Best Countries / Cities / Areas for Free-Range Kids
March 31, 2015 7:56 AM   Subscribe

What are the best countries / cities / areas for raising free-range kids? We're currently in New England, USA, and contemplating a move after this disastrous, isolating Winter. I'm allowed to live in the US and EU, work in Software, and want to raise my kids in a place that has tolerable Winters and doesn't frown on / is safe for free range kids. Any and all ideas considered, but the best ones will consider employment, climate and local culture.

I've lived in Vietnam for a long period, and liked that, although career options are limited, and education for the kids is expensive if you go private. I speak French, and like many parts of France, but I'm not sure about employment.
posted by grubby to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
What does free-range kids mean?
posted by Aranquis at 8:01 AM on March 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: "Free-range kids" means kids who are allowed to roam, in the way I did as a child, who don't have to have every activity scheduled and supervised by a parent, who can seek out their own friends in the neighborhood instead of relying on parentally-organized play dates. There's a website that talks about these issues:
posted by grubby at 8:05 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

If I had EU citizenship and was looking to move to raise a family, I would personally move to the Netherlands which has tons of parental benefits, happy healthy citizens, and a good work-life balance. Winters are gray and rainy with a little snow but people are still outdoorsy.

You might be interested in this series Parenting around the world which profiles American expats/immigrants living in different countries, and other people who have moved to America.
posted by rmless at 8:08 AM on March 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

For anybody unfamiliar with the idea of free-range kids, or unsure why this is a serious concern for the questioner, here's a perfect example. One which would seem to disqualify the DC metro area, where I live, though it would otherwise look like a reasonable bet.

Where do you want to be on the urban/rural axis? Generally I think the more small town or rural you go, the less people are going to freak out if your kids aren't on a leash.
posted by Naberius at 8:35 AM on March 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

France is actually a good country to use to illustrate the complexity of your question. Based on my experience of living in Mediterranean France I'd say that the local kids have more of a freedom to roam - particularly outside - and less supervision than in other countries: however school is pretty tightly regimented. In terms of climate: a very general reminder that winters can be much more cold and wet than you might expect from a summer visit - as they can for much of the Mediterranean. Employment as a foreigner can be tricky - but there are a number of self-employed people working in IT (some of whom my be working mainly on contracts in other countries). You speak the language and like the country - so I see it as a candidate for your shortlist.

Your question is tricky to answer and your best strategy might be to rent somewhere for a year and see how you get on.
posted by rongorongo at 8:40 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Believe it or not, there are many places in California that fit the bill for "free range" kids where neighborhoods are safe and kids can be free to roam. So numerous I can't even begin to list them. Just be prepared to pay the price, because many others are here for the same reason and thus the property prices are sky high. I would suggest, when considering a move to a new locale in the U.S., you consider researching the CitiData forums where many with similar questions have already asked and received answers from locals.

I am assuming you need a sizable population center since job opportunities are important. If not, many more places, particularly in southern Oregon and northern California, come to mind.
posted by zagyzebra at 8:40 AM on March 31, 2015

I can't give you cities or countries, but will try to answer your question in a somewhat broader way that I hope will help you find what you're looking for or maybe help you think about the problem differently. You sound like you're on the right track with Vietnam, but there are lots of reasons that may not work in the long-run.

In most Westernized places children are no longer simply the natural result of marriage or partnership; instead, as a result of the spread of the concept of family planning, people are taught that children are to be intentional and desired objects added to one's life after having advanced sufficiently in one's career, having purchased a home, etc. Of course family planning isn't a bad thing per se, but buying into this system almost uniformly and subconsciously changes those who adopt it. If you don't believe me, why do people look at you like you're insane when you talk about free-range kids?

