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Spencer: Free To Be Forty

(Host)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 ...

Granted,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 possible.

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?

Butnow 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

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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