Of Chickens & Children: Free Range?

A Teachable Mom’s dream & fear: “See ya, tonight, Mom. We’ll be at the park!”

I’m a worrier. Not one of my favorite traits, but I come by it honestly. Cultivated in my family for generations, worry has been handed down as lovingly as my grandmother’s mouth-watering Italian focaccia recipe and my grandfather’s tips for concocting near-lethal homemade wine.

I tell myself worry is part of my DNA, like the genes responsible for my crooked smile and propensity to grow wiry black hairs in random places. (That I never inherited the gene, dominant on both sides of my family, to cook like Ina Garten and sew/decorate like Martha Stewart is a bitter topic I’ll save for another post.)

Having children has only intensified my worry (and given me myriad ways to justify it). In the parenting department, I lean more “helicopter” than “free range.”

I remember when Ava (8) was a toddler and my husband, Mike, and I would play with her at the park. She was perfectly happy to wander off on her own. With every step away from me, I worried about her safety.

Instead of enjoying the sunshine and delighting in my child’s willingness to explore, I calculated how long it would take me to run to her if she fell or wandered too close to a dog. Or whether Mike could outrun a kidnapper if one swooped in and ran away with her. (Surprisingly, Mike’s assurances and recounting of his high school track career highlights did little to assuage my terror.)

As you may have gathered, I am no stranger to catastrophic thinking. Thankfully, Mike’s miraculous joie de vivre balances out my fatalistic anxiety. Mostly.

While my worry about random abductions has lessened over the years, I still tend to be overprotective. At the same time, I have my moments (okay days) of wondering where I can take my kids and leave them. Until recently, I never considered the local park to be an option. Last Saturday was the third annual “Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day,” organized by Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Parenting movement.

The event idea is literal – leave our kids (age 7 and up) at the park unsupervised for the day (or an hour, several hours, etc.); the intent laudable – provide an opportunity for kids to experience the joys of independence and self-reliance. (And to think I’ve been wasting thousands of dollars on babysitters all these years!).

My initial reaction to learning about this event was awe. The parents who participate must be brave, open-minded and fearless; unconventional advocates for their children’s growth and autonomy! (That this was the third annual event implies that the children who participated in the first two came back safely, right?)

My second thought:  Ava is doomed. While I love the idea of her having adventures without parental constraints or interference (and god knows I love the idea of an extra week hour or two of “me” time), given my temperament, I don’t see this level of letting go in our near future.

I tell myself the benefits to Ava would not outweigh the toll such an experiment would take on me. I would need my entire support team (and a year’s supply of Xanax) to keep me and my binoculars from setting up a state-of-the-art observation post on the roof of the house nearest the park. I’d likely pay less attention to my child if I was sitting in the park on a bench texting on my cell phone like I usually do!

Perhaps free range parenting is for those blessed to be born without the insidious worry gene. While I let go every day, sending my children off to school, play dates, sleepovers and car pools, I do worry wonder what they are missing out on growing up in a big city with a black-belt worrier for a mom. If letting go completely is the goal, it will take generations to eradicate worry from our gene pool.

In the meantime, I need your help thinking of ways I can loosen my parental grip and bring more free range into my parenting (while at the same time increasing the benefits to me!). So far, I can only think of three:

1)      Free Range Dining:  (When my desire to write overrules my desire to give them nutritious food) “Girls, eat whatever you find in the fridge that doesn’t smell bad while I type up this blog post.”

2)      Free Range Grocery Shopping:  (When my laziness wins out over my fear of strangers):  “Ava, I forgot the salsa in aisle six. Please run back and get some and I’ll meet you by the bananas.”

3)      Free Range Library Book Drop-Off:  (When I still have my pajamas on and don’t want to get out of the car):  “Ava, run in with our overdue books and pay off our fines while I wait in the car.”

I need more than three options! Can you help? Is Ava doomed? How do you let go and foster your children’s autonomy and independence? Is a “Take Our Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day” in your future?

28 thoughts on “Of Chickens & Children: Free Range?

