Last week, my co-columnist Jenn wrote an article about different parenting styles. The funny thing is, I was actually working on my article about the same thing for this week, and so I’m going to build on her theme.
There are so many different types of parents out there. Jenn mentioned a few of them in her article last week, but I’d specifically like to focus on one she didn’t mention: “free range” parents. “Free Range” parents are part of a bigger movement called “Slow Parenting.” While I am interested in some of the ideas behind “slow parenting,” it was the “Free Range” stuff that really piqued my interest.
Back in 2008, my husband and I were struck by the story of Lenore Skenazy. She’s a journalist and mom who let her 9 year-old son ride the NYC subway home by himself. To some she was a hero, but to others, she was “America’s Worst Mom” who endangered her son by letting him ride the train alone. Since then, she’s become the leader in a movement known as “Free Range” parenting. I’m fascinated by it.
I’m certainly not there 100 percent, but so much of what she says makes sense to me. Maybe it’s because I waited to have children until I was older, so I just look at things a little differently. Do I worry? Of course I worry. But I also believe that parenting means letting children make mistakes, and sometimes even get hurt.
Obviously I don't advocate letting your toddler run freely in a parking lot full of moving cars; supervision and limits have important roles to play. It all depends on how serious the consequences could be, and how willing you are to let your kids experience them. Where to draw the line is a personal decision, and making that judgment call can be difficult.
Another consideration is the impact on other people. For example, both our boys have gone through what I would call an aggressive phase. During those times, I shadowed them ... And if issues did crop up, they could be addressed promptly.
But you can’t shield children from every danger. Life is full of risks, and it's important to let kids have some freedom to explore those risks. Judgment and risk assessment are life skills like any other, and not ones that children magically develop the day they move out of your house. It may be nerve-wracking to watch children climb a tree or walk along the top of that wall -- what if they fall! – but isn't it better for them to suffer a few scrapes and bruises now, learning first-hand how to assess danger, than to have their first experience being responsible for their own safety when they’re an adult and the consequences are much higher?
In November 2009, Nancy Gibbs, an essayist and editor at large for Time Magazine wrote an article called "The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting." She made many great points, but one that really stuck out was the following: “college deans described freshmen as 'crispies,' who arrived at college already burned out, and 'teacups,' who seemed ready to break at the tiniest stress." The reason, according to Gibbs? Overprotective, anxiety-driven "helicopter parents."
The helicopter parent is not a new phenomenon. If there is an opposite to the free-range style, it's helicopter parenting. I first noticed helicoptering in the 90's, when my cousin was a baby. My husband and I were at a family party, and some of the parents there talked about how they wouldn't let their kids outside to play because it was “unsafe.” Then they moved onto discussing how they didn’t let their kids walk to school. I was shocked!
Growing up in the same town, I had walked to school every day, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. What had changed? When I asked why they wouldn't let their kids walk to school, I got everything from "they could be snatched," to "it's just too dangerous." Keep in mind that this is a town with sidewalks and neighborhoods with mostly responsible, close-knit families. It had never even occurred to me not to walk.
Unfortunately, suburbia is not as pedestrian-friendly as the town I grew up in, but we still walk our son to the school bus whenever weather permits. Did I worry the first day? Of course! But he was so proud the first day he was allowed to ride the bus on his own. Would he really have been better off if I'd driven him to school every day instead? I don't think so. And I look forward to sharing that same pride the first day he's old enough to walk to the bus on his own.
Being in a couple of moms groups, I have had the pleasure of meeting many different moms (and dads), all with different parenting styles. As I’ve said in prior columns, I believe it’s instinctual to judge people. I am quite sure there are things I do as a parent that cause people to shake their heads, but you have got to do what you think is right, and make the best decisions for your kids. Those decisions might not be right for other children you know, but they’re right for yours. And that is what counts in the end.
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