Teenagers: Feral or Free Range?

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My sister, visiting from back East, was surprised when my middle school son arrived home from school on a public bus.  She called my boys "free-range kids," because they make their own way to and from almost everywhere on buses, subways, bicycles and by foot. Her kids and many others raised in suburban or rural communities that lack public transportation are driven everywhere until they're old enough to drive themselves. And many other kids are so highly scheduled and monitored that, for better or worse, the independence that comes with freedom of mobility comes later for them than for my kids.

A co-worker uses the term "feral teenagers" to describe the aimlessness of teenage boys. I've been contemplating these terms -- close but so different in their connotations -- and what they mean for my kids and their friends. The term "free range" invokes positive images, like grass-fed cows or home grown tomatoes, while the term "feral" is decidedly negative, invoking images of rampant procreation, infectious disease and risky and destructive behavior.

As a parent, how do I know when free range involves too much freedom and too far-reaching a range? What are the signs of a teenager in transition from free range to feral, and will I recognize them when I see them?

My boys know the San Francisco Muni system better than any adult I know, and they love the freedom of a monthly Fast Pass in their pocket. I'm proud they have the confidence to make their own way around the city and are developing an appreciation for public transportation.

But I confess there are times, as the evening moves into night, that I worry, quite certain I don't know the difference between free range and feral when it comes to teenagers. I remind myself that if these terms were applied to me as a teenager, I was mostly free range and only went feral occasionally, and turned out ok. And when I hear their key in the door, I head out to greet them and ask about their evening, hoping to confirm once again that free range has won out over feral.


With a Perspective, I'm Helen Doyle.