  1. I like your three options better than the ‘free range park’ thingy. I don’t know how old my kids would have to be for me to leave them unsupervised at a park for several hours, but right now (at ages 6 and 2) I cannot fathom it at ANY age. Well, maybe like 18. (but when I was a kid playing at a park some creepy dude flashed his genitals at me, so…)

    I’m a worrier too. I know at some point independence will have to come, but I worry generously, slather on incessant nagging advice, and meddle in every situation, and will continue to do so long after interest/listening has ceased. I’ve heard advice that says when kids are in a heated argument to let them work it out. I only agree with this to a point. If the argument doesn’t seem like it’s going to reach a conclusion, or if one kid is totally dominating the other, I step in and say, ‘look guys, here’s how human beings are supposed to treat each other.’ Why shouldn’t we teach kids social skills just like math and reading??

    Anyway (rambling, much?) as far as indepence suggestions – I’ve got another: Free Range Dinner Ordering – make your kids order their own meals at restaurants. Hmm… but that one’s still supervised, so obviously… I’m not ready to let them ‘free range’ anything yet.

    Maybe you and I are related.

    • Related? Definitely! Twins split at birth? Likely! Thank you for admitting your kids fight. Mine too. I will remember your line next time mine are arguing: “Here’s how human beings are supposed to treat each other!” Genius!

      I love your dinner ordering suggestion – do you think dropping them off at a restaurant by themselves is too big a step? :-)

      • Not only do my kids fight with EACH OTHER, we also have neighbors on both sides with whom we are very close and they ALL fight like siblings. And I intervene. They’re too egocentric – which is normal – but also good reason for an adult to step in. (I think??)

        Believe me there have been PLENTY of times I would have loved to drop my darlings off at a restaurant for a couple of hours! lol

        (btw check out my (extremely new) blog, it’s not completely mom-centered, I just say whatever falls out of my brain…)

        • My neighbors on both sides are old and gentle. But if they start fighting, with my kids or among themselves, I’ll be right there to intervene!! lol
          I’m heading over to your blog right now …

  2. I heard leonre speak at my kids school and she was excellent Here is my free range parent story which happens to be taking place (and perchance why I am so moved by this post) My 13 year old is on a retreat this weekend. She left yesterday and took herself from our home to meet a firiend to get to the pick up spot I was working.

    I have not heard from her – according to other moms – who appear NOT to be experiecing the anxiety I feel – there is no cell reception.

    I am not proud that I called her at 2am hoping to catch her for a moment to make certain she is ok…but my current mind set needs to be “no news is good news” because if there was a problem they would have called…

    She’s going to high school next year for goodness sake and going to be taking public transportation to a public school with an open campus.

    I too come by this honestly. When my daughter was 3 starting preschool, my mom went to “spy” on the kids in the playground. She couldn’t get a good view so actually climbed over the fence onto school property…think ninja grandma in black leggings – she was busted annd I was chastised

    I think cell phones give us a false sense of secuurity and I absolutely respect Leonore because what are we teaching our kids if we are ALWAYS AVAILABLE and they never have to problem solve. I myself took the wrong bus at age 8 and ended up alone in cabrini green – I survived. I learned to check the route…

    I don’t know the answer but I support the free range movement – and Leonre herself says intelligently not arbitrarily. Safety is the most important thing – but statistically they are safer than we are led to believe..
    I could be just trying to convince myself given the current situation, but my fingers are crossed.

    • OMG, I love the picture I have in my head of Ninja Grandma! I spy a children’s book idea! I love that you are letting go and trusting your daughter with so much responsibility and independence. A beautiful thing! Maybe I’ll be senile by the time Ava is 13 and off to retreats and high school! I can only hope! I hope you get to a relaxed place this weekend while your daughter is growing. She’s lucky to have such a brave and trusting mom (the 2 a.m. call not withstanding!)!

  3. It’s tough. I’m not ready to leave my son at a park, but I’m building up to those things. I didn’t get a chaperone spot for his field trip next fall. It will be his first overnight away from home. I’ll be the anxious one, I’m sure. And that’s OK. That’s what the chaperones are for. And I’m sure he won’t take a bath the whole time. But he’ll be OK. I try to remember to take a step back and look at the big picture. I read Lenore’s blog. I can’t commit to that mindset, but I can still be open-minded and learn. When my son is ready for freedom, we take steps to give it to him. He lets us know!

