Free Range Challenge

One morning last week Turtle and I went on a date to Starbucks where we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast over the newspaper together. After some time, I needed to go to the bathroom and was confronted with a decision that was a new one for me to make as a parent. A year ago, no question, I would have to bring him to the bathroom with me, hoping the staff didn't clear away our table since we weren't done yet. But there he was, happily examining the weather map and right in the middle of eating, and it seemed silly to make my 5 year old interrupt himself and come into the restroom with me just to spectate.

It took me a couple of minutes to think on the situation and decide how to handle it. The thoughts running through my head? We'll come back to that in a moment.

I said to him, "I need to go to the bathroom." He didn't even look up as he shrugged and replied "okay" and kept reading. I said, "What will you do if a stranger talks to you?" He didn't know. I clarified, "It's okay if someone talks to you, but I mean what if a stranger is bothering you." He calmly said, "I'll come to the bathroom and get you." Pretty logical. "Ok, yeah, you come and say 'Mom! Mom!' really loud, okay?" It felt silly to take the conversation any further.
I went to the bathroom alone, felt like I needed to be kind of quick about it, and of course returned to the table to find absolutely nothing amiss in the world. No one had missed me. No one had even noticed I got up. Everyone was still busy reading or talking or working on their laptops. It was all just not a big deal.

But it was a kind of new milestone for Turtle & I. Well, at least me.

A couple of nights ago, I got the fortunate opportunity to see Lenore Skenazy speak at a local venue. She's the author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry). I've been a big fan of her blog for several years now. If you aren't familiar with the concept of raising free range children, please check out her blog and book, but the basic point is that over the generations for many silly and unjustifiable reasons we have somehow clamped down on the freedoms and independence that children used to enjoy and grow from.

We used to roam the neighborhood unsupervised all day and now kids aren't allowed in their own front yard without a parent present. We used to walk to school, or at least the bus stop, facing the weather, bullies, and stray dogs, but now kids are protected by SUVs driveway to driveway in the nice, safe, suburban neighborhoods that their parents bought homes in because they were nice, safe, suburban neighborhoods. You get the idea.

And the fall out from this? Parents and kids are more and more scared of the real world. I end up with high school students in my classroom who are afraid to get dirty, have never changed a light bulb, cooked a meal, or done their own laundry, and who expect to get the A and the trophy and be kept safe and comfortable at all times. If they forget their lunch, a text goes out and their parents leave work to bring lunch to school immediately. There is no opportunity to learn from fending for one's self. There is no preparation for living on one's own. And the kids are scared to try new things, extend themselves to meet new people, to make mistakes, and to explore the world on their own.

And don't even get me started on everyone staying indoors and interacting with the virtual world, ruthlessly killing every potential germ and avoiding contact with outdoor soil, air, water, plants, and animals and how that connects to childhood obesity, the increase in allergies and asthma, and even depression...

So, Lenore's talk was preaching to the choir for me, but reaffirmed and reinspired me to try to raise my children as free range as possible. Which, when it comes down to it, means as free range as I can get myself comfortable with. She made a lot of great points and told some wonderful anecdotes and shared some enlightening statistics and you'll have to go see her yourself or read her stuff to hear all of those, but one of the big ones that stuck with me was that it's really about being very conscious as a parent to recognize and identify your own fears and then work through them.


So what was running through my head before I took the leap to take myself to the bathroom alone at Starbucks? The worst case scenario, of course. What's the worst thing that could happen if I left my son unattended? That I'd emerge from the bathroom to find him gone. And then never live another day without regretting my foolish, selfish decision to go to the bathroom alone.

I questioned myself as to whether I'd adequately prepared him for being alone in situations like this. We really haven't talked about "stranger danger". Mostly because it's almost never an issue since he's lived the first 5 years of his life in constant supervision from loving family, friends, and teachers. But also because I haven't wanted to instill irrational fears in him and think the stranger danger thing is overblown. (As Lenore puts it to her son, "you can talk to strangers, you just can't ever go off with them". Much more reasonable!)

I considered whether because I haven't drilled him on stranger danger, does that mean he is likely to happily accompany a stranger who tries to take him out of a Starbucks? I somehow couldn't picture Turtle, who often reacts with words, whines, and cries to any little slight or interruption of his focus and who can put up a good fight just to refuse to greet or thank a relative, agreeing to just leave the restaurant with a stranger. I felt like he'd end up causing some sort of a scene that would get my attention or that of others and would slow down the potential kidnapper that only exists in my anxiety filled brain.

I looked around and saw all the people filling the cafe who had seen us come in and sit down together and some who would notice me get up and go to the bathroom. I thought about the couple of employees who see us there regularly and know that he belongs to me.

I thought about how stupid it was for me to actually think that some random kidnapper would be in the Starbucks on the corner of my nice, safe, suburban neighborhood just waiting for a moment like this for me to go to the bathroom so he could snatch my kid amongst a crowd of witnesses.

(One of the stats that Lenore shared in her talk was that if you wanted your kid to be kidnapped, you'd have to leave them outside for 650,000 years unsupervised in order for that to be statistically likely to happen.)

I thought ahead to the many years in the future in which Turtle would be out in the world without me around to keep an eye on him and how I'll never be able to control those situations and there will always be some element of risk to him that I can't do anything about. And how if I let exaggerated fears and worries drive my decision-making, I'll be exactly the kind of parent I don't want to be, stifling his development and confidence and chances for success when he leaves the nest.

