HELP NEEDED: “I Want to Stop Smothering My Kids But Don’t Know How”

Hey Readers — This piece on the Huffington Post  is by a mom, Rebecca Cuneo Keenan, who is rarin’ to let her 8-year-old son Free-Range…but can’t:

I’ve been reading about helicopter versus free range parenting for years now. I’ve been hearing about how our kids are being raised on back-lit screens and shuttled from one scheduled activity to another. They don’t get the time or space to explore their neighbourhoods by themselves and learn independence in the process. They aren’t active enough and, quite frankly, all this tab keeping is exhausting for everyone. If there was ever a question about which side I’d take, helicopter or free-range, I’d already long decided to be free-range.

But it’s not that easy.

She adds:

My generation of parents really is just shy of bubble-wrapping our kids and sending them out into the world with a GPS embedded in their bodies. We keep our kids in five-point-car-seat-harnesses for as long as possible, micromanage every detail of their locally-sourced, organic diet and get them cell phones as soon as they’re likely to be away from us all in the name of health and safety. It goes against every fibre of our collective consciousness to send them out to the woods with pointed sticks and sling shots.

And finally she says there are the added problems of worrying about being blamed if her child gets hurt, as well as convincing her son, 8, that it might actually be fun to walk to the park (at least part way to the park) by himself. So, here are some suggestions I’ve got, and I’d love you, readers, to add on:

*Have him walk with a friend! That way he has someone to play with, too.

*Talk to other parents about your interest in Free-Ranging. When you find someone like-minded (and you will!), agree to give your kids unsupervised time outside together.

*To remember how the world isn’t a cesspool of danger, try a day without preparing. Leave the house without Kleenex, Band-Aids, extra water, wipes or even — as we recently discussed — snacks. Or cash!  You’ll see you can survive, which may remind you that your son can, too.

*Speaking of friends, talk to one who’s from another country about what they let kids do there. Often, the things we’re terrified of are simply routine elsewhere. Instant perspective!

*Have your son actually HELP you by doing something on his own. Have him get an ingredient for dinner, or walk the dog, or go to the post office. Anything that really WOULD make your day a little easier. Kids love to be more than just our precious babies. They long for purpose, especially in the adult world.

*Read “Free to Learn,” by Peter Gray. His subtitle says it all: “Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.” (And he forgot to add, “Possibly Slimmer, too!”)

And here’s one suggestion lifted straight from my own book:

* Think of one activity you [or your husband] did as a kid that you are unwilling to let your own sweetheart do at the same age (baby-sitting, biking to a friend’s), and make a list of 20 things that could conceivably go wrong. If there are any worries that strike you as realistic, help your child prepare for them. Teach your would-be babysitter first aid. Teach your would-be biker how to signal his turns. You’ll feel better because you’ve helped them and they’ve demonstrated that they’re ready.

Add your ideas here! – L

Mom wonders: "How do I throw this stuff away?"

Mom wonders: “How do I throw this stuff away?”

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22 Responses to HELP NEEDED: “I Want to Stop Smothering My Kids But Don’t Know How”

  1. V April 2, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

    Replace the “what could go wrong” thought with “what could go RIGHT”, every time you have an itch to think of all of the terrible possibilities. It’s far more likely things will go right (child will survive, child will learn, child will have more pride and self-confidence, you will learn to trust freedom, and do much more), and how exciting for you and your child to talk about all the cool stuff that went well while they were out! I’m already free-ranging my 2 yr old when age appropriate opportunities present themselves. She has such pride in her expression when she’s accomplished something on her own, it’s priceless and leaves me trying to find ways to bring it out again!!!

  2. CrazyCatLady April 2, 2014 at 11:19 pm #

    I actually started very early by allowing my kids to walk/run ahead to the next telephone pole when walking down the street, beginning around age 2. Later as they got older, I sent them across the store to find groceries that we get on a weekly basis, things like cereal and milk.

