Free Range Kids, & why my I'm not gonna leave my 3 year old at the park

I was shopping a few weeks ago and a little girl about 5 years old walked up and looked me, up and down. She told me she liked my dress then started thumbing through the jeans on the rack next to me. I shifted my armload of clothes and she said "oh! You got a big belly!"

"Well, you're a virgin who can't drive"

I laughed, "you're right, girl. I sure do" and she smiled. Her mom wandered over, unaware of the honesty her little one had just shared and told her to stop bothering me. I told her that her daughter was adorable and she looked up, smiled, and said "take her home with you, really, you'd be begging to return her!"

I chuckled and looked down at the little girl, a little shocked at what her mom had just said, and she was looking up at me smiling from ear to ear, nodding her head. "Well let's go, then!" I said and smiled. She followed me around the store and gave me opinions on every piece of clothing I held up. When they left the little girl hugged me and her mom thanked me for "putting up with her"

I was taken aback... its so rare to hear a parent say things like that anymore. I remember when I was a kid knowing exactly how irritating I was being at any given moment! It was just part of being a kid... we were annoying, loud, perpetually sticky, it was just part of the territory. I didn't consider it as a bad thing, it was just a kid thing. We go through our annoying, dirty, awkward stage, then we grow up and we're more tolerable, better groomed, that was just life.

Today's kids aren't dirty. They're not irritating, they are all precious and uniquely superior to the other. They go to playgroups and eat edamame. They have schedules and nannies and carseats that cost more than a week's worth of groceries. We're so damn fussy about our offspring. We only want what's best for them, so they're in their IKEA beds covered by their organic cotton blankets by 7:15 every night. We playground hover, we work from home. We delay vaccinations, put off kindergarten, fear what TV does to their brains. We attend all of the "mommy & me" play hours we can squeeze in their tiny, packed schedules. Organic, attached, uninoculated, communicative... we want our children to have the perfect childhood, the childhood we didn't... have?

But what about those of us that had great childhoods? That grew up with adventure, independence, a sense of self from a young age? Was it that bad? DId we hate our upbringing that much? Was it that bad? We spend our afternoons in therapy sessions talking about where it all went wrong... and maybe the problem is that we've been over-thinking it all along. We've been planning and preparing and scheduling and not having sex with our spouses for all of the children in our beds. We've created monsters, and those monsters are not our children... they're us.

The "free-range kids" concept fascinates me. I love the idea of my child being independent, self-assured, learning her surroundings without my fear or restrictions, but with her own boundaries.
From the Free Range Kids website:
Do you ever...let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk to school? Make dinner? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free-Range Kid! Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts — safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail.

I'd like to think that my daughter is free-range to some degree. Currently, I'm sitting on the couch writing this while she rides her tricycle around the living room in my high heels, her pajamas, and a very fancy hat. She's singing herself a song, having an imaginary race with the cat, and pulling a "trailer" of Littlest Pet Shop animals which she so cleverly attached about an hour ago. She has been enjoying over a full hour of creative play all by herself, without me hovering over her or involving myself in her game. As a working mom, I'm so glad she can do this! I need this time. She needs this time. We're both happy with it.

When we go to the park, I sit and let her play. I'm not the mom going down the slide with my preschooler on my lap or holding her hand up the ladder. I love playing with her, but she's capable of playing on her own, and I let her. She runs around the yard every evening and walks through the mall without holding my hand. That doesn't make me some sort of parenting rebel, and there are plenty of parents that allow their children more freedom, but there are so many parents that don't. Its been a conscious decision to allow my daughter to explore her world and learn it by first-hand experience.

But upon reading about "Take Your Kids to the Park & Leave Them There Day" my heart sunk. Maybe my daughter wasn't as "free-range" as I thought. Maybe this has gone too far. I couldn't imagine taking my daughter to the park and leaving her there for any amount of time. I know very well that there are parents who are entirely comfortable with this concept, and I can't knock 'em- its not my kid, not my decision. I just can't help but feel its irresponsible.

There is a distinct difference between raising independent, capable children and neglectful parenting.

At the grocery store today, I watched as a little girl realized she'd gotten separated from her mother. I had seen the girl previously, her mother talking on the phone, 2 kids in the cart and this little girl trailing behind. I heard her screaming and when I looked over I was immediately sad for her. A woman was crouched, trying to calm her down while attempting to get the attention of an employee, and this little girl was wailing and crying, so upset. As a crowd started to form, everyone looking around for the concerned mother to appear, a little boy ran up and said "mom's over here" took her hand, and off they ran. Where was the mother, I wondered? Was she still on the phone? Had she noticed what had happened and was too embarrassed so she sent her other son to find the missing girl? Would we judge her for temporarily losing her child? Would she be reprimanded? What about the mom who leaves her baby in the car while she runs into the store and comes out to find the police have been called on her for neglecting her child? Could the same happen to the mom who misplaced her little girl at the store? What actually dictates "neglect"?

My friend Courtney gives the example of "catching hell" for letting her first and third graders walk a block to school together, "but they did great & gained street savvy." And that's what its really about. My sister and I would walk to and from school from elementary school until graduation, something we both really enjoyed. I miss the days of playing in the back yard after school, something that has been lost to the modern art of the driveway-social-hour that takes place in subdivisions everywhere. We knew our neighborhood, our community first-hand because we got to explore it. Kids today don't have the same luxury. Is it our society? Our insecurities? As parents, we have a very healthy and rational fear because we've seen that there are bad people doing bad things in our world, and we want to do anything possible to protect our kids from it... But are we preventing our kids from doing things that will make them happy, healthy, functional, capable, independent, self-aware adults because of that?

