Thursday, April 16, 2015

Free-Range Parenting: The way everyone used to parent

There's a local story that's making national headlines and I'm a bit baffled/enraged/disturbed by it.

Here's the gist:  A mother and father here in Maryland were reported to Child Protective Services last November after their children, ages 6 and 10, were spotted by a neighbor playing alone at a park in their neighborhood.  This sparked an investigation into the parents and their "parenting style," which is dubbed "free range parenting," meaning they allow their children to be independent and mature by gradually testing their limits.  These parents believed their children were old enough and mature enough to play alone at the park a few blocks from their home.

There's a law here in Maryland that basically states that anyone under the age of 8 may not be left unsupervised by an adult unless there is a reliable person aged 13 or older to supervise said child.  The law refers to children left in a dwelling, enclosure or car and says nothing about children being left to play outside alone, but a CPS officer decided that these parents still violated the law.

After further investigation, the case against these two parents was closed, and they continued to encourage their children's independence.  Then in December, the children were stopped by a police officer as they walked home from the park.  The parents were then investigated for "unsubstantiated neglect" as a result of that incident.  And then, just last weekend, the kids were picked up again by law enforcement after being spotted playing alone in the park, only this time, they didn't take them home--they took them to Child Protective Services--and then didn't contact the parents for 3 hours.

Is anyone else irritated by all of this?  First of all, what the heck is this "free-range parenting" nonsense?  This article from WebMD says it's a "new, hands-off approach to raising kids." 

I think the fact that kids need to carry something like this on them these days is ridiculous.  Source

I think it's a load of boo-hockey, to be honest.  Back when I was a kid, this was normal parenting--pretty much what everyone was doing.  I grew up in a small town in Michigan, near the center of town.  We walked to school alone and waited at the bus stop without supervision (with wet hair in the middle of winter, no lie).  We played at the playground unsupervised, too...for hours at a time.  My sister and I rode our bikes all over the place by ourselves (without helmets, but that's another issue).  I ventured to the library solo regularly.  I went with my friends to the Citgo station to buy cookies n' cream Hershey bars with my allowance, which required us to cross train tracks AND a busy, multi-lane, main-street intersection to get there (gasp!).  We were given rules and guidelines for how to cross the street and train tracks, when to return home, how to stay safe, what to do if a stranger approached us, etc., and we were sent on our way.  The parenting was not hands-off.  It was very much hands-on while we were taught how to be responsible and independent, and then we were trusted and expected to follow the examples we were given.  If we didn't, there were consequences.

If I'm going to be completely honest, I think the way we're raising kids these days is causing society to go down the crapper.  Seriously.  Yes, it's good to be safe and cautious, but you have to let your kids explore boundaries and learn to be responsible and independent.  I think the key word here is responsible.  We don't hold kids accountable anymore.  Instead of teaching our children to be patient while we take a long road trip or wait in the waiting room at the doctor's office, we distract them with smart phones and tablets and YouTube.  What the heck did we DO before technology?!  Oh, I know, we sat quietly.  We read books and magazines (I actually looked forward to going to the doctor or dentist so I could solve the Hidden Picture puzzles in Highlights magazine).  We sat in our seat and used inside voices at restaurants.  If we didn't behave, we left, and boy were we in a (figurative) world of hurt if we had to leave early.  We played "The License Plate Game," played Mad Libs, and listened to music in the car; in our family, we all made a guess as to what time we would get home and the winner only received the gratification of winning.  When we played at our friends' houses, our parents didn't accompany us (no "playdates" in the 90s).  We were either picked up by our friend's parent or dropped off by our own.  We played.  We followed the rules of the house we were in.  We were later dropped off or picked up when it was time to go home.

If I were a betting woman, I would put good money on the assumption that the parents in question above are raising their kids in the same way as I just described.  I think their choices in parenting should be celebrated.  They have no doubt instilled strong life skills in their independent children and  have given guidelines and rules for how to play and travel to and from the park safely and to look out for each other.  I'd also bet that they knew where their kids were and had set a time for them to return home, hence their frantic search efforts when their kids didn't return home for 3 hours while they were being held at Child Protective Services.  That doesn't sound like neglect to me, CPS.  How 'bout you go find the parents of the kids I saw at Chuck E. Cheese a few weeks ago; their children were relentlessly beating up on the Chuck E. Cheese robotic statue and enjoying it way too much, and nobody intervened.  Talk to those parents about how they're neglecting to teach their children to respect other people's property.  Or spend more time educating the parents who think it's appropriate to leave their children unattended in the parking garage at a casino in middle of winter so they could gamble for hours on end.  That also happened in Maryland.

Instant gratification is ruining our kids.  Convenience is ruining our kids.  Lack of discipline is ruining our kids.  I know...I was a teacher for 7 years and I saw it firsthand.  I knew immediately which kids weren't used to hearing the word "no" or the ones who ran the show at home.  They would plead, debate, argue, whine, defy, talk back, etc.  I had to work doubly hard to establish routines, rules, and boundaries in my classroom that I'm sure weren't nearly as difficult to establish in classrooms 15 years ago.

Kids need to learn how to entertain themselves.  They need to play.  They need to imagine and create and explore.  They need to lose.  They shouldn't receive trophies simply for being on the soccer team.  They need authentic experiences to allow them to learn conflict resolution.  They need to use manners and be kind to others.  They need to not be invited to someone's birthday party and then learn how to handle feeling excluded.  They need to learn patience and cooperation.  They don't need helicopter parents who jump in to rescue their kids the moment something doesn't go as planned.  They don't need their parents to fight all their battles for them.  Kids need freedom and independence.  We need to equip them with the skills needed to be successful, independent members of society as adults.  It's never too early to start fostering independence, responsibility, and accountability.

I know that we live in a different world than we did when I was growing up (although this article and this article provide evidence that children are safer now than they were back then).  I also know that the way I grew up is not the ONLY way or the RIGHT way to grow up, but gosh darn it, I think I turned out pretty darn well.  I know that my kids likely won't have as much freedom or independence as I did simply because we live in the suburbs and there isn't a Citgo station 6 blocks away with sidewalks to guide them all the way there for their hard-earned candy bars.  But I also know that if I did live in a small town today like I did growing up and Child Protective Services accused me of neglect for letting my kids play outside unsupervised after I had given them all the guidance and boundaries that I felt were required to allow them to be independent, I wouldn't be going down without a fight.  Thankfully, neither are those parents mentioned above (this article is great...and if you can believe it, the parents were forced to sign a safety plan stating that they wouldn't allow their children to play unsupervised again in order to take their children home after the last time they were seized.  Un. Be. Lievable).

What are your thoughts on this matter?  This post on Scary Mommy poses a great question that I will ask here: Would you call CPS on a neighbor for something like this? If your answer is “yes,” can you also answer the question, “Why?”

Do you know if you have similar laws in your state that could come back to bite you in the rear for letting your kids play unsupervised down the street?  To my smalltown childhood friends: is life in the Q the same as when we were kids?

Please comment below with your thoughts!

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