From the Archives: Free Range Kids

Some poor misguided person called me “laid back” today. She was watching my kids play in the pool and commented about how relaxed I seemed, considering that my four-year-old daredevil did a flip a little too close to the edge (he was summarily scolded and given a time out). Truth be told, I am one of the most high-strung, perfectionistic, controlling people I know. My poor children will be lucky to survive my over-achiever approach to mothering and home-schooling. That’s the truth.

Perhaps what she saw as “laid back” was actually an intentional stifling of my natural instinct to protect at all costs. I realize that children cannot grow up unless you give them some space in which to do so, but giving them that space requires a willingness to look the other way when they are doing something risky. I stop things that are downright dangerous or disobedient, but probably allow a lot more than most parents these days. This discussion reminds me of an old blog entry I wrote but never posted. And so I give you, from the archives, my two cents’ worth on parenting.

Free Range Kids (July 31, 2010)

Lenore Skenazy, the New York Sun columnist who coined the phrase “free range kids,” allowed her 9-year-old son to find his way home from the city on the subway, and then wrote about it. Her column sparked a controversy that deeply divided two camps: those who said “you should go to jail” and those who countered “you should receive a medal.” I’ll give you one chance to guess which response we choose.

The controversy hints at an important underlying question: is the world inherently more dangerous now than it was a couple of generations ago, when children were sent out in the morning and called in for supper? Or are parents just more neurotic than they used to be? Even when I was a kid in the 70s, we walked to school, the older children looking after the younger ones, and kids were allowed to roam in the woods and in their neighborhoods, largely unsupervised and parents didn’t worry the way they do now. An older person I know said he thought that the world was more dangerous—child molesters at one time were locked up for life, or were put to death, so maybe there are more of those types running around, imaginations fueled by internet filth. Of course, parents can now look at an online database and find out where the registered sex offenders live, so maybe an increase in information sharing makes us more paranoid, too. I realize that this is only one of the many dangers that threaten children, but whether they face more of them or we are more protective (or both), children in our demographic are raised differently now than they were—their lives are more scheduled and they enjoy less free time to explore and discover their own limitations. Or worse, they are so badly spoiled that their potential is lost or wasted.

My oldest son, Eli, went with my brother and his kids to a cousin’s baseball game not too long ago. Preoccupied with the game, my brother didn’t realize that the crowd that was gathering under the lamp post was staring at his nephew, who had shinnied to the top, the way he does a coconut palm or the mast of our boat. I probably should have scolded him, but actually I felt rather proud of his climbing prowess. People are always surprised and often dismayed by what our children can do. When Sam, our youngest son, was 2, he would dive for coins in the swimming pool at our marina. Inevitably, someone always freaked out and thought a baby was drowning. They looked at me incredulously when I reassured them that my toddler was just fine—then he would come up with a handful of nickels and pennies. Our daughter Sarah has many times shocked folks in an anchorage with her aerial acrobatics wearing a climbing harness to swing around the rigging.  Aaron, our second son, rebuilt a carburetor on an outboard motor at 7, and got his Florida boater’s license at 8, which makes him independent in the dinghy. I mention these things not to boast about the children, because I don’t think they are unusually gifted, though I do admire them. I think they are doing what all children would do if they were allowed the time and freedom to explore their interests and try daring deeds.

[flickr: 5399744648]

Without the hindrances of tyrannical school and sports schedules, TV, video games, iPods or other gadgets, our children have been allowed to pursue various activities, to be bored occasionally and have to use their imaginations to entertain themselves, and to try stunts that make onlookers gasp. They have, in short, been allowed to find out for themselves what it is they’re made of. That used to be one of the main goals of child-rearing, but it seems that quality is now rare. What we do have in abundance now is the “helicopter” parent, who hovers at the periphery waiting to zoom in and help solve whatever problem they see, real or imaginary.

Busy parents have traded good training for micro-managing. Ironically, we are very protective of our kids (some would argue over-protective)—we guard closely what they eat, who they play with, what they learn, and what they watch, things which affect their health and character development. We set high standards, scold, spank, and offer rewards for good behavior, although those things are considered old-fashioned. Based on children that we observe in public, we think most parents have gone to one of two extremes: allowing too much freedom and not enough guidance, or providing so much guidance that their children feel smothered. What results is children who rebel: either to get the attention they desire from permissive parents, or to get the freedom they need from overbearing ones. Ideally, we’d all find that delicate balance between making children safer through rules and training and still leaving them some wiggle-room to test themselves and grow.

What we want for our children is for them to have a realistic picture of both the dangers and joys of life; smothered kids are neither prepared to face evil nor are they able to appreciate true freedom, and spoiled kids use their unlimited freedom to harm themselves and others. We also want our kids to know themselves and waste as few years of their short lives as possible trying to figure out what they want to do with their time on planet Earth. We want them to actually grow up—take risks and fall flat on their faces, get up again and learn from the experience—to become interesting and skilled and independent. We want them to have earned enough confidence that they will someday follow their dreams. Living the way we do is conducive to achieving these goals, though we recognize that there are no guarantees and it will be years before we see the fruit of our labors. In fact, it will take nothing short of a miracle—and fortunately, we still believe in those.