When children are born into a family-planning system, they are usually much more carefully guarded, protected, and intentionally nurtured to do whatever it is their parents want them to do; like the decision to have children in the first place, raising them now becomes an intentional and ordered process. It makes sense to raise children this way if all your prior life decisions have been rationally-ordered to some end--your concept of child-rearing will be much less organic, happy-go-lucky, and 'ahh they'll be fine.' I used to think maybe rural areas in the US would be exceptions to this, but they aren't: they're only behind the curve in adopting the parenting viewpoints summarized above. (If anything they're worse because they're often overly-conscious of this-is-something-I-should-be-doing.) Rural areas only have the benefit of decreased oversight of your against-the-grain model of parenting.

Hence, your problem: you're trying to raise children naturally in a world where they're decreasingly viewed as a natural result of marriage/partnership. They're now something intentional. You don't necessarily want to follow that model, but most people do. So letting your kids ride the subway alone or run a lemonade stand or play unsupervised in a park might result in the police being called or some state's version of child protective services. Because, to most people, what the hell is wrong with you, letting your kids do what we all did?

tl;dr: You need to move somewhere people routinely have a lot of children, large families, and a healthy family culture. Outside of religious enclaves or a handful of third-world or developing countries, I don't know where you're going to be able to find this without simply stumbling upon some small community that shares your viewpoint. We've happened upon it here and there, but on such a small scale as not to be worth moving to on purpose.
posted by resurrexit at 8:44 AM on March 31, 2015 [17 favorites]

I gotta say, my kids do as much roaming in Minneapolis in winter as in summer. The parks department doesn't shut down in November, they set up skating rinks and cross country trails and sledding hills. The neighborhood playground is always full of kids year round, shoveling snow instead of sand. Their PE classes at school even take them outside for winter sports, kids here are basically raised to believe that there's no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

That is not just a message from the unofficial tourism board, it's also a reminder not to overlook a place just because of colder, snowier winter; winters don't *have* to be isolating if there is infrastructure and culture to support year-round outdoor activity.
posted by padraigin at 8:50 AM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

Wow, the article Naberius linked to is pretty shocking.

I live in the Netherlands and think rmless is correct, age-appropriate independence is the norm here. The country is certainly not without its problems, but for example it is normal and accepted for men/fathers to be very involved with children without anyone raising an eyebrow. In general my experience is that it is very family-oriented, though I don't know what the US is like in that regard.
posted by rubbish bin night at 8:50 AM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Germany - for weather purposes, I'd look at Freiburg or Heidelberg. You may also be able to find work across the border in Basel.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:04 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Boise! Extremely safe, lots of fun outdoorsy stuff to do, lots of other kids to play with, definitely milder winters than New England (but there's still a winter). Tech industry is big there. Surprisingly culturally progressive (despite Idaho being a red state) and all in all a charming little city. I grew up there and I miss it.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:16 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Are you homeschooling your kids? If you're not, then finding compatible schools might be key to finding a community that works for you. And if, by chance, you are homeschooling, then find an area in which a lot of parents homeschool for reasons similar to yours- if you're a leftist un-schooler you probably won't have much in common with fundamentalists of any religion who homeschool their kids.

If you are looking at other countries do you want your kids to live as expats, or live like local kids, or something in between?
posted by mareli at 9:17 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

The neighborhood I live in, in Minneapolis, constantly has kids wandering around. It is a very kid-accessible area with bike trails and many streets with almost no traffic. There are enough runners and dog-walkers and people waiting for the bus outside that I don't think a kid could really get in serious trouble. Most kids seem to walk to school (at least through middle school). The parks department runs activities at all the neighborhood parks, and there aren't a huge number of parents in attendance.

The winter sucks but people make do.
posted by miyabo at 9:18 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

+1 for Germany, but also Switzerland, where I live with my two kids. We've been here since they were 10 and 7 years old, and I have walked with them to school maybe twice in two years. Their childhood here is like mine was in New Zealand a generation ago. I send them outside to play in the morning, they come back when they get hungry, and they stay out there until dinner. My son, now 12, is building a raft with his friends and they test it in the pond (not by sitting on it; I did put my foot down on that one) outside our building.

