Free Range Kids?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last few years and I have to say I don’t understand the new push to let our kids be free range kids. By free range I mean we turn them loose in the neighborhood to roam and play on their own, in the name of creativity and enjoying the freedom of childhood (and, honestly, giving mom and dad a quieter house). 

I’ve read several articles from the Scary Mommy blog, and a few others, recalling idyllic childhoods in fits of nostalgia. The claim is that our kids today are too protected, too babied, and they are missing key childhood experiences, adventures and opportunities to take risks.

I can agree, in part, with the premise that our kids are maybe a little too bubble wrapped, but I also have to wonder whether people are allowing nostalgia to cloud reality.

There has been some study done regarding nostalgia and its effects. It’s actually kind of dangerous because often it paints a better picture of the past than is accurate.

It can make your today feel worse than it really is if you believe something false about the past. If the 1950s is the gauge of what life used to be like, you’d be wrong. The 1950s were a small oasis between times of turmoil and societal ills. It didn’t last and it isn’t the way things were in the “good old days.”

There are new ways to encounter danger today, but the dangers themselves aren’t new.

In addition to making today feel much worse than yesterday, we can remember the fun parts of the past, forgetting the bad parts – forgetting the close calls, the foolishness, the consequences, the dangers.

A healthy way to think of the past is to look at it realistically and let it inform our today. We ought not to hold on to anger and bitterness over the bad, but we can take an honest look to see what we might do better, or how we might make different choices.

I didn’t have a totally free range childhood, by any stretch, but I had some freedom and spent time in other people’s homes. Even with my parents making the best, most informed, decisions they could, I encountered sexual predators in at least two different places (one of them a church). Thankfully neither of them ever were able to put a hand on me, but they were there and they were moving in that direction, without any doubt.

I had friends who were smoking at age 9, and we nearly burned down their kitchen because they were trying to light cigarettes on the stove eyes, and they set the entire carton on fire. 

They also had open access to HBO and a babysitter who educated them on all sorts of sexual matters. And they educated me – though I had no clue what they were really talking about. When I went home and asked my mom about something they said, she told me I couldn’t go back over there anymore. Good job, Mom!

I encountered pornography as a child. Kids at school knew all kinds of things about sex by the time I was in 3rd grade, in 1983, when things were simpler. Right?

Honestly, I was just the kind of kid I don’t want my kids around, because I knew a lot about things I didn’t really understand. 

The truth is that we have no idea what goes on behind the closed doors of other peoples’ homes and lives, and to send our kids out just hoping it all works out seems a bad idea. 

In fact, doing so defies the laws of nature. Things naturally move from order to chaos, unless we intervene, especially in childhood. Children are the last people who should be left to themselves. Leave kids alone a while and eavesdrop – you might be surprised which direction the conversation turns, or what sort of bright ideas they get. 

Children do not have the skill set, or the knowledge, to protect themselves. They cannot be trusted to make good choices all the time. If you believe that because you’ve told them not to do something, they won’t, you trust them too much. Some personality types tend to be rule followers, but others, not so much.

So…

I’m all for fun and adventure and time spent outdoors with friends, but not without some oversight and guidance.

Who are they playing with? What will they be doing? Do those kids have access to technology? Do they have free reign over the remote control? Do they have smart phones with internet access? Do they have older siblings in the house? Do the other families share your values, or at least understand and respect yours? 

These are important questions, in my view. We end up trying to undo a lot if we don’t ask them on the front end of a playdate. And yes, I do think it’s a sad statement that we have to arrange playdates, but such is life.

I’ve heard that people think I’m protective because I’m “religious.” I do want my kids to know and love God, to love people and to live a life that honors both of those things. However, by and large, it’s simply looking at the reality of things that makes the decision for me.

I might sound psychotic to some of you, but I have to say, I don’t care. Call me a hover mother, if you wish. My children are precious to me, and they are my responsibility until they are old enough to make their own decisions and live their own lives.

We can’t prevent everything bad from getting through, we need to teach them to navigate the real world, and I believe that any sense of control we may feel, is really a facade. 

But, I do need to own that which is within my grasp. 

Ideally we will put in a lot of work in the early years, building a foundation, then gradually loosen the reins and let them test the waters of freedom. But that comes with a demonstration of responsibility and a history of making good choices.

Nostalgia is no friend of mine. I had a lot of fun in my childhood. I climbed trees and played wiffle ball in the street with neighborhood friends, but I also had those same neighbors invite me over to play strip poker when I was 9 (I said hail no). 

Rather than revel in nostalgia I choose to inform my parenting with both the fun and the danger, and act accordingly. You have to do what’s right for you, of course, and you may have had a very different experience in your young life. 

Catching tadpoles

I’m happy to let my kids drink from the hose, climb trees, play in the dirt barefooted, build a fort, catch frogs, and all those kinds of things. But, at some point I have to draw a line. 

I respect the decisions of others and believe they love their kids just as much as I do, even when they come to different conclusions. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we have.

This is simply my view and my response to the idea of free range childhood, because the concept, and the articles, aren’t going away. 

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