My mother worked during the day and my father worked the overnight shift and there was some overlap between their jobs, particularly if overtime was involved, so there were plenty of days when my brother and I were on our own and we had to make good use of basic skills to get ourselves home from school, let ourselves into our house, fix ourselves something to eat and find ways to entertain ourselves until a grown-up finished working and came back home. Today, this would be called free range parenting.
In my house, it’s called unnecessary.
My husband and I moved to Georgia from New York 10 years ago and became full-time authors and freelance writers so that we could raise our children the way we saw fit: with love and attention to detail—the kinds of details we couldn’t swing while working jobs that sucked up all our time and left us little time to do the things that mattered to us. Have dinner together. Put our babies to sleep at night. Relax on weekends instead of trying to squeeze in every chore we couldn’t get to during the week between the guilt-trippy playtime we plotted and planned to make up for leaving our kids to the nanny to raise. Spend quality time just… being.
That desire to be a hands-on parents hasn’t changed now that our daughters are 12 and 15. We are there for them—on the sidelines at the soccer, softball and basketball games. In the audience at the band concerts. At the dinner table, talking about our day and everything else, from politics to boys to race to tricky friendships. Taking the time to parent our kids.
Some call this helicopter parenting. I call it… parenting.
Apparently, our way makes others feel some kind of way, as evidenced by the audience response to an interview I participated in on NPR’s Weekend Edition. In “What Kind Of Parent Are You: The Debate Over Free Range Parenting,” freelance journalist and mom Katie Arnold and I were charged with discussing the case of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, a Silver Spring, MD, couple that let their 6- and 10-year-old children walk a mile to a local park and play, unsupervised, for an hour—a move that got their children snatched by Child Protective Services. Katie stated that she thought it was okay for the kids to go to the park to play alone, so long as their parents taught them how to get there and trusted the kids could make it back home at an agreed upon time. I made clear that I thought it was a “bit much” to trust that kids that young would be safe.
I went on to reveal that when it comes to my own daughters, I have some pretty strict rules for navigating the park here in Atlanta: they can go, but only with either me or their dad present, and once inside, they can go off and ride their bikes without me, but they can only do so for a limited amount of time before checking in.
Well, according to the commenters on the NPR site, I am an overbearing shrew raising two hen-pecked, overly-dependent scaredy cats who will be so socially stunted that they: 1) won’t be able to navigate college campuses or life on their own; 2) will be terrified of strangers for the rest of their lives; 3) will be dependent on me to accompany them to job interviews, dates and all other manner of life because their overbearing mother didn’t allow them their independence, and 4) a bunch of other stupid shit that does not bear repeating here.
Apparently, these judgey folks all grew up in households with parents who let them hop on their bikes at age 10 with nothing more than PB& J sandwiches and pocket knives and tramp all through the neighborhoods and in the parks and woods, exploring and getting into stuff and discovering their idyllic world, and every last one of them, too, allows their tweens the same freedoms today in 2015, sans concern for strangers or safety out here in these streets.
Let them tell it and free range parenting is magical, and giving a half damn about your child’s safety makes you a crap mom.
You know what? I’ll be that. I live in the center of a large urban city, near the 189-acre Piedmont Park, off a main thoroughfare with easy, quick access to three different highways, in a place that is known to have one of the highest rate of children trafficked for sex. The average age for girls sucked up into the sex trade here in Atlanta? Between ages 11 and 14.
My daughters are 12 and 15.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—our nation’s crime rate is the lowest its ever been and child kidnapping statistics are lower than our perception and kids are more likely to be hurt in their own homes than they are by strangers in the street and blah, blah, blah. Yes, this all makes sense. Until some guy is looking at your shapely 15-year-old and trying to holler because he likes her phatty. Or some teenager likes your 12-year-old’s bike enough to knock her off of it and take it for himself. Or someone is hungry enough to stop a kid on a quiet, secluded bike path and take her ice cream money—or, God forbid, something else. Or until you’re making a plea on the 6 o’clock news for someone to call the police with any information they might have on your daughter’s whereabouts.
Don’t get me started on the racial factor here—about what comes when Black boys are running or riding their bikes through communities where “neighbors” automatically look at them with suspicion and assume they’re criminals (RIP Trayvon) or they’re subject to the stop-and-frisk policies of police departments, or a mother, out of necessity rather than for play-play, leaves her young child at home while she works, only to have “well-meaning” citizens dial up CPS and accuse that mother of neglect. The stakes are high when Black children and their parents are involved and the system gets them into their line of sight.
