Raising free-range kids

I have long known that I should hang onto my ties, both fat and skinny ones, because eventually they would be in style again. I did not realize, however, that the way my wife and I bring up our kids -- a style closer to past generations than that of many of my contemporaries -- was something that might swing back into vogue, never mind being hailed as a radical new philosophy.

It seems that, without knowing it, my wife and I have been free-range parents, raising free-range kids. Those terms do not sit well with me. They generate images of the whole family heading outside to scratch in the ground for food, like the chickens on an organic farm. But as a series of recent articles point out, free-range parenting has nothing to do with chickens or any other farm animal.

The term comes from New York City writer Lenore Skenazy, who decided to let her nine-year-old son ride the subway home alone from a Bloomingdale’s store. The negative reaction of friends initially shocked her, but then provided plenty of fodder for a new blog -- on raising children without hovering over them at every turn. Skenazy says her childhood was spent without the fear of something ominous lurking around the corner; freedom and risk were just part of life and growing up.

Skenazy's main point, that parents can be too controlling of their kids lives, is something many parents struggle with (others embrace the control and relish it). Yet the amount of freedom our children have as they grow up can have an impact well beyond our own families and into adulthood. The child's ability to deal with risk now will determine whether they can deal with risk as an adult. If we bubble-wrap kids, refuse to let them explore the world around them as they grow, will they have the courage to break out on their own later in life? Will they have the courage to apply for a job on their own or become an entrepreneur? If they cannot take risks, will they get married or even have the courage to date?

Like Skenazy, British/Canadian author Carl Honore worries about parents today being overprotective. Honore describes going back to the Edmonton neighbourhood of his youth and discovering that while there are kids still there, few of them were running around outside playing hockey in the street or games up and down the front lawns, the way he and his friends used to.

Now living in London and a father of two himself, Honore says he understands the impulse to protect children but he fears today’s culture has gone too far and may be stifling them instead of really protecting them. As proof, Honore adduces the fact that children are more likely to be hurt in traffic accidents as passengers than as pedestrians; and yet while parents think twice before letting children walk to school or the park alone they think nothing of driving them.

In his book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, Honore argues that too many parents today treat their children like investments or projects to be managed and that this mentality is having a negative effect on the wider culture. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Honore says the fruits of not allowing children to take risks are now being seen as young adults struggle to stand on their own two feet. “Every moment of their childhood has been so micromanaged, supervised, structured and measured by adults that they don't know how to cope on their own. University counselling services are overwhelmed by students going to pieces. You hear of 19-year-olds handing the cellphone over to the professor and saying ‘Sort this out with my mum’.”

I often feel guilty that my children are not like other children they know, enrolled in a wide assortment of extra-curricular activities that will expand their horizons. But truly, the thought of living like that, hovering over my children at every turn, exhausts me; I am constitutionally unfit to be a helicopter parent. Time is against it: you cannot schedule too much when you have four kids, two parents and two pets to look after. How can you track four kids with only two helicopters -- I mean, parents?

Also, I am loath to force the children to do something they absolutely hate. Swimming lessons are one exception. My wife and I feel that all children need to know how to swim, so, despite the fact that only two of four like getting their faces wet, all four children will be in the pool as soon as lessons resume. But, unless one of them wants to play hockey or figure skate, the rink that goes up in the local park each year is where they will all learn to skate; I will encourage soccer but not insist on it. As for everyday play time, that is best spent outside with other kids, not with me.

Former Canadian Olympian Silken Laumann is an advocate of free play time for kids and of neighbourhoods where children running around playing disorganized sports or a game from their imagination is normal. It is tough to find those neighbourhoods, now, as most kids seem tend to hole up inside. A few years ago we were living in an area with 20 or more kids under the age of 13, all within a few doors of each other. There was ample space for the children to play outside -- open fields, and several play parks; still, aside from the occasional hoot from one of our four as they rambled about, summer days were filled with silence.

But things have changed. Now our neighbourhood is bustling with kids running around with no structure to their play time. Games of hopscotch have broken out, there is a regular crew of sidewalk artists, several alien invasions have been rebuffed and action figures have been dragged through the mud -- somehow the girls’ dolls come back in the house clean. All of this the result of parents that live near us telling their kids, “Go outside, go play!” One kid gets another, who gets another and soon, like in the old shampoo commercial, the area is alive with a cacophony of joyful noises.

I admit that it is tough to give up the urge to jump in and help schedule or fix your child’s life. Yet, despite my urges, I have learned that when a child shows an interest in art it does not mean I need to find the nearest studio offering lessons. Every C or B on the report card does not mean we need to scramble to find a tutor. I want to help my kids grow and learn, and that sometimes means just sitting back and letting kids be kids.

Ottawa doesn’t have a subway, or a Bloomingdale’s to find your way home from, so I will not face the question that started all of this for Lenore Skenazy. My trial will be keeping up the nerve to let my children explore their own boundaries, to let them walk to the park on their own, ride their bike through the neighbourhood without supervision and do all this without losing my head, or jumping out of my seat to fix everything.

Brian Lilley is a husband and father of four in Ottawa, Canada. Brian is a political journalist and Ottawa Bureau Chief for 1010 CFRB Radio in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal.


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