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How Much Freedom?

March 1st, 2015

 A friend, who was bemoaning the state of contemporary child-rearing, spoke of her eleven year old granddaughter having a cell phone.  The girl travels to school alone on a public bus and calls or texts her mother when she boards the bus, gets off the bus, and again when she arrives at school.  The grandmother expressed her ambivalence about this situation, on the one hand deploring the degree of monitoring involved, on the other hand, regretting that we live in a time that seems to make it necessary.

Perhaps in reaction to what has been called “helicopter” parenting, a new set of prescriptions have been directed at parents as part of a recent fad called “Free-Range Parenting.”  A former columnist, Lenore Skenazy, related the strong reaction both positive and negative that followed her story about having allowed her nine year old to ride the New York Subway system alone. 

Inevitably, a book by Skenazy followed along with a new movement based on the idea that we can give our children the same kind of freedom we had as kids “without going nuts with worry.”  Skenazy’s point is that if you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child’s life, that child never gets a chance to grow up.  The greater risk might lie in trying to raise a child who never faces choice or experiences independence.

Now, a further reaction has followed the experience of some parents, who implementing the “free-range” model have found themselves in difficulty with the police or Children’s Protective Services for seeming to be neglecting their children.  Such is the perception of young children who are in public places unattended.  Freedom in some situations is seen as neglect.

Much can be said on both sides of this latest controversy.  Giving our children the same kind of freedom we had as kids may be a wished for objective, but ignores the reality that our children don’t live in the same world we did as kids.  Technology alone has transformed that older world, exposing children to new kinds of dangers which have been well noted.  The presence of extended families to provide a support system is rarely true for most families while at the same time two working parents has become the norm.

Also true, however, is that these factors while based in reality, have also increased the anxiety of parents and the feeling of loss of control.  The wish to protect our children is not new but new is a lessened ability to do so.  The attempt to make up for parents’ loss of control has taken the form of new kinds of surveillance and at times extreme caution in allowing children independence when appropriate.   This is what has led to the charge of “helicopter parenting.”

The problem with the “free-range parenting” movement is that once again it provides a set of simple prescriptions as a solution to a difficult problem.  Parents are vulnerable to criticism that they are damaging their children, in this case making them dependent and unable to function on their own.  But trying to follow a prescribed solution puts the focus on the solution rather than on the child.  Children differ in their readiness to take certain steps on their own as they do in all other areas of development.  The first job of a parent is to know her own child.

When children are learning to walk we don’t prevent them from trying in order to protect them from falling.  We do try to make the environment as safe as possible by removing hazards in their path and covering sharp corners.  The same applies to future steps children want to try on their own.  It just gets harder as they get older because we can’t always know the hazards or remove the sharp corners.  So it comes back to using judgment based on your knowledge of your child, his abilities and his world.

Life has risks.  Children mature and gain strength by meeting and overcoming some of these risks.  As parents we have to judge both the risks and our children’s strengths.  No parenting movement can do that for us.

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