Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Free-Range Parenting

I was turned on to a web site recently about Free-Range Parenting: . Maybe some of you remember the big broohaha when Lenore Skenazy wrote a column for the New York Sun in which she admitted letting her 9 year old son ride the subway alone. Oh, the flack she got!

Little did she knew that this article would lead to a new trend in American parenting culture..."free-range parenting". Essentially, it is a recognition of societal fear mongering which has caused all of us to become somewhat insane in our parenting. We are, as she has coined, "Helicopter Parents" who hover and try to "fix" everything. We want to spare our children any exposure to any injury...real or imagined...and we want to control their every move. We fear their kidnapping by a stranger at every turn. We over-parent, we don't allow our children freedom to explore and learn on their own.

And in many ways, we have totally ruined childhood.

We blame much of the way childhood has changed on the advent of video games and other technology. But what about the fact that we won't allow our kids to play at a park, ride their bikes or hang out at the pool for fear of "Stranger Danger"? Kids don't know how to play a pick up game of baseball anymore because an adult is not there to run it and tell them what to do! We refuse to allow our kids to learn any lessons the hard way so they grow up into functioning adults...then complain when they are 17 that they can't seem to do this simplest tasks on their own.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I ponder how to teach some of our kids logic, which is a component missing in many ways from some of their thinking due to no fault of their own and the utter lack of parenting. This whole subject also seems to be one that has stuck in my craw for a long time and I see how I have gently tried to buck the tide and parent more in the ways I was parented as a kid rather than as kids are parented today. I admit I don't always succeed in ways I wish I had, and I wouldn't exactly label our kids "Free Rangers" but long before this movement began I was incredulous at some of what I saw...and I bear the criticism sometimes for it.

I have been chastised for letting our 3 sons "shop" in the toy aisle at Target all alone. I am in the store, they are together, and they are not 3 or 4 years old...they are 11, 10 and 7 for goodness sake! Statistics I found from 2009 show that .2% of child abuductions were stranger abductions. That is less than 1% of all abductions being strangers...not non-custodial parents or the like. And for THAT statistic I am going to keep my kids chained to my side at all times? The problem, as I see it, is that our 24/7 media takes every abduction story and the sad stories we all have heard about are replayed thousands of times, unrelenting in their pounding. We naturally internalize this fear and react to it. I recklessly abandon my kids in public places to fend for themselves? No, of course not and I do ask that they go to the bathroom in pairs, but I feel that is reasonable precaution.

I wish we lived on a road that was safer for the kids to take off and ride bikes, but off our cul de sac is a busy country road where vehicles drive usually at around 60 MPH despite the posted speed limit of 45 MPH. With no sidewalk, that is not safe. But I do let them ride their bikes up our little road to the mailbox unattended about which I also have been questioned a time or two.

I find it ridiculous that for an hour soccer practice every parent freaks out if their kid doesn't have a water bottle attached to them. Yea, sue me. It is ONE HOUR, for goodness sake! We are not talking Southern Arizona and 110 degrees here during soccer season! And if my kid forgets their water bottle for practice sometime, I'll bet you next time they'll remember it. I also don't think it is necessary for my child to take a water bottle to school so they can have water sitting at their desk. Isn't that what drinking fountains are for? Is there REALLY a risk of my child becoming dehydrated inside...sitting at their desk...with a fountain 6 steps away?

We took a lot of flack the first year that Matthew went to church camp because he was only 8 years old. One of my closest friends at the time had a son his age and said "I just couldn't imagine taking him to camp and leaving him for a whole week all by himself.". What? A supervised, well run camp with screened and experienced staff with your son 24/7 is "all by himself"? Matt was ready to go and let loose of us a little, so why not allow it? But in her eyes, it made me a horrible parent. This year with Josh is a little different, and because of his background we were on the fence with it, but if he had insisted in going you bet we would have let him...even if he is only 7.

