How to Vanquish “Mom Guilt” and Raise a Free-Range Kid

Readers — This story speaks for itself (as does the son!). It comes to us from Aimee Turner, who says she and her husband are “happy to know we aren’t alone in the fight against BWCS: Bubble-Wrapped Child Syndrome.” She blogs at The Maine Page Turner . – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids:This summer, instead of going to municipal rec camp (daily, highly supervised….. and so “safe” that it’s kind of boring), we talked with our spunky and independent 12-yr-old son about what he might enjoy better.  So this summer he is taking daily group tennis lessons as well as twice-weekly group golf lessons. 

His father and I both work, so in order for him to do these lessons, he has to get himself to and fro.  On the days he has both tennis AND golf, he has one hour to get across town (on his bike, about five miles).  He has to be sure he has everything he needs for both sports (he is able to store his golf clubs at the course – that would be difficult on a bike!), a lunch he has packed for himself, and appropriate clothes (he needs to wear a shirt with a collar at golf) etc. My husband (his dad) did a practice run with him on a Saturday before the sports sessions started, taught him how to change the bike tube, and they packed a repair kit, in case he gets a flat!

Yesterday I realized how easy it is for “mom guilt” to overtake Free-Range-ness.  DS and I were hanging out, and I almost said, “You know, I’m sorry you have to get yourself to all your stuff and that neither Dad nor I can drive you.”  And then I CAUGHT myself.  Yes, I thought it for a brief moment, but I didn’t say that, because I realized how ludicrous that line of thinking is!   What on earth would I be apologizing for?  That I’m not his chauffeur service???  For goodness sake, he’s 12, and he’s perfectly capable of taking a 20-min bike ride on a dedicated bike path in a bike-friendly town. I said what I really believe: “You know, I’m very impressed by how responsible you are with making sure you have your things, and that you are riding your bike safely the way on the route Dad showed you, and how you are getting everywhere right on time!” 

Instead of infantilizing him, I empowered him.  And his summer days are a lot more interesting than they would have been at rec camp.  (Other side benefits: these activities are 1/3 of the price of rec camp, he’s getting a LOT of exercise, and we’re not increasing our family carbon footprint with lots of unnecessary car-based kid schlepping.)

This morning – no lie – he said to me, out of the blue, “Mom, thank you for not being a smother-y, helicopter-y mom who wouldn’t let me do golf lessons just because of the bike ride there.  I love riding my bike there!  And my coach thinks it’s awesome!”  (He really used the words “smother-y” and “helicopter-y”.)  Not many kids actually thank their parents for driving them around…. But mine thanked me for NOT driving him around.  Imagine that! – Aimee Turner

An old equation. Kids + bikes = joy. (Even in the parents.)

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38 Responses to How to Vanquish “Mom Guilt” and Raise a Free-Range Kid

  1. Molly July 1, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Fantastic! Hits home with me….I have also gotten those “thank yous” from my kids.

  2. QuicoT July 1, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Yay Maine Page Turner!

  3. Orange Roughy July 1, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    You made my eyes wet! Great post

  4. Emily July 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    What an awesome story. I’m glad Ms. Turner didn’t put her son in the municipal day camp, because, even though I grew up going to day camps, and volunteering in day camps, and even went on to help run a day camp, there is a sort of “unofficial age range” for most day camps, and twelve is at the upper end of that. By that age, day camp starts becoming boring, uncool, and not fun anymore, because that’s around the age that kids start to chafe at the idea of having to get up early each morning for a day of scheduled, supervised activities. The only exception is specialized day camps that are designed for older kids (leadership, specific sports, SAT prep, etc.), but the “municipal rec camp” that Ms. Turner describes obviously isn’t one of those. Overnight camp is a different beast, but again, it’s not for everyone either, for a variety of other reasons. But, my point is, I’m glad that this family recognized that their son would rather play tennis and golf than go to day camp, and they allowed him to organize getting himself there and back on his bicycle.