And I went and peed alone.


Lenore talked about a 5th grade teacher who assigned her class to do a free range project, in which each child chose to take on a new challenge that they were probably ready for but hadn't tried until then or maybe hadn't been allowed or encouraged to do on their own. One kid learned to cook eggs on the stovetop. Another walked to her local grocery store alone and bought all the ingredients to bake her own cake. One walked his little sister to soccer practice and watched her by himself.

I love the idea of challenging children to come up with their own free range project! And, if your kids are younger like mine, coming up with some ideas for them that you feel it's time for them to try. For example, I think Turtle can start learning some of the basics of cooking at the stovetop with our supervision. And when the weather warms up and the days get longer, he'll be allowed to play out front more and more and farther and farther down the street without us out there with him the whole time.

I love even more the idea of challenging ourselves to face our own fears and coming up with free range parent projects that we realize it's probably time to try...

... like taking a solo trip to the Starbucks bathroom.


So, what free range projects is your family ready for?


Turning 40

Last night I greeted Backtire and Turtle as they climbed out of the car to say "Happy Birthday" to me and give me hugs. I thanked Backtire for the card and gift he had left for me to find that morning. Turtle's bottom lip started to quiver as his eyes got sad and he said "but I want to get you a present for your birthday." Tears began...

Oh no!

We had both failed to make a point to ensure that Backtire helped Turtle select a gift and prepare it for my birthday in advance. I felt so bad! The thought had crossed my mind a few days ago that he's old enough to get how birthdays work now and to want to be a part of preparing gifts for someone, as we've done so for his friends', cousins, and great-grandfather's birthday parties over the past months. But it's been a year since Mommy & Daddy had a birthday and we just didn't think it through as to how to include a 5-year old in that. Plus, we've all been so busy and exhausted and there wasn't really a plan to do anything special on a Tuesday night for my birthday. We're having a larger extended family dinner on Saturday. So, it just wasn't on our minds.

I hugged Turtle and told him that there was only one present I really wanted from him and that was a hug and a kiss. He smiled and gave me those, but then burst back into big tears saying "I know, but I want to give you a real present and wrap the present and give it to you on your birthday." I offered that my party wasn't until Saturday so he still had time to do that, but he wanted to give it to me on my real birthday. He cried frustrated that "I need help getting a present, I don't know how to buy one myself!"

We were about to go out to dinner and everyone was already starving, which wasn't helping us out of the meltdown, so I offered that Daddy could help him figure out how to get a present tonight after dinner if he wanted. He suddenly straightened up and got serious and said "Well, I need to go to Target" and asked me how late they were open. Then, "but I don't know if they have what I want to get."

"Well, Dad will know- talk to him about it. He'll help you."

"He doesn't know! Now I have to give it away!" Crumpling into my arms.

"No, you don't. He'll know. Ask him."

"Well, he doesn't know if they have grown up books at Target!"

"They do. He can help you with that."

"Now I gave it away!" Huge, more frustrated cries.

"No, you didn't, because I don't know which book you'll pick."

"But I don't know any of the names of the grown up books!" More agonized crying.

"Daddy can help you with that. You guys can go after dinner and he'll show you which ones I like."

Eventually, he calmed down enough for us to make it into the car and head to dinner.

I don't want the focus of birthdays to be on the idea that we get stuff. But I completely understood where he was coming from, too, in being so upset, because getting presents is one of the exciting things about a birthday and he saw how enthusiastically I had just thanked Daddy for his gift to me and felt left out of being able to make me feel that way, also.

And I felt so crappy and sad about all of this because it is really our responsibility to help him be able to give someone a gift if he wants to. He's not going to check his calendar and remember a birthday is coming and make time to create something or find a way to go buy something on his own. And he expressed all of that to us- that he couldn't get to the store or even know which book to pick without our help.

And I felt heart-warmed that he had such a desire to get me a gift and that he suddenly came up with the idea of a grown up book, which is a lovely perfect idea as a gift for me and makes me happy that he recognizes our shared love of reading and books and that I would enjoy a grown up book just for me.

So, that is how I found myself on my 40th birthday sitting in the passenger seat of the car in the rain in the parking lot of Target past bed-time with Backtire and Turtle inside buying me a surprise grown up book, frantically texting back and forth to Backtire in an effort to help him select a good book for me. I was trying in vain to remember what popular bestseller type book Target might have that I would want or names of authors that I like in general, but which books of theirs I've already read, all without being able to be in there and see the bookshelves and he was texting me possible titles for approval. We finally settled upon Eat, Pray, Love. Whew! All the while, Turtle was oblivious to this behind-the-scenes choreography of my gift selection.

They emerged from the store, one weary and one dimpled with excitement holding a Target plastic bag and saying "we got your surprise!" After we got home, I was banished to the back of the house while the gift was carefully wrapped and the secret bonus gift of my favorite ice cream was put in the freezer. Then right before I was to open the gift, a relative called to wish me a happy birthday.

Finally, much past 9 pm, the moment arrived and Turtle excitedly presented me with my beautifully wrapped gift. I opened it and exclaimed that I had been wanting to read this book and how did he know?! And thank you so much for getting me a book because I love to read and it makes me really happy! and hugs and kisses!

And he was smiling from ear to ear.

And that was the real gift.