Spencer: Free To Be Forty

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The children’s album "Free to Be … You and Me" turns 40 this
November. Former journalist and commentator Suzanne Spencer Rendahl
reflects on how the album has been a life-long companion for herself and
now her own children.

(Spencer) In the
early 1970s, my family lived the hippie lifestyle which included raising
goats and chickens on a tiny island in Washington State’s Puget Sound.
So naturally the vinyl of "Free to Be … You and Me" – which turns 40
this November – played in the background.

Marlo Thomas, the star
of the late 60s ground-breaking sitcom "That Girl," created "Free to
Be" to provide her niece with an alternative to what she considered the
stereotypes of girls in children’s books at the time. The all-star
multi-racial cast of writers and performers included Shel Silverstein,
Carl Reiner, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, Mel Brooks, Alan Alda, and
Thomas, herself. The album – still in print – has sold more than a half
million copies.

Its songs, stories and poems told boys that it
was OK to have dolls and girls that they didn’t have to get married.
Retired football star Rosey Grier told all children that:

It’s alright to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you.
It’s alright to cry
It might make you feel better …

"Free to Be" didn’t address bigger problems that too many children
faced then and now, including abuse, poverty, racism and homophobia. It
didn’t try to. It simply informed children of their birthright to be
free to be themselves. As the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote in the
afterword of the 1973 companion book: "It’s a manual for what is

I rediscovered "Free to Be" in a used CD store in my
early 20s and felt as if I’d won the lottery. But when I heard Diana
Ross’s song "When We Grow Up," the feminist in me cringed.

When we grow up, will I be pretty?
Will you be big and strong?
Will I wear dresses that show off my knees?
Will you wear trousers twice as long?

now when I listen in my early 40s, I keep coming back for Diana’s
soaring voice, the flute, and the main message, that when we grow up, we
don’t have to change at all.

And I smile when I consider that
even though my husband and I "grew up" over the past 20 years with the
challenges of multiple career changes, a 200-year-old farmhouse and two
kids, the best part of us hasn’t changed.

I recently tried once
again to convince my kids that we could follow Carol Channing’s advice
on "Free to Be" that housework goes better when done together. I hit
play and we sang along to the album while picking toys, books, and
puzzle pieces up off the family room floor.

And forever an
idealistic child of the 70s, I paused amid the chaos to reflect on all
the barriers that have come down for men and women in the last 40 years
and imagined what my children and their generation could be free to be.

You and me
You and me
You and me
And you and me are free to be you and me

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