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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Free Range Kids

My first day at Erin's Day One playgroup was weird, for many reasons. That was six months ago, and everyone has adjusted very well and been really friendly and I love bringing Erin to that group every week.

But one thing that hasn't changed in the six months that I've been surrounded by Peninsula moms is the feeling that OmigodI'msuchabadparenthowcouldIletherdothat?

Because from Erin's first day at the playgroup I've been internalizing all of the worries, fears, and paranoias of the moms I talk to. Some are afraid of vaccines; some are afraid of milk; some are afraid of the sun; some are afraid of water; some are afraid of the ground; some are afraid of cars; some are afraid of daycares; some are afraid of dads; some are afraid of moms; some are afraid of plastic; some are afraid of glass; some are afraid of wood; some are afraid of formula; some are afraid of outlets; some are afraid of drawers; some are afraid of cats; some are afraid of sleeping; some are afraid of spiders; some are afraid of sponges; some are afraid of sugar; some are afraid of choking.

From day one, at Day One, I've been bombarded with these fears about the things that are going to hurt, make ill, stunt, retard, or kill my daughter. I'm sure everyone reading this can tell me the same kind of story. And I'm equally sure that you are all perpetrators of at least one crazy fear that you are convinced is 'just-sensible-and-who-wouldn't-want-to-....' blah blah blah. I know I have my own crazy fears; and I know that I would never be able to identify them because whatever they are just seem so sensible to me.

But very early on I adopted a very relaxed attitude toward safety. Because at least one of my crazy-that-I-believe-sensible fears is that I will go crazy and not be able to raise my daughter, I've decided to not go crazy with fear about this stuff.

(Old codger voice): "Back in my day, we used to shave with chainsaws in the snow and eat thumbtacks for breakfast." It's no lie that something has changed in child-rearing, and I'm afraid that what's changed with the constant media reports of children going missing, and people doing disgusting things, and new bacteria and illnesses popping up in our attention, and autism and everything else, is that we've learned the wrong kinds of lessons. We've learned that the best thing for our children is to be constantly vigilant against everything, because we can't bear the thought of slipping and being the family on television saying "We never thought it would happen to us." But that's an over-reaction. That will drive us crazy, and not make our kids any safer, or healthier.

I wonder if our vigilance has done anything to reduce the kinds of things that can go wrong with kids. I doubt it.

And Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids has the same doubts. "Isn't New York as safe now as it was in 1963?" she wondered. So she let her 9 year old son find his way home using a subway map, some money, and some quarters for the telephone in case he needed it. Sure there are lots of things to worry about, but the only relevant thing that's really changed in New York in the last 45 years is that parents think about this stuff all the time. Parents are their own crazy-makers. She was on NPR and was bombarded with callers, and also e-mailers, who essentially accused her of child-abuse.

Child abuse? Because there might be, on that particular day, on that particular train, at that particular time, on that particular route, someone who would do something to her son? That kind of worrying is crazy-making, and YES I'm going to sit here and judge those people because this is my blog and I get to say what I want. Also, I'm right, and they're crazy.

Here's how I've put off my own crazy-making when it comes to Erin and her safety:

If, at the end of the day, I haven't stabbed my kid with a fork, I'm doing a pretty good job.

I told this little mantra to the moms at Day One on my first day there. About half of them looked at me like I was the devil. The other half looked at me like I was an idiot: "Who's wife let her husband baby sit today??" I could see them all wondering. The third half (it was a big group that day) looked at me like I was a frickin' genius. An alien genius, but still a genius. Some of these latter moms admitted they would have a really hard time giving up some of their craziness, and I get it. And maybe it's a very dad-type attitude to have. I don't know which of my crazy fears I still have. As I said, they must seem pretty sensible to me. But I appreciated these moms both listening and not acting as though I was a mental defective or a child abuser.

I'm friends still friends with those moms.


Heather J. said...

Due to lack of sleep and the burning need to go play in the sprinkler with my children, I am finding it difficult to be very eloquent or witty; in short, you are a righteous and remarkable dad.

I so enjoy your blog, your love for Erin is infectious. You remind me of all the great reasons I stay home with my kids.

Thank you for sharing your adventure with all of us.

Danielle said...

Hi, I'm pretty new here. Came over from GGC.

You're so right on with this.

