Scene 1 (Oct. 2013, Friday afternoon): Our youngest son’s 11th birthday is on Saturday. We had promised him that, like last year, we would make pizza and have a sleep-out in the date plantation, but we would do it the week after his birthday because my husband and I were out of town that Friday. 16:00, on our way home from Jerusalem, we got a phone call from our 21-year-old daughter. “Do you know what they’re doing? They’re all here making pizza!”

He forgot that the party would be the next week, and, seeing no parents at home, took things into his own hands. He and his friends went to the kibbutz kitchen and brought 8 kg of flour, several industrial-sized cans of crushed tomatoes, cheese, onions, yeast, etc.  Our daughter convinced them that 3 kg of flour would be enough… We came home to a house covered with flour and grated cheese, and surprisingly good pizza coming out of the oven.

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Scene 2 (Dec. 2013, Friday afternoon): “Ima, we’re going for a walk.”

“OK,” I answered. “Bring water and don’t forget it gets dark early.”

My husband and I enjoyed our quiet afternoon, and just as we were starting to wonder what’s happening, they arrived home.

“Where were you?”

“We climbed up Mt. Samar.” [Well, actually a hill and not a mountain, about 100 m high, with a steep rocky path leading up to the summit.] When they got to the top, they decided to light a fire and make tea (with the single bottle of water my son brought). The only child with a telephone decided she did not want tea, and climbed down the mountain alone. After they finished their tea, the rest came home. From this incident, the children learned a few simple rules:
1) Hiking is always better than watching TV.
2) One bottle of water per child.
3) An adult has to know where they are.
4) Nobody goes up or down a mountain alone.

“Free-range parenting” is more or less par for the course here. Kibbutz Samar, where I have lived and raised three children since 1997, is unique even among kibbutzim. Samar is a self-described social anarchist community; unlike the traditional kibbutzim in which committees made rules that members had to follow, from its foundation in 1976, on Samar members have decided all personal matters for themselves, including where and how much to work and spend money. At the same time, the kibbutz is completely communal — all members take as much as we feel we need from our joint resources, eat most meals together in the dining room (or take food home from the kitchen, which is open 24/7), and send children to the same school and children’s houses. This contrast gives the children an unusual combination of diverse lifestyles within a very close community.

When I first arrived at Samar, my daughter was four and entered the nursery school-kindergarten. I noticed very quickly that there were clear rules — but many exceptions for individual children. For example, after lunch the children would play outside while the caretakers cleaned up, but one girl would sit inside and draw. [“Free-range” note: the adults were all inside, but the window over the sink overlooks the playground, so whoever was washing dishes could keep an eye out. The ability to climb a mountain safely at age 11 starts with playing in the sandbox at age four without an adult hovering over you.] I wondered how the kids dealt with these exceptions, until the day when the staff saw that my daughter was not eating breakfast and had a melt-down every day before lunch — so they gave her and only her a mid-morning snack. Suddenly I realized that each child knows deep inside that his or her needs will be met — so why be jealous of children whose completely different needs are being met in a different way?

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Our children work from an early age. Date farming is our main source of income, and we do not employ foreign workers — during the harvest, everyone helps out. They start by pushing boxes along the conveyer belt, and move on to helping their parents. By 5th grade they work together in groups, putting in an hour or so of work before running out to play. The older children build a campfire, the younger children bring the wood, someone makes dough for pita. The adults are there, in the background.

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Parents in non-communal settings can also teach their children independence, but the communal setting adds a social element: these children have been together since birth, and each age group is small — 5-8 children most years. The adults have all chosen to live here together, and we take responsibility — both financial and educational — for all of the children. The children learn this lesson of collective responsibility. In our house, for several years a group of boys would come to play with Legos, leaving a Lego-carpeted room in their wake — except on Thursdays, when they had to clean it all up. It was obvious to the boys that if they played during the week, they had to show up for the Thursday clean-up. Two of the boys did not get along; the others were (usually) successful in keeping the peace between them.

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Life is not perfect here — not for the children and not for the adults. The supportive group from early childhood can become an oppressive clique in adolescence; while most of the children stay close with others from the kibbutz, some prefer to hang out with different school friends. No lifestyle is perfect for everyone, but as I prepare now for my third child’s group Bar Mitzva, I can’t think of a better place to live and raise my children.