Our kids climb trees, even if other adults immediately tell them to get down as happened yesterday at softball practice while Josh was up in a tree maybe 6 feet off the ground. Our kids walk barefoot sometimes...yes, horror of horrors they do. Our kids ride bikes around the campground without an adult. Our kids stay up until sometimes midnight during the summer...oh my gosh! We are ruining them by breaking a schedule! Our kids use knives and we insist they cut their own meat, except Josh who is not yet coordinated enough to do it. They get their own breakfast often...because they can pour milk and cereal into a bowl as easily as I can. Our kids have the TV turned off and are told to go outside and play, and not come back in for at least 30 or 40 minutes. Our kids are allowed to light candles with adults present, our kids have learned how to start a fire. Our kids use a stove, they climb on rocks, they even...oh my goodness...throw them once in awile.

All of this might sound normal to many of you. Sadly, in today's world for many kids it is not, and we are seen as poor parents for allowing our kids opportunities to grow up and try things, gain skills, etc. For Pete's sake, a hundred years ago kids that were our kids ages were farming and ranching, and often were only a couple of years away from getting married and running their own households! We have stretched out childhood so long that even in their mid-twenties most kids today are not capable of functioning all alone in the world. Kids go to college and have never done a load of laundry in their life, have never cooked a meal, have never even been alone for a weekend!!!

Some of this is sort of Free-Range parenting and much of it is Love and Logic parenting. I guess we are a combo of both. I don't "save" our kids from learning lessons the hard way. I actually had to talk to myself just yesterday when Olesya wanted to take a pocket knife and try to whittle a piece of wood. My instinct was to say "no", my logic said "OK" so I instructed her to watch the direction she was cutting and keep her hands away from the blade and then let her go to town with it. She had fun, came away from it uninjured, and if she had hurt herself she would have learned a valuable lesson while getting stitches. Sound harsh? It is not intended to be, but kids are being denied the opportunity to encounter real learning experiences by parents trying to keep them safe from all possible harm.

Kenny has gone to school many times without a jacket when it has been pretty darned cold, and eventually figured out he needed a jacket. Angela wore a long sleeve shirt in Denver this weekend and we had told her "It's going to be hot, you might want to think about a short sleeve shirt!" but she wanted the long sleeved one, then grinned sweatily as she admitted the next day that she should have listened. They are all learning to get their library books in the stack to be returned or pay the fine themselves, because it is not mom's job to keep track of books for 5 kids. They have learned about what makes a good friend and what does not by learning some tough lessons with encounters with others who disappoint. They also have learned, even the girls already, that when Mom and Dad DO put our foot down, no means no.

I'd like to think that one of the reasons we have so few battles with the kids and enjoy a great deal of respect from them is that we are reasonable in our requests, and DO let them learn from their own mistakes. We respect THEM and their intellect, and their ability to experience things and grow from those experiences. We are not placing harnesses on them day and night, so they don't strain against the harness on the ocassions when it is deemed necessary to place it on. Don't want to wear a jacket and it is 50 degrees out?'ll figure that one out yourself. Didn't get your assignment done? Darn, sorry you'll miss out on the fun activity but your smart enough to make sure that doesn't happen the next time. Fell down after we mentioned that activity might not be wise? live and learn just like we all sometimes have to do. Forgot your water bottle and are dying of thirst? Glad you'll remember next time so this doesn't happen again!

I know our methods of parenting won't work for every parent or every kid, but it has worked for our family and I am so glad as they are growing old enough to see the results. And maybe...just maybe...when they go off to college they will know how to woprk the washing machine and will have been left alone a few times so they can handle it!!


Trisha and Jim said...

Free range parenting or just logical parenting? Kids do need a chance to do things on their own! I teach kindergarten and find it amazing what kids can do, on their own, when their parents are not around.

The Insanity of Yca said...

If I had a dollar for every time I was told by another parent that I'm careless with my children, I could pay for all four colleges and still have enough leftover for the hubby and I to take a nice Hawaiian vacation! God made children resilient! If we don't learn to let them learn how to fly, they will be crippled in the nest forever. It is extremely hard sometimes, I'll admit. My Mama heart wants to protect them from EVERYTHING! But in the long run, their independence will do thems o much better. Thank you, Lajoy family, for shining a nice big light on this!! :)

Dee said...