Every time my boys disappear deep in the woods behind the house, a part of me gets a little anxious. But it's quickly replaced by my understanding of everything they are learning back there and the memories they are making.

They'll be okay. Whatever happens. And I'd much rather them live and have experiences than just read about them...

Great post. Great topic! Thanks!

Mandy said...

I commend you for writing this post.

David and I subscribe to your line of thinking. No, we don't stick our kids in the sun without sunscreen, but we don't avoid the sun. Expand that to the idea in general about our children's safety and we agree. Kids need to learn to navigate in the world. As parents, we do them a bigger disservice when we coddle them and try to protect them from everything. Good grief, kids don't even walk 6 blocks to their schools anymore. No one has yet to convince me that children are more likely to be abducted, molested, etc than before. We just hear about the same event repeatedly.

Have you ever stepped back at a playpark to see how many parents are hovering over their kids, trying to prevent any slip, any fall. Good grief. Even at playdates, moms feel obligated to preside over the kids. When we were young, we were left to roam around the house, or the yard, or the neighbourhood, and no parent interfered unless there was a lot of blood or a serious accident.

But this is your blog and I'll just get off my soap box now, tuck it under my arm and walk off. Sorry 'bout the rant! :)

mommastantrum said...

THANK YOU!!! I am so glad that I am not the only one not freaking out about EVERYTHING that happens.

Although when I was a part of the MOMS club it was a different story. I felt like a freakazoid for not freaking out about everything the other moms were. I think it is a good thing that I left that behind.

We are careful not to play in the street or run with scissors. But experincing life and learning from mistakes is critical to growth and development. If we don't give them room to learn we are going to end up with a bunch of pansy assed adults who can't do anything for themselves because they are too scared!

bsouth said...

Hurrah for sensible people! I'm with the third half. I do want to wrap both my babies in cotton wool but I also recognise that if I do that they'll miss out on so much. So, I bite my tongue and spend a lot of time not watching. I'm also getting very good at dispensing magic kisses that cure all baby hurts!

MadWoman Meg said...

My motto as applied to my kids: "If you're big enough to get up there, you're big enough to get down. Go have fun. No I will not hover over you like the oodles of other well meaning parents here."

I get the judgemental looks and the "tsk tsk" comments all the time because I sit back and watch the kids have fun instead of attaching myself to their hip.

I understand the fears, but really....I'm still alive and like some of your other commenters here, I was allowed to go and play outside on my own by the age of 6 and as long as I was home by the time the streetlights came on, I was ok.

Good for you for writing this post! I love reading your blog and you make me laugh and smile with your Erin stories and how much you love her.

Mumma Boo said...

Short of bodily harm to self or innocent bystanders (namely anybody else within reach) I find it's best to let my monkeys do their own thing. If I didn't, they wouldn't learn, and I wouldn't get the joy of watching their little faces as they experience those magical "I did it!" or "Now I get it!" moments.

Great post! Good for you for being so honest!

Patti Mayo said...

Oh, I so have free range children.
They're kids. As long as no one is bleeding, nothing is broken...I'm good.

That's not to say I take them up to the stove and say "hey touch this"....I just let them run and do their thing....even if it means circling the living room/dining room/kitchen at high speed and i'm holding my breath praying they don't collide.

I have a sister in law who is always so on top of my nieces that they don't play. They refuse to get dirty. It's sad...they just don't get to be kids...and their mother's fears are projected on to them and they're equally as fearful.

for a different kind of girl said...

When I was a kid, it was like my friends and I ruled the town. Our parents opened the door at 9 a.m., and set us free, and we often only came home when the streetlights came on (and even then, there was a lot of "Eh, I'll head out in 15 more minutes. Whatever."). I grew up unscathed and filled with memories.

I want my kids to have the same. Granted, the town is bigger now and there are some risks that come as a result of that, but to some degree, they don't even let me open the door and set them free. They're heading out and I'm in the kitchen yelling, "Hey, shut the door already..." We talk to them about being careful - not in a way that fills them with fear - and then we react if/when there's blood or bones. They are more willing to try things and are curious boys, and I think that has a lot to do with this very attitude you speak of here.

MereCat said...

Right now I'm afraid of bottles. The pediatrician is peering over her glasses at me because my 13 month old twins still take a night bottle.

I'm with you on all that neurotic parenting stuff. I'm usually not friends with those people because we don't have anything in common

SciFi Dad said...

