“Free-Range Kids” is a term coined by Lenore Skenazy who stirred up a lot of backlash for letting her 9yo son ride the New York City subway alone (something they did together often and he was comfortable doing on his own) and then writing about it. For that she was dubbed “The World’s Worst Mom.” That article spawned a blog, a book, a TV show, and a whole lot of hate mail.
But she’s also become a torch in the abyss of parenting where helicoptering rules the day and children’s freedoms are greatly limited.
Basically, she’s my hero. Before I learned about Free-Range Kids I was constantly worried about something happening. Not to my kids but to our family if some busy-body neighbor decided they didn’t think it was safe for my kids to play outside without me watching their every move. I’ve been Free-Range since I started having kids but she gave a “title” to the concept. I just called it, “parenting.” Or doing things the way my parents did because if it was good enough for me and my brother then it was good enough for my kids.
But if you’ve ever been on parenting sites/message boards like CafeMom or Circle of Moms you’ll know that parenting isn’t that “easy.” There are many books and experts and rules to follow or your kid will be totally screwed up (or so they tell you). And if you really, really love your kids you will NEVER let them out of your sight and will track their every move with GPS and never let them have any independence (because they should just get to be kids without responsibilities–why should Johnny make his on PB&J if Mom is sitting there doing nothing, that’s her job… nevermind Johnny is 10 and perfectly capable of making his own damn sandwich) for fear “something” might happen.
The paranoia that surrounds modern day parenting is suffocating. And if you don’t fall in line you can become a social pariah. Or worse, you could lose your kids thanks to reactionary busy-bodies, cops and family members (what do you mean you let 9yo Susie ride her bike around the block! Don’t you know there are predators on every corner waiting to snatch her away, I’m calling CPS right now!).
But thanks to Lenore there is a safe-haven online for parents to go when they refuse to fall into the paranoia and fear-mongering and believe the world ISN’T more dangerous than when we were kids (it’s just advertised more). And that kids CAN be capable and trusted.
Since moving out of Chicago I’ve been able to relax even more with my parenting philosophy. It helps that there isn’t a whole lot of traffic here (compared to our neighborhood in Chicago) and just about everyone else is Free-Range here (not that our Chicago neighborhood wasn’t Free-Range). I just don’t even think about it anymore, don’t second guess my decisions to allow them freedom. It’s just “normal” here.
Today I decided I was going to make tacos for a late lunch/dinner. I had the ground turkey cooking when I remembered we didn’t have any refried beans. Now I can make them without but they are better with the beans in them and they tend to last longer that way (which is very important with a family of 7). What to do? Now one of those helicopter type moms would turn the food off, gather up all the kids, get them in the car, drive to the store, take all the kids in, pick up a can of beans, check out, get all the kids back in the car, drive home then continue cooking. For the ones that don’t have a car (like me) it would entail walking. And sometimes you just don’t feel like walking (like after you spent the morning cleaning the house).
I was about to just eat them without the beans because it isn’t that big of a deal but then I remembered I have three very capable, independent children. Meagan, who will be 12 next month, just happened to be at home so I told her to go to the store. At first she didn’t want to because she’s too afraid (she has generalized anxiety) to go alone. Sigh. So I told her to go find Owen (10) and Brenna (9) so they could do it. She never did look for them. Instead she ran into a friend and she agreed to go. So Meagan; her friend, Alyssa (12); and Nora (6) walked to Safeway. They came back an hour later with the correct items I asked for. But not the correct change. Still not sure what they did with that extra dollar.
And what did I do? I continued to cook the meat and watch Jack (my almost 2yo) and watch random videos online. The girls had a blast doing something on their own and I got a quiet house for an hour (Jack, not withstanding).
Now, a lot of non-free-range parents would balk at my naivety (as they would call it). Don’t I know that ANYTHING could happen? How I could I put my kids in that kind of danger? Don’t I care?
What exactly is “anything?” Well there’s getting hit by a car, tripping, scraping a knee, choking on change, getting scared, getting lost, having to cross the train tracks, having to cross a busy street. And, of course, the constant threat of kidnappers just waiting behind every bush and in every nondescript white van. I would get reamed on the parenting message boards for something like this. I can just picture the reactions: horror, disgust, threats to call CPS (even if they have no idea where I live). I obviously must not care much about their safety and well-being if I just let them walk a mile to the store without me right there. Not to mention making them do something that should only be the mother’s job (shopping). Why aren’t they playing video games or texting friends inside their safe houses like they should be? Never mind I have no idea where my other two kids are.
I haven’t seen Brenna or Owen all day. Owen popped in my room this morning to say he was going to the park (they were having some kind of BBQ hosted by a local church–free food… I’m all over that, saves me money). They were gone when I got up. I assume they’re still at the park or at their friends’ houses.
And never mind that all of this is perfectly normal in our neighborhood. There are always kids all over, no parents to be seen. Kids walk/ride bikes to the Safeway and Bi-Mart all the time. Just the other day Owen and Brenna went to RiteAid (next to Safeway) to buy some candy. They had $4 ($2 that was Brenna’s and $2 I gave them). They had a blast and came home just in time for dinner (of course they were full of candy but whatever).
I love having free-range kids. They are independent, self-reliant and capable of caring for themselves. All of which makes my life easier because I don’t have to pour five bowls of cereal every morning or make five sandwiches every afternoon. I don’t have to do all that laundry or spend hours sitting on the porch bored out of my mind while I watch them play with their friends. And better for them because they aren’t stuck only playing with each other where I can see them. There’s a whole world (well, neighborhood for now) out there to explore.
Do I worry about them when I can’t see them? Of course. I’m their mother, it’s what I do. There are panicky moments occasionally when I wonder where they are and if they are okay but they pass when I remind myself that the chances of them not being all right are pretty slim.
But I refuse to let the media-induced fear rule our lives. My kids will play outside on their own, walk to the store alone, sit in the car while we run into Wal-mart, stay home alone, take their baby brother to the park, cut their own food, do their own laundry and take care of themselves as much as they can. And, amazingly, after all that there is still plenty of time to just be a kid. Or maybe it’s because of that they have so much time to be kids. Because, really, what kind of childhood is it if Mommy is always two feet away, waiting for you to screw up so she can fix it, filling your little head with fear and paranoia? I know my best memories of being a kid did NOT involve my parents… just me, my brother and our friends. And the world.
[that would be my kids up there on that bridge somewhere… by themselves where once some people were nearly washed away when a rock fell from the top of Multnomah Falls causing a tidal wave in the pond below the bridge]