Dads' POV: Free Range Chickens
Free-range parenting — the opposite of helicopter parenting — is under scrutiny these days, with a Maryland couple repeatedly being investigated for child neglect for letting their 10- and 6-year-olds play in a neighborhood park and walk home without adult supervision. Here, dad blogger Chris Bernholdt weighs in with his thoughts on what parents really have to fear as they work to impart independence in 21st-century kids.
The first time I ever let my son walk into a building by himself I panicked. I pulled away from the church where I was dropping him off for choir and I freaked out. He was 8 at the time and up until then I had walked him in every single time.
With his two younger sisters in the car and it pouring rain, I was not feeling up to unbuckling everyone and walking him the 200 feet into the building where I know he would be greeted by one of the choir volunteer adults. He was safe. Probably.
I pulled away from the church trying to talk myself out of the worry and panic. He's 8, for goodness sake, what was I doing at 8?
I was jumping off my friend's second-story porch because I thought I was Ultraman, and riding my dirt bike to the abandoned construction site to jump over mounds of dirt we covered with boards for makeshift ramps. At his age, I used to play in that lot behind the elementary school where they parked the buses; where rusted car hoods were afternoon hideaways for garter snakes and my friends would bang on them with sticks until they came slithering out so we could catch them.
I climbed trees so high I would get to the top and wonder if I could even get down before I heard my mom yelling for dinner. Do kids even climb trees anymore? I have never seen any in my neighborhood even attempting such a thing.
I circled around the church and swung back into the parking lot and listened. I don't know what exactly I was listening for, I couldn't get out of the car to check on him because that meant bringing the girls with me. Maybe it was my hammering heart or the beating of the incessant wipers, but they both acted like the metronome of the ticking seconds I sat in that car trying to decide whether to go in or not.
I drove home trying not to think about it. He's 8, I kept saying. He's safe. It was only 200 feet, he's fine. He was, and later he was picked up by his mom and brought home never knowing my panic. I asked him how it was, to walk in there by himself wondering if he were at all scared as I had been. "It's cool dad, it's only like 200 feet."
My fear didn't come from the idea that he would be taken in those 200 feet out of my site. It wasn't born from a fear that today, things are much more dangerous than they were when I was a kid. There were mass murderers, pedophiles and serial killers in the '70s just as much as there are today.
We were always told to stay away from the road and never approach a car or talk to a stranger. We didn't eat Halloween candy unless it was checked first. We never were allowed to go with anyone we didn't know and knew to run and yell "Stranger Danger" when we felt threatened. None of that has changed.
Except that now, for better or for worse, we see and hear everything. Information accessible 24 hours a day in the palm of our hands is a blessing and a curse on our existence. The Internet, the orange alerts and the news filled with nannies killing children, mothers driving cars filled with babies into lakes, kids being shot accidentally by guns, it's no wonder we are programmed to fear the world around us. The world can sometimes be scary, but I don't want my children to not live in it because they are petrified to walk around the block.
Modern parents are taught to live in constant fear. Everyone is out to get you, everyone is watching, no one is safe. That's why parents who let their kids walk to the park alone are convicted of child neglect.
It's why I wondered if it was safe for my kids to walk two blocks to our house from the bus by themselves at ages 9 and 7. Is someone watching them? Recording them? Will footage from someone's camera phone send CPS to my house take them away from me because I gave them some freedom?
People will think I am crazy to watch them from my porch walk two blocks on their own. I remember the panic I felt when I wasn't there once, running late from a doctor's appointment to see them off of the bus. How could I do that to them? The guilt I felt was terrible and I was apologetic that I wasn't there, but my kids could care less. They walked home, entered the garage, then closed it and stayed inside until I got home a few minutes later. My son even called my cell phone to let me know they were in the house and not to worry!
For me personally, I struggle with it after being the primary caregiver and protecting them from all harm every day of their lives. It's hard to let go. My son asked me if he could ride his bike around the block by himself and I hesitated. Why? Because I am chicken. Many of us are chicken.
We're chicken to let them be independent. It's the reason why people let their kids have cell phones with GPS tracking apps and will consider micro-chipping their children in the not-so-distant future. You'd do it for your pet. Who is to say your children won't be next?
Now before you jump all over me because it doesn't apply to your situation or you know a guy who knew a guy who had his daughter snatched from preschool, I am not saying it doesn't happen. I feel for any family where it has happened. I can't imagine what that feels like.
Some people will cry foul because they live in an area that it's just not possible to give children freedom. Don't misunderstand me either, I don't let my kids just walk around unsupervised all the time. I just give them tastes of what it is like to be independent thinkers. Isn't that a good thing for when they are older?
I also get that this doesn't work for everyone based on where you live. Your bus stop might not be near your house or the nearest park may be miles away. The library might be in an unsafe part of town or near some railroad tracks. I get that, but living in fear is no way for our children to experience life.
This isn't a post about the good old days. I am glad those are long gone. The modern world is the best of those times and beyond. Instances of freedom are good for children. It shows that you trust them to make their own decisions and they learn to adapt from their mistakes. Children should not be held hostage by their own childhood. The modern world is out there, let's let our children actually experience it without living in fear.