As Miss M gets older, I’ve been thinking a lot about free range parenting. That’s definitely my style and I’m loving the independence it’s building in my toddler.
So far, we’ve been really lucky to not have people freak out when they see my two year old running around without mommy right there next to her. In fact, we were at Lagoon on Saturday and she wandered a little bit away and just stood by herself while lots of people came and went around her. Eventually, someone knelt down at eye level to ask if she was lost (I think; I couldn’t hear the conversation), and while a part of me is a little disturbed that it took as long as it did, part of me is glad that I didn’t have to be right there to ward off strangers and she explored a little on her own.
It was so different than an experience I had several months ago.
We took Monkey and two “cousins” to a playground for a couple of hours while our friends went to a concert. While it was a glimpse into what our life could look like if we had had another baby sooner after M, instead of “waiting” longer like we are, it was also an experiment in hands-off parenting. With three kiddos under six, it’s impossible to play “hands on” with each of them. Moreover, grownup-free play is important to child development, even at a young age.
In fact, this situation was the perfect kind of tribal play that evolutionary developmental psychologist Peter Gray champions.
The play area was full of kids. It didn’t occur to me to count, but Mack remarked that it was busy. There were kids that were toddlers, a few who were older (8 and 9ish, possibly older) and most in between. From time to time, I would lose sight of a child as others would get in my sight line or they would climb into a tunnel or behind a structure. For the most part, I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.
These kiddos knew where we were and that we were there if they needed us, but for the most part, they were free to play independently.
We sat outside the playground, instead of on the parent benches within the enclosure where most of the adults were. This wasn’t a problem until Monkey got up somewhere she couldn’t immediately get down from. After only a few moments another parent jumped right in and helped her down.
This “other mother” looked around and then at her friend and said something like “where is her mom?”
It struck me then (once again) how much I am not a helicopter mom. I definitely would’ve stepped in if M had been seriously stuck, but she hardly had a chance to try to work it out herself. It seems that we’re robbing our children of important opportunities to learn.
Free range parenting has come under a lot of scrutiny and even resulted in CPS and other “legal” action against parents who subscribe to it as it’s gained popularity. The crazy thing is, in many ways our lives are safer than they’ve ever been. We’re just extremely risk averse.
One of my many-greats aunts wrote in her journal about their trip across the plains to Utah. She and her friend would depart early, ahead of the handcart company, so they could play on the trail during the day and not get left behind the company. Agnes was nine at the time. It seems a little unbelievable to me that a nine year old could just be trusted like that. Even in my very free range parenting, I’m not sure I’d be ok with my child heading out on her own across the plains of the US unsupervised (and I’ve been out there; there’s still nothing there).
Sometimes I wonder what the cost is. Do we overparent our children into a perpetual childhood? Am I raising a child who will be unable to cope in a society of adults babied first by their parents and then by their government? Am I running a great risk of losing my child to a CPS worker because I admit on a public blog I let her wander even a little ways off at a crowded amusement park? I really worry about all these things.
No doubt we’re all doing our best. Even the other mom was just stepping in to make sure my child was ok. I want my kids to be empowered and independent (age appropriately so), not always looking to me for rescuing. I think a more free range attitude does that. As I’ve let go and let M explore, I’ve been amazed to find out how capable even a 2 year old can be. It’s exciting to see. I can’t wait for more to come!