When my kids were in early elementary school, a fellow mom came over with her daughter for a play date one day and seemed taken aback that I let the kids play in the front yard by themselves.
I remember being surprised. Even though we live in a high-traffic suburban, almost-urban area, I never once imagined that anyone would take or harm my kids.
I’ve never been a helicopter parent, but I don’t think I’m free-range either. I’ve never set out to purposely make sure my kids were independent — I’m just raising them the way I was raised.
My kids have had free rein of the neighborhood since they felt comfortable venturing out on their own. They started by heading a few doors down to the neighbor’s house to play when they were 4 or 5, then across the street for kickball games. When they were 7 or 8, I would let them travel in a small group two blocks away to play in an open field or to wander in the woods. As long as they were together, I was fine with it.
When they were 10 or 11, we let them walk three blocks and across a busy street to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees. They were never allowed to go alone, and the older ones often looked out for the younger ones.
In the winter, a whole group of neighborhood kids would walk a half-mile through the woods to the sledding hill. My oldest was probably 11 or 12 when this started, and the youngest neighbor might have been 5. They learned a lot on these excursions — to turn around and head home when they came across strangers in the woods and how heavy a 5-year-old can be to pull all the way home on a sled.
This summer we allowed the older kids a little more independence by letting them ride their bikes the 2.5 miles along a busy street to our pool where they are working. I have friends who seemed a bit surprised by this. Busy roads can be a scary place for bikers these days. But just like when they were tots in the yard, I didn’t allow myself to think of the worst that could happen. Chances are, it won’t.
There are many parents who worry about the worst and keep a tight rein on their kids. And then there are parents who start instilling independence early — like the free-range parents in Silver Spring who have been in the news lately for allowing their 6- and 10-year-old children to walk home from a park alone.
We posted a story this month on the rules regarding free-range parenting. There is a stiff debate over just how much control the government should have. Personally, I feel there should be some flexibility when it comes to laws imposed on parents. I’ve learned that giving kids safe independence is really important. By allowing my kids the freedom to roam when they were ready, I can see them growing into self-assured young men and women. I wouldn’t want to stifle that.
FranklyStein is a blog by Chesapeake Family Magazine editor Betsy Stein who lives in Catonsville with her husband, Chris, and four children, Maggie, 16, Lilly, 14, Adam, 14, and Jonah, 10.