Free Range Parenting and When Chickens Come to Roost

I am actually a big fan of free range parenting. I let my kids walk to the end of the units and throw trash away. I let them play outside with an adult not physically present both in our gated postage stamp back and out front and on the side yard. I even allow my boys (8 and almost 7) to use public restrooms alone. In our old neighborhood they roamed unsupervised for hours at a time riding bikes, taking walks, playing games with friends…(there aren’t many kids here their ages).

But I did all this with a wary eye. See, I had a police officer come to my front door once. The boys were playing in the median in our cul-de-sac. The officer was doing patrol and saw them. They were six and four and while there were no adults around, we could see them from inside our house. The officer didn’t exactly take them by the collar, but he might as well have. He informed my husband that according to state law, the kids were being neglected. State law says they both had to be 8 or one of them over 18 to be out and about like they were. An adult had to be physically present,  not just watching from inside the house or even the front porch. My husband had been in our front yard just feet away a few minutes before and had gone inside to use the bathroom and get something to drink. Thankfully, we were let off with a warning.

Like all great parents, I was incensed that my parenting was being questioned and undermined. But at the end of the day, the law was the law. And until we moved, we were subject to multiple law enforcement drive-bys. The kids weren’t allowed out of our front yard if we weren’t outside (unless they were in a friend’s house). It wasn’t safe enough to risk the cops taking them.

I get that parents feel like I do, we want our kids to have freedom and explore and learn for themselves in an unstructured way. I’m not naive, I know Tina Fey’s face was slashed when she was a kindergartener by a mentally ill stranger while she was playing in the alley behind her house. I’m aware kids get grabbed out of shopping carts and lured into vans while playing all the time. But I also know there is a very fine line between free-range and irresponsible parenting.

A former co-worker posted about an eight-month-old left in a running car at a grocery store. No older children in with the baby, mom just didn’t want to wake the baby (who was on a tight schedule), so she left the car running (so the AC would be on), locked it, and went into the store. Here’s the thing, the car didn’t actually lock. Her car could not lock with the key in the ignition remotely. She had no idea and threatened to sue the store when she was paged to the front because other patrons had noticed a running car with no one but a baby in it and that it was unlocked. Seriously, someone could have gotten a free car and a baby that day. This woman was irresponsible, plain and simple. This case is clear.

But what about those not so cut and dry cases. The favorite one I hear frequently is the young children left in the care of the older children in the car while mom runs in “just for a minute” to grab something or get a child from a dance rehearsal or something similar. We are trusting our children to care for other children and they do it all the time at home…

I live in an area where children are frequently left in hot cars and some of them die. In a few cases it’s a change in routine (Dad is supposed to drop the kid, who is sleeping, off at daycare which he hasn’t done in a few months and forgets and drives to work) but in more, it’s that the sleeping child was taking their regularly scheduled nap and mom or dad needed to make a stop and was only going to be a minute and then they get distracted, or the line is really long…the line is a little bit gray here. I say a little because most of us wouldn’t leave a baby completely alone, that’s why we have a nine-year-old who is capable of calming the baby and rolling down windows, right? He or she is allowed to ride his or her bike around the neighborhood alone, so sitting in a car with a baby is no big deal.

But what happens if the nine-year-old suddenly decides to get out of the car, and then locks the baby in alone, accidentally? What if she or he leaves to find mom and can’t find mom…

The fact, in that case, is that nine-year-olds don’t have the judgment capabilities of an adult. And they are not culpable. But the parent who entrusted the nine-year-old? Legally, they are responsible.

I’ve known moms who’ve let big kids (10, 9,8) take the little kids out to play in the snow and forget to bring all the little kids in resulting in frost bite for the one who didn’t get brought in.  I was at the beach in college where parents had a big group of kids together while they were socializing nearby. Suddenly they realized one little boy wasn’t there. He had wandered over a mile down the beach when ocean patrol finally found him. He was five, the parents assumed he was safe because they were in the vicinity (although not keeping the most watchful eye) and he was under the care of his 11-year-old older sister. Last year when Abby Johnson tried to give helpful hints to not forgetting a child in the backseat, she was met with hostile opposition and hateful comments about forgetful parents for the most part but she also got responses like one from a mom of nine who relied on her teenagers (fifteen and up) to get the littles out of the van one day and the sleeping six-month-old got missed. This happened somewhere in AZ and thank God her husband figured out the baby wasn’t in the house within a couple of minutes.

In the end, in all of these cases, had the ending been tragedy, the parents would have been held responsible for the death or serious injury. Even if charges were not filed, in the court of public opinion the verdict would be guilty.

And so between letting our kids play unsupervised because of the limited risk of anything happening that is “bad” and making judgment calls about how old is old enough to be responsible in a very, very real sense for younger children we have this story out of Florida: the story of Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos; two teenage friends described by family as “experienced watermen” who went missing months ago in the ocean and whose craft was recently found. The boys had been allowed on the boat multiple times before unsupervised. They were given very clear instructions and boundaries. The parents had no reason to expect anything different would happen. But Perry and Austin decided that day to leave the perimeter set by their parents. Who knows if they’d done it before without getting caught so they figured it was no big deal or decided that fateful day to take a chance. They made the immature and inexperienced decision that day, however, to sail on rough seas and into stormy weather. They were, in fact, only fourteen-years-old. Not old enough to vote, smoke or even drive a car yet. And at the center of the storm swirling about iPhones and electronic devices are four parents grieving the choice to trust boys, not men.

My parenting methods will not change because of this but I am always careful not to put adult responsibilites on the shoulders of children who do not have the experience nor maturity nor even the reasoning to handle them. Kids make poor decisions when they do not have guidance in new, unfamiliar situations. They are not miniature adults and therefore we should not expect them to behave as such. It’s not fair to them and sometimes has disastrous consequences. Free range parenting should never mean “anything goes” and no one can expect that there will never be consequences. Like all parenting, it should be done with careful thought and consideration and part of that should be understanding that no matter how mature they behave, children are still children and parents, are still in charge and bear the brunt of responsibility.