“Free Range Kids” :: An Open Discussion Invitation

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“Free Range Kids” :: An Open Discussion Invitation

  This weekend, I let my two daughters, age 12 and (almost) 11 ride their bikes to the park by themselves. They had a predetermined time they needed to be home and a watch. They don’t have a cell phone but we only live 2 blocks from the park. They were gone an hour and a half…I was a nervous wreck the whole time. I’ve read several blog posts lately praising the virtues of what they call “free range kids.” I’ve seen articles that chronicle a nostalgia for a more hands-off, 1970’s/80’s version of parenting where kids drank from the hose, played out front with their friends till dark and threw dirt clods at the wall for fun. I grew up in the ‘80’s. I drank from the hose, played outside for hours and threw dirt clods. I agree with so much of the philosophy that undergirds these posts: that allowing our kids freedom to play alone, walk or travel outside independently, even stay at home alone breeds independence, confidence and responsibility. Yet, I also understand the concerns that many parents have for the safety of their kids. I read stories in the comments section of several of the “free range kids” articles from adults who had terrible things happen to them, both physical/sexual violence and emotional trauma, because they spent so much time playing alone with their friends and neighbors. They felt that they could have avoided so much pain if their parents had been supervising. Their experience of 1970’s/80’s “hands-off” parenting was not so rosy and nostalgic. So, as a mom, I guess my question is: Where’s the balance? How do we decide the right thing for our kids? How do we keep the bubble in the middle between Helicopter Parent and Lassaiz-Faire? There are subjects where I feel relatively confident in advising other parents, but this is not one of them. Partially, because I know that not all communities are safe. Not all places have parks and sidewalks and friendly neighbors. As a mom or dad, you probably have a pretty good sense of how safe the area you live in is. Sure, there’s always the chance that “the boogey man” is lurking. He could be anywhere. But you know if your house is situated in a quiet subdivision or the corner of a traffic-heavy intersection. You know whether your kids are more likely to pass a pair of old ladies chatting at the mailbox or a pair of drug dealers guarding their street corner. If you live in an area that is categorically less safe, I would love to hear how you balance safety and independence for your kids. You probably have a lot more surety about what you should and should not let your kids do. But, I assume that the majority of parents who are really unsure about the question of safety vs. independence would admit that the neighborhood they live in is relatively safe. I know for me, the things I worry about for my kids are, statistically speaking, extremely unlikely: What if someone breaks into the house? What if they get abducted at the park? What if they lose control of their bike and collide with a car? (By the way, all of those things could also happen when I’m with them.) I guess for me, the balance hangs on whether I’m making parenting decisions based on fear or based on truth. For me, fear-based decision making always backfires. Sure, if you live on a street corner that frequently experiences drive-by shootings, then not allowing your children to play outside is not a fear-based decision, it’s a truth-based decision. But letting hypothetical worst case scenarios plant irrational fears in my heart is not doing me or my kids any favors. My girls are getting older now. I know them well. I’m connected with their hearts and we have open lines of communication. I felt that they were ready for some independence, it’s just that I wasn’t sure I was ready. Even though I was nervous, I knew that I needed to give them freedom to ride to the park by themselves so that they can build confidence, independence, cooperation and problem solving skills without being within arm’s reach. I know this is helping to prepare them. I had to trust the Ultimate Truth during that hour and a half…He is a big, powerful God, and I can trust Him to keep my kids safe. It will probably get easier. They will stretch their wings a little at a time. They will prove their responsibility and it will put my worried mind at ease. But until then, I guess I need to bite my nails and pray. Veteran moms and dads: How have you handled this with your kids? Were there certain milestones you were looking for your kids to have before they were allowed to do things alone? Was it just simply a question of age or maturity? Let’s talk about it in the comments!    

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