Amen Cindy. I let my kids walk to the pool, walk and ride bikes in our neighborhood, walk to school, etc. I let them fix their own meals. They both have to do their own laundry and put it away. Mike ran out of clothes the other day and I said well, guess you'd better do your laundry! Live and learn. You ARE RIGHT -kids don't need helicopters! I have a friend who is the opposite of you and I am tempted to send her a link to your column, but she'd never "get it."

Keep up with the good work my friend!

Anonymous said...

Agree with you 100%!

It's like teaching a kid how to swim so they can save themselves if they fall into water, rather than watching them every second of their lives.

Learning to make good choices is essential to healthy adulthood. Over-protecting kids is very damaging.

Peggy in Virginia

Anonymous said...

We let our Josh go camping in the mountains about four miles from our house when he was 7. He practiced on the place first. We gave instructions to be at his camp at 8a.m. He wasn't. He had gone exploring and lost track of time--not lost, just having fun. We let our daughter Paige go to Japan when she was 15 and travel cross country in Japan without anyone else. She had four hours and seven stops on the Bullet Train--that is, until the typhoon hit and held the train up for hours and extra stops. She figured out how to listen for the stops and got off where she was supposed to. Both survived childhood and are competant adults. My grandson plays without constant supervision in the heart of LA. He has instructions and my daughter keeps a close on on him, but he is a 5-year-old learning to be competant and to stay safe. Hurrah for you and for free-range parenting. Your kids will know how to plan their own time, how to make intelligent decisions, that choices have consequences, and they will grow up to be competant, caring adults.

Go Team LaJoy!

Barbara said...

I am so glad to hear I am not the only "awful" parent as I have heard over the years from other parents for letting my kids ride their bikes, walk to school, go to the mall with friends, and yes, even do chores. My kids may grumble at some of the things they have had to do on their own and the lessons they have learned, but I now have 3 teenage boys who can cook, clean, and take care of themselves and have had some great adventures because we let them be "kids". My oldest just finished his first year of college, a military college, he had to iron his uniforms, polish his shoes and brass, and clean his room daily amongst other things Knobs had to do just because they were Knobs on top of his Navy ROTC obligations. He was shocked his roommate could barely make his bed or fold his clothes. I am so glad my husband and I gave the boys the skills and yes the "freedom" so many parents shield their kids from these days. They miss out on so much, and the lessons they learn from their mistakes are ones they carry with them and what helps to shape them to be better adults.


Jennifer M said...

Amen! Preach it! I heard a wonderful quote awhile back that I live by for the most part: "If the worst that can happen is broken bones and/or stitches, let them go."

teshak said...

I couldn't have said it any better. I got a "talking to" by another mom because I let my daughter (10) and her daughter go 5 blocks to the neighborhood pool on their own. Even with my daughter texting me when she is there and when she is coming home. So my daughter lost a friend because of my "irresponsibility" and should have known that her daughter isn't an adult. Couldn't believe it. At least my daughter knows how to deal with life so that she will be prepared when she is an adult.
Have you ever thought about writing for a colomn? You always know how to put things into words.

Lou said...

I love the idea of teaching kids to be independ - it's part of growing up. Kudo's

Kathryn said...

I'm 18, and I'm going to France (and I'm from England, so it's only a shorthaul flight) on my own for four days this summer... and some people's reactions to that have astounded me! Anyone would think I was going to a war zone... I agree completely with you :)

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more! Have you read Lenore Skenazy's book? Very good and just about the only parenting book you need to read because once you read it you realize that most parenting books are written to make us feel more guilty so we'll buy more books! Mishelle

Deb said...

Iam afraid I was a helicopter parent yesterday, but I try not to be.
lets set the scene and you all tell me if I handled it correctly becuase I want my son to free.

My son is 4, he likes to play wih the 8 year old across the street. She usually plays well with him, but she has not concept of sharin or of interacting with smaller and younger kids appropriately.

2 other girls in the neighborhood joined the fun- 5 and 4 years old.

