Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Free ranging right off the farm...

I definitely subscribe to the parenting school of thought referred to by my friend Lisa as "benign neglect."  I love my children, I care for them, I make sure they go to a good school, I feed them, I take them to museums and the zoo and the park and all that good stuff.  But I do not hover.  My kids can be upstairs when I am downstairs.  They can be in the bathtub without me in the room.  They can play in the back yard without my supervision. They can go to a friend's house or a birthday party without me staying.  When they are 6, they will be allowed to fly unaccompanied to go visit their grandparents.

But the prevailing parenting ethos these days is very much counter to this philosophy.  There seems to be a trend towards infantalizing children, insisting that every move they make be monitored and tracked and supervised, even for kids well into their teens. 

And then people wonder why kids get to college and are incapable of fending for themselves or taking any responsibility for their actions.

I follow a blog called Free Range Kids, and the more I read, the more I resolve to allow my kids appropriate levels of independence, the freedom to explore and make mistakes and learn from them.  It's how I was raised, and I firmly believe that it's the way to go.

I'm kind of bummed that I wasn't awake during a recent episode which might have tested my resolve.

My parents live on a decent-sized plot of land set back from the road in a very quiet and safe neighborhood.  And the weather in DC last week was lovely -- a bit rainy and damp early on -- but perfectly suited to playing outside, especially if playing in the mud is your thing.  So the kids played outside and enjoyed accompanying us on walks around the neighborhood, including a very short loop that leaves via the front of my parents's house and then follows the sidewalk around to a quiet road that goes along the back of their property, where you can cut back into the yard.

Zeke was allowed to play outside by himself to his heart's content, with the caveat that he needed to tell us where he was and stay in the yard (which is huge, so this was not an onerous request).  But he was really enjoying being outside by himself and having all that woodsy space to roam in (we live in the city, so our yard is postage-stamp-sized and mostly covered with brick patio stones).  So knowing the little out-the-front-of-the-house-around-the-sidewalk-in-the-back-yard loop, he took a little stroll.

But didn't tell anyone where he was going.

I was taking a nap with Josie at the time, so I missed all the hubbub.  But J kind of freaked.  Zeke was home shortly thereafter, being "escorted" by a neighbor who was driving by -- the neighbor wisely didn't invite him into the car, but ascertained where he was going and then drove alongside of him as he walked.

Everyone told me about it afterwards when I woke up, and I guess they expected me to be all upset.  But I really wasn't.  I talked to Zeke and told him that he needed to tell a grownup before he goes outside, and definitely if he's going to go for a walk, but my immediate thought was that Zeke isn't stupid (and in fact, he's both incredibly smart AND very cautious and thoughtful with regard to his own safety).  The neighborhood is quiet and safe and there's virtually no traffic, and he knew where he was going and was never in any danger. 

Yes, four is a little young to be going off on walks alone, if only because he is not quite able to control his urge to throw things into the street (like rocks, which could hit cars, which could cause damage and piss off drivers).  But I was secretly kind of proud of his desire for, and enjoyment of, a little bit of independence.

When I was little, I walked to school by myself at the age of 6 (and was responsible for escorting my 5 year old little brother).  All my other friends did, too.  It was not a big deal at all.  I flew alone on an international flight when I was 5.  Throughout my childhood and my teens, I was given enormous freedom by my parents, who raised me to have common sense and then trusted me to use it. 

I would like to impart that same gift to my children, the judgment of the helicopter parents of my generation be damned.  The world is a much safer place than most people are willing to acknowledge.  And life is much more fun and enjoyable when you don't approach it with the assumption that there is evil and awfulness around every corner.

Are you a "free range" parent?  Do you think I'm nuts?  What were you allowed to do as a kid that you would never let your kids do today?


  1. I'm all for free range kids. Obviously. I'm also not fond of the idea that parents must keep kids entertained during all waking hours. I mean, if things like iPads had existed when my kids were little? I would have totally used them to keep the kids out of my hair so I could run around like a nut keeping the household going.

    We were definitely free range kids. In our little town, out in the country, it didn't matter.

    The one thing I did that I will not let my kids do is ride in vehicles without seatbelts.

    (Thanks for the link!)

  2. I don't know. I think I would've freaked out like Jason. Not afterwards, if I'd been napping, but if I'd been looking for him. I want my kids to grow up independent, but by the same token, I am a fretter. I certainly did a lot of things that I wouldn't let my child do - like riding my bike in Cairo suburb traffic in rush hour (with no helmet, no less).

  3. Lisa - totally agreed. Riding without seatbelts isn't a free-range, let your kids exercise judgment type of thing -- it's dangerous and an example of the *failure* to exercise common sense(plus, in most places, it's illegal). I'm not advocating dispensing with accepted safety considerations (bicycle helmets when riding, not playing house inside a dry-cleaning bag, etc.). The free range philosophy is more that the risks of abduction and horrible "what-ifs" people tend to associate with giving a child some independence are actually incredible low, and statistically, actually far lower than they were 10 or 20 years ago. The notion that things were much safer way back when is simply not true, at least when you look at the numbers. So I would rather teach my kids to fend for themselves, navigate the bus system, figure out how to ask a policeman or a bus driver if they're confused about where to go -- that sort of thing -- than keep them sequestered.

  4. LG (other Lisa) - I probably don't fret as much as I should. But I do try to constantly gauge where my kids are mentally and developmentally -- how are they reacting to things? what is their response to challenge and adversity? -- and even though I know it will be hard sometimes, when they've demonstrated that they can handle a situation, I really want to give them the independence to do it.

    Re the situation at my parents' house, if we had been in Denver, I might have freaked out a little. But in my parents' yard, he was so into going for walks around the block and being outside that after telling me that he had taken off, but before telling me where he had gone, the first thought that popped into my head was, "he went for a walk around the block."

  5. Ali Cudby4:42 PM

    It was so refreshing watching you with your kids this weekend and I loved seeing the free range parenting in action, with Zeke's sojourn into the yard to examine the dead deer. (and, yes, you did tell him not to touch it, so safety was clearly in play.) Even with teens, we are amazed to see how often friends are not allowed freedoms that seem obviously "in bounds" like using the public busses (on the mean streets of Bethesda) or walking to a friend's house. I think of the things we did (not all of them sanctioned) and realize how much good came from our independence.

  6. Ha! I forgot about the dead deer. Seriously, if you're four, a dead deer is interesting as hell, and there's no reason he shouldn't be able to look at it.

    And thank you!

  7. Anonymous6:04 PM

    amen, Wendy. I am a worrier, so this is something I am regularly forcing myself to examine. It's one of the reasons I love having Becker at a Montessori school - they are all about independence, which encourages me to do the same.

    Jen L.