Thursday, April 4, 2013

Some Thoughts on Keepin' It Free Range

I was thrilled this week when the blog Free Range Kids re-posted part of my piece Parenting that Great-Grandma Would Recognize. I've long been a fan of Lenore Skenazy and her (as she describes it) "commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times."

As kids, my brother and sisters and I would explore alone in the woods behind my parents' house with the only rule being "Don't go near the storm drain." Some afternoons after school we'd ride our bikes down a pretty busy street over the highway to buy ourselves candy at Finch's drugstore. The summer I turned thirteen my Mom put me on a plane to France to visit a family that someone on our block knew. I didn't have anything useful with me like a cell phone or, say, the ability to speak French, but I somehow managed to navigate two airports and eventually reached my destination.

And all that was pretty great.

But the reality is that, while it's super to wax nostalgic about "the good old days" when we all ran wild through the streets and joyfully stuck our heads out the windows of speeding cars unencumbered by seat belts, it's not always so easy to give those same freedoms to our own kids.

In part this is because there are things we really do know better. For example, we understand how major injuries can be prevented through minor precautions so we make our kids wear seat belts and bike helmets.

The problem is that opening these reasonable doors can also allow in a whole universe of "what ifs" that set us back from being "free range Moms" and transform us into "locking our children in their rooms until they are 18 Moms" overnight.

So I've come to accept that the best I can do is to find as many opportunities as possible for my kids to test their boundaries, no matter how hard it is.

My sister-in-law, a highly self-confident and generally bad-ass Mom of four was standing with me a few months back as we watched her fourteen-year-old daughter and my four-year-old son climb a tree together at the park.

The two of them kept climbing until they were both more than a dozen feet off the ground. I started getting nervous as they eyed the next set of branches over their heads and asked them to stop.

My sister-in-law took the opportunity to tell me about the tree she used to climb when she was a little girl. It was several stories tall, and month after month she would go out and explore higher and higher through the branches. At some point she reached a section of the tree way above the ground where she realized that she would have to jump -- losing contact with the tree for a moment -- in order to climb higher. 

It took a while to screw up her nerve, but eventually she made the leap and continued up the tree until she reached the top. From there she looked down with an unparalleled sense of pride in her accomplishment that had clearly stuck with her to this day.

I listened to her story and begrudgingly allowed my son to continue upward with his cousin.

But I'm not gonna lie, I shut my eyes.

You can make me be free range, but you can't always make me like it.