Worry is not our benchmark

Worry is not our benchmark

Worry is not our benchmark

I spend a lot of time reading, thinking and talking about things like children’s need for independence for the chance to develop confidence, decision making skills, creativity, etc. It’s a philosophy that’s been defined as free-range parenting by outspoken proponents like Lenore Skenazy, and while I haven’t fully bought into the idea (my kids aren’t riding buses or getting dropped off at the park for “Leave Your Kids at the Park” Day), there is a lot of it that resonates with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a Montessori school for 13 years (from 2.5 years old-8th grade), and this has played a huge part in my parenting philosophy. I’m not sure that Montessori schools like the one I attended even exist anymore (the one I attended certainly doesn’t look like it used to!), but the 26-acre campus gave us ample opportunities for exploring the woods, taking care of the animals, building shelters, and caring for the environment. I could rave about my experiences for hours, and it’s the type of childhood I wish for my children as well.

In addition, I’ve never felt the need to teach my children “stranger danger” lessons. In all honesty, I’m more worried about the potential danger of the people closest to us than strangers on the street, and I want to teach my children to interact with people respectfully and with confidence. We have rules, and as I give the older girls more independence, it comes with more cautions, but for the most part we don’t teach them to fear other people.

There’s a third strand to this that I don’t think we can ignore. It’s the idea that we should protect our children from any and all danger. For example, whenever I talk about our family’s preference for glass over plastic in the kitchen, someone inevitably brings up the danger of our kids getting cut if the glass breaks. But here’s the thing: we’ve had plenty of breaks—and an occasional cut (although it’s usually Sean or I that ends up injured)—and it’s okay. Similarly, my kids fall and scrape their hands and knees on a regular basis. And we’ve made ER runs for stitches or staples on multiple occasions. And it’s okay. (In fact, the girls will tell you about their battle wounds with pride!)

Here’s where I think all of these things tie together: As a parent who firmly believes in independence and letting my children out of my sight to help them develop some of these skills, I’m afraid that I might come across as someone who doesn’t worry, who is cavalier about the potential dangers.

While it’s true that I try to be realistic about the dangers (children are more likely to be struck by lightning than abducted by a stranger and much more likely to be injured or killed in a car crash), I would venture to guess that I feel the same fears as most other moms.

When our kids venture into the woods behind a neighbor’s house and the time starts to tick by, I start to worry, even though we’ve talked about safety, they’re with a group, and the area is very safe. When I let the girls go to the bathroom at a restaurant while we sit at the table, I sometimes worry that it could be the one-in-a-million moment when there is a predator in there waiting.

But here’s the thing…worry is part of life, and we have to keep it in perspective. While my absolute worst fear is my children being abducted, scared or hurt, I believe it’s important to give them the opportunity to develop the confidence that comes from that independence. Girls who are confident are much less likely to fall prey to everything from peer pressure to sex trafficking, and confidence and autonomy are pretty important skills for, well, life.

Worry is not our benchmark

And while we tend to make decisions based on fear in this area of life, worry is simply part of parenthood. When my kids scramble to the top of a tall tree, I worry. But I let them do it because they’ve proven again and again that they know their limits.

Similarly, one day each of my kids will get in a car and drive over the mountains alone or with their siblings. I will be terrified every time it happens, but I will still allow it. And something terrible, tragic, and heart-shattering could happen, but I still can’t hold them back because of my fear.

I very much believe that we need to be wise and careful in our decisions, and I readily admit that it’s easier to practice “free range” parenting in the boonies than it would be in the city. And yes, I have to think through all of the what-ifs to decide 1) how realistic the worry really is, 2) if I believe the experience outweighs the what-if, and 3) how I will live with myself if the unspeakable happens.

We can’t protect our kids from everything. The parents who sent their kids to school in Sandy Hook, CT probably didn’t worry about their safety that day, and the unspeakable did happen. And in the wake of it, millions of us have continued to send our kids to school. Because while a tragedy of the most unimaginable kind, the benefits of school outweigh that danger.

