There’s an interesting movement out there called “Free-Range Kids”. It’s based on a book with the same name, by Lenore Skenazy.
The basic idea is that we are over-coddling our kids by not letting them go out on their own and explore, that we hover over them with horrible, unjustified concerns about their safety. Yet, my generation grew up riding our bicycles everywhere and given the freedom to explore and learn. (And it’s not like things are less safe these days, either.)
What prompts this entry is an incident in which a police officer brought a kid back home for being barefoot.
It’s described in this blog entry, My Son Went Outside Barefoot. Is This a Crime?. Here’s how it starts:
Dear Free-Range Kids: Imagine my surprise as I looked out the second story window only to see my 10 year old son walking into our driveway with a police officer’s car creeping along with him! You see my son was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes” and this was apparently alarming to law enforcement.
Actually, he was outside, without shoes, waiting for his friend to arrive, and in his great anticipation, had decided to walk a few houses up the street. (How terribly childlike of him!) The officer asked him, “WHY ARE YOU OUT ALONE WITHOUT YOUR SHOES?” And my son (quite nervous and experiencing an anxiety-induced brain freeze) said, “Uhmm, I don’t know.” The officer took note of his name and address and drove away after he was safely inside. I am left to wonder if there’s a file at the police station with my child’s name on it with a note about the boy who was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes.”
It’s worth it to go over and read the whole thing, and all the comments (over 150 at this moment) that go with it. [Update: If you go to the link above, you'll find that that entry is no longer there. Why, I do not know. However, you can find an archived copy here.]
My thoughts: while it is unfortunate that our culture has come to this, we have gotten to the point where simply being barefooted is going to attract attention.
Police are trained to look for the unusual and investigate. And like it or not, these days seeing a barefoot kid is unusual.
That is so different from, say, 50 years ago. In many rural areas, kids still would go barefoot all summer long. When I am hiking barefoot in organized hikes I still have folks older than me tell me about it, and how they would run across gravel without any difficulty (and then they add, “But I could never do that now.”)
The cops have also been influenced by the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” signs. As I’ve mentioned before, folks have forgotten that the origin of those signs was merely to keep out hippies in the 1960s. But folks figure that there must have been some sort of valid reason, so they assume one, and decide that bare feet must have somehow been dangerous, or some sort of health risk. So when they see a kid with bare feet, they automatically assume that something must be wrong.
While a cop might be justified to investigate (again, I have to add “these days”), having him take the kid back home seems like too much. The investigation (talking to the kid) didn’t really reveal any problem, even if the kid didn’t respond with a practiced soliloquy. But then, a cop should never expect a kid to respond with a practiced soliloquy.
Nonetheless, that’s what cops do. I’ve written before about a guy named Davy Cady, who was questioned by police on a hot day for being shirtless and barefoot, and for jogging and stretching (while talking to himself). Cops are allowed to do so.
That was back in 2000 or so, before barefoot running really took off, so such a sight really was a bit stranger than it is today. The way to handle such things with cops is simply to say, “I’m fine, officer,” and continue on one’s way.
But that won’t work, really, with kids. They don’t have the wherewithal to deal effectively with cops. I wish I had some magic words of advice, but I just don’t. It is something that we are going to expect might happen now and again.
It would be nice if going barefoot could be returned to being considered “normal.” Those of us in the barefoot movement (and the barefoot running movement) are making strides in that direction. Just being out there and being seen can make being barefoot be less strange. But I doubt that we’ll ever make a big enough impact to completely eliminate these sorts of encounters.
And that is unfortunate.
(H/T to Beach Bum, in this comment.)