  5. JJ July 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    This was great to read and well timed. Even though its only July 1 I am already struggling with what to do next year for summer given the age of my kids (10 and 13, especially the upunger). I have been considering the idea of no camp, no babysitter, but the opportunity to sign up for or join something interesting and to come and go at their own discretion but transportation is the big struggle. We live in the city but it turns out buses are set up to get people tp work not pools and sports. Maybe bike would be the answer (for some reason we just don’t do bikes). Times like this I really do wish we lived in the suburbs.

  6. JJ July 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    One other thing–one thing I’ll say for day camp is it gets the kids up at 7:30 and makes them tired at 10:00 pm which means I sleep better. (Otherwise its boom boom boom on the stairs, etc. ). My 13-year old is a jr counselor (paid pthis year (mornings only) which is great.

  7. John July 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    That is a fantastic story! The great part of this is the kid getting some much needed exercise biking a 10 mile round trip. He ought to have some pretty strong legs by the end of the summer and not to mention, an unending supply of endurance! Strong legs will certainly come in handy if he plays any sports in high school.

    Kids that age riding their bikes that distance to and from swimming lessons, golf lessons, summer school, etc., etc. was quite common during the 50s and 60s. I just wonder how long it will take before some nosey busy body calls Child Protective Services or the police when they find out this “poor fragile and brittle” child is riding his bike that far in the summer heat and where predators can pop out of the bushes and snatch him off his bicycle!!

  8. Beth July 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Loved this story, but it made me think how much has changed in the last few decades. When I was young, and even when I was a teen (late 70’s) it would never even have OCCURRED to my parents to drive me to summer activities and, later, my summer jobs, much less to school. And they certainly wouldn’t have apologized for the fact that I had to ride my bike or take the bus.

    Yet, I felt guilty when I didn’t give my own kids rides, and did have to push myself to push them to get places on their own. Where did I learn that? I wish I knew.

  9. anonymous this time July 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Cheering for this woman and her son. I’m quite moved by his gratitude and insight into what exactly he’s getting, too. Would it be that my kids had the same insights… instead, their dad (we’re not together) makes a big point of lavishing car rides on them to curry favour. Perhaps they see through it, but having my own efforts to get them out transporting themselves to their activities thwarted at times by his “nurturing” nearly drives me around the bend.

    Well, it’s all meant to be, because that’s how it’s happening. Stories like this one are enormously bittersweet for me. Glad it’s happening somewhere…

  10. lollipoplover July 1, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    “Yesterday I realized how easy it is for “mom guilt” to overtake Free-Range-ness.”

    Guilt should never enter your mind. You should be proud as a peacock for the awesome job you did raising a capable son who knows what he wants to do with his summer and finds a way to make it happen.

    Most kids this age can handle basic transportation- it’s very common in Denmark and other European countries. Why driving kids to and from activities when they can get get there on foot or bike is seen as “good” parenting is beyond me.

  11. Bill Toscano July 1, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    When I think back, this is exactly what I was doing at 12, back in 1971.

  12. Captain America July 1, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Great story and close to home! Our 9 year old is biking each day to the courts, a mile each way in a small town; we figure it builds up his body as well as his personal independence and confidence.

  13. IamDadtoThisBoy July 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    Thank you all for the positive reinforcement. Aimee and I take great pride in our “free-rangedness” but peer pressure can sometimes be overwhelming. (it’s not what they say that’s disturbing; it is what they don’t say.) I know that from the time I was 10 y/o I was delivering newspapers in the morning (before school), and in the afternoons (after school); and I participated in extra-curricular activities and I rode my bike, or used my skateboard, or (believe it, or not) walked everywhere –all the time. My parents couldn’t and wouldn’t drive me and my siblings around. The world was dangerous then too, but we were taught how to stay away from trouble, and taught how to NOT be a victim. My goal is to teach my son those same skills, and he has learned very well! We are very proud of him, and ourselves.

  14. Rachel July 1, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I think it’s great but I’d also like to know how deal with the worry of something happening on the way to and from these activities? I honestly think it’s a great idea (I have a 2 year old so I’m far from this age but am always reading about every age group) but I know the main reason I wouldn’t want to let my (hypothetical)12 year old do that is the fear of kidnappers etc snatching him. How do you personally deal with that?