I brought water balloons over to the sprinkler party in the front yard. My son has never liked sprinklers, but he wanted to play and left alone, I knew he would eventually join in the running through the sprinkler with the girls and he would have a blast. Well the 8 year was not having it that he would not run through the sprinkler so she decided that the girls would chase him down and bomb him with the water balloons to get him wet. If it had been the 4 year coming up with this idea- I might have let it go, but since the 8 year old is bigger and faster and her intend was to make him pay for not getting wet immediately, I stepped in after she chased him twice (the balloons missed him and she was getting more frustrated). I paired up with the 5 year old and paired the 2 4 year olds together to play water balloon toss. This allowed my son to get wet due to missing the toss but also took him out of the 8 year old reach.
By the end of the time, he was running through the sprinkler and loving it. The other 2 moms present (including the 8 year old's mom) said nothing to her about chasing down a smaller child, a child they know is shy and timid in new situations.

so was I too much of helicopter parent, or was I teaching my son how to side step his shyness and timidness and allow him the freedom to enter the game on his timing?

thanks for sharing awesome examples of what I want for my son and for how I want to parent.

Love and hugs,

Karen said...

When I was 3 1/2 and my mother was taken up with the care of a newborn, I'd regularly leave the house and wander on my own. Nothing awful ever happened. In fact, everything went right. I learned to love the outdoors and made friends with neighbors of all ages near and far. All these years later, I have an abiding sense that I am safe in the world and I trace this gift directly back to my early childhood.

Anonymous said...

I'll confess - I am so paranoid about stranger abduction that I lock my daughter's bedroom door at night! Our bedrooms connect through the bathroom, so both our doors are locked. I have this horrible fear that someone will try to break into the house and steal her, because I know that it has happened. I know that it hasn't happened often, but it has happened.

Kelly and Sne said...

Sorry for the delay in blog stalking as we were in Kaz meeting our daughter (!) and didn't have access to blogs for a month. I recently read an article about the differences in parenting styles in France and here and the author likened the French way to 'free range parenting' and, since she was living in France, decided that it was ultimately better. I will admit that I lean more toward the free range side but my husband is a helicopter and VERY risk averse (talk about role reversal!). It makes for some difficult parenting as, if I let our son do something risky on his own and he gets hurt (I don't let him do anything that would require us to tap our high deductible health care though!), then it's MY fault, of course. But I do believe that kids should learn their own lessons.

Ohiomom2121 said...

Dear Cindy,
After 4 boys and 23 broken bones between them, I have become increasingly cautious...seems like every time there was a chance to get hurt, they found it! We moved near a park and I thought it was OK to let them play there alone, until an elementary school girl in their school was raped there. I insisted on taking them to the park after that. I felt bad, but the risk wasn't worth it. My 2 adult sons will both say I was too protective, but neither of them seems to have been stunted by it. One son got run over by a tractor after he slipped off, and fortunately that 6 foot tire didn't break his spine when it rolled over his back (it only split his skin in several places)...they never rode a tractor again as a "guest." I think each parent needs to assess their risk tolerance and our current stance is that whoever is more cautious in any given situation (Mom or Dad) is allowed to decide whether the child is allowed to do something. Seeing a 7 yo in a wheelchair for 2 weeks b/c of a "fun" tractor ride, and realizing that only by a hair was the stay not permanent (or worse) tends to make a helicopter out of a parent. These are judgment calls and really there is no right answer, and probably issues like whether they are required to be responsible for themselves, laundry, or even their siblings will have greater consequences for their character than whether they were allowed to go to the mall by themselves. Getting my boys to adulthood in one piece was often a gauntlet, and I am proud to be a bit of a helicopter. Of course, the fact that my 2d son just graduated boot camp and wants to attend sniper school should demonstrate that my caution did not stunt his courage. I really do think it is more about the responsibility you give them than the safety net you throw that makes the difference. Just sayin!

TheHappyNeills said...

Our pastor says his philosophy with his daughters (especially the first who was very adventurous) was, "If the worst that can happen is a broken arm, let them carry on. If it'd be a broken neck, then say no."