Recent College Grad Looks Back on Free-Range Childhood

Hi iddyyhyaey
Readers! This guest post is from a recent college grad, Alisa Gilbert, who writes the blog bachelors degree and can be reached at [email protected]


Roaming through the blogosphere the other day, I came across this blog and immediately felt both admiration and disbelief. Admiration, because I know several parents who raise their kids in fear, micromanaging every moment of their lives, and I admire the other parents who don’t.

But I was also a bit shocked, because when I was a little girl not too long ago (I recently graduated from college), raising kids to play and do their own thing was not considered particularly brave or out-of-the-ordinary. I think this may be due to the fact that I grew up in Mexico, where letting kids be kids was what everyone did.

Many parents who may come across this blog may be wondering, “If I do raise my kids ‘Free-Range,’ will I be turning them into discipline-lacking brats?” From my experience, the answer is: No. Unstructured playtime is exactly what taught me to negotiate, to socialize, to simply feel comfortable and happy in unfamiliar situations.

I first moved to the United States when I was about nine, and I was immediately overwhelmed by how different my peers were. Their days were carefully scheduled by their parents. They were all involved in “extra-curricular activities.” Immediately after school they were shuttled off to soccer practice, Girl Scouts, piano lessons, and on and on and on. I had played the piano for a few years myself, but I had never thought of it as an “extra-curric.” The opportunity to learn music was something I just did — and treasured.

Years later, when I was enrolled in a selective university, I encountered a lot of student burn out. Many of my fellow students were so coddled, so used to being managed in and out of school, that as soon as they were faced with free time, they fell apart.

Many of the problems that students go through in college are stress-related. The kids who weren’t taught to manage stress before matriculating were the ones who engaged in binge drinking and other collegiate struggles, while those who were more self-reliant were the ones who succeeded.

If you don’t give your child the tools necessary to make it on her own before being placed in an environment that requires independent decision-making, you may have to witness your kid’s greater struggles later on. — A.G.

12 Responses to Recent College Grad Looks Back on Free-Range Childhood

  1. Lisa October 12, 2010 at 10:50 am #

    This is fantastic. Really nothing else needs to be said.

  2. Larry Harrison October 12, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    I love it, too. I believe in not discriminating with race, seriously, the idea is that you’re not to be “ethno-centric.” However, I have to say, I have noticed–people from Mexico who live here have a much more easy-going disposition with parenting than we Americans do. I’ve seen it on numerous occasions. I really like that about them.

    Heck, earlier this year, I saw a kid about 1 year old at the lake running around somewhat free–and totally naked. I saw the area where his parents were, and they didn’t seem the least bit anxious about it. I looked closer–yes indeed, it was a Hispanic couple. I started to approach them & tell them how great I thought it was, but since the whole idea is that these things really aren’t a big deal, I figured–then so be it, let’s not make a big deal out of it ourselves even as free-rangers wanting to applaud how they’re NOT making a big deal of it.

    I don’t know why I’ve observed the Hispanic/Mexican culture to be somewhat more easy-going, unless it’s because that particular culture hasn’t been “stupid-fied” by our American system of fear just yet. Believe me, I believe one should be proud of living in the USA & embrace American values, but where it regards things such as this, I’m all for remembering where you came from and embracing that easy-going style.


  3. archdiva October 12, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    I’ve worked in higher education for 14 years, mostly in those highly selective schools that Alisa refers to her post, and entirely as a health educator dealing with alcohol and other health issues. I’ve watched the stress levels go up as the micro-parenting has increased and student self-sufficiency levels have decreased.

    While overall drinking rates are down amongst students, how students are drinking has changed dramatically — more are drinking to get drunk (as in blacked out drunk) and at very high risk levels. That’s just one symptom of stress; there are many others I could cite.

    But ah, to rewind the clock a couple decades and tell everyone to relax…everything will turn out just fine if we stop worrying so much.

  4. Susan October 12, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

    HOORAY, ALISA! I wish people would have more courage to let some things return to the way they were 20-30 years ago…myself, included. We worry so much about what other people think, and about whether our kids are going to have the opportunities that “everyone else’s kids” will have that we are crippling them.