  15. Chuck99 July 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    Rachel, I’d honestly say that you deal with the fear of your son being snatched, while riding his bike in public, in the middle of the day, the same way you deal with the fear of him falling in the bathtub or being struck by lightning: You admit it’s something that could possibly happen, but it’s not likely, and you’re not going to have much of a life if you spend all your life trying to prevent any situation where anything like that could occur.

  16. lollipoplover July 1, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

    Rachel- As a mom who also lets her son bike to his golf league, my *worry* (not much) is placed on the uncertain weather during the summer months (thunderstorms) as there’s a greater chance of the boy being struck by lightning than being snatched by kidnappers (good luck trying to catch him, he’s fast!)

    There’s a big difference between danger (lightning) and fear (paranoia about bogeymen stealing your kids). Danger is real. You can worry all the live long day about hypotheticals, it won’t do you any good. People die from being struck in the head by golf balls. Is that going to keep you up at night too?

  17. Red July 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    The “fear of kidnappers” is so blown out of proportion, it’s unreal.

    I was out in the yard doing something, and my kid was whining that he was bored. I told him to walk down the street to his friend’s house (about 5 houses down) and see if his friend wanted to play. He informed me that he’d been told at school that it’s illegal for him to do that, because the kidnappers might get him.

    My jaw dropped. My kid has been walking back-and-forth those 5 houses for the past two summers now. The 3.5-year-old younger brother of his friend occasionally comes wandering down to my house and hangs with me on the porch until he decides to wander back to his house. Even if I was concerned about such things, I was in the front yard and have clear line-of-sight all the way to his friend’s front door.

  18. Beth July 1, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    Rachel – I have a little one, too, and sometimes the stories here about things older kids do give me the heebie-jeebies also, because I imagine my sweet little toddler out there all alone. So, I think about a couple of things to cope with the idea of those future moments of fear…

    First, I remember what I’ve learned to deal with as a parent already. When my daughter was first born, for the first few days I couldn’t sleep if I wasn’t where I could check her just by opening my eyes. When she first ate solid food, I was terrified she would choke. When she started walking, I was afraid she would trip and crack her head open and I spotted her constantly. But none of those things bother me now, at least not to the point of being overprotective.

    Being a parent is, in some ways, coming to terms with all the things that could kill your kid, one after another, starting with sleeping, to eating, to walking and running, to cars and bad people and drugs, to illness, to war. or whatever crazy job they choose or place they want to travel, and on and on and on. But I’m starting to believe that her development keeps pace almost perfectly with my ability to tolerate each new risk. Whatever it is, it’s hard at first, but soon enough it’s manageable, or even easy. So I begin to trust that this will keep going–when it’s time to start letting her get around on her own, I’ll see that she has the skills to do it safely, just as I see she has the skills now to feed herself and walk around without holding my hand. And I’ll be glad she can do those things, just as I’m glad now that she doesn’t need me for everything.

    And then, I think what I think about fear generally – what *might* happen is so much scarier than anything that really does, because when you think about the hypothetical, you have to try to deal with all the horrible possibilities at once – and you can’t. If you keep trying, it’s almost like a challenge to your imagination to come up with ever more horrible possibilities, and you lose the ability to distinguish likely from unlikely scenarios. So I make this my mantra: even when something bad happens, you can get through it when you know what it really is you are dealing with. Decide to deal with reality, not imagination, and trust that you can handle real situations that come your way, just as you always have.

    Hope that helps, and I’m sorry if you get some less than kind remarks from commenters here.

  19. Peter July 1, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    Rachel, I think Beth makes the best point. I’d add one thing.

    If it’s something that makes you feel better, show your kid what to do if someone grabs them. If you’re into the whole structured thing, consider signing them up for a self-defense class. I know a few parents who did this for their peace-of-mind. But there are a bunch of things you can show your kids (aim for the nuts, work against the thumb, etc.) that will empower them and make you feel a bit better.