I’m not a betting person. I don’t take chances when it comes to the two people who are more precious to me than anything on this earth. They are smart, beautiful girls who are still learning how to be, with parents who love them hard and strong and want the best for them and think very deeply about how we can grow them up to be incredible, accomplished, independent women. Game changers. We simply do not subscribe to the idea that the sole way to teach a child independence is to let them roam the streets unsupervised. Yes, I feel this way about six year olds. And 10-year-olds. And 12- and 15-year-old’s too.
You have your way.
We have ours.
And I won’t feel ashamed for it, either.
Press play on the NPR player up top to hear our discussion on free range parenting and weigh in here in the comments section on your thoughts about raising independent kids.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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I’m with you. I didn’t let my son ride his bike past my end of block until he was 13. And now that I am pregnant again in our ever changing world,, I have thought about home schooling as a better option so I can control what my kids are exposed to. Anything can happen to a kid that is unsupervised.
I’m on the fence with this one. My parents were not all free-range in the 80s. My mom and the other neighborhood moms would bring their lawn chairs out front in the late afternoons/early evenings and all us kids could play as far down the street as they could see us. When I was 10, I was allowed to walk with a friend to our neighborhood pool alone. When I was probably 12ish, I could finally ride my bike out of sight in the neighborhood. On the flip side, my husband’s parents were free-range (this might also have something to do with gender double standards). I have 2 young boys, 7 and 4, and at this stage, I can’t imagine allowing the 7 year old to walk a mile away alone anywhere. We are just now starting to allow him to ride his bike without us watching, but only up and down our street in a very small neighborhood…and that almost never happens, because the 4yo wants to join and I won’t leave him unattended yet. I’m less worried about strangers and more worried about my children hurting themselves unattended because someone thought it was a good idea to jump off of something or do a trick or some other thing they do that doesn’t make good sense. I don’t think one parent is better than another. I do feel bad for the parents who keep getting their kids snatched by CPS for something that I don’t think is as bad as the neglect and abuse other children face. It seems like a waste of gov’t dollars, when these kids seem well-cared for, even if I wouldn’t let my kids do the same.
I’m right there with you. Myself or my husband still walk our 15, 12, and 9 year old daughters to and from the bus stop everyday. I’d rather be safe than sorry. They are precious and irreplaceable. While we are walking I tell what to do if and when I won’t be there. Be aware of your surroundings and such. Because I know I can’t be with them forever and always but I can now and I will. I can prepare them for independence without sending them into the world before they are ready, in my opinion.
Thank you so very much for sharing this. I agree with you 100%. I heard a lot of the same stuff from others regarding our “alternative” ways of parenting. We home schooled. We accompanied them to events and activities. We were and still are visible and extremely involved parents. We are vegetarian. (gasp). People were “concerned” with everything from our girls’ socialization skills to their diets. Well, my oldest is graduating high school in a few weeks (she attended a performing arts high school for her last 3 years of school). She has been accepted into all of her applied colleges with scholarships. She attended prom by herself (her choice to go solo) and had a great time. She has friends and is a confident, caring young woman. She values family, is a visual artist and is an independent thinker. And both her and her sister are healthy! LoL. Her little sister is in a professional ballet training program and is following in her sister’s footsteps.
All that to say, keep on doing what you are doing! It will and is paying off.
You have inspired me to write a response to your article (in support of course). Thanks again for sharing.
p/s I’m in Metro ATL so I know what you say about the dangers to our young people.
I’m in complete agreement with this post. I’d previously had a hard time articulating my desire to closely interact with my children during certain situations. Most attributed my philosophy to some needy stay-at-home mommy tendency they assumed I honed after having my 5, 3 and 7 month old. But I’m not clingy, I’m careful and of course I want all of my children to learn independence but I won’t teach it irresponsibly it by throwing them into a setting with too many uncontrollable outside factors. You don’t get do overs with your babies, and I want to play it smart with this one chance I have.
My mother’s was raised in the 60s and 70s here in NYC. To hear her tell it, “crime was not the way it is now” and “you could let your kids roam around without having to worry so much”. And her mom raised her and her five other brothers and sisters that way. Fast forward to my brother and I and…my mom had a very tight leash on us. To be fair, my mom had suffered a traumatizing death in her family (her youngest brother died) and she felt responsible and I guess in her mind she just was like “I’m not going to make those mistakes with my kids”. My brother and I had NO after school activities, we had no curfew because we weren’t allowed to go anywhere without our mom, no friends over, no hanging out at the mall with friends. JUst church, school,and home. The problem with that is it caused a great depression in me because I wasn’t allowed to socilaize with people my own age. There was a decline in my grades and my mom and I were constantly fighting over me wanting to have a normal teenage experience.
I share this story with you simply to say I don’t think you’re being a helicopter parent. I know what helicopter parenting is because I was raised in that environment. I think you have probably just found a happy medium between helicopter and free range. Good for you!!!