Last year we were mildly concerned when we said our son could go for a bike ride with a friend in the forest near our place; he returned five hours later having taken a gondola up a hill, biked along the ridge, and then come down on the train. We bought a cheap "emergency phone" after that one.

This is all normal and socially acceptable behaviour. Kids here regularly go off into the forest and build campfires to grill sausages, for example. It's considered important to their development and anything physical like that is applauded.
posted by tracicle at 9:19 AM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Heh, I was also going to suggest the Netherlands. It's normal for children to travel to and from school independently, and the excellent cycling infrastructure means that they can roam pretty far as soon as they're old enough to cycle. Also, I rode the Amsterdam metro daily for several years, and it wasn't unusual to see young children riding alone.

There's high demand for software developers in the Netherlands, and many companies don't care if you can't speak Dutch. The fact that you can legally work in the EU is a big plus.

The good thing about the climate is that it's mild; it's not horribly cold in the winter and summers aren't too hot. However, it can be grey and rainy for long stretches, especially in the autumn/winter. Also, sometimes the humidity gets pretty bad in the summer, but that can vary depending on how close to the coast you are.
posted by neushoorn at 9:26 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

tracicle's story brings up an interesting point - it's not enough for you to have the courage of your free-range parenting convictions. You need other parents who do the same thing. Otherwise your kids are just out in the neighborhood alone, as the Meitiv kids apparently were. This not only makes them more conspicuous, and thus more likely to attract attention of all sorts, but also largely defeats the purpose of free-range parenting as I see it, which is for the kids to learn how to interact with other kids outside a rules system like school or soccer practice etc.
posted by Naberius at 9:27 AM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Maybe a cohousing community?
posted by amtho at 10:16 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Timely article I just came across by Michael Brendan Dougherty is entitled "Why it may be impossible to raise 'free range kids'." It's somewhat US-specific, but I think the principles apply more broadly than that. His conclusion is that, essentially, the communities that made what we've branded "free-range childhood" have disappeared:
Some people reading this may scratch their heads. They may still live in the kind of neighborhood that is characterized by a sense of shared identity and familiarity. The decline of neighborhood solidarity isn't universal across America[**], and it seems far more advanced among upwardly mobile neighborhoods than in working class areas. But it's one of the most obvious and profound changes I've noticed in my own day-to-day life. And it makes me suspect I won't be able to give my children the independence that I know is best for them.
**As noted above, I disagree. It's only movingly more slowly in some areas.

So America is right out for you, then!
posted by resurrexit at 10:51 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

It really changes from even one neighborhood to another in Oregon. I just moved from Scappoose, which is very much like living in the '80's with bands of children wandering without adults and nobody blinks. I just moved to downtown Hillsboro and there are always kids at the park/playground without adult supervision, but if you go outside the downtown core, you'll get policed by other people for e.g. leaving your 6-year-old in the car for a minute while you run into a store. I'm hoping the tenor of downtown doesn't change, because I am hoping to send my son out to play or go to a friend's house by himself when he's a little older (he's 4 now).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:02 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, has cold winters (colder, but not nearly as terrible as, what Boston went through this winter.) I can attest that tons of kids walk to school here, including mine, groups of kids can be seen daily roaming by foot and bike around the neighborhood, etc.

That said, I would caution you against making decisions based on worrying about CPS swooping in and fining you or grabbing your kids. It's easy to panic about high-profile cases you read about in the news, but as far as I can tell, incidents like the one that befell the Maitivs are pretty rare. It's kind of like the idea of a stranger kidnapping your kid; it's not that it never happens, it's that people tend to overestimate the frequency with which it happens.