    Then, because we had a ton of appointments, I let them stay at the library while I took the ones who needed it to the appointments. (I did call the library first and made sure that they were of the appropriate age to do this.) The library was the BEST thing – no more dragging them along when I had female type doctor appointments or getting my husband to take time off from work. (We homeschool, so they are with me most of the time.)

    This year I have also given them money and let them go their separate ways to shop for Christmas presents at a strip mall. They all knew what time to meet up. Last year I had them go together. I have dropped them off at parks while I went shopping, and I encourage them to explore on their bikes.

    This last summer, after having crayons, white-out and a giant chunk of tar from the road, all go through the wash, I decided that it was time for them all to do their own laundry. Each kid gets their own day, and I get the weekend to do my own and Dad’s wash. This has been wonderful for me, though I do have to nag them some to fold their clothes so that we can have napkins for meals.

    Speaking of meals, they all make their own breakfasts and lunches. This summer I plan to have them each make a dinner once a week. I might start them all together, then move to pairs, then individual. I will expect them to have protien and vegetables with the meals. Starches are optional, thought I expect they will learn how to cook rice and pasta as two of them love the starches.

    My oldest is currently learning how to drive the tractor in order to learn how to mow our pasture. She also takes pretty much complete care of our 30 some ducks and geese, while middle child cares for the dogs, and the youngest feeds the tilapia that we hope to soon eat.

    My kids are currently ages 8, 11 and 14. We have built up to this over the years. Examples that I give are things that you could also build up to. Start small with things that he is comfortable with, then move to bigger. Maybe start with 15 minutes at the library, then move up to an hour. Have him work with you with laundry until he can do his on his own. Start with fixing breakfast (eggs, oatmeal for instance) and move up to others as he is comfortable.

  3. Jenny Islander April 3, 2014 at 1:49 am #

    At age eight a neurotypical, able-bodied child can learn to:

    *Help you shop by going well out of your sight, like maybe eight or ten aisles over, to pick up an easily identifiable item. And then another one after he comes back with that one.

    *Mess around in his own yard, by himself, with whatever. Even if the local police look pickle-faced at the very idea!

    *Spend a while at the park with somebody to play with, but no grown-ups. Start with an hour and work upward from there, and if the prospect freezes your blood stay in the car and work on a project, only glancing up occasionally to see how normal everything is. Your main concern, besides somebody to hang out with, is going to be someplace to go to the bathroom–unless conditions really are so extreme as to prompt warnings in the weather report. (You may have to arrange a playdate unless you live in the right kind of neighborhood. Explain proper clothing before your child goes to the park, and if he chooses not to wear it, the consequences are his natural corrector.)

    *Cook and serve a simple meal. A full-sized range may be a bit much to handle, but an eight-year-old can (for example) fix waffles in the toaster, find and set out the stuff that people eat on waffles, and assemble some fresh or canned fruit and a jug of milk.

    *Pick up his own room for a short time every day (my rule is a child’s age in minutes), be responsible for keeping houseplants properly watered, put away his own clean clothes, and understand what the cat wants well enough to get it for her.

    *Cross the street at a marked crosswalk, by himself.

    *Take cash and pick up a small item for you at the corner store, if you happen to live near a corner store. You may have to write the exact name of the item on a piece of paper and have him ask a store clerk for help, if he isn’t a confident reader.

    *Pack his own snacks; learn for himself how hungry/thirsty he tends to get in the course of an active day, and what will satisfy.

    Pick one, roll with it until it seems ordinary, then pick another one.

  4. Emily Guy Birken April 3, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Two thoughts:
    1. Give your 8 year old a wristwatch. Not only will it help them learn to tell time, but they’ll really enjoy getting to use their new “toy.” You can tell them to be home by a certain time or do something without you for a certain amount of time. It’s the beginning of important self-regulatory behaviors.