Anytime someone speaks up about this idea of allowing our kids independence, they are accused of not caring, of taking unnecessary risks or of being naive.

But just as we use carseats to help mitigate (but not eliminate) the risk of getting in the car, allowing our kids to step out of our comfort zone doesn’t mean that we are naive or uncaring; it means that we’ve acknowledged that the world is a dangerous place but chosen to focus on the benefits of various experiences rather than our own fears.

Do you consider yourself a free-range parent? Do you make decisions based on fear or based on opportunity?

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective on this Mandi. I definitely lean more in that direction and think that we will get there eventually. For now, my children are still young enough that many of these issues have not come up. We haven’t talked to our kids about ‘stranger danger’ but we have spent a lot of time practicing being kind and respectful to people we meet when we are out and about.

    I also think that if our kids are protected from every potential danger, even when it’s just what happens when kids are naturally exploring and playing, they are less able to assess what is actually seriously dangerous and what is a risk they are capable of taking. This comes up a lot when we are hiking and exploring rivers and such. Part of me always wants to hold their hand and help them so they don’t fall, but then I catch myself and remember to let them develop their natural abilities. It will make them much more competent and safe in the long run.

    1. YES! I think my first introduction to this way of thinking was reading about Swiss playgrounds without fences or rules and how the kids naturally respect limits in that environment because they know their own limits!

  2. I don’t know if I would be considered a free range parent or not. I try to raise my daughter the same way my grandparents raised me. We live in a very rural area and our house sits on 80 acres. All of our neighbors are either kin to us or we have known a long time. My daughter knows what rules we have but as long as I know where she is going (she’s 7) and one of the adults calls me when she gets there, we have no problems. Once she gets home from school, she’s usually roaming and playing outside until dinner is ready or she gets hungry enough to want a snack haha. I do get concerned though with all the articles that I have seen lately where CPS is getting involved with free range parents.

  3. This perfectly encapsulates the attitude and behaviors I hope to model when the time comes. My daughter just turned one, so I’m not quite there yet. Thank you for putting it so well – I hope worry never becomes my benchmark!

  4. We live in a city which makes it harder to allow our kids to have the opportunity for freedom and responsibility that I had as a rural child. But I still believe it is so important! My 10 year old rides his bike to the store (1 mile away) to pick up milk for me. My 8 and 6 year olds ride scooters around the neighborhood. If they all go together, they are allowed to walk to the park 1/2 a mile away. We role play conversations with them so that they know how to respond politely to an adult concerned for their welfare, and how to get help if they need it. Of course I worry sometimes, but my husband and I are consciously choosing not to parent from a place of fear.

  5. I am intentional about allowing freedom for my children (now ages 7, 9, 11) and have structured our life to permit it as much as possible. we live on several acres, engage with and trust our neighbors, etc. I do face fear and worry, but choose to allow them to make me prepared, not paralyzed. I

  6. I am so appreciative of this post. My son is almost 3 1/2 and I let him have a lot of freedom and space. If he’s climbing or near water, rocks, etc., I am close and attentive so that I can quickly respond if he needs help, but I’m not holding on to him, in fact, I’m nudging him along to encourage him to go a bit farther. I get so irritated by others who freak out when they see him, or any kid, doing anything slightly treacherous. He has developed a good sense of his own limits, just like you wrote about, and is so carefully adventurous. I LOVE IT! People can really squash that. And, the whole kidnapping issue…..don’t get me started! Not too long ago when my son drifted away from me in a store–about 10 feet and still in sight–I heard a woman tell him that he better stay close to his mommy because someone might pick him up and take him away from his mommy. I simply turned to him and told him to come here. I wanted so badly to say something to her, but I was fuming and couldn’t come up with a response that I thought would phase her anyway. He didn’t seem to really get what she was saying, so I left it alone, but MAN!! They say it takes a community to raise a child, but I have had a hard time with that when this is what I face in the community.

    Anyway….thanks for this post. It reaffirmed my beliefs, and it’s nice to know that someone else out there is letting their kiddos run a little wild. 🙂

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