Not long ago, I took my four kids to a local science museum.
Our usual haunt is the “Little Kidspace” there (although my oldest will age out in just a few months…already?!). It’s essentially sealed — they don’t let kids out the doors without their adult — and there’s lots and lots of stuff to explore and do for kids from infant through kindergarten. There’s a small, enclosed, soft area for babies to lay or crawl, plus other soft spots with infant toys. There’s a big toy barn with animals, “hay bales,” bells, and more. There’s a farm area, with lots of wooden fruit and vegetables. There’s a wooden house structure, with an elaborate toy kitchen, a deck, and working lights. There’s a climbing wall. There’s a bunch of tools and hard foam bricks and rocks. There’s a water area. There’s art. There are books. There are trains. There are pretend trucks, airplanes, doctor’s offices, and more.
Anyway, it’s really cool and if I could recreate something that awesome in my house, I think I would. Instead, we have a membership so we can go there as often as we like.
This last time we went, I was suddenly so aware of all the people hovering over their children. Granted, most of the children are fairly small, between 1 and 4 years of age. But it’s a safe space, that’s designed exactly for children. There’s really nothing there that they can’t touch or that would be dangerous for them. Even so, I saw many, many parents — I’d venture to say most — trailing a foot or two behind their children, sometimes encouraging them to play a certain way or move on to a different area (not because they were frustrated or “needed” to — it was just parent-directed play).
I’m not one to judge another parent’s style. If they feel they need to stay that close to their kid, then cool. It was just kind of weird that almost everyone was doing it. How many were doing it because they personally wanted to…and how many were doing it because everyone else was doing it? Because the latter is not so cool.
It really made me very aware of my own personal choices and goals in parenting, and how odd, and occasionally difficult, it is to raise free-range kids in a helicopter world.
Giving Kids the Freedom to Try
Towards the end of the afternoon, I took the kids to the big climbing structure in the middle of the room and encouraged them to climb and run. I sat on a stool about ten feet away, watching them.
For whatever reason, my 15-month-old thought a great game was to climb to the main level of the structure, then slide partway down the (soft) stairs, and then jump off. He was maybe a foot off the ground when he jumped. The first time I saw him do it, it looked like he had tripped and I waited, tense, to see what he would do. But he laughed, and began to climb again.
I thought it was rather silly, but he was safe enough and seemed to be enjoying the activity. He was jumping off something padded, onto something else padded. It wouldn’t have been my choice, personally, but — I guess I’m not a one-year-old.
About the third time he was ready to jump (still looked like he was tripping) a mom who was next to him and her own child reached out to steady him. She made eye contact with me. I smiled and said, “For some reason he thinks it’s a game!” I don’t blame her for reaching out — all she saw was a small child who looked like he was going to fall and no parent next to him. But I wanted to gently let her know he was okay.
I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I’d seen a small child about to fall. I very likely would have. This is not about the other mom, who was only trying to help. (And who left him alone once she realized I was watching.) It’s about how, and why, we need to let kids have the freedom to try.
Nathan learned about his body and what he can handle by practicing that jump in a safe space. He hadn’t been a very agile infant, at least compared to his older brothers, but that’s improved quite a bit in the last month, at least partially because we back off and let him try. He can’t learn to navigate safely unless he explores what his own body can do.
My Goals in a Safe Space VS. Helicoptering
As I sat and watched the other children play, and their parents follow them closely, I thought long and hard about what my goals for my children really were in this space. It was a safe space, with no real danger (given that it was designed specifically for kids their age). There was no worry about them bolting, or getting into something that may hurt them. All I had to do was keep them from running into the bathroom without me (well — just the littlest — all the others are potty trained) and make sure they didn’t hurt others.
I realized that my goals generally were:
- Allow them the freedom to physically explore what their bodies could do (gross and fine motor skills)
- Allow them to interact freely with the other children, and learn to problem solve on their own (barring people actually getting hurt)
- Allow them to be creative with the materials available to them
It’s actually really, really important to me to allow them to explore freely in that safe space. It isn’t that I feel lazy or want a parenting break. I didn’t have my phone in hand and I wasn’t chatting with someone else. I was watching them, closely and constantly. But I was sitting back, and letting them go. They needed to know that I was there — generally within 10 feet of them (at least the smaller ones) — and that they could come back to me for a hug or a chat at any time. But they needed that freedom.
It might have looked to others like I was being lazy. It might have even looked like no one was supervising this 1-year-old who was careening around the room with a lightweight bicycle, learning how to steer and redirect it on his own. I was watching him, though, from my perch — ready to get involved if he should start heading straight for someone else (which he did a couple of times, and at which point I helped him safely redirect the bike).
I was ready to help negotiate, too, in case a situation didn’t go well and they needed help.