  5. pentamom October 12, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    “Many parents who may come across this blog may be wondering, “If I do raise my kids ‘Free-Range,’ will I be turning them into discipline-lacking brats?” From my experience, the answer is: No. Unstructured playtime is exactly what taught me to negotiate, to socialize, to simply feel comfortable and happy in unfamiliar situations.”

    I’m not criticizing Alisa, because I really like what she has to say, but to think that Free Ranging even raises this question is to make a fundamental mistake, I think. Free Ranging or the lack thereof and discipline are pretty much two entirely different things. I know well and poorly disciplined kids pretty much evenly distributed along the whole helicopter-Free Range spectrum. Discipline happens when the kids and parents are together in various settings, and comes into play when they aren’t. Since Free Ranging doesn’t mean parents never interact with their kids, there are plenty of opportunities to instill discipline, and helicoptering is no guarantee that parents will create and enforce appropriate expectations for their kids — it really doesn’t affect it one way or the other. Some helicopters hover because they believe their kids can’t be allowed to move a muscle on their own — these might be overly strictly disciplined helicopter kids. But other helicopters believe their snowflakes can’t be allowed to have their natural perfection damaged by anything not in their control — they’d tend to raise spoiled brat helicopter kids. And yet others might have poor ideas about how much freedom and responsibility kids should have, but a good understanding of appropriate discipline. And Free Rangers have similar patterns from other points on the spectrum.

  6. tommynomad October 13, 2010 at 1:47 am #

    It’s not just serious social problems like drinking. My colleague has a housemate who was helicoptered until the age of 25, when he set off to graduate school. He has no understanding of basic food prep, and twice has poisoned the entire household. Her other housemates are little better, refusing to pitch in for staples like toilet paper, soap, and heating bills. When my friend tells them pitching in is part of group living, they throw hissy fits and tell her she’s mean. None of them have learned to discuss or negotiate anything, because mummy and daddy always dictated everything, and spoke up on their behalf with other people.

    Helicoptering our children is stunting, and will bite them (and the people they deal with) on the ass.

  7. kateohkatie October 13, 2010 at 2:28 am #

    This is extraordinarily well said – I can’t wait to feature this on my Friday Favorites post this week!

    Alisa, you really summarized everything perfectly. This is a post to treasure and revisit often. Thank you for this!

  8. Susan October 13, 2010 at 4:56 am #

    I’m not quite sure I buy this. I grew up before the era of helicopter parenting and there was plenty of binge drinking at my selective university.

    I do think that helicoptered kids do have some problems in college, but I’m not sure that drinking too much is one of those.

    Here is my funny helicoptered college kid story: My nephew is a junior at an out-of-state college. His roommate last year was a boy who went to the same high school he did, but they did not become friends until college.

    Once during the year, the other boy’s remote for his TV was broken and he blamed my nephew. My nephew denied breaking it and the other boy threatened to tell my nephew’s mom on him!

    Another time, my nephew had given him a ride back home (about 4-5 hours away) for a weekend. When it was time to return, my nephew texted the boy to say they would be leaving later than originally planned. The boys mother called my sil all upset that my nephew was changing the time. My sil suggested that perhaps the two 19 year old men could work out the transportation details on their own.

    The funny thing about these stories is that I always thought that my nephew was coddled and here he is the independent one.

  9. EricS October 13, 2010 at 5:11 am #

    Thank you for sharing your story A.G. I’m glad that there are “survivors” of the new generation, who have learned what we here have been taught ourselves growing up, and using the knowledge to pass on to their kids.

    May your kids find the same joy and fulfillment you did as kid. Without all the pressure, fear, and insecurities.

  10. pentamom October 13, 2010 at 5:17 am #

    Susan, I agree. There was horrible drinking stuff going on at colleges in the 80’s, and 70’s-80’s kids were not generally helicoptered.

    I agree that lots of problems are caused or contributed to by helicoptering, and that irresponsibility is one of them, but the excessive drinking/helicoptering link isn’t that direct.

  11. Staceyjw October 13, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    VIVA Mexico! Im an American living in Mexico, and I love it here. I never feel like someone is going to criticize my parenting, and all the little girls want to play with the baby, as do most adults! It is a friendly culture, and much more relaxed when it comes to family life. You can take your kids everywhere, and I rarely see kids misbehaving badly. americans can learn a thing or two from Mexicans, especially when it comes to their kids.


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