I have never labeled my parenting style, I just thought of myself as a good parent, like I’m sure most people do. How I parent is a balance of my sanity and the health, happiness and independence of my children. However, I have been thinking a lot about my style this week, as news hit of the “Free Range” couple in my home state of Maryland. The Meitiv family received a visit from the police and Child Protective Services (CPS) as a result of letting their 10 and 6 year old walk a mile home from a park.
My first introduction to the label “Free Range” was in the Mommy Blogosphere, where people used the term to justify letting their children have near complete control over where they went and when, whether or not they bathed, when they slept, and what and when they ate. This horrified me on many levels: it is the absolute opposite of my values. I believe that children need regular sleep and meals for optimum health. And, as for calling the shots on your schedule all the time, I AM the boss of you. You, my child, need to learn how to deal with authority, because that is a Life skill. This doesn’t mean that I put the “dic” in dictator: empowering your self-confidence and independence is just as important as empowering your obedience. And so we have always used a balance of skill sets in my home: manners, no back-talking, mutual respect, and at the same time, many opportunities for autonomy and building the skills they will need to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
In the article Danielle Meitiv said this about her children: “They have proven they are responsible,” she said. “They’ve developed these skills.” Yes! Of course they did. What parent is just going to throw their kids outside one day and say “Good luck, Honey!” Are we so tainted as a culture by the rare instances of human stupidity that we now all have to parent under a cloak of paranoia? Since when did fear-based parenting become equated with “good” parenting, and the rest of us by default are considered “bad” parents? As my husband said, through his clenched jaw, “people have stopped using good judgment.” I will never forget the day that someone abandoned her good judgment and viewed me in the way that this family was now being seen. What disturbs me the most about this situation, is that this family was not being misjudged by some hyper-vigilant, helicopter Mom: they were being told by a police officer and a social worker that what they were doing was wrong. And these people had the power to take their children.
My 8-year-old son crosses a small main road after he gets off the school bus. Sometimes, I am not yet home, and he lets himself into our house and he calls me on the phone to let me know he is in. My 11-year-old daughter has been cooking meals for herself and her brother for about two years, using sharp knives, the microwave and the stove. I send my children off together on trips on their bikes, down to the park to play with their neighborhood friends. When did I decide it was time to let them do all of these things? When they told me they were ready. And they knew they were ready, because these were skills that we had been working on together to prepare them.
Since my children took their first breaths in this world, I have been grooming them for their independence. This is not to say that I have pushed them into it. Rather I have followed their curiosity and empowered them with information and encouragement. Instead of just holding their hands as toddlers and pulling them across the street, I kept up a stream of cues. “First we stop. Then we look one way, then the other. Then back again. Then we walk.” Eventually, I would let them tell me what we do. Then I would let go of their hand. Then the day came that they told me they were ready to do it alone. I watched from the sidewalk, then from the window of our house. Now it’s just something they do. It has been like this with every new adventure: bike rides, bathing, cooking, trips to the park. It’s a dance of trust: each activity has expectations that must be fulfilled, and if they are not, the privilege is taken away. My kids love being independent, and their self-confidence has blossomed with each new adventure.
So, how can an outsider know that my children are capable of handling themselves if they were to observe them on their own in public? It’s simple: they look like they know what they are doing. They don’t look lost or unsure of themselves. Everyone knows what a lost and scared child looks like. If my kids were to be approached (they probably wouldn’t talk to you – they don’t know you!) but they might tell you that I am home, I know where they are, and I am expecting them home at a certain time. All answers any police officer could easily discern without putting our children in foster care and sending the authorities in to question us. If people are doing their due diligence on either side of this equation, it will be clear which kids are being properly parented, and which kids are cases of neglect. If the kids are doing something unsafe or destructive, then by all means, a parent should be notified, and the roaming privilege should be removed. And I’m sorry, but if your kids are chronically filthy (and not just because they are playing hard outdoors) then that’s NOT good parenting, and you’re going to get unwanted attention. I have read Lenore Skenazy’s website (the creator of the Free Range Kid movement), and she talks pretty exclusively about outdoor play and fostering independence. Nowhere does she say that she started this movement so that your kid doesn’t have to bathe and can eat Doritos for breakfast. In fact, she specifically cites well-bathed children as one indicator that they are not being neglected.
I am not in denial that kids are at risk for abduction and that cases of abuse and neglect exist. I am so aware of their existence, that I am angry that our already clogged department of protective services is wasting their time harassing good families that are arming children against being victims. Children who are self-confident are much less likely to be a target for abuse in their lifetime. Our society is so paralyzed by our 24/7 awareness of bad news, that we have disproportionately assessed the risk that is beyond our front doors. And because of this, we have stopped helping our kids take risks while they are still under our protection. And when we stop helping them take risks, we stop teaching them the necessary life skills they will need to be on their own. We are raising a Nation of teenage toddlers. Their world is safer than ours was. Violent crime is down, not up. Our kids are more likely to be abused by a known predator than a stranger, which only accounts for about 3% of all cases. But have we stopped enrolling them in Scouts or sports teams? They are more likely to be injured in a car accident, but have we stopped driving them around?
I admit, sometimes it is very hard to be an outsider observing what other families do, but when it comes to my kids, I refuse to be held hostage by fear-based parenting. I have to trust that we can all use good judgment to let people assess what their kids are ready to do within reason. I believe that it is damaging to our children to send them out into the world after 18 years of being bubble-wrapped. These helicoptered kids will not have the life skills or the self-confidence to make good decisions, which can be dangerous to themselves and other people. I used to scoff at the need to label myself, but more than ever, I am starting to see why we needed a movement.