    Hell, my Dad showed me a few moves when I was a kid (Dad was in UDT–predecessor to the Navy SEALs). It was never explicitly about “What if some pervert tries to snatch you” and more about “here’s some cool moves in case someone grabs you.” Worked well against bullies in school, too.

  20. Yan Seiner July 1, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    @Rachel: I thought about putting together a statistic for the kidnapper fears. Bottom line, if you printed out a full-sized poster at 300 dots to the inch, each dot would represent one child death. That’s how many kids die in the US every year from all causes combined. Now, off in one corner, a tiny, tiny dot about the size of the letter ‘o’ represents all the “stranger danger” deaths.

    In other words, the stranger danger myth is just that, a myth. It happens vanishingly rarely; your kids are hundreds more times more likely to die in a car accident, and tens of times more likely to die at the hands of a relative than a stranger.

    But best of all, your kids are millions of times more likely to live to adulthood than die by any means at all.

    Do I worry about my kids? Sure. Do I let my fears rule their life? No.

  21. Lisa Phillips July 1, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    Love it, good job and congrats to you! Would love to know what town you’re in?

  22. Mandy July 1, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    What Chuck said. ^^^ Rachel, I hope and believe that as you watch your toddler grow stronger and more resourceful as the years pass, by the time he turns 12 you’ll see him on as a human on the cusp of independence. It may be hard to imagine right now, but provide him with empowering experiences such as tae-kwon do, team sports, and art classes and you will be developing his brain to think quickly and effectively in emergency scenarios.

  23. Reziac July 1, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Good gods, bike paths no less… In my day, we bicyclists were part of traffic, just like any other vehicle!

  24. Let_Her_Eat_Dirt July 1, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    Amen, Maine sister! There is no reason to apologize for giving a kid the opportunity to become self-reliant. The more we challenge them to rely on themselves, the more independent they learn to be. Good for you!

    Let Her Eat Dirt
    http://www.lethereatdirt.com
    A dad’s take on raising tough, independent girls

  25. Warren July 1, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    Awesome kid and great parents.

    What I wouldn’t trade to have the energy level of this kid. Tennis lesson, 5 mile bike ride then golf…………..hell, I would be looking for a nap halfway thru the bike ride. lol

  26. Violet July 1, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    My neighbor tried to drop our kids off at the swap shop this morning but humans under the age of 18 aren’t allowed to go there. My brother used to hang out all day at the flea market and he got a job at the T-shirt shop at age 13 making more than I was at Burger King at age 15 because they paid him under the table. Sigh.

  27. John July 2, 2013 at 1:38 am #

    @Red…….if I were you, I’d call the school and have a little heart to heart talk with them about that one. First I’d try to ascertain whether or not it was an official at the school, be it a teacher, teacher’s aid or Principal, who told your son that it was “illegal” for him to walk 5 blocks because “the kidnappers might get him” or if it was just another kid who told him that. If it was a school official who fed him that line, I’d be raising holy hell if I were you! But I’ll bet it was another kid.

  28. Natalie July 2, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    This is a great idea.
    Since my husband and I both work full time, we need an all day camp for the summer. But at some point, our girls won’t need to be supervised all day and will be just fine on their own.
    Very inspirational.

  29. Jenna K. July 2, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    The school my kids attend is about a mile from our house, and we are at the edge of the school boundary. Many of the kids live right by the school. This summer, I have been letting my 10-year-old ride his bike to his friends’ houses over near the school. There aren’t any boys his age in our part of the school boundary at all, and all his friends live in the neighborhood on the other side of the school. It’s been great to see how independent he’s becoming.

    Also, I want to add this…I was watching the news yesterday morning when my kids came in and the story was airing about the acrobat from Cirque Du Soleil who died during a performance. Anyway, my oldest son sighed and said, “Now watch, they’re probably going to make it a law that people can’t be acrobats anymore just because one person died in the entire history of that show.” Guess our generation of sheltered kids are fed up with all of the nonsense!