My almost 5-year-old ran into just such a situation when another little boy around his age came over to where he was playing and started taking the (foam) bricks he’d been using to build and throwing them at him. That boy’s parents did not see this. At first, my son said “Hey! Quit that!” This little boy did not stop, so my son said, “I’m gonna hit him!”
That’s the point where I stepped in. Here’s what happened next:
- Me: “No, you can’t hit him. Use your words.”
- Him: “Please stop throwing the bricks at me.” (the boy continued)
- Me: “Why don’t you ask him to help you build with the bricks instead?”
- Him: “Hey, would you come over here and build with me? Yeah, right here.”
The little boy immediately stopped throwing the bricks and they began to build together. I didn’t intervene to stop the little boy from “hurting my precious snowflake” (please, all kids can be obnoxious sometimes). I didn’t address the boy myself. I didn’t try to find his parents. I gave my son the words to use to navigate the situation in a respectful manner.
As soon as the situation was settled, I stepped back again, to observe them only.
It’s not that I don’t play with them. If they come to me and invite me to play, I’ll play. I let them initiate this. A little girl I didn’t know actually showed me a pear she had and began to talk to me about it. I asked her what she wanted to do with it. She told me she wanted me to take it and told me where it should go. I agreed and said I would put it in the right place for her. And I did. (Her mom came over to her a minute later and kind of gave me a weird look. I’m sure she didn’t know what a stranger was doing talking to her child. My kids talk to strangers all the time, though. I encourage it, so long as I’m watching.)
Sometimes, I feel the pressure to “conform.” I feel like I should really be helicoptering, lest anyone accuse me of neglecting my children since I am not one foot behind them at all times.
I’m learning to ignore that, though. I’m learning to trust my instincts on what my children need. I’m learning to make decisions about when to intervene based on what feels truly right to me, in my gut. And to ignore what the other parents are doing, or what they might be thinking.
If they see my child running around with no parent nearby, I might call to the child: “Are you having fun, Jacob? What are you building?” Or I might smile in their direction, or possibly even say “Look how silly little ones are sometimes!” It lets them know, gently, that I’m watching. But I don’t get up or interfere. I still sit and watch.
We should all have the confidence to parent the way we believe we should, no matter what those around us are doing. We should follow our instincts, and do what we know our children need.
I don’t feel comfortable letting my 1-year-old get much more than 20 feet away from me — and he must be in my sight at all times. I need to be able to get to him quickly, should he get hurt, or should he interfere with another person.
In contrast, in a safe space, I let my 6-year-old pretty much go wherever. I make sure she knows where I am so that she can find me if needed. It doesn’t matter to me if I don’t see her for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Now, in a less-safe space, I prefer to check in with her every couple of minutes, at least visually. It’s all about what I feel she can handle, based on how she’s doing that day and the space we’re in.
Ultimately, though, if I want to be a good parent, I can’t bend to the will of others. My goal is to raise my children to be confident adults. In doing so, I need to give them more and more freedom to explore the world — at age and maturity appropriate levels. They need new challenges, new activities, new places to explore. They need to do so when I’m sitting 10 or 50 or 100 feet away, ready to save them if something goes wrong. I want them to know I’m there — but I’m not too close. I’m not preventing exploration, but I will prevent them from hurting themselves or others.
I just about lost it when my daughter rode our big wheel to the edge of our cul-de-sac and sat there on it for a minute. Not because any part of this activity would normally be dangerous, but because in this particular case, there was a car parked on the side of the cul-de-sac, right next to where she sat. And our cul-de-sac is right after a sharp curve, so cars can fly around there and turn into the cul-de-sac quickly. I was expecting my husband home soon and I was fairly certain he, or any other driver, would not see her on that low-riding big wheel beyond the parked car. That was real danger, and I made sure she knew not to sit on the bike there again. She decided to ride on the sidewalk instead, which was perfectly fine.
That’s why I’m there. I’m there to know when the danger is real and to stop them. I’m there in case an experiment that should have been okay goes wrong. I’m there in case they want to talk. I’m there to reign them in when they must be reigned in. I’m there to make the world a safe place for them to explore. I’m not there to prevent them from growing.
Free Range Parenting
I don’t think that true “free range” parenting is for everyone. After all, not all children are ready to handle a lot of freedom. Every child has a different maturity level, different strengths, and weaknesses. Only that child’s parents know for sure what s/he can handle.
I wish that we all respected and understood better what “free range” parenting is really about, though. It’s not about ignoring your kids or being lazy. It’s about careful, calculated risks. It’s about teaching them, in the context of a loving home and relationship, how to navigate the world around them. It’s about practicing those skills that they will someday need when they are grown.
If I can let my kids know I always love them (and so does Jesus), and I can help them feel confident in themselves when they reach adulthood, and I do nothing else, I will have done my job.
Do you free-range parent in a helicopter world? Or do you feel the pressure of the “parenting competition” in another way?