Free-Range Parenting: Knowing When to Let Go

Free-Range Parenting

I asked our 9-year-old son if he thought he and his 6-year-old brother were old enough to walk the mile between our home and the neighborhood community pool without me or Mom.

He shook his head “no” before I finished the question.

“Maybe in one more year,” he said. “But right now … it’s a mile.”

He paused to marvel at the magnitude of the word, the vast distance it represents for a third grader, the incomprehensible here-to-thereness of it.

“There’s so much chance of bad stuff happening along the way,” he continued. “Like, what if there’s a snake or something?”

Yes. Exactly.

What if the mean streets of our suburban Central Florida neighborhood were over-run by an army of hungry Burmese pythons, on the hunt for new meat after eating all the rabbits and deer in the Everglades?

Or something?

Something like aggressive, stinging fire ants, which can swarm up a small child’s leg in an instant and inflict dozens of painful wounds.

Something like reckless high school-age kids tearing around the neighborhood like idiots on modified, rocket-propelled golf carts.

Something like a careless driver flying along far too fast to see two little boys alone crossing the road.

Something like open bodies of water – retaining ponds, drainage creeks and golf course lakes.

Free Range Parenting

Actual alligator sunning itself near the sidewalk connecting our house and the community pool. It looked hungry to me.

Something like the alligators that frequent those bodies of water. (Seriously. They’re everywhere. See photo.)

Something like a bad person looking for an unprotected kid to take.

Something like an over-zealous “good Samaritan” watchdog poised to place a panicky phone call to an over-zealous law enforcement agency that stands ready to over-zealously protect the children of the world from parents who have the gall to allow their kids to walk alone on a public sidewalk less than a mile from home.

It’s a jungle out there, right?

No. No, it’s not. Not here.

It’s a pleasant, 15-minute stroll, with broad sidewalks attended by shade trees the whole way. Wide strips of low-cut St. Augustine grass form a green, well-tended barrier between the walkways and the occasional passing minivan.

It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where friends respond gladly to neighbors in need. Crime is low.

This is home.

Yet, even in this idyllic setting, danger lurks behind every swaying palm tree. The seemingly tranquil stretch between our driveway and poolside actually is a battle scape.

In my mind, at least.

Listen, we trust our sons. They have proven worthy of that trust time and again. They are growing up well and confident.

But they’re kids, and we’re parents. They don’t yet possess the capacity to deal with crises — or even minor conflict — without adult supervision. It’s our job as their parents to help them learn those skills, and part of learning means failing at it. We understand that, but we’re not going to be irresponsible about it, either.

So, when they play outside, they must do so within shouting distance of the front or back doors. If they plan to go inside at someone else’s house, they must let us know where they’ll be and for how long.

When they want to go swimming, we take them to the pool. One day soon they’ll ride their bikes or walk that mile alone, but not yet.

Does a cautious approach make us helicopter parents? Are we over-protective? Too risk-averse for the healthy emotional development of our sons?

No. We aren’t over-protective. We are risk-averse, admittedly, but who in his right mind is risk-agreeable when it comes to their own kids? We aren’t Free-Range parents, either.

We are, simply, parents.

My wife and I are doing everything we can to prepare our kids to live life well. We also are doing everything we can to make sure they enjoy a happy childhood, and we’re in no hurry for that to end.

Confession: My greatest fear is that something catastrophic will happen to one of my sons, and I won’t be there to help them.

I’m not paralyzed by this fear. I don’t sit in the dark and rock back and forth, contemplating the horrific potential of the havoc rendered by the forces of darkness.

But the fear is there. I can’t deny it. It might not be rational, especially when you consider the statistics behind this recent Washington Post headline: There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

Still, I want to protect them. I need to protect them. It’s more than a sense of responsibility or duty. The compulsion is visceral. It’s fierce. It’s real, and it’s not going anywhere soon – if ever.

This urge to shelter them from the harshness of the world is something I’ll have to work through as a father. As they grow, so too will I.

Part of being a parent is learning when and how to let go. It’s gradual, sometimes imperceptible, but eventually – they let go of their need for reassurance. They no longer feel the urge to look over their shoulders and make sure we’re still there. They let go and move on, alone in the world but ready for what comes.

When that happens, I’ll have to be ready to let go, too.

Not yet, though. Not just yet.

Maybe in one more year. But right now … it’s a mile too far.

Free Range Parenting

One day, he won’t look back to make sure I’m there. I need to be ready for that day. I’m glad it’s not here yet, though.

Swing, Fail, Swing Again

Baseball

Stay focused. Stay relaxed. See the ball, hit the ball. Failure is inevitable. How you respond is up to you, and it can make all the difference.

We played ball out back on a makeshift miniature diamond I mowed into the high, early summer St. Augustine grass. The 8-year-old stepped to the foam-rubber home plate, batting lefty, knees bent just so, arms high but relaxed, head cocked toward the pitcher — me.

I wound up and tossed the ball softly in his direction.

It occurs to me that I was 17 when I became a sportswriter. Nine years older than this boy at the plate. I stepped into that life before my life had really begun, and had no real reason to regret it for two decades. But at the end, when it was over, it could only be classified as a failure.

The boy swung and missed. The swing was handsy, too much upper body, but there was purpose to it and his head and eyes were where they were supposed to be. That’s more than half the battle when you’re learning to hit a baseball. Watch the ball hit the bat. See it, hit it. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back.

How could a career as rewarding as mine be considered a failure? Because it didn’t end on my terms. Where did the fault lie? With me alone? With a newspaper industry in its dying throes? A combination? No matter. When I began that career, I intended for it to end many years from now, many games later, when I was too old to carry my computer bag into the press box. Didn’t happen that way. I failed.

I reminded him to focus on the ball, to keep his arms relaxed, to step toward me, pivot and turn his hips, throw his hands at the ball and explode into the swing. I pitched, he swung — and missed again.

Failure of that sort — mammoth, life-altering, frightening — can derail a man. You think you’re moving along toward a certain destination, surely, confidently. And then … it stops. Even if you sensed it coming, knew failure was inevitable, it stung. Worse, for the first time in your life, you didn’t know what came next.

The ball sailed over the shrub and the external AC unit as he swung and missed a second time. It was a bad pitch, a ball in any league, but at age 8 he still swings at anything and everything. He has not yet developed a discerning eye, a well-defined hitting zone. Every pitch is a promise. Every swing and miss is that promise broken. He dropped the bat and hustled after the ball again.

You didn’t know what came next, but you understood for the first time in your life that nothing was promised. Really understood that fact, not merely the theory. That there were dead ends. 

He found the ball in the high grass and tossed it back. Insects disturbed by the lawn mower began to crowd around us. He swatted at a bug in front of his face and stepped in for one last pitch from dad.

There are dead ends. Failure is inevitable. How you respond to that inevitability determines whether dead ends crack and split and branch off in promising new directions or stay dead ends. You choose your response. You choose to move forward. You choose. That’s what failure does for you, if you let it. If you let it.

This one came in under-handed, an acquiescence to physics and undeveloped, 8-year-old muscles. His eyes grew large as it arced toward the plate.

He stepped. He pivoted. He swung.