Raising Risk-Takers: An Upside of Free-Range Parenting?

05/27/2015 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Here in the Washington, D.C., area, there's a story that has generated a lot of attention: The case of the free-range parents. A Maryland couple has allowed their 10- and 6-year-olds to play outside and walk home from a park, unsupervised, and they've been investigated by child protective services as a result.

The 1970s kid in me -- the one who rode her bike around her neighborhood for hours, alone -- finds this all kinds of sad and restrictive. The 2015 parent in me is conflicted. The truth is, we're all products of our time and culture, and 21st century suburban parents tend to hover. Kids need to be watched and protected; that's the expectation, anyway.

This month, in particular, I find myself thinking about how these anxieties, norms, and patterns of parenting impact not only our little tykes, but also the big kids they will become.

That's because it's summer job season for high school and college kids, and I'm remembering where I was 25 years ago this month: Packing my bags for Nashville, Tennessee, to be trained to sell books door to door.

My college boyfriend had sold me on the idea of committing my summer to the Southwestern Company. He'd sold the summer before and made good money. I was 19, and I wanted to be with him. As it turned out, this summer was about anything but romance.

After a week or so of sales training, the several thousand of us college students who'd been recruited were dispersed -- assigned to sales "territories" in communities across the country. I caravanned to eastern Florida with my new best friends for the next 12 weeks -- a team of young women from another university who needed an extra roommate. The boyfriend? He ended up in another territory miles away.

What happened next was transformative for me.

Before I go on, let me acknowledge a few things: I've heard the argument that door-to-door sales is a kind of murky field ethically. While I believed in the product I sold (educational books), not everyone did. And not everyone has had good things to say about the company I devoted two summers to. (Yes, I did this more than once.)

But this isn't a story about any of that. This is a story about what I experienced on the "bookfield," as we called it. It's a story about what can happen when a young person steps outside her or his comfort zone in a big way.

Every day one of my roommates dropped me off on a corner with a bag of sample books (14 pounds -- I weighed them) at around 8:00 a.m. And did I mention it was Florida? It. Was. Hot. I had a paper map (this was 1990, after all, so no electronic version), and once I'd knocked on every door on a given street, I crossed off that street with a marker. I packed two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day, and I ate one for lunch and one for dinner. I didn't get picked up again until nightfall.

That's 12 hours of essentially being alone.

It's amazing what you learn when you knock on thousands of front doors.

As you'd expect, some people slammed their doors. Some people yelled at me. Sometimes I would go for blocks without anyone answering their doors.

And sometimes people were kind. In fact, it's the kindnesses I remember most, which makes me think there were more of them than cruelties. I was careful about which houses I entered, although the mom in me today wonders how I could have known, really, which houses were truly safe. Somehow I did. Maybe I was lucky. Nothing bad happened.

I still remember one house from my second summer, spent in Colorado, where I drank the best iced tea of my life. People gave me Band-Aids, umbrellas and pep talks. Sometimes I met people who just wanted to vent. I prayed with some, held a lot of babies, and more than once I left a house with tears in my eyes because it was obvious life inside those walls was pretty sad.

I had to figure out ways to soldier on when things were particularly lonely, and how to solve problems that seemed unsolvable. I had to figure out how to talk to people who were different from me in just about every possible way.

Believe it or not, I made good money. But more than that, I learned that I can do hard things. I eventually pursued a career in journalism, and the stories I've written that have been most impactful have involved door-knocking, talking to people about sensitive things, and being a good listener. Sounds a lot like the bookfield.

The bookfield is obviously not the only place a young person can learn about risk-taking, managing solitariness and perseverance. But I can't help but wonder whether my kids' generation will be less likely to tackle new, risky experiences of any kind.

In raising me, my parents had been able to say "be home by dark," and not worry about a neighbor calling the cops. Freedom doesn't just extend to the kids, in other words; my parents and their peers had more freedom to foster self-reliance and creativity. We dealt with mud puddles, scraped knees, mean kids, tree-climbing victories, and top-secret club meetings with fewer watchful, guiding eyes.

Did that make me more likely to sign on for a tough and scary job? It's hard to say for sure.

I do know that my work as a parent is to protect, yes, but also to find ways to push against my kids' boundaries. I want them, after all, to come up with adventures of their own in the years ahead, and feel comfortable selling me on them.

That's a version of "free range" I can embrace.