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The End of Free Range Childhoods?

A few years ago, Tytia Habing moved back to the stretch of land where she grew up in rural Illinois, just a half-mile from her parents.  “I’m right back where I started,” she said, among the same fields of beans and corn, among the same people.  Except one, in particular.

Now there’s Tharin, her son. He was born overseas, and he was 4 when they moved to Illinois. He’s 8 now, and he has bruised knees, dirty nails and an endless well of energy. His parents wanted him to be outside in a safe, wide-open place where he has freedom to roam, and that meant coming home.

Habing, a photographer, began to shoot images of Tharin as he first explored this land that was so familiar to her. Only once she looked more closely did she realize she had more than family snapshots. It was black-and-white memories of childhoods past.

“He was getting to do the things that I got to do when I grew up,” Habing said.

Of course, she and her son are different. She was a quiet and content girl, she said. She spent hours playing with her siblings.  Tharin is an only child, and he is nonstop motion. He will get up the morning and head outside to check on the plants or hunt the bugs around the farm. Cats love him, and new ones seem to emerge all the time, seeking affection from him.

He’s obsessed with his four-wheeler and will venture all over the farm, exploring new territory and getting stuck in mud puddles.  “His grandpa has one, his uncle has one, he thinks he needs a bigger and better one,” Habing said. “He will literally ride that four-wheeler all day long, till he runs out of gas.”

Habing shoots in black and white just because it’s how she feels most comfortable. Still, to capture an image is a pleasant coincidence. There’s no hovering over Tharin.  “You still can’t plan it,” Habing said. “I just let him do his own thing.”

She gets a lot of email from older people, she said — people who happen upon her photos and see a childhood that looks like their own, one that seems almost impossible for a kid to have now.

“You can’t just let your kid run anymore. You get arrested, basically,” she said. “I want him outside and to learn things on (his) own.”

Not all the photos inspire warm nostalgia. Habing often captures Tharin with toy guns, and she’s noticed that the images raise eyebrows. To Tharin, anything can be a weapon, whether is a water gun, a stick or a piece of cardboard.

They are not “gun people,” she said, but there are actual guns around the farm. More likely, he learned it from TV or video games, she said — he certainly plays more of those than she did.

Or maybe it’s just Tharin. Or just age 8. Or just boyhood.

Children, Habing believes, need to connect with nature, make mistakes and get themselves out of jams.

“I hope people will look at them,” she said of her photos, “and remember that kids need to be outside.”