    Your ideas were good ones. I just often find myself saying, You’re old enough to do that. I don’t need to do it for you. I try not to wait on him.

    • I’m blown away by the thoughtful, thought-provoking comments today. Thank you! My goal also is to “be open-minded and learn.” After he read my post this morning, Mike asked Ava if she wanted to walk to her softball game by herself (one block away). She was soooo excited! He ended up walking with her in the end (her choice), but I love the idea that we’re Mike is teachable! Ava warmed up her own dinner tonight. That’s more my speed for today! I’m on a roll!

  4. I am definitely better at being hands-off about hygiene than I used to be. But safety is a toughie, still. I tell myself it’s not just because of my anxious nature, but also because both kids were such medical miracles (and three miscarriages between) that I have to hang on tight. I do let Joella grab a magazine and sit on the bench at Jewel while I check out, and I’m learning to trust Elijah that he has internalized “no street” enough to stay near me in parking lots. But that’s pathetic compared with the lady in NYC who got such a crapwich about letting her nine-year-old fly solo on public transit. (I think she’s great! My mom let me walk 6 blocks home from school and let myself in starting in 2nd grade, and by 5th grade I was allowed to take CTA alone to meet her places. And I believe I am the better for it.)

    • I love that you were able to take the CTA alone in 5th grade. I want to embrace that mentality and at the same time, want to keep my little girl, well, little. I’m grateful we’re in this together!

      And I’m really sorry to hear about your miscarriages. We’ll have to swap stories sometime. Hugs.

  5. I have no future plans to ever leave the girls alone. I am a complete worry wart that looks at everyone like they are kidnappers or child molesters. I know, crazy. But, the girls are 4 and 2 and certainly aren’t ready for any independence. Although, Natalia (4) told me the other day, “Mommy..I can drive by myself..” followed up by a, “Mommy, I’m just going to walk to the park, o.k?” (the park is about a 1/2 mile away). Having said that, I’d like to think by the time Natalia is 8 I can definitely let her run into the library….or run out to check the mail…I can’t say how I’ll be in 4 years, let alone tomorrow.
    It certainly doesn’t help reading the newspaper and watching the news…Trust your instincts…they won’t ever fail :)

    • I know we are related!!! Ava seems content so far with small bumps of independence. Rhys, on the other hand, at 4 (and 3 days) wants all of Ava’s independence and more! She’ll be the one I’ll be popping Valium over! She’ll be on a plane to visit you soon!

  6. This is something I blogged about last month. I let the kids do a lot around the house. They make their own lunches, cut up their own food, bake cookies, cook eggs etc. I let them play by themselves outside but only in the backyard. The front of the house is a whole other story. I realized I was the one holding my daughter back from learning to ride the bike without training wheels, because she could basically only go the 15 feet or so up and down our drive. It is a process giving her more freedom, because I am always strangely worried that some stranger in a van with dark tinted windows is going to snatch her up while I am blissfully unaware reading in the house. But I know it is better for her confidence in the long run if I loosen the strings a little bit.

    • I am right there with you with the “stranger in a van” story. I hope to follow your lead in giving my daughters more freedom. I’m off to check out your post from last month!

  7. I think raising kids in a big city in 2012 makes this a more challening subject. I took the CTA when I was 6 years old, but that was 54 years ago. Things change. I want to recommend a very cute movie that is set in NYC titled “Little Manhattan.” I liked how the boy (I think he is about 11) can have the run of the neighborhood on his scooter, with certain boundaries. There are some bullies in the movie, but they are regular kid bullies. They don’t arrive in vans with tinted windows.

  8. I think about when I was a kid and played outside all day with my friends, completely out of sight of any adults. I was always fine. But right now? I can’t imagine letting my daughter do that. She is 6yo and in kindergarten.

    I let her and my 3.5yo play in backyard while I’m inside cooking dinner, and I can see them from where I am. It took me a while to get to this point. So maybe when they are 8 and 6 I will be comfortable with them running around together in the neighborhood without me. I couldn’t imagine letting them play outside without me a few years ago, and now I do. So maybe letting go just takes time…

    • Sounds to me like you are in a good place around letting go! My kids running around together sounds like a dream to me and is similar to how I grew up. Maybe I could send my kids to you! Thanks for commenting!

