What People Get Wrong About Free-Range Parenting

image source: thinkstock
image source: thinkstock

When it comes to parenting, I’m mostly free range but sometimes helicopter. I’m a SAHM with a part-time job that allows me to work from home. I get tigerish in the mornings but by 5 pm, I’m pretty much a slacker mom. These labels! Enough already?

If I did have to pick one (let’s be clear — I don’t) I’m more of the free-range persuasion than the helicopter persuasion. I’m not “free range” because of the label or the movement, but because when my personality, experiences, and beliefs get thrown in with the personalities of my four children who are in possession of a whole host of strengths and weaknesses, that’s the parenting style that gets spit out. Plus, my kids are in grade school and high school. Free-ranging makes more sense at that age. Nobody is free-range parenting a newborn.

Free-range parenting doesn’t mean ignoring your kids and letting them do whatever they want. It takes serious parenting chops to prepare your kids to be “free range.”

But really, it’s just parenting and preparing kids for the world.

I want to raise active, independent kids. That’s how I was raised. I walked to the gas station to buy treats with change I scrounged from underneath couch cushions. I biked to friends’ houses and played in orchards and fields. Of course I knew about stranger danger, but I still walked everywhere and spent every afternoon alone with my sisters at home. #latchkeykid

When I had kids of my own, I became even more wary of strangers. You want to protect your kids and make sure nothing bad happens to them. Helicopter parenting is born out of that fear. You think that if you worry about everything and anticipate every problem, then you’re securing your children against harm. I parented this way when I had babies. I carried snacks, sunscreen, extra clothes, wipes, pacifiers — everything we might possibly need. I baby-proofed and kept a watchful eye on my kids, like you do. I did alright. We still had fits and blow-outs, but nevertheless, I kept them alive. No small thing.

Then my son started school. It was hard to let him go because he seemed so young. I even thought about homeschooling him when he told me he heard swear words on the bus. But a friend told me this wise parenting adage:

“You can’t prepare the path for the child but you can prepare the child for the path.”

I realized part of my job as a parent was to prepare my kid to go out there and, to my dismay, hear swear words on the bus. Of course, I could also drive him to and from school myself in order to protect him from these outside influences, which I did until he got a little older. (Old enough, I felt, to handle hearing profanity.)

As my children grew, the opportunities just got scarier and scarier — scouting campouts, driving, dating, riding a 4-wheeler, working at a job.

One of the first turning points for me was when I decided to send my kids to a Justin Bieber concert using public transportation. It wasn’t easy to do this. It took a lot of preparation and effort on my part to teach my kids about maps, riding the train, and what to do if they missed their train back — which they did. They weren’t scared, though, and they gained experience and some street smarts. If what I did was “free range,” it certainly wasn’t hands off. It would have been much easier and taken less effort to drive my kids to the concert and stay by their side the whole time. But I thought they were ready to acquire a certain skill set, which they did.

This is why I can’t believe that parents are getting arrested for this. These parenting labels are forcing us into a false choice. Kids are spending less time outside than ever before because parents (good ones) are afraid to let their children play alone. It’s hard enough getting over that by teaching kids how to be safe outside and to stay away from traffic and other hazards, but now parents have to worry about getting arrested for it, too? It’s unbelievable.

I let my 12-year-old ride his bike with his friends along the river trail from our house to the local grocery store where he can get a soda out of a machine for 25 cents. It’s great — he loves it. Doing these kinds of things on his own has given him more confidence and life skills. It never occurred to me that I could be arrested for it. I’m with Monica Bielanko on this one — it’s my right to raise free-range kids.

It’s my right because as a parent, I accept the consequences and I know that letting my kids do things on their own is more dangerous than doing it all for them. I know it. I agonize over it. And I am painfully aware that if something were to happen to my kids on public transportation on their way to a concert or along the river trail on their way to the supermarket, I would be wracked with guilt and feel totally responsible. I would second-guess my choices and conclude that I was wrong. But I do that anyway with everything involving my kids. I don’t want to parent from a place of fear — it’s too scary.

This reminds me of when my son broke his arm when he was 9. It was a very bad break and he was in a lot of pain. Setting it was terrible and they gave him a drug during the procedure that made it so he felt the pain but wouldn’t remember the pain.

I regret that it happened to him. I don’t think he necessarily needed to break his arm to learn about life, and I would change this experience for him if I could.

The thing is, this happened while he was safely supervised at a great school that I had researched. How did he break it? He fell out of a swing. He wasn’t free-ranging somewhere while I napped obliviously on the sofa.

Things happen. Some of them are going to be our fault as a parent. I accept this. Some things will be our kids’ fault. I hate this. Some things will simply be unpreventable accidents. This is even worse.

But in the meantime, I don’t want my kids to be scared and overly cautious — how I sometimes feel as their mother. I want them to try and experience new things and play outside. The hardest part of “free-range” parenting is taking responsibility if something does go wrong. But then again, I already do this to the extreme.

So if they can learn to ride a bike or take a bus somewhere, I’m willing to teach them and then have them give it a try. Some may call this raising free-range kids, but I just call it parenting.

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