Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Free Range" vs. Zoned Out: How Do You Keep From Going Crazy

I cut my daughters grapes in half. She is almost two, the age at which my friend who works in a preschool says her students are magically allowed to have whole grapes. I know that my daughter is a very active child who--despite my best efforts--is likely to run around the room leaping from the furniture at least once during dinner, so I cut her grapes.

I was at an outdoor picnic with some friends, though, and one of them freaked out when my daughter--sneaky thing that she is--grabbed a non-cut grape from the bunch and popped it in her mouth. My friend nearly leapt across the table trying to get it away from her. I told her it was okay, and she looked at me, incredulous. "She could choke." Well, yeah. I guess she could, but I somehow don't think that leaping on top of her and trying to fish the half-chewed grape out of her mouth is going to make that less likely.

I'm not heartless, and I'm not immune to fear. I'm not even immune to fear of grapes. Did you know grapes could be toxic to dogs? Did you know that I once spent an evening walking my dog in circles in the back yard after forcing vomit-inducing peroxide down his throat with a turkey baster because he ate a bag of raisin bagels? I digress, but the point is that you can be aware of dangers and do your best to avoid them, but they still happen. (The dog's fine, by the way. The turkey baster didn't make it, though.)

I consider myself fairly "Free Range." I read Lenore Skenazy's blog Free Range Kids and nod as she cites the statistics that crime is actually lower than its pretty much ever been and yet we keep talking about how "things today" make it impossible to let kids have freedom. She talks about schools that ban the use of balls because someone might get hit in the head or towns that arrest parents for sending their kids to the park alone. I think there's a lot to like about the "Free Range" movement, and I've written before about how I actually see it as philosophically similar to Attachment Parenting, in that both require you to know and trust your child. 

Which is why I was a little perturbed to see this (admittedly light-hearted) post on Motherlode. Written as a letter to the mom who won't stop following her child around the playground, this writer laments that the "helicopter parents" at the playground are killing her mood when all she wants to do is zone out on her iPhone while her kid plays:
See, I’m a mother, too, at the very same park with my 4-year-old, but I’m here to stop mothering. The playground has a gate, and the asphalt is covered with rubber mats. If I can’t turn on my iPhone and tune out here, I don’t want to live.
She gently mocks the mother for rushing to the sandbox every time her daughter cries, rummaging through her bag for a Whole Foods organic apple juice, and offering to send the writer a video of their kids playing together:

And it's funny, and it's obviously meant to be a joke, and I do get it. And trust me do I know the value of being able to get my child otherwise occupied for ten glorious minutes so that I can zone out on Facebook, the news, or just nothing at all.

But I also see some more dichotomizing of Free Range on one end and Attachment Parenting on the other that I just don't like. To me, being free range doesn't mean that you have to detach from your kid. It means that you have to draw more reasonable lines around "safety" and value the lessons a child can learn from doing things on their own.

I cut my kid's grapes, and I also follow her around the playground. I won't always follow her around the playground, but right now she is fearless. She climbs the rock walls and throws herself headfirst down the big slides. I follow her around to make sure that she doesn't also throw herself headfirst off the edge of open platforms or take off running toward the street. I let her explore and take risks and fall and get hurt and get up and try again. But I also give her the safety and commonsense guidance that her personality and age dictate. Being free range doesn't mean cutting her off from the help she needs or even the safety that just makes sense.

And, at the end of the day, I think that's what parenting should be all about. Do what makes sense. It doesn't need a fancy label. It doesn't need to come accompanied by official books and a team sweater. What makes sense today won't be what makes sense next month as she gains more ability and control. What makes sense might not always be easy, and sometimes it might be even easier than we thought.

But it's so hard to just do what makes sense in a world where every single parenting choice gets analyzed, categorized, and labeled. I get glared at for my reckless endangerment when my daughter, with perfect capability, chews a grape. Then I get side-eyed for following my child up the playground equipment for being too safe. If I spent my days trying to fit into some box of parenting perfection, I definitely wouldn't have time to zone out on my iPhone. 

Photo: niallkennedy


  1. I think, kind of like most anything really, all of these things are a wide spectrum, and trying to narrow it down to 2 words isn't helpful. I tend towards the free-range too, in most situations, but I'm fairly up-close with many other situations, and it's all just what makes sense to me and my wife.

    I do think there are certain arguments that could use some debunking, as Lenore tends to do on Free Range Kids... No, it's not more dangerous "these days." No, there aren't hordes of strangers roaming the streets trying to abduct random children. Etcetera.

    But still, to each their own... more information is ALWAYS a good thing. More names, not so much.

  2. I agree with you. I mean, I bring organic juice boxes for my kids, too, and shout HEY CUT THAT OUT from across the playground while trying to have a convo with another adult instead of tending to their every need. I find my daughter when I hear her crying, even if it's just make sure there's no bleeding, and also make her do the monkey bars herself or not at all if she can't do them on her own. They are not mutually exclusive practices/perspectives. She draws too much on a stereotype that conflates helicopter parenting with AP parenting to make her point, which I would otherwise agree with. I've said it before and said it again: helicopter parenting is about unhealthy/absent boundaries. If you're following your kid around making them feel like they can't be safe or accomplish anything without your support, that's helicopter parenting and it's unhealthy. If you're following your kid around to make sure she's not Superman leaping off of high ledges, that's healthy boundaries and healthy parenting. If you're in a safe environment and let your largely good choice making and mobile four year do whatever she wants while you text your sister, that's healthy boundaries and healthy parenting. Regardless of the origin of your juicebox, whether or not you cosleep, or whatever. AP =/= helicopter parenting.

  3. This is a great post! I don't have kids yet, but also really enjoy the free range thinking, and am somewhat fearful of the detached/playing on phone parent. And, as always, you bring up the wise point that there is no "should", do what you feel.