that free-range kids have.

“I think that unfortunate circumstances can occur if you let them roam free,” said Sepulveda, the Lewiston mother of two. “Not always. Probably not 90, 95 percent of the time. But that 5 percent of the time I’m not willing to risk.”

She agrees that her children, ages 17 and 8, likely aren’t in more danger now than she was at their age, she’s more aware of those dangers. But because she’s aware, she’s not going to let her 8-year-old daughter walk a mile or so down to the river with friends or let her 17-year-old son go anywhere unless she knows where he’s going and who will be going with him.

“This past year was first time I let him go to a house where I didn’t know who the parents are,” she said. “Maybe I’m overprotective, but I don’t see it that way. I’m playing it safe.”

Angel Copp lives in Lewiston and has four children, ages 1, 3, 7 and 11. She grew up in the area and remembers “running the streets and doing whatever I wanted at 10 years old.” She doesn’t want the same for her kids.

Copp doesn’t allow any of them, including her 11-year-old, to go past the end of their driveway alone.

“(My fear is) that a bad person would grab them,” Copp said. “So I make sure I keep them close. Sometimes more close than they want, but they’ll understand when they get older.”

Free-range proponents worry that such protection and supervision do more harm than good, damaging kids’ self-confidence, undermining their ability to make common-sense decisions, sapping their creativity and stunting their development. Although college professors such as Williams say they’ve seen some issues with closely monitored kids all grown up, there’s little hard data to suggest long-term problems.

“I don’t actually see a lot of evidence that that is the case,” said Finkelhor of UNH.

However, one statistic is clear: Fewer American kids are running away now than in years past. If they’re upset with the close supervision, they aren’t showing it that way.

“There are no indicators that we have that kids are chafing or complaining about not having enough freedom,” Finkelhor said.

However, he also believes that protective parents are devoting a lot of energy to things that aren’t really worth the anxiety. Like stranger danger. Statistically, other factors pose more jeopardy.

“The challenge is the things that are the biggest risks in children’s lives are the ones that are somewhat harder to focus on,” he said. “Automobiles, obviously, (both) their own driving and the driving of other people. Household safety. Swimming pools are high sources of child mortality. . . . Drinking problems. People in their social network and family environment. Those are harder to focus on.”

Parents on both side of the debate say they try not to judge the other side. If parents feel their 9-year-old is ready for a walk to the park, so be it. If they feel their 14-year-old isn’t mature enough to stay home alone after school, that’s a family decision.

Both sides also agree that outside factors have to be considered, such as the neighborhood, time of day and who the child will be with.

“I would never tell a parent how to parent. Everybody is different and every child is different,” said Tim Smith, a Lewiston elementary schoolteacher and father of twin boys. “It’s based on parental preference.”

And sometimes parental preference changes.

In 2007, Smith spoke to the Sun Journal about the miles of woods he roamed as a 10-year-old and the limited roaming he planned to allow his 6-year-old twins when they got to be 10. He expected he’d let them wander between Lewiston’s old reservoir and East Avenue, a tight area of less than a tenth of a mile.

Today the boys are 13 and, Smith said, “They have freedom.”

The boys started gaining that freedom at about 10 years old, when they began biking through the neighborhood to visit friends. By 11, they’d shown they could cross busy intersections and could be trusted on their own for longer periods of time.

Cellphones in hand, Caden and Jacob are now allowed to hop on their bikes and pedal virtually anywhere in a 2-mile radius — to the Dairy Joy for ice cream, to Lewiston High School to play tennis, to a friend’s house. They must tell their parents where they’re going and must call if their plans change, but other than that, the boys are largely able to roam.

On the spectrum of protective to free-range, “I think I’m closer to allowing more freedom,” he said.

“My wife and I are very involved with their lives and with our parenting,” he said. “We very openly discuss a lot of things that go on in this world. They’ve earned that trust as time’s gone on. Until we lose that trust, they’ll keep gaining that trust.”

The boys, Lewiston Middle School eighth-graders, believe they have about as much independence as their friends. They see both pros and cons to it.

Pro: “It makes us be like a better person, I think, because you get to experience more stuff,” Jacob said.

Con: All that freedom means they aren’t driven around as much.

“I wouldn’t mind that. At all. You can get there quicker,” Caden said.

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