The first time my husband forwarded an article about free-range parenting to me, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Hmmm….I was a fan of free-range chickens, so raising our children in the same humane line of thought shouldn’t be a problem, right?
The underlying belief of free-range parenting is to raise your children along the lines that we were all raised when we were kids. This means letting your children play in the front yard, allowing them to ride a bike up and down the street without you sidling along, and letting them climb on things even if they might fall and get hurt. The benefit? (Trust me there NEEDS to be one, as this line of parenting is guaranteed to stress out any mother!) Your children grow up with a sense of self-reliance, responsibility, and without the irrational worry that the world is out to get them.
And before we go any further, the most important factor in making this decision is being armed with the knowledge that times today are really and truly safer than they’ve been in decades. Though the headlines are littered with stories telling us how dangerous it is for our children to ever be further away than arm’s reach, the truth is very different.
Controversial? Yes. Outside the mainstream? Yes. So, naturally, I’m intrigued.
However, what sounds easy while reading a book or an article online, is much much harder in practice when your own children are involved.
My solution? Babysteps!
Babystep #1: Letting my 6 year old play on our front porch.
This was almost traumatic for me. My husband was sitting next to me in the living room (less than 15 feet from her), in front of our picture window with an unobstructed view, and I could barely stand it. (The front door was also open, and the screen door window was down.) He seemed calm and relaxed (are you kidding me??!!) while I was unable to sit still. I kept walking to the screen door, poking my head out, and thinking “What will the neighbors think if they walk outside??” Yep. Embarrassing but honest…my thoughts were a jumbled mess of fear for her and anxiety about keeping up with the Jones’. What if the next person driving by is some creepy guy who manages to get out of car, run through our big front yard to the steps, grabs her, gets back to his car, and gets away????
Ahhhh, but there was the clincher. Did I want to raise my children based on fear or something else?? The more I thought about it, the more sure I was that though this was hard for me, the lessons I would teach my children of being cautious and careful without thinking everyone out there was a villain, was something I’d like to do.
Babystep #2: Letting my 6 year old climb the tree in our yard.
I should immediately admit that I’m terrified of heights, so the fact that I have two walking children who love to climb (and have an exceptional awareness of heights for their age) makes me both insanely proud and terribly worried. What we discovered one sunny Saturday afternoon was that if left to her own devices (with my husband and I watching), our oldest girl could climb right up the tree and ONTO the roof. Yes, ON TO THE ROOF.
The second-worst part of this experience? Having to smile so that I didn’t scare her into thinking this was something she couldn’t do. When I told her to be careful, her reply was “Yes, I know, mommy. This is very dangerous.” She proceeded to climb down unassisted, and my husband picked my jaw up off the ground for me.
The worst part? Watching my 3-year-old try it two weeks later, and realizing that although she can’t (thankfully) get to the roof, she can climb uncomfortably high as well. Evidently this free-range parenting thing created a snowball effect in our home.
Babystep #3: Leaving my 3 and 6-year-old at the read-along table at the library while I find books for them.
Trips to the library? Fun, fun, fun. Trips to the library with children? Also fun!! Trips to the library with children while you try to find age appropriate books for them? Haaaaaard. (Trust me it’s important! We’ve brought home all sorts of books that we’ve discovered are full of lying to parents and terrible behavior only AFTER we’ve started to read them. My husband is usually the one to make the discovery, which leaves me ducking his squinty-eyed stares as he tries to perform book improvisation with two girls on his lap.)
Now, I’m not sure why exactly being more than 10 feet from my children at the library scares me, but it does. What do I think is going to happen to them? First, the library is filled with librarians who are nosy about everything going down in every corner of the library; the children’s area is far away from the entrance; and the entrance is guarded like Fort Knox lest anyone try to escape with an errant book – or child.
What you do have to face, however, are the looks from the librarians. You know the look…it’s the one that involves looking over glasses on the end of your nose (even if one is not wearing any actual glasses). My solution? I tell both girls which direction I’m going, and that they need to sit and be quiet. Then I literally dart to and from the aisles, constantly checking on them. Am I a work in progress? Darn right.
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My children are young, and so while I do give them freedom to feel responsibility or to climb a tree, I’m always there to catch them when they fall. If your children are younger, there are still plenty of things you can do to teach them the feeling of gratification that comes from doing something on their own. Let them climb something you normally wouldn’t at the park…and if they need help simply try to wait until they actually need it to swoop in. Pick up a book about Montessori and try to make certain aspects of your house more friendly for them to do things by themselves.
Trust me, that look of joy on their face when they’ve accomplished something on their own is worth every bit of worry in your stomach.
**This post was originally published February 23, 2012.