Well put. There are enough things that we as parents cannot control (and therefore should not worry about) to drive us insane. Instead, spend that time and energy focused on making our kids happy, healthy, productive members of the human race.

-k said...

Honestly, I don't know where I sit on this one. I'm probably exactly in the middle. I ACT as those I'm totally cool with her growing and learning and being out of my sight...But in my BRAIN I'M FREAKING OUT ALL THE TIME. :) I swear I wasn't neurotic until I had her. Really...I swear!

THopgood said...

Well Said! and because you're my new favorite...I've tagged you for a 7 things about you mame...come visit if you're interested...and if not...that's cool too....

Anonymous said...

This is funny - my husband and I struggle with this all the time, and not in the way you'd think. I let my oldest walk to the bus stop 2 blocks away and out of sight as long as they're together - he freaks out and worries. I had my oldest baby sleeping in a crib by herself just fine, he brought her into our bed so that he'd know she was okay. I think a fair amount of benign neglect is good for kids. He agrees, we just disagree about what is benign. :-)

The Apron Queen said...

Dear blogging friend,
My meme tag response is up. You can go right here. Be there or be square. :D
Yours truly,
The Apron Queen

PS I was a backpacking Mama. We lived in Europe. Would throw the baby in the backpack & travel all over.

Backpacking Dad said...

Wow. I'm going to write legitimate Parenting Philosophy posts more often if this is the kind of blog-love I'm going to get :}

Heather: I've never been called "righteous" before, so thank you for that.

danielle: thank you for reminding me about the woods. My sister and I used to go back to the woods and play "Lothar of the Tree People", which mostly consisted of me singing that out loud while I climbed trees out of her reach. She probably has different, but equally dangerous memories.

Mandy: I was at the park today and I found myself hovering a bit and I thought "Mandy would kick my ass if she saw this so soon after I wrote that post" I backed off and let Erin climb all over stuff and try to steal some little boy's shoe.

Mommastantrum: You may be right about the kinds of kids we'll end up raising. I'm not even worried about that part; I'm worried about the kinds of parents we'll be making (i.e. insane, dribbling, crazy-eyed, parents).

bsouth: Nice to see that someone else is as bad at math as I am. And those magic kisses are better than a bandaid any day.

Madwoman Meg: I applied that very same motto when Erin decided she wanted to climb stairs. If she wanted to get down she had to do it herself.

Mumma Boo: Monkeys! Yes, and I can't wait to see her flinging herself on the monkey bars. If they even have monkey bars anymore.

Patti Mayo: for some reason (a very obvious one I suppose) when I read "free range children" I couldn't help but think of dinner. It didn't happen with "kids", but "children" because of the "ch", did it.

FADKOG: Well, back in my day we didn't even have streetlights; we had fireflies and we were grateful, dammit!

Merecat: I'm afraid of bottles too. My pediatrician wants Erin off of bottles now, but I can't work hard enough to switch her to her cups for her milk. She drinks water and juice out of them, but won't do milk.

Sci-Fi Dad: Or some race anyway. I'm perfectly happy raising pod-children. As long as I'm spared when they take over.

-K: I'd be surprised if we weren't all like you. I know I talk a good game, here in my chair, sending words out to oblivion. But in practice? It's work to be as laissez-faire as I want to be; and I'm just lazy. I'm so lazy that I might occasionally overprotect my daughter.

Thopgood: I'm working on it. I just finished a meme, so it might take me a while. "New favorite" sounds pretty good though :}

fishygirl: I'm definitely the guilty, won't let her sleep alone, one. Not often, but if she is pulled into bed it's by me, not my wife.

the apron queen: with the next one I want to go to Europe early enough that I can do that. This one is getting a little heavy for too many long days in a row.

Headless Mom said...

I'm voting for f*cking genius, too.

My kids roam around...I get blogging time!


I've got to get you in my reader...I've missed a lot!!

Patti Mayo said...

BDP...thank you for my first chuckle of the morning....I now have the scene from Nanny McPhee where the kids put baby booties on a chicken (or it could be a turkey) leg and put the baby in the roaster.

If you haven't seen in's cute.

Anonymous said...

(first time reader)
I strongly believe that if we're going to let media to run our way of raising kids, we're creating chaos. I also strongly believe that every human being (as any organism in this planet) has a natural tendency to stay alive, and I trust this is true for everyone.