I can see a benefit to taking your kids to the park, of allowing them to interact with other children and fend for themselves... but my child can do that just fine with me sitting within yell-distance. Its not that I don't have faith in my child to fend for herself, its simply that our society just aint what it used to be. I know our boundaries better than anyone else, and I think its reasonable to say on behalf of every parent... our job is to provide a safe environment for our children at all times with respect to those individual boundaries.

I'm curious to see what comes of "Take Your Kids to the Park & Leave Them There" day... and of the free range kids movement... hell, I'm interested to see how our special little snowflake children turn out. Will they all have this grand sense of self, will all of our fussing actually serve a purpose beyond their childhood years? How will this generation behave as adults? What will they accomplish? What will their impact be? How will they raise their our grandchildren?

And was the $300 car seat really necessary?


May 8, 2010 at 6:04 PM Melissa said...

Yeah... I wouldn't be dropping Hayden off at the park anytime soon. I wish I could be more free-range sometimes, but Hayden can be a wanderer and that can be scary. So at the mall, he holds my hand. While crossing a parking lot, he holds my hand. I have let him go outside while I sit and watch him from inside (although I don't keep a super close eye on him all the time). I wish I could let him go out to play and not have to watch him... but that's not safe (at least I don't think it is).

Anywho... I think it's good to nurture independence and allow for as much of that as possible... within reason.

May 8, 2010 at 7:28 PM Lenore said...

Hi! I highly do not suggest you leave your three year old (she's cute!) at the park either! And I invented the day! As it says on my post, it's a day to take 7 or 8 year olds -- and up -- to the park for an hour, or even half, just to get them used to the idea of making up games and making friends with other kids -- without us doing the work of childhood for them. Hopefully in about five years kids will be so used to this again that your 8 year old will have lots of friends to play with outside, even if it's not "Take Our Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day." Meantime, thanks for mulling it! -- Lenore "Free-Range Kids" Skenazy

May 8, 2010 at 7:45 PM mama-lama-ding-dong said...

Lenore, thank you SO much for taking the time to comment. I think there is a very big difference between leaving a 3 year old at the park and leaving a 7 or 8 year old. I guess in some ways, I hope that the skills I'm teaching my 3 year old will make it possible for her to do something like this when she's 7 or 8. Will I let her then? Who knows- I'm just as neurotic as the next mom, but I very much hope that this gets us back to how we were raised... with the sense of community trust and personal independence that we've somehow lost along the way.

Again, thank you for taking the time to personally touch base. Good luck on the 22nd!!

May 8, 2010 at 9:44 PM April said...

Kids are more in danger from obesity related problems than they will ever be from stranger abductions. Around 2000 kids are kidnapped every year. An overwhelming majority of those are taken by a non custodial parent or someone known to the family.
I think that kids should be able to spend time alone at the park by the age of 7 or 8, and should be able to walk or ride their bikes to school. Hell, I was walking to dance class by myself when I was 8. Maya had a friend over a couple of years ago and that friend's parents said that if the girls walked or rode to the library, one of us would have to go with. They were 10 years old and the library was 5 blocks away. The ridiculousness of this blew my mind. I baked my first cake at 10! And Maya has been riding her bike or walking to school since she was in first grade. I bet the kids I saw walking home from school alone in Harlem would laugh at a great big girl who couldn't walk to the library with a friend.

May 9, 2010 at 5:07 PM Rebecca said...

My brother and I were wonderfully free-range growing up. In the summertime Mom would basically say, "Go outside and play". We'd ride bikes for miles, go climb trees on vacant lots, etc. The only deal was we had to let her know before we left the street and not be gone for hours on end. I guess we were about 10 or 11 at the time we were taking our bikes out for miles. By the time I was a teen, I was walking unsupervised to the library, where I'd stay unsupervised for the afternoon, reading. This is not to imply that my folks didn't care or weren't safety nuts; they were. We had car seats in 1970 when most cars still didn't even have seatbelts in the rear. And we had to have flags on our bikes, too, which was totally nerdy. But they trusted us to figure out how to handle things by ourselves, without them holding our hands.

I wish there was more around here that Sophie would be able to walk to, but alas, we're too rural for that, and it's not safe to bike in our neighborhood. Not for fear of stranger abduction, but because of unleashed dogs and crazy-ass drivers.

May 10, 2010 at 11:58 AM Anonymous said...

人生是一連串的課程,必須活過才能明白。 ..................................................

May 10, 2010 at 6:40 PM Victoria said...

I am a free-range parent. I was raised that way and I'm doing the same with my kids. It is what works for us mainly and I want them to grow up feeling confident and independent as well as knowing their boundaries and trusting their instincts.

After spending time recently with others who don't even let their children go to different rooms in their own home without a parent this post was refreshing. Thank you.

May 16, 2010 at 5:51 PM Laurie Marshall said...

Preach it sister!! The freedom my mother afforded me as a kid to make good choices (or learn from my bad ones) served me incredibly well as an adult.

I'm happy to say that my son IS dirty most of the time, and that he stays up too late occasionally. Call me a rebel.