    2. I tend to be an anxious type, despite being a free ranger. I am able to come up with wildly inventive ways things can go wrong, but I have learned that these are what’s known as “intrusive thoughts.” They are awful, but they don’t reflect reality. A very zen way to deal with these thoughts is to treat them like clouds passing through a blue sky. Just let them pass. If I find myself worrying about something ridiculous, I imagine a cloud passing through the sky, and I’m able to recognize my worry for what it is.

  5. Emily Guy Birken April 3, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Two thoughts:
    1. Give your 8 year old a wristwatch. Not only will it help them learn to tell time, but they’ll really enjoy getting to use their new “toy.” You can tell them to be home by a certain time or do something without you for a certain amount of time. It’s the beginning of important self-regulatory behaviors.

    2. I tend to be an anxious type, despite being a free ranger. I am able to come up with wildly inventive ways things can go wrong, but I have learned that these are what’s known as “intrusive thoughts.” They are awful, but they don’t reflect reality. A very zen way to deal with these thoughts is to treat them like clouds passing through a blue sky. Just let them pass. If I find myself worrying about something ridiculous, I imagine a cloud passing through the sky, and I’m able to recognize my worry for what it is.

  6. Liz April 3, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    Start with the easy stuff — when you go to the park with him (before he goes there on his own), bring something engrossing for you to do. A book you cannot put down, knitting that actually requires counting, a phone call with a dear friend you haven’t spoken to in a while (but step away from others; nobody wants to hear your side of the conversation. And then, let him go play. Don’t look up. Don’t jump up to grab him if he jumps off a high platform. Let him get used to playing unsupervised with you nearby; and let you get used to not supervising.

    When you cook dinner, have him cut up the vegetables. Ask him to take things out of the oven. Activities that seem high-risk become low-risk when you break them down, develop competence, and then add them back together again.

  7. Melanie April 3, 2014 at 8:27 am #

    Start with little things and build up your confidence.

    – at the shops/cafe/library send him up to the counter on his own to order/pay/borrow a book. You can sit at a table and watch to see how he goes.

    – at restaurants let him go to the bathroom on his own (if you don’t already).

    – if you need milk and the shops are in walking distance send him to get it for you and tell him he can spend a certain amount of the change on whatever he wants.

    My son starting walking and riding to school on his own around age 8. The first couple of times I arranged for other parents to text me when they saw him arrive. Or on other occasions I called and asked the office manager to check if he’d got there. Then, after a couple of weeks I stopped checking and stopped worrying. Now he sometimes walks home with his younger brother if I’m stuck with the baby and can’t get up there.

  8. Papilio April 3, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    Shall *I* say it then?

    ‘And if all the other tips don’t work, just fly in the cavalry by going to the tab “House Calls”.’

  9. B April 3, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    I just wanted to say thanks for the great ideas. Although my kids are still younger, I also struggle with this. Since free range parenting is no longer the norm, it is harder to judge what is and isn’t age appropriate. The other thing that we’ve decided to do with my 4 and 6 year old this summer is to buy them a set of tools (hammer, nails, saw, etc.) and some wood pieces so that they can make their own fort (or whatever other creation they come up with).

  10. Becky April 3, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    Send them to sleep-away camp. For greater than a week, if possible. I know this may not be within everyone’s budgets, but it’s a great way of 1) teaching kids that the most fun they can possibly have is being as far away from their parents as possible and 2) forcing parents to not helicopter. Once kids realize that parents are a hindrance to their enjoyment, they will not want to walk to the park with them. Once parents are physically prevented by the rules of the camp from contacting or in any way hovering over their kids, they’ll realize there was no reason for them to do so. And yet all of this can be achieved in a relatively safe environment.

    Now, the one thing this wont help the parent with is “worrying about being blamed if her child gets hurt”. I never get this one. Why on earth do parents care so much about what other people might think about them? Tell me all about how you’re terrified your son or daughter will be hit by a car crossing the street, and I sympathize. But tell me that what you’re really concerned about is that AFTER your kid is hit by a car, someone might judge you harshly, and all I can do is shake my head. Priorities people.

  11. BL April 3, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    @Becky
    “Send them to sleep-away camp. For greater than a week, if possible.”

