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?


mamabook said...

So agree. My 11-year-old cooks full family meals without help. We have just moved from Sydney to Northern California and my 8 year-old is delighting in going to the children's library alone - it is 3 doors from our house and gives her a great sense of independence. In Australia I was allowing her to walk to the corner store alone.
I have been in the bathroom situation many a time - I have sometimes mentioned to staff or a fellow cafe goer what I am doing just so somebody else has half an eye on them.

OmegaWolf747 said...

The thing you really have to watch out for when you go to the bathroom and leave your five-year-old unattended is the well-meaning idiot with the police and CPS on his cell phone speed dial.

Anonymous said...

We have older kids - teens. I think the free-range project we have to try is going away by ourselves for a few days and leaving them at home. I don't know why this bothers me - they've been at home by themselves a lot, they can cook and take care of things (okay, they refuse to clean, but that's not an independence problem) they've been to camp and stayed away from home for weeks on end, they've travelled across the country by themselves, changing planes as needed, but somehow, leaving them by themselves, alone at home for a few days bothers me. It should be easier, since this is their home turf, the place and area they know best, but still...

Nil zed said...

Oh, anonymous! I must say when my first two were teens, we joked that we could leave either one home alone for days, weeks even. both could cook and clean and unclog the toilet if they had to and might even remember to take out the garbage. But we couldn't leave them home alone together for fear their mutual hatred and disdain would result in fire & catastrophe. That they might set aside their differences and cooperate on an illegal party woulda been a positive step in their relationship!