Free Range Parenting: The Stares of the Neighbors

Free Range Parenting: The Stares of the Neighbors May 29, 2012

In addition to positive parenting, I’m also a big fan of free range parenting. The idea is that parents do too much “helicopter parenting” today, and that children are actually capable of much more than we think, capable of things like (gasp!) walking themselves to school. For me, free range parenting means preparing Sally to handle life rather than simply protecting her from it.

But there has always been one serious difficulty for me about free range parenting, one thing that has held me back, and just today I read a post that articulates the problem I face perfectly. I’ll add my own analysis, but first here’s an excerpt:

I let my toddler play in the yard.

Oh, I know it’s a risk. I wouldn’t have let her when she was one, or even two. But when she turned three, we moved to a house with a small, manicured lawn, fully enclosed by a child-proof picket fence. That’s when I began, hesitantly, to send her out the front door alone.

But don’t worry: I watch her. I sit by the window in the kitchen, one eye on my work email and another on her. Not because I’m afraid she’ll figure out how to unlatch the gate and go wandering up the street (though she’s done that) or because I’m afraid she’ll eat a mushroom she finds in the grass (though she’s done that too). No, I’ve got a baby gate lock on the gate now, and Poison Control assures me that highly poisonous mushrooms rarely grow in well-kept lawns. But I still keep a close eye on her.

Because of the neighbors.

They’re good people, my neighbors. I know most of them by name. They walk past often, and when they see my daughter alone in the yard, they  pause and look around anxiously, especially the ones who are parents themselves. They’re wondering where I am.

That’s my cue to run outside and wave enthusiastically. Yes, I’m here. My kid is not unsupervised. Please don’t call CPS.

They smile and wave back, relieved, and keep walking. And I’m safe to go back inside. Until the next neighbor comes along.

Because my biggest worry about letting my child play outside alone isn’t what she might do, or what might happen to her. It’s what others might think.

My biggest challenge with free range parenting is striking this same balance. On the one hand is what I know Sally is capable of, but on the other hand is what everyone else assumes she is capable of, and there is unfortunately a big discrepancy between the two.

I let Sally go around to the front door after we get back from the grocery while I carry the bags to the back door and then open the front door for her, but I do wonder if someone will see her walking up the sidewalk alone and begin to wonder if I’m a negligent mother.

Sometimes while I fix supper Sally likes to play out back, but I make sure to keep the screen door latched open and poke my head out every time I hear a neighbor going up or down the sidewalk so that they’ll know she’s attended.

Sally likes to walk ahead of me to the car and I let her because I know she will stop at the parking lot and wait for me, but I notice when the neighbors see her standing at the edge of the sidewalk and then look around trying to locate a parent, smiling in relief when they see me coming up the sidewalk behind her.

Once Sally and I were on a grassy hill, taking a break from a walk. I was enjoying the sun and Sally was wandering around picking dandelions. A couple passed on the sidewalk below. I saw them stop and point at Sally and look around, not seeing me for a moment. I stood up and waved, and the smiled and resumed their walk.

I’m glad people are eager to make sure children are safe. After all, if Sally did wonder off this means it’s very likely some well-meaning person would soon notice her and bring her back. And yet, I often wish that there wasn’t such a big discrepancy between what kids are capable of and what people think they’re capable of.

I think sometimes that by treating our children as though they can’t do things or as if they’re incapable, we create a self-fulfilling prophesy as our low expectations infantilize otherwise competent children. I refuse to do that with Sally, but unfortunately the only actions and expectations I can control are my own. As long as we live in a society with such low expectations of children’s abilities, I’ll continue to find my desire to be a free range parent checked by the stares of the neighbors.

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