As enthusiastic as I am about free-range parenting — where parents let go of overblown fears to give children the freedom to explore — I would probably give myself a B- on the Free-Range Parenting scale.
My older children are 10, 8, and 4-years old, and I don’t let them walk to friends’ houses, I don’t leave them at the playground (have you heard of Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day?), I barely let them near the oven, and in general, I feel like an over-protective mama.
Yet, I am convinced that weaning myself away from anxious helicoptering and towards relaxed overseeing is the way I should be going. I want my kids to learn how to navigate the world so they can handle the ever-more complicated situations that they will come across.
I want them to feel comfortable, not scared, when it’s time to walk to middle school on their own. I want them to know I have confidence in their ability to be responsible, to take care of themselves, to respect others, and to do the right thing.
As many studies have shown, when we expect a lot from children, they rise to the occasion.
“Statistically speaking, you would need to keep your child standing on the road outside for 750,000 years before they would be kidnapped and held by a stranger overnight. To keep seeing things only in terms of risk even when that risk is minute is weird,” [Skenazy] said.
“Today is statistically the safest time in human history and yet we act … as if the whole world is filled with paedophiles and perverts and runaway cars.”
So even though I am not a poster parent for Free-Range, here are some things I am doing to help foster my kids’ self-reliance without taxing myself with worry:
1. Let them walk to school by themselves
We just moved to this city neighborhood, and I occasionally let Sofia, who is in fourth grade, and Virginia, their grade, take the 10-minute walk to school by themselves. Of course when we were young, this was the norm: I used to walk a whole mile to kindergarten by myself.
Even though I love the time to connect when we walk together, sometimes it’s helpful when they can walk on their own — and they appreciate the vote of confidence.
2. Let them walk to an after-school activity
Ten-year-old Sofia has one after-school activity, and her ballet class is two blocks from school in her teacher’s house, which she walks to on her own (then I come pick her up).
Sofia was a bit wary at first, but now she enjoys this shot of independence and feels proud of her ability to handle it.
3. Let them play on the side streets by our house
This year I let the girls go pick wildflowers in the two blocks around our house. They have also gone to the tree-swing on the corner, and explored the surrounding streets to take pictures of cherry blossoms. It’s not anything like running around the neighborhood until dinnertime like I used to do, but it’s a step.
This freedom is exciting to them, and they always come back flushed in the face, excited to show me their finds.
4. Teach them to cook dinner once a week
After the third time Sofia told me that she wished I would make her “dream salad,” one that included iceberg lettuce, grated carrots, sliced tomatoes, canned corn, and Ranch dressing (so much for my spinach concoctions!), I offered to let her and her sister make dinner a few times a month.
I thought they would like the idea because they had made several comments that I got to do the fun part (cooking) while they had to do the yucky part (setting the table).
So Virginia inaugurated the tradition last night by making farfalle with ham and cream sauce, and an iceberg lettuce and corn salad. (What is it with iceberg and kids?)
She picked the groceries, cut up the veggies, stirred the pasta, heated up the bread, and did pretty much everything except tipping the pot full of the boiling water into the sink. I was there, of course, every step of the way, instructing and coaching. But how else would someone learn to cook?
Virginia was engaged in the whole process, and her siblings reinforced her achievement. Her older sister, often criticizing, actually said, “Wow, this looks good!” Mark, the four-year-old dessert-fiend, even cleaned his plate.
I think letting children cook is in tune with free-range, because it’s allowing children to take (age-appropriate) risks in order to learn about the world, have fun, and grow.
Are you participating in Screen-Free Week? Much to my eldest daughters’ chagrin (who wants more computer time), my children’s screen time is so limited, there is not much to cut. But I like the message behind the event: unplug and play, daydream, create, explore, and spend time with family and friends.
We all could use a little more of that.