I think a lot of the judgment issues among parents (and from non-parents toward parents) arises from a fear of the unknown. This article by famous free-ranger Lenore Skenazy came up on my Facebook newsfeed, and nestled beneath the share I found a host of sympathetic comments. I read the comments before I read the article. I wanted to post my comment at that point, but I didn’t want to be one of those Facebook commenters who comment without reading the article in question, so I read the article. Then I posted my comment.
I certainly don’t think that the act of leaving your child to play unattended at the age of 9, or even younger, should be made criminal. Not that I necessarily think it’s a good idea for kids to play unsupervised (see below), but I just don’t think the parents should be arrested or fined for it. I truly believe that most parents know what’s best for their own children, and that if we enact laws that subject parents to punishment for letting their kid play in the park without them present, it will cause more harm than good.
But moving on to the real crux of the issue for me, at exactly what age does it become appropriate to leave kids to play unsupervised in a public park? Or how about in your own front yard? Does it depend not so much on the child’s age, but his or her level of maturity and experience in the world? Is this a subject that is pretty clear cut, or is their room for interpretation here?
Like I told Facebook today, I only have a 2 year old and a 4 year old so far, so I have no frame of reference. Maybe when my kids are 9 or close to it, I will feel really differently when I see how well they can handle themselves. But truthfully, I think I fall more in the helicopter camp (ugh I hate that term), rather than the free-range side, the more I witness my own parenting in action. The world is full of scary people and bad things! Naturally, I want to protect my kids from that. And no, I don’t think a 9 year old necessarily has the physical strength or mental grit to run or talk her way out of a really bad situation involving a really bad guy.
But again, maybe I’m overly cautious here. I have to be honest – when I drive down the street and see kids who are 9-ish looking (the kids are probably 14 but I have no clue) walking down the street, the first thought I have is often “where are their parents?” I said this out loud to my husband once, and he just laughed and told me the kids at issue looked old enough to be by themselves.
So I don’t judge other parents for being a bit more free-range (like a chicken!) than me, and I don’t think I would call the police unless I truly believed there was an imminent risk of harm involved — but then again, how do you make this judgment call? If I see a kid alone in a car somewhere, especially on a hot day … you best believe I am making the call. But then, maybe his dad just ran into the store for a minute, maybe he’s around the corner and I just can’t see, maybe the kid is old enough and smart enough to get out of the car and get help if he needs it, maybe …
I think the point I want to make is that not all judgment is bad, although I can see where it would be annoying. Generally, people just want to make sure kids — all kids, whether they belong to them or not — are safe and healthy. My gut reaction of judgment toward a free-range mom is probably just a reflex that comes from having an ingrained feeling of dread that arises from envisioning my own kid in the free-range kid’s shoes. Dirty, ratty shoes, running through the woods where there’s hookworms and nematodes and things. Or something like that? I don’t go outside.
So fear, yeah. People judge from a place of fear, fear of what they don’t understand. I would love for some of you free-rangers to educate me on why my fears may be unfounded. Allow me to land the helicopter for moment, so we can talk about it.