“Wait, that’s a thing???!!”
This was my response when I heard a parenting term yesterday that I had never heard before. Wait for it… “Free Range Parenting”
I will refrain from inserting the obvious CluckCluck/chicken joke here. You’re welcome.
So, yes, this is a thing. Specifically, according to Lenore Skenazy, who wrote a book called Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Crazy With Worry) and hosts a website devoted to this topic, “Free Range Parenting” is defined as follows:
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.
I guess it’s kind of the parenting philosophy that is the opposite of so-called helicopter parenting.
This was all kind of a revelation to me — I mean, first of all, this woman got a reality television show called “World’s Worst Mom” that is set to begin airing on January 22nd on the Discovery Life channel. Set your DVRs now! She apparently goes into families where the parents are super protective and then, you know, shakes things up a bit.
Also, on a more serious note, the parenting term came to my attention via an article that is getting a good amount of national coverage right now. The headline in the Washington Post reads “Parents investigated for neglect after letting kids walk home alone”.
And, sure enough, that’s the case. These parents are “Free Range Parents” – i.e., they apparently believe in giving their kids – ages 10 and 6 – a great range of independence in order to prepare them for handling life’s challenges. Or something like that.
It would be so easy to jump on this bandwagon and shake my finger at these parents… but I tend to lean in their direction, in terms of empowering my kids to take care of themselves. Also, I ended up thinking about this a LOT last night. Because it’s actually kind of terrifying to me, and this is why:
You see, I have kids that are just slightly older than the Maryland couple’s kids. They are both super-responsible and capable, and my 6th grader has even (on her own super-responsible initiative) completed the American Red Cross babysitter training. So, while I don’t think I’m a t-shirt wearing “Free Range Mom”, I can tell you that I have started to feel like my big kids are entering an age range where some additional freedom is appropriate.
I’m also a lawyer, so my immediate response to reading that article was to lookup the law. I mean, if they are investigating this family, there must be some law or rule somewhere that says that family’s kids are not old enough to, say, walk to the park or stay home alone for an hour. And if — like the Maryland parents — you care enough about “Free Range” that you laminate parent contacts cards that say “I’m not lost, I’m a Free Range kid”, I was thinking that they would or should know the rules.
Well, it turns out that in most states there are no rules. And where there are rules, they are inconsistent. Which means, at some point, all parents have to face the same choices that the Maryland parents faced, and make the call.
For example, my daughter recently asked to go to the mall alone with a friend. I wasn’t ready to just drop her at the door, so I instead “trailed” her from afar, giving she and the friend the “illusion” of being on their own (this lasted until she needed my credit card, by the way).
Also, particularly for families where both parents work outside the home, I think this question may come up more urgently and/or more often. When your 13 year-old has a sore throat, can you leave her at home for the day so you can go to work? Can your 12 year-old watch your 6 year-old for an hour so you can go to the pharmacy without dragging both into the car for the errand? What to do when your 7th grader and 5th grader have yet another teacher work day and you have an incredibly important whatever at work?
Moreover, if you were born any time prior to the 90’s, there is a good chance – like me – that you actually remember doing things like… walking to the park by yourself when you were 8, riding your bike (~1.5 miles in my case) to elementary school, walking to the mall and hanging out there all day with your friends in middle school. And how about the “latchkey kid” generation (ummm, that was my brother and I). It goes on and on.
In places where there are no guidelines, this is a terrifying set of choices. Why? Because if you get it wrong, and if for whatever reason authorities get involved (vindictive neighbor, angry ex-spouse, happenstance), the risk of being under investigation and possibly losing control over custody of your children is… terrifying.
Anyway, I came away from reading that article with a renewed sense of, well, frustration on this topic. In a world where it’s hard to find childcare at all, and there are no real rules or guidelines on when you don’t need “childcare” anymore, there really aren’t a lot of good options. Flexibility in the workplace is helpful – my daughter recently had influenza and I was reminded of how much my big girl was still a little girl and needed her mom at home for a few days, and my boss actually encouraged me to work from home until she improved. But I can also see that the clear-cut cases (like that day) are going to be the exception more and more frequently as she becomes a pre-teen, and like everyone else, I guess I have to make my own choices on when and how I’m going to give her the freedom she will eventually need to grow up.