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Questions about free range parenting — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’ve been watching with admiration the story of the Silver Spring family that is under investigation for child neglect because their 6- and 10-year-old children were walking home alone from the park — which would have been a total distance of about a mile, if the police officer hadn’t scooped them up. We’ve recently moved to a neighborhood that I would hope is walkable. Once we learn our way around the neighborhood and the weather warms up, I could see our school-age children venturing on their own to and from school, friends’ homes, the convenience store, the community beach and possibly the library. We picked this community for its shoreline, forested areas and access to wildlife. We have already made our acquaintance with a trash raiding raccoon — and have dedicated a feeding bowl for him/her away from the bird feeder. Our human family learns a lot from nature, including the nurturing role of parents to support children’s growing abilities to forage on their own. What would you recommend for a family that wishes to support children’s sense of security and competence by letting them loose?

Plenty of Room to Roam Here

Don’t miss last week’s column Helping kids move past skin color — Good Parenting

Dear PRRH,

The misadventures of the Meitiv family is certainly causing a buzz. Here’s the Washington Post story on the lastest free range issue. The controversy rests with the real and perceived societal changes over the past few generations. The question for each family is, how safe are children away from direct adult supervision? And what is lost at the price of overprotection?

The “free range parenting” movement was launched in 2009 by a New York City mother with a similar situation involving her 9-year-old riding solo on the subway. Following her ordeal with Child Protective Services, Lenore Skenazy, the mom, was incited to write “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” and has a website through which the free range discussion continues.

Key to feeling safe in the community is for you and your children to know who is in your community as well as how to manage any known physical dangers. The confidence you have in your children to make good decisions in your absence also helps them to act confidently, which is the primary intent of this approach to parenting.

Get to know your neighborhood

First develop a mental map of the physical and social terrain by venturing out in it with your children. Gradually expand upon your children’s range by accompanying them by foot or bike on your block, around the block and to the destinations you anticipate them wanting to navigate on their own. Take every opportunity to chat with folks who are outside, introducing yourselves and letting them know where your house is. Look for signs of children — driveway basketball hoops, backyard trampolines, bikes, scooters and actual children and try to catch as many of these neighbors for a quick introduction as you can. Make social contacts through school and community clubs and learn where these families live. Swap phone numbers with the friends you are making. See if there is a Facebook page or other means of connecting with the folks in your neighborhood to turn even more strangers into familiar faces.

Households without children, but with friendly adults, are also part of the social map of the neighborhood. Your children learn by your example to be friendly and also to be self-protective regarding people as well as dogs that warrant more caution. Build up the most promising relationships by getting involved in community clubs and activities yourself, and setting up play dates with families at the community playground or other public places. As you get to know your neighbors, you can use each other to shortcut learning about which dogs and adults to include in your increasing circle of trust. Your public library will have scheduled events for school-age children which could afford an after event get together between your family and another at a nearby eatery. By the next play date or group meet-up you can arrange the after party for the kids and parents at your own house or yard. At some point you and the other parents will develop the kind of trust needed to know children are in good hands with any of you, as well as for the couple blocks’ distance between you.

Roll playing and life experience

Review, even role-play, with your children some standard operating procedures for when they’re out and about. You need to know what their plans are when they leave, and they need to communicate when plans change. Whether you equip them with cell phones, or just map out accessible phones in the neighborhood, communication technology can keep children linked to their parents when needed. My son was 6, newly mastering his two-wheeler when he found himself on an unfamiliar stretch of a street a few blocks from home. He saw a man washing his car and fearlessly asked, “Scuse me, can I use your phone to call my mom?” and after I flustered a bit before asking to speak to the man myself, all ended happily. This would be a good scene to rehearse before you need it. Fortunately, make-believe had been a staple of family play time, so my son’s improv skills aided his ability to come up with a line in the role he found himself in.
Safety and simple first aid should be everyday lessons. It can start in the kitchen with a grease splatter or a nick from the vegetable scraper — where you have access to running water and a clean Band-Aid. Even preschoolers can learn the basics of germ theory and the benefits of following safety rules. Use minor scrapes as an important part of childhood’s curriculum with budding independence in mind.

Most of what children will learn will come from life experience. Which is why free range parenting is so needed during an era of overscheduled supervised activities and anti-reality
video gaming. You learn balance by falling off a log; you learn to keep an eye on the weather by being out in its changing moods; you learn to proceed gingerly toward wild animals by approaching too quickly; you learn caution by getting scorched on a sun soaked sliding board; you learn to pay attention to the setting sun by noticing too late that dusk has fallen. And when you “live to tell the tale” your scars and bruises are great conversation starters.

Always review changes

A community that’s trustworthy and your children’s competence in it will be a work in progress. Neighbors and neighborhoods do change. What had been safe may pose new dangers — high turnover in nighbors, a nice kid morphs into an out-of-control teen, temporary construction sites, increasing car traffic, a rash of rabies among the raccoons, etc. So keep up with what’s going on around you. Add new tools to the children’s bags of tricks in preparation for new scenarios. And always be open to sharing your children’s adventures when they come home. They’ll have so much to talk about!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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