The older I get, and the older my kids get, the more appealing the whole idea of being a free-range parent becomes. I want to let my children discover the world on their own terms, learn to trust their instincts, and make small, kid-sized mistakes that might keep them from making big, life-altering ones.
Free-range parenting—according to Lenore Skenazy, the mom who coined the term—is:
Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.
Free-range parenting is what I’d like to be doing. In theory. But in practice, I’m having trouble. I can’t seem to walk the walk.
That’s an apt analogy, because my first test as a wannabe free-ranger was to let my sons (ages 8 and 10) walk half-a-mile from our home to the local baseball field. By themselves.
It was an ordinary Tuesday
My 8-year-old was supposed to have baseball practice at 5 o’clock. But my husband was still at work, our older daughters were otherwise occupied, and I was temporarily sidelined due to a recent surgery.
So it came down to this: should I let my son miss baseball practice (and likely replace it with more indoor TV time), or should I swallow my hesitation and let him walk to practice and home afterward with a slightly older brother for company.
It really shouldn’t have been a hard decision. We live in a quaint New England town where people still leave their homes unlocked. (The biggest news story in recent weeks was the man who stopped at a local school playground and asked some kids for help finding his lost puppy. When the teachers heard about the man’s request, alarm bells were raised—child predator! The police were called, reports were made, a local TV news reporter showed up to cover the story, only to discover the man was harmless and legitimately just looking for his dog.)
My boys are (relatively) cautious and (reasonably) responsible. The baseball diamond is a short walk, and only one major street, away. It’s a route we’ve walked together before. There are no derelict houses, scary woods, or angry dogs en route.
It was about as safe a bet as I could imagine. And yet I hesitated.
What if something happened on the way to the baseball field?!
Kids do get hit by cars. It’s statistically unlikely—but it’s possible.
What if they encountered someone who meant to do them harm? That’s even less likely than getting hit by a car, but every once in a while a child is abducted by a stranger.
What if another mom saw the boys walking by themselves and passed judgment on my parenting? (Or called the cops. Hey, it happens.)
The consequences for all these things could be terrible.
The fear of what could be
Unlike other aspects of my life that were dictated by logic and reason, my parenting brain was primitive and reactionary; and it was being controlled by fear. Not even the good sort of fear that keeps us humans out of dangerous situations. It was the fear of what could happen—not fear of what was likely or probable. And it was outweighing everything else.
That didn't seem like a good parenting strategy, so I thought about why I was reacting this way. There were lots of possibilities: 24-hour media that shouts every terrible incident from the rooftops, our someone-must-be-held-responsible culture that demonizes parents for children’s missteps, the idea that children should be protected at all costs from anything uncomfortable.
But what it boiled down to, for me anyway, was control. If I let my kids go off by themselves, or fail to turn in their homework, or spend their allowance unwisely, then I’ve handed over control of their lives—at least in part, at least temporarily.
(By the way, this same thing plays out in a virtual sense when we choose to give our children smartphones. Handing such a powerful device to a child means relinquishing some control. And that’s hard to do. Because no app is perfectly safe and because mistakes made online can be preserved indefinitely.)
Any time you give up control over your child, even just a little, it's a reminder that one day you’ll wake up to find you've lost control completely. Maybe they'll smoke pot on the weekends. Or become physically close to someone you wouldn’t choose for them. Or decide to dedicate their lives to creating bronze sculptures of Dante’s Inferno instead of attending law school.
One day you will no longer have any say over what they’re doing, where they are, or who they’re with. That's a thought I find unusually hard to swallow, even as I recognize that when it comes to raising children that’s the whole point! We’re not raising children. We’re raising adults. The goal of all the math tutoring and baby carrots is to end up with an adult who is healthy, well-adjusted, and equipped to make his own way in the world. By himself.
Fear begets fear
I decided, in that moment of clarity, that I didn’t want to live in fear. Or raise my kids in fear. That I needed to do, as a parent, the things I was constantly advising my children to do. To trust my instincts and not put too much stock in what other people think. To take a deep breath and move forward confidently into the scary unknown. To understand that sometimes bad things happen and that you should keep going anyway.
So I pushed aside thoughts of what I'd say to the police officer who might show up, and told my 8-year-old to grab his glove and his brother and to remember to look both ways.
And off they went.
They were fine, of course. They came back happy and full of stories about hits and catches and how many pieces of bubble gum a quarter will buy you at the Snack Shed. Once they were safely back home the whole situation looked like a success. They got a taste of independence and handled it well. They didn’t get hit by a car. They didn’t get lost. They didn’t even encounter any questionable situations like a man looking for help finding a lost puppy.
I felt good about my experiment with free-range parenting. Of course, that's easy to do after things have turned out all right. The past is always so clear when you look back at it. It’s why I imagine being a grandparent is so satisfying. Grandparents can afford to be smug. I’m looking forward to that.
In the meantime, I plan to continue taking small steps toward my children’s eventual independence. One day I may feel comfortable sending my eight-year-old to the store for a gallon of milk. One day, I might even do it without worrying.
Like everything about being a parent—it’s a process.