Dear Free-Range Kids: I admit, when I saw the initial reports of your son’s adventure on the subway, I was a naysayer and a name caller. Oh, the things I called you (apologies!). I admit, I brought baggage to my parenting. Two neighborhood girls had been lured from their backyards when one was in 2nd grade, and one in 4th. They were missing for a day and then found dead. I brought these two girls along and they were my judge and jury with almost every decision I made as a parent.
And then, I recognized the symptoms of anxiety in my oldest child. He was scared of everything and everyone. And I was completely to blame. As an educator, I recognized that I had created the very type of child that I resented having in my classroom. He was an easy target for bullies (both school age and adult), who would immediately recognize the signs of weakness and pounce. I also had a kid that, God forbid, if the worst case scenario happened, had neither the confidence nor the fortitude to help himself.
So, slowly, I started letting the control go. He balked more than I at first, but slowly he grew comfortable being outside by himself and exploring, as did my two younger children. And as an added bonus, they learned how to settle their disputes BY THEMSELVES. No more need for me to play referee 24/7. Rather than drag all the kids to the other kids’ sporting events, we leave them home for the 30 minutes or an hour overlap.
Have there been some bumps in the road and on their bodies? Sure. We even have some scars from falling out of trees or slipping on ice. Have I let go completely? No. We make sure our kids are prepared and make sure they are clear that they have the most important role in keeping themselves safe. Get separated in the mall? Just stop. Don’t panic. Move to the side, pretend to window shop and I’ll find you. Same plan if separated in the woods, minus the window shopping of course. In case of fire, meet at the end of the driveway. We do have a family plan for home invasions which does sound crazy, but we live in an area that is actually being studied by the FBI, we have such a large number of home invasions compared to population.
My kids have flourished knowing that they are in fact capable of keeping themselves safe and knowing what to do “if ever…” They also know how rare that “if ever” is. Yesterday, my oldest decided he was going to climb on top of some industrial storage containers that are next to one of the practice fields. He spent an hour jumping from one to the other. Then I recognized from his posture and movements that he was considering jumping off one onto a pile of dirt. The mom next to me recognized it at the same time and asked me if I was going to yell and stop him. I said no, because he was going to jump anyway and if I yelled to stop him (because there was no way I was going to be able to walk over in time) he needed to be 100% committed to the jump and not be distracted, or he would get hurt. The look on her face made it clear that she would be telling her kids that evening that they would never be allowed to play at my house again.
And he did jump, and he walked away with the biggest smile on his face — and all the kids that weren’t allowed even on the containers all thought he was the coolest dude ever!
So, I am getting there slowly, and weening myself and my kids off my crazy. My kids have spent countless hours on their bikes, but never off of our private way or the 50-mile bike trail we are fortunate to live near. This summer they want to play Wiffle ball games with some of the kids in our area of town. Each weekend, I take them on their bikes out on the road and teach them the way to ride a bike when there are cars and logging trucks going by at 25 to 45 mph. And I may not be ready to let them go completely by themselves. I may ride along with the to the field they’ll use but then continue on and get some exercise in myself. Baby steps. Thank you for your book. — A Happier Mom
Dear Happier Mom: I’m happy, too — for you and your family! And, call me a stickler, but saying you are “not” Free-Range because you are still teaching your kids to be safe and what to do in an emergency just proves that you are MORE Free-Range than you think! Free-Range believes in preparing our kids to deal with the world, not just throwing them out there, and that’s what you are doing. Also, we try not to beat ourselves up for any of our parenting decisions (there are plenty of other people ready to do that), so I wouldn’t even say the the old you “created” an anxious child. Let’s just say you noticed your own anxiety and decided to fight back. And did! In spades! Here’s to a wonderful summer! — L