I introduced the term free range parenting to a friend of mine a few years back, and she rolled her eyes. “Come on!” she said with such passion that you would think it was some sort of insult to her parenting skills, if she was, in fact, a parent. Rather, I think it just seemed ridiculous to her to that people would use a term associated with livestock practices to describe a child-rearing philosophy.
I frequently call free range parenting “seventies-style parenting,” because that’s the last time I am aware that kids were able to come-and-go from their homes at their leisure.
I have fond memories of being four years old and leaving our yard to visit the massive saint bernard down the street who was so friendly that he piled on top of one of the neighborhood three-year-olds and nearly suffocated her. Yes, we were quite a posse — a group of kids ranging in age from two to five — finding all sorts of ways to perplex my mother. She finally padlocked our back gate after my brother trapped himself between a storm door and the main door in our neighbors’ back yard to avoid a bee. Because he was two, he was unable to navigate the latch to get himself out, and it took a while for my mom to figure out where his helpless muffled cries were coming from.
That is the kind of stuff of seventies childhood legend. Today, I wouldn’t even let a two-year-old on our back porch, let alone out of our yard.
Fast forward to earlier this summer when I tried my hand at free range parenting at my parents’ home on a lake in Northeast Indiana. It seemed a good place to do so. I was in the “back” yard (opposite of the lake side), and my children and a neighbor were playing in the expansive, well-maintained lots across the low-traffic lane fully within my sight but far enough not to be able to hear me unless I really pushed the sound from my diaphram. So, I could keep tabs on them, but I could not be held responsible for solving their dilemmas, since telling them what to do would require me to move, and I was perfectly happy where I was.
It was a beautiful evening. With the responsibility of micromanaging them off my shoulders, I could take in the full sensory experience of the time and place. The sun was still high in the sky, its brightness was softened by its slow evening descent. The air was still, and all I could hear were faint sounds of inflection from my children’s play down the lane.
“If there is such a thing as peace…” I began to say to myself when I saw my daughter throw a ball at my son’s head. She seemed to be upset that he was infringing upon her time with the neighbor girl. After my daughter resumed her play, my son retaliated by coming over and shaking her off the exercise ball she was sitting on. He then pushed her down, and when she wouldn’t get up, turned his back and resumed his play.
“Nope, not this time,” I thought. “I am free range parenting right now, and they are going to learn how to solve this one themselves.”
After about a minute, my daughter rose and apparently decided it wasn’t very useful to take on my son again. She and the neighbor began to move to lots farther down the lane, leaving my son behind. Of course, he caught up to them, and they began to move farther again. Now, they were on the corner lot, right next to the main road — a winding country road with a 40 mph speed limit. When they kicked the ball across that road and began to cross to get it, the free range parenting abruptly ended.
I stood from my cross-legged-in-the-grass position, shouted to them to come back toward our yard and began to cross the lots with purpose. When we met at that corner lot, they began to tell me all of the things the other did, and my daughter claimed that she had to move toward the corner to get away from her brother. We ended up back at my parents’ house, and the neighbor girl needed to go home.
So much for my free range parenting. It lasted a whole five minutes. In the seventies, would my children, ages eight and six, be supervised on any level in this scenario? Probably not. I suppose if I wanted to truly be a successful free-range parent, I would have turned my back or even gone inside. But that would be too much for a millennial mom.