If you want your kids to roam freely, don't go by news reports -- pick a place where your kids will want to roam freely. I.E. a place where there are parks, stores, schools, and other kids' houses within walkable and bikable distances, where the streets have sidewalks, where there are dedicated bike paths. Madison has all these things. But yes, the winters are long, and the density of wandering kids outside is noticeably lower during those months.
posted by escabeche at 11:03 AM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've been living in a medium-sized Flemish town in Belgium for the last 6 months, and after school is let out there are groups of kids everywhere: walking around unaccompanied, buying some candy from the drugstore, flirting on street corners while waiting for the city bus. I see the younger ones walking with their parents, but the free-range kids look like they're in about 5th or 6th grade and up. I also regularly see kids riding their bikes home from school, presumably, but unaccompanied by a parent. Nobody seems to blink an eye. Since Belgium is multi-lingual, French would be an asset here even if you weren't living in Brussels (which looks like a neat city, but I don't know enough about it to talk about the kid culture there) or Wallonia (which is not doing as well as Flanders, as far as I can tell, because the coal mines were the main driver of the economy there and they're now closed). And the winter here is pretty mild: wet and rainy mostly, like the Pacific Northwest.
posted by colfax at 11:05 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

In terms of other parents: In ten years, I've only been "policed" once here in Madison, and it was in the airport, so I'm not even sure the guy was from Madison! He was angry that I was letting my son play near the opening to the baggage carousel and threatened to call the police. In general, the atmosphere here is very "parent as you will, citizen."
posted by escabeche at 11:05 AM on March 31, 2015

We have three kids. They grew up in Los Angeles until the oldest started college two years ago, after which the younger two moved with us to San Francisco.

Holy shit, night and day. In LA, especially the burbs where their mom lives, seeing a kid on the street is a rarity. It wasn't uncommon to hear stories of parents tattling on each other for letting their kids walk a mile to school. That sort of thing. In SF, they each have a transit pass and free license to explore the city. They both have cell phones, so they can call if they get lost or otherwise need help, but that's been a pretty rare need. They seem to love it, especially the middle kid (who is going through his first foray into really, really wanting to be punk/goth/whatever it's called now).

I mentally use the availability of rock-solid public transit infrastructure as an indicator of how comfortable regions are with kids being self-directed (and no, that's not an invitation to pretend like the SF public transit system is somehow broken or awful--I grew up on a chicken farm, folks, so you'll never convince me that a bus being overcrowded and 8 minutes later than expected is a travesty). LA has some transit, and it's better in some places than others, but the distances involved are so great that people get freaked out at the sight of an unaccompanied minor. DC's been changing toward the reactionary in recent years, but that's mostly true in the outer/whiter burbs--the closer you get to the center of the city, the more you see kids with backpacks doing their own thing (I lived there for ten years and it's certainly been curbed a bit in the recent past). Most recently, Portland (Oregon) impressed me with their lack of panic over kids being mobile.

It's great that you're asking this question!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:20 AM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Such great responses! Thanks everyone.

I had been considering Holland, have thought about cohousing, I know some people from Madison and Minneapolis (but can't bear the thought of perishing Winters), have long been intrigued by Oregon, have lived in SF (but never thought of it as a place to raise kids - it's cool to hear that perspective).

Much to ponder.
posted by grubby at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2015

I would say that Bellingham, Washington has a bus system I would be OK with kids riding alone. And it goes all over the place out into the country so if a kid was really bored they could just ride the bus all day and see beautiful countryside. Good culture, college town. Kids could take college classes early if they are motivated. Pretty mild winters.
posted by cda at 1:10 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd imagine most of Europe, except the very largest cities, would fit your requirements. In Europe, "free-range children" is the norm, there are international schools in many cities and larger towns, and there are IT jobs most places.

Here in Denmark, I think the best choice is living somewhere close to one of several international schools in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen. In this area, living expenses are high, but so are wages, and actually just today there was an amazing offer for a co-housing home on my FB, which was half of the normal expense, so there are hidden opportunities. The schools are world-class and represent different ideologies to choose from. And you never need to worry - children can move freely around from the day they can handle traffic, and forests and beaches are abundant.
posted by mumimor at 4:39 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

In my trip to Spain last month, in Madrid (population 3.5 million) I routinely saw kids playing in the streets without any adults nearby, and on my trip to the airport I sat by a 4th grader who was taking the train who-knows-far for school.
posted by sandmanwv at 1:21 PM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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