A debate sprung up on a Chattanooga mom’s Facebook page the other day when someone posted about the appropriate age to allow your children to play outside alone. The responses were split — some mothers vehemently against letting their children outside unsupervised, while others were comfortable letting their kids explore starting at toddlerdom. And, of course, as is often the case in hot button parenting debates, both sides were equally passionate and absolutely certain that they were right.
While I respect and understand the perspective of those opposed to unsupervised play, I tend to fall more on the free-range side with my own children. While they are still too young to venture far, they love to play in our front yard and go across the street to their friend’s house.
*I’ll go ahead and throw in a disclaimer before I dive in: You know your child better than anyone else. You and you alone can set limits for your children. What my kid can or wants to do at the age of four may be totally different than your four-year-old. Trust your instincts.*
“Free-range” parenting is a term that was coined in 2008 by Lenore Skenazy in an article she wrote defending her decision to let her then nine-year-old ride the subway alone in New York City. Did your heart rate just speed up a little? Understandable, and you’re not alone. Skenazy got so much angry feedback and hate mail (the media even referred to her as “America’s Worst Mom”) that she wrote a book called “Bad Mother” and went on to start a website about the whole idea of free-range-ing. Her argument is that if you felt safe playing outside as a child in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids are probably SAFER than you were; while crime rates were on a quick and steady rise during the late ’80s and ’90s, they have dropped to lower than what they were in the ’70s.
So, if the argument is that we can’t allow our children some independence and autonomy outside the home because “times have have changed,” you may be correct; but not for the reason you may think.
While crime rates have lowered, crime AWARENESS has shot up dramatically. We live in a society inundated by media, and ratings are driven by fear and fascination. For most of us, our greatest fear is losing our child. So, understandably stories of crimes against children chill us to our bones and spring readily to our minds when our kids ask to walk to a friend’s house or look at something the next aisle over at the store.
Media and marketing notice, and capitalize on our parental fears. Just consider how many child safety products are on the market! (While I want my child safely strapped into a car seat, I don’t feel I need to have them in a helmet and kneepads when they start cruising.) Another factor that plays into this and other parenting choices, is how litigious our society can be. Schools and cities have to be mindful of risks in order to protect themselves from lawsuits, which can make being a child in public feel inherently unsafe. And while you may feel perfectly confident in the decision you make for your child while at home or in your neighborhood, there is always a little voice asking: “What will the neighbors think? And what will they do about it if they disagree?” There is a multitude of examples of authorities being called on parents for not visibly supervising their kids, even within our own community (among blog contributors as well).
So how do you navigate parenting responsibly, while still giving your child the independence they need and want?
For me, it comes down to assessing the motivation for the decisions I make. Am I parenting out of fear? Am I questioning my child or myself? Am I anxious about the situation I am in or about the blowback I might receive?
I’ve decided to arm my kids with knowledge should they get into a dangerous or uncomfortable situation; not because I think they WILL, but rather because I believe knowledge is power. I think of it much like doing fire and tornado drills in school — most of us were never forced to use those skill, but we all remember filing quickly and quietly down the hall, or covering our heads with a textbook in the hallway or under a desk; knowing what to do would have helped keep us calm and efficient in the case of an emergency. I teach my kids about “tricky people,” but also remind them that strangers can be helpful and kind, too. They learn our address and my full name and cell phone number. All of these things make them more confident and comfortable, which in turn, does the same for me.