  30. nina July 2, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    This is what our boys did last summer. They were 11 and 9 at the time. Instead of staying home all day long they biked to the community rec center for tennis lessons and some pool time. Technically they weren’t supposed to use the pool with out adult present, but there were lifeguards and no one ever said anything to them. Afterwards they would either bike home or have lunch at a bagel place across the street. They had a great summer and we were able to save some money to send them to overnight camp this year.

  31. Red July 2, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    @John: Unfortunately, I think I got out of him that the kids were told this at the “safety day” presentation run by the sheriff’s department.

  32. Barb July 2, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    My kids are all grown up now but they still thank me for not being a helicopter parent and instilling manners in them. My son is now learning how hard that can be with his daughter who is not old enough at 1 year to worry about yet but he is thinking ahead and wants to raise her as he was raised. I think that is the best compliment a parent can get.

  33. Papilio July 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    @Lisa Phillips: “a bike-friendly town”, in the USA – gotta be Portland – an astronomical 5.8% of all trips is done by bike there!

    @Reziac: Not sure exactly how negative your remark was, but the way I see it, at least 1 town outside Europe has figured out bike paths are NOT the devil (thank you Mr Forester…..), and this path was safe enough for parents to let a 12yo get around by himself.
    Things like that are exactly what bike paths etc are for: to allow people to move themselves around safely without having to use motorised traffic. Doesn’t really matter if they use a bike, a skateboard, inline skates or a wheelchair to do it.

  34. Maggie July 2, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    My little brothers played football in junior high. I didn’t drive yet and my parents both worked, so when practice started up in August before school had resumed they had to get themselves and their equipment to the ball field. They rode their bikes over ten miles to the ball field, either carrying or wearing their shoulder pads. Nobody thought much of it, though if they they could get a ride with a friend, they took it!

  35. Hopeful July 2, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    This really hit home. I am *old and grew up as free range as you can get and still be legal. That is to say born in the 1960’s. Anyway my two older boys were pretty self sufficient and did great. Then along comes marriage #2 and another child plus a step child. So then it was trying to accommodate several different parenting styles and mine was deemed “not safe enough”. So the younger two kids are so spoiled and even now my husband drives the 17 year old to a job 30 minute each way! I say, let her find her own transport or get a job closer to home. He says, well it’s safer (there’s that word again) to know where she is. Sort of like camp for a 17 year old. I need help convincing my husband that free range is healthier for our 12 and 17 year olds. And also — and this is maybe more important — not get taken to court for neglect by the teen’s mother. She sees the world as a big bad place and seems to be able to sway the powers that be to her viewpoint.

    Any ideas how to get the hubby on board with this new (old) way of parenting? Anyway, thanks for letting me rant. I feel more sane now.

    I guess buying the book for him and sending it anonymously to her may be a start.

  36. forsythia July 2, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    My boys, who are now 15 and 17 have been getting themselves and their instruments to String Camp in a neighboring community since the younger one was 11 or so. This is about a 3.5 mile bike ride in an urban area, but I showed them a relatively low traffic route. They also know how to take a bus to a subway train if it is raining, there is a cello to haul, or they are just tired. After the camp, they buy lunch at a taqueria or in the cafeteria at the school, swim in the school pool, or take the subway into the city with friends. The only times I can remember driving them? When it hit 104F with a dew point in the high 80s; when I had a doctor’s appointment in the same area or when it was the last day and we were going camping straight from the final concert. They look forward to these two weeks each summer as their special time to ramble and be with their orchestra friends. One of them did get doored once, but didn’t crash badly. That’s all. My 15 year old looks forward to taking his new girlfriend into the city to explore a bit, too.

  37. forsythia July 2, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Hopeful – you could make it clear that she will get to be the one to take the now teen in when she lacks the most basic self-care and self-starting skills as an adult.

    You will no longer have any obligation to do so yourself once she turns 18.

    You might also remind the teen’s mom that, once the girl turns 18, she can join the military, get married, move across country, move to another country, etc. without her or her father’s permission or input.

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  1. Free Range Kids » “How Do I Deal with The Fear My Son will be Snatched?” - July 2, 2013

    […] possibly put it in perspective? Here’s some help — from you! Both comments appeared on the post below this one, about a mom who lets her son ride his bike around […]