'Free-range' or 'helicopter' parenting – what's your style?

When I was a kid living in Ontario, Canada, in the late ’70s, I used to roam free. I would walk to the park up the street at 7 p.m. and not saunter back to the house until 8 p.m. or so, just as it got dark outside. 

Occasionally, I would walk to the mall a good block or two down the road, which was behind a very busy intersection. I’d bike (without a helmet, I might add) to the corner store, which was another couple of blocks north, to stock up on Fun Dip and Pop Rocks.  

Only once did I get into real trouble when a traveling carnival came to town and I decided to raid my piggy bank and convince a neighbor friend to walk there with me after dinner so we could eat cotton candy and go on a dodgy ride or two. 

I had just started getting a bit frightened by the carnival workers’ questionable appearances when I heard my mother yelling my name from behind. This was swiftly followed by a firm grip to my forearm before being dragged into our Chevy Impala and scolded. 

I have been recently reminded of my carefree adolescence after reading in the news about a couple in Virginia who allowed their two children, ages 10 and 6, to walk a mile home alone from a park. A concerned citizen saw the kids unsupervised and called the police; the parents are now being investigated for negligence. Was it irresponsible of them or just a modern example of old-fashioned parenting? 

Back in the day, it was as commonplace to give kids freedom as much as it was to leave your doors unlocked; and it didn’t matter where you lived, big city or small island. Many people from previous generations will recall with fondness and nostalgia their idyllic childhood explorations and adventures.  

However, today there is a whole movement labeled for it: “free-range parenting” – and no, it does not refer to raising chickens, although the un-caged symbolism does give off un-feathered (er, I mean unfettered) feeling. Advocates of free-range parenting prefer to give their kids independence by allowing them to progressively test limits, make their own choices, and roam the world (or the park). The theory is that they will become more self-reliant, build confidence, and learn life skills – and it can only be done without parents hovering over them, like a helicopter. More on that later. 

The term was coined in 2008 by New York journalist Lenore Skenazy, who started a media-frenzy and quite the controversy after penning an article for the New York Sun titled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” This led to her writing a book titled, “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children without Going Nuts with Worry.”  

On the other side of the spectrum lies the “helicopter parenting” culture. It is a new-ish phenomenon that refers to parents who pay extremely close attention to their child’s problems, particularly at educational institutions.

Just like those real-life locomotives in the sky, helicopter parents hover overhead, taking on too much responsibility for their child’s experiences – whether it be their successes or failures – and being overly involved in their life to the point of being over-controlling. In other words, smothering their kids. 

Obviously, there is a fine line between neglect and over-protectiveness, but just a century ago small children worked in factories or on the farm to help with the family income. Thankfully, laws came into place to put an end to child labor, but if a 6-year-old can shine a shoe or sweep a chimney, surely they can be trusted to walk to the park on their own? I would argue that the same thing goes with trusting parents’ decisions on how to raise their own kids.  

The problem is that many parents have developed an irrational fear after reading news stories and watching crime shows about abductions and the like. Yes, there are a lot of sickos out there and I understand the argument that’s it’s not the kids but the adults we have to worry about.

But within limits and knowing your kid’s maturity levels, we have to give them a bit more credit, non? Kids do listen, after all, and retain the teachings of “stranger danger” and the buddy system, as just two examples.  

In Cayman, places like Camana Bay do make a kid feel carefree even if it’s just an illusion of freedom (parents can and do keep a watchful eye while sipping on martinis at one of the nearby waterfront restaurants). 

I admit that I’m not at that stage yet as a parent to worry about such things, but my toddler is definitely an explorer like both of his parents were. At our complex in South Sound, for example, he doesn’t settle for just playing within a few feet of me when we are outdoors. He needs to explore every inch of the place and would do so for hours at a time if given the choice.  

If I try to hold his hand and steer him another way, he pulls away and firmly plants himself on the ground until I give in and let him roam where he wants to. I’ve learned to walk about 10 feet behind him to give him the illusion of freedom, and this is what works for him right now.

But I do know that in just a few more years he will be getting on his bike or scooter and will want to roam the complex or play with his friends all on his own.  

And when that happens, I will take a deep breath and give him free rein – er, I mean range. Luckily, the community is gated, but I really hope I do not become one of those helicopter parents because the truth is, they annoy me and it’s really not my style (it’s bound to come crashing to the ground eventually!). Not to mention, I don’t want to instill fear in my son or put my own fears onto him. 

I suppose that’s the rebel in me – the one who got a thrill deep in my bones from riding the Tilt-a-Whirl all by myself one summer a long time ago.  

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Children often like to explore on their own, but as parents, how much free rein should you give them?
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