    Are you sure that’s going to be any better? Haven’t we had reports on this very blog that camps these days are as helicopterish as the worst helicopter parents?

  12. anonymous this time April 3, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    “It goes against every fibre of our collective consciousness”?

    Gadzooks, I beg to differ. There are loads of us out there who can’t believe how childhood development has been undermined by the hysteria around us.

    Add me to the collection. I want my kids to go into the woods. The more of us there are, the more the tide will turn.

    When we tell ourselves that “this is what the group thinks, and I can’t go against it,” well, trouble begins.

    Advocate for your child, yourself, your family. I know, you may encounter reproach. If you are truly living your values in a joyful, committed way, it won’t matter.

  13. Havva April 3, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    I see two things seriously wrong with how she asked her son if he wanted to walk to the park alone.

    One, was that she was talking about walking him part way there. Two, was that she was apparently asking in a context where he couldn’t see what advantage this offered. I think she needs to work on getting comfortable with letting him go down the busy street all on his own. (Let him take the lead, then watch from a distance, all that good stuff). Then he will be in a position to see going alone as something that frees him from mom’s schedule.

    To remedy this, I recommend she get really busy and the next time she mentions it, the suggestion should be an immediate answer to a cry of boredom. I remember when I was first allowed to go to the park alone, mom recommended it as a boredom buster while she was doing dishes. Soon the mere suggestion of doing dishes had me begging to go to the park.

    I don’t think the kid will be rearing to go, until he has had a taste of freedom.

  14. jonathan peterson April 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    “It goes against every fibre of our collective consciousness”?

    Exactly. It goes against every fibre of the mass media American suburban dweller consciousness.

    We live in very liberal, in-town neighborhood in Atlanta that is as pedestrian/bicycle friendly as any place in the state. Free ranging is pretty close to the norm for us.

    Kids learn by example, in free ranging as anything else. They will learn from you – WALK to stores and shops (if you don’t have them close to your house, park 6 blocks away from the ones you DO go to). Allow them to explore but teach them age appropriate rules for intersections and strange dogs. JUMP in mudpuddles with them, climb trees with them. Climb UP the slide, jump off the swing. BIKE to restaurants, parks, soccer practices, first with a trail-a-bike, then with them following you IN TRAFFIC (yes, it’s scary). ENCOURAGE their talking to strange adults in grocery lines, parks, etc. That’s how they learn who/when to trust.

    But it never ends. I started teaching my son to drive in a parking lot when he was interested and could reach the pedals.

  15. Michelle April 3, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Also, don’t forget that Free Range Parenting doesn’t mean worry free parenting. We still worry at times, we just don’t let it overwhelm our sense of what is good for our kids. And certainly don’t push your worry onto your kids, or they will then worry also. Each time you let your kids do something on their own that is out of your comfort zone, your confidence will build and so will your child’s!!

  16. anonymous this time April 3, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    “I started teaching my son to drive in a parking lot when he was interested and could reach the pedals.”

    Oh, wow, I’ve got company. I’d love to teach my 13-year-old to drive!

  17. E Simms April 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    In this thread and several others, posters have talked about having each kid do his or her own laundry. I’m curious about how many families actually that. That seems pretty inefficient to me. You’re going to end up with a lot of less than full loads of laundry, wasting electricity and water. Especially if you have several kids.

    Wouldn’t it be better to have the kids take turns doing the family laundry? Maybe start out having them do all the sheets and towels, which are hard to screw up, and then graduate to sorting (very important skill) and laundering clothes.

    Maybe everyone should be responsible for their own delicates. I wouldn’t turn an eight year old loose on my washable silk blouse.

  18. Bose in St. Peter MN April 3, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    Amidst the practical, hands-on stuff, it doesn’t hurt to think about the longer time frame.

    To the extent the generational trend continues, will kids today become adults to are afraid to become parents at all? Do we want them to become parents who are even more protective and fearful than we are, creating markets for even more invasive technology to monitor & control?

