Kids on the Range

At her birthday party last month, when it came time to light her candle, I handed my seven-year-old a box of matches. One of the kids gave her a funny look and said “I don’t think you should do that.” I explained that she only used matches with parental supervision, but that we had taught her how to do it safely and she was quite good at it. (This story would have a better ending if the cold, damp wind hadn’t made her have too much trouble keeping her matches lit long enough to light the candle.)

Stil, it was one of what I would call my good “free-range parenting” moments. So was watching her disappear on her bike into the cold soaking rain over the small Memorial Day folk festival we attend. And turning around at that same festival to find that she and another friend had independently brought her three-year-old sister to the bathroom across the fairgrounds and rolling with it.

Free-range parenting is the name often adopted by people who are trying to fight back against the recent excesses of helicopter parenting and child predator paranoia. Free rangers are not against safety—they believe in things like seat belts and life jackets and teaching children about ok touch and not ok touch and not to get into cars with strangers (but not in teaching them never to talk to strangers). They like to pass around things like child development texts from the 1970s showing that kids were expected to be able to run errands in their neighborhood on their own to be ready for first grade (I’ve known teenagers today who aren’t allowed to do that) and statistics showing just how nothing has gotten more dangerous (ok, the cars have, but not the people), it’s just that we just hear about and obsess about it more. The idea is that we actually do our kids serious disservice by not allowing them to learn self-reliance, independence, and risk assessment.

I think it’s pretty darn important.

It’s also pretty darn hard, and I am definitely not always confident about where my lines should be. (Except when I’m quite sure looking back that I’ve screwed them up.)

We will walk that same seven year old who can strike a match to school and pick her up, even though it’s literally around the corner, across only one small street. The school would let us say that she can walk home alone, though they made it clear that they would find that unusual for a first grader. I want to say it’s mostly the cars that worry me. I think that’s mostly true. I don’t worry about stranger danger, but I have witnessed kids being really mean to each other on their walks home from school past my house. Is fear of bullying my excuse for helicoptering?

I keep trying to find the right balance. This past weekend at another, much larger, folk festival, I stuck a note in said seven year old’s pocket that read “I have permission to be on my own in the festival. If I am in distress, outside the fairgrounds, or misbehaving in a way you can’t handle on your own, you may call my parents at one of these numbers…” I also, knowing she’s a sound sleeper, left her sleeping in the tent on her own, with the note, a flashlight, and knowledge of where to find adults who could find me, and proceeded to dance and sing the evenings away like I haven’t since before having kids.

I wasn’t expecting anyone to actually ask her to produce the note unless there was trouble, but she recounts that not only did they, but that she was actually shouted at and grabbed by the shoulder to keep her from running to keep up with her friends (who had permission, but not notes) to show it. (That’s when I scrawled on the back “My friends have permission from their parents too. Please just let us go play.”) People I know who grew up running all over folk festivals like this with their friends are quite sure that this is, shall we say, a change in atmosphere.

Aside from that, there was only one problem, an instance where I got mad at her for not being where I expected to her be after I had fetched her some lunch from across the fairgrounds and really wanted to pass it off and feed myself. Looking back though, the mistake was mine. It was a lot to ask that she hang around for an unspecified amount of time at a concert she wasn’t into, but even that wasn’t the main problem. Really what I should have done was insist that she go fetch her lunch herself.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on July 3, 2013.)

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