Free-Range Parenting: Letting Go

The high anxiety of raising kids in a 24-hour-a-day, worst-first news cycle

My second-grade daughter and I were walking across a school campus last fall. She wanted to see which of us had the best shortcut. Just after she went around one of the buildings, I lost her. For probably eight minutes at most, but of course it felt like more. My pace got faster, frantic, as I went back and forth around the grounds where we’d been. I was completely perplexed—OK, terrified—as to where she could have gone.

“We’re in suburban Orange County,” I told myself. “She’s fine!”

Until this point, I’d thought of myself as a free-range mom. Free-range parenting has made a resurgence this year because of the Maryland parents who were twice questioned/harassed by the police and Child Protective Services for letting their kids, ages 10 and 6, walk home from a park. The movement started in 2008 when Lenore Skenazy was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. Skenazy wrote a book, “Free-Range Kids,” which was published the next year.

My daughter was just forming sentences as I devoured the anecdotes in Skenazy’s book about parents who hover over their children. She wrote of children feeling tremendous pride and independence when they were allowed to venture out alone, and she offered tips for parents who wanted to return to the freedom they remembered from their childhoods. I nodded as I read, thinking “What’s the problem with letting 10-year-olds spend time unsupervised at an ice cream parlor? These parents are too much!” The only 10-year-old I had experience with then was me. As a child of the ’80s, I rode the city bus alone, and even had to transfer.

Decades later, as a free-range mom, my then-2-year-old daughter and I would visit playgrounds near my friends in Irvine and Laguna Beach. I’d let her roam anywhere she could reach. She is fiercely independent, but careful and tentative until she masters a skill. So I didn’t hover or “helicopter.” I was happy for her to test her limits while I chatted. I was proud when my friend with sons in college marveled, “You’re so great to let her have all that space!”

Now she’s about to start third grade at that school where I lost her. (It turned out her shortcut was better, and she was waiting for me outside the fence, just beyond where I’d assumed we’d meet.) She can’t wait to walk home from school by herself.

And I’m nervous.

So it turns out I’m more of a free-range wanna-be. When you commit to a philosophy, apparently you have to stick to it even when it’s challenging.

Nearly every parent I know has a tale of kids going out of sight, even for a split second, and we think worst-first. “They’ve drowned!” “They’ve been hit by a car!” “They’ve eaten partially hydrogenated oil!” Experts cite the 24-hour news cycle as the reason for this. We know about every horrible thing that occurs, no matter how rare it is. And it sticks in our minds, though the odds of it happening are minuscule.

I’m under the impression our parents didn’t worry about these things. Though you would never know that from my mother’s perspective now.

“You’re going camping?” she asks me on the phone.

“Yes, the kids love … ”

“Be careful of mountain lions. And bears. And snakes. And poison oak. And the fire.”

My kids love being outside. They love the freedom of discovering trees they can climb, turning the branches into horses to ride, and sleeping in a tent. As they meander along on our walks at Back Bay or Crystal Cove, I see how carefree and delighted they are. They make a game of everything—who can find the best rock, how far can you walk on this dead tree, who can ignore Mommy the longest. So I try to say only half the warnings in my head when we’re at a new campground. “Don’t touch that plant.” “Be careful of the cliff right there!” “Don’t get so close to the water/fire/road/everything.” “Leave that stick on the ground!” (Why am I worried about the stick?) The kids revel in the sense of adventure, just like Skenazy says.

We get home to a call from my mom. “Make sure you check the kids for ticks.”

Grandchildren are a new level of precious, I now understand. My mother is not pleased about the notion of her granddaughter walking home from school alone, never mind that I did at age 6. “Things are different now than when you were that age,” she warns.

Yes, they are. Safer. Crime statistics show America is dramatically safer for children now than it was then (except for the trans fats). The walk to my daughter’s school is three blocks, crossing a quiet street and an intersection with a crossing guard. We’ve had conversations about not going off with strangers. And unlike many people, we have a real sense of community on our cul-de-sac. We know our neighbors, and they know our family. I still have the sense that I can go next door to borrow some sugar, or anything else.

And just now it hits me: I’m the one getting the lesson here—a lesson in letting go. I have to trust my daughter and let her learn about the world. I want her to be independent. I don’t want to be that parent who accompanies my grown children to job interviews. (Yes, this has happened.)

So I will let her walk home from school on her own. I will find like-minded parents so we can worry together, but also strengthen our community. We can keep an eye on each other’s children, get them away from TVs and computers and back outside. We can tackle this free-range parenting thing. We might even reach a point that there’s no reason for a name or a trend. It can just be the norm: raising kids.

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