    Is hyper-helicoptering the future we want for our kids once they are parents? Will it make their lives happy and fruitful?

    How does bubble-wrapping our kids now (or not) play into their future career lives? What will equip them to take healthy risks on the job, to challenge coworkers or even defy a boss in order to innovate?

    And, for their future families, are we teaching that safety and trust of our loved ones can only come from an illusion of certainty borne of GPS, phone and web trails, or do we trust each other out of confidence about each others’ skills and character?

    Finally, if we don’t figure out how to balance the instinct to bubble-wrap our kids, they may balance us by rebelling at an opposite extreme.

  19. John April 3, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Quote: “Speaking of friends, talk to one who’s from another country about what they let kids do there. Often, the things we’re terrified of are simply routine elsewhere. Instant perspective!”

    Great advice! Good example, the Philippines!! Kids are very free-range there. They are all out on the street playing soccer, basketball, etc. Many of the Filipino kids from poor families are out on the street, literally, by themselves as young as 8-years-old, washing car windows for a few pesos and they do just fine. They either walk to school or ride in a little tuk tuk which would scare the hell out of most child advocates here in the states. Many of the kids interact with tourists on the beach in trying to sell souvenirs and boat rides and day trips for their parents’ business. Yes, talking to strangers….eegads!!!

    While visiting there awhile back, I walked thru somewhat of a slum area, that was near my hotel, with camcorder in hand. The kids, who were all out playing and ranged in age from 7 on up to 16, ran toward me waving and as happy as ever in seeing an approaching stranger from the West. So I videoed them and their parents who were sitting off to the side playing cards and peanuckle looked at me and smiled and waved and shouted “Welcome sir”! They had absolutely no problem with me videoing their kids so I then videoed them too. It was pretty obvious to them that I was a stranger who just wanted to capture their culture which involves many many kids! When I look back at those videos, they involk many good memories of my time there. So supposing a Japanese tourist was caught videoing a bunch of kids on the playground here in the states? I’m certain that some idiot would call the police and the tourist would be inquisitioned on his motives.

    It should be pointed out that Filipinos are living and working in EVERY country, particularly in Middle-East countries, and is it a wonder why they are probably the most adaptable and resiliant culture on earth?

  20. Cin April 3, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    Add another person highly impressed with the free-ranging and many other aspects of Fillipino culture.
    Our family’s nanny. who lives with us and is a valued and loved family member, a third parent in the home, and an amazing employee and all-around good person, really helps me stay on track with free-ranging, chores for the kids, and belief in their ability to do almost anything they set their mind to.

  21. Michelle April 4, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    E Bose, re: laundry. In our house, we do take turns doing the family laundry, as you suggested. But, when I was a kid I did my own laundry – at the laundromat, even – and I just waited until I had enough for a couple loads. And now that I think about it, each of us produces about a load of laundry per week. We could each do our own laundry, if it didn’t mean scheduling 10 people turns in the laundry room. Now THAT would be a nightmare!

  22. JP April 6, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    Dear Ms. Keenan,

    You happen to have the same maiden name as my mom (though she was before your time, and I doubt there’s any relation in that coincidence…)

    – but this caused me to remember something:
    a suggestion – you might try doing what my mom did. (for different reasons – same results.)

    Network.

    One of the things that can be so overwhelming, is to feel that you’re all alone in your neighborhood or community.
    On the other hand, if you find enough like-minded parents around you….that small regiment can grow into an army.
    Back in the day…..when I was small – a helicopter parent was the one going against the current. Everyone else was on the same page.
    As you say – the kids aren’t active enough, and all that tab-keeping is exhausting.
    Perhaps this sort of thing draws a deep dividing line within a community…I don’t know. Perhaps an awful lot of parents feel deep down inside that they’d like to find a better way to run their lives…
    Only when the issue becomes raised beyond the personal and private, into a community issue, will anything really change for the better.

    Good luck – it’s a great cause.