  9. I think about when I was a kid and played outside all day with my friends, completely out of sight of any adults. I was always fine. But right now? I can’t imagine letting my daughter do that. She is 6yo and in kindergarten.

    Now I let her and my 3.5yo play in backyard while I’m inside cooking dinner, and I can see them from where I am. It took me a while to get to this point. So maybe when they are 8 and 6 I will be comfortable with them running around together in the neighborhood without me. I couldn’t imagine letting them play outside without me a few years ago, and now I do. So maybe letting go just takes time…

    PS – I giggled ay your “free range” options. How about “free range Keurig coffee making” – for when your desire for coffee and complete exhaustion overrule the fear of your kid stabbing her finger on the coffee maker or burning herself with freshly-brewed coffee she proudly makes for you?

  10. I am a mother of three sons; 12, 11, & 9. It has been a process to get where we are today. I now let my boys play outside in our backyard while I do things in the house. (we live on 6.5 acres away from a busy road so not a big feat) I have also allowed them to see a couple of movies without me. (I sit in the car where I can see the door) I have not allowed them to go to our YMCA or local theme park alone like many of my friends are doing with their 12yr olds. I do let them hang with their friends at the Y while I pretend to be reading a book on a lounge chair. It was hard for me to let them go to friends houses to sleepover but I let them. They have been going to my in laws for 2 weeks every summer since my baby was 3. It was very hard the first year but has gotten easier. I don’t really hear from them other than a quick hi because it makes them homesick.
    This spring break I stepped way out of my comfort zone and allowed my oldest to go to space camp with a group from school. I didn’t talk to him the whole time he was gone. I was in contact with one of the chaperones so I knew he was ok but it was awful!! This summer he is going to two different lacrosse camps and I am going to need heavy sedation to get through it!!
    It goes against my nature to let them grow up a little. Luckily for them my husband is more rational than I am or I would never leave their side! He has them do things for themselves, like order dinner, clean the bathrooms, vacuum, put laundry away, he even has them cook with him. He will send them into a conscience store to get their own drinks and snacks so they can figure out how much money they have and what they can or cannot buy. “They might end up with a wife who can’t do all those things so they need to learn.” (He married a helpless, over protected woman… Me)
    My worst nightmare is public bathrooms. When they got too old to go to the ladies room I got a little crazy. They all had to go together and leave together while I stood outside the bathroom glaring at everyone walking in. I have calmed down about it a bit to where I’m not making everyone uncomfortable because they have to go at the same time my boys do (which seems to be everywhere a bathroom is available) but it took a while.

    Good luck with finding a balance that you and your girls can handle. They are still very young. I think it would be harder to let go if I had girls!

    • Amen to public bathroom nightmares! I can’t imagine how mothers of boys or fathers of girls do it. I’d like to see a picture of you with your scary mom/outside the bathroom face!! I love your husband’s approach, especially to money and laundry. And sleepaway camp, OMG! I’ll join you in heavy sedation! Thanks for commenting…

  11. Try not to compare yourself to other parents. You will let go in your own way in your own time. I was definitely a “more paranoid” parent with my first. I am much more relaxed with my 3rd – maybe knowing that the first one made it through – and also through trial and error (or rather success!). As my oldest prepares to leave for college, I wonder if I’ve taught him everything he needs to know (I keep giving him tidbits of information as the day approaches). Obviously, I haven’t taught him everything. And, that’s okay. Hopefully, I’ve taught him how to figure out things on his own and given him the tools to handle situations or ask for assistance. My mom didn’t hover ( I was the youngest of 7!) and I did fine. When he does figure out things on his own, it will make him feel more confident and good about himself. And then that’s when I know I made the right decisions and let go in my own way and my own time.

    • Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience. I didn’t know you had a son going to college in the fall. Such a huge step! I have been so impressed with your coaching this spring, I have no doubt your children are well prepared, confident and secure. I agree with you – the ability to figure things out and ask for help are two important gifts I want to give my girls. Time will tell how I do in those areas! In the meantime, I’ll follow your lead and trust my process! Thanks again!

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