A longer leash — a better relationship

Today’s guest blogger is Beth Harpaz, author of the funny new book about raising teenagers:

 

 13 Is the New 18…and other things my children taught me while I was having a nervous breakdown being their mother.

 

by Beth Harpaz

     Recently I got together with a friend and mentioned that the night before, I’d been up late cleaning my teenager’s room because I couldn’t stand the mess. When he got home, he was upset and insisted he would have cleaned it himself.
     My friend wasn’t interested in that part of the story. What she really wanted to know was: what time did he get home?
     Honestly I wasn’t sure. It was after midnight, but I wasn’t watching the clock.
     “Didn’t he have a curfew?” she asked.

     Um, no, I admitted. 
     “But where had he been that he was getting home so late?”

     I didn’t know that either. With friends, I supposed. I mean, it was a Friday night, no school the next day…
     By now I felt embarrassed. What was wrong with me? I let my teenager go out without telling me where he’s going? I let him stay out as long as he wants? I must be crazy! Don’t I care where my son is, who he’s with and what he’s doing?
     Of course I care. Sometimes I ask those questions, and of course he’s not out on school nights. But the truth is I give him a long leash. And so far, he hasn’t abused it.
     See, we made a deal, this kid and me, that he could have his freedom as long as three standards were met:
     –No Cs and Ds in school. A bad grade results in immediate remedial work. 
     –No getting in trouble. I never want phone calls from teachers, neighbors or, God forbid, cops.
     –Any commitments you make, you keep. That includes an after-school job he’s had for three years, attendance at family events, and help around the house, like babysitting his younger brother or walking the dog.

     I realize this might not work in every family. Every kid is different, every situation is different. But my son, from the time he was small, was very independent. He wanted to walk to school alone in third grade, and nagged me so much that eventually I let him. He took the subway when he was 10 to get to middle school, and after three days of my accompanying him, he insisted he didn’t need a chaperone. I quizzed him about his route, but he knew it cold. Then I asked what he’d do if someone scary was on the train.
     “I’d find someone who looks like she could be my mother, and stand next to her,” he said.
     That struck me as a good answer. From then on, he rode alone.
     At age 13, he wanted to travel. He’d only been to sleep-away camp once for five days, but he came up with the idea of going to
Australia. We found a youth group and signed him up (and honestly, it didn’t cost that much more than summer camp in New Jersey). Another mother cried at the airport as we said goodbye, but I knew my son was ready. Besides, truth be told, he was pretty obnoxious at 13, and we needed a vacation from each other.
     I’m happy to report, now that he’s 16, we get along fine. And one thing I’ve learned is that giving your kids freedom doesn’t necessarily mean they behave any differently from other kids, but it may help you have a more honest relationship.
    One night my son and a friend told me about a party they were going to. I wasn’t thrilled about the neighborhood, but I didn’t stop them, I just warned them to be careful.
    That night, I ran into another mother. I told her my son had gone off to some party, and she said hers was spending the evening at the home of another family.

    The next day, my son told me her kid at been at the same party he was at.
    He asked me not to tattle, so I didn’t. But if one of the benefits of giving kids their independence is that they tell you the truth, that’s a deal I’m willing to make.

 

28 Responses

  1. That is how my mom and I rolled and everything worked out fine. I am hoping to do the same with my kids.

  2. Hmmm, you lost me when you said you were cleaning his room. He’s 16!

  3. Fantastic! You describe a very similar relationship I had with my mother as a teen. The freedom she gave me helped me build responsibility and self-confidence. I’m going to have to call and thank her because of your essay. Keep up the great parenting!

  4. I love the concept of this method of parenting, but I wonder if it would be different if the teen was a girl instead of a boy?

  5. Giving them freedom is not the beginning of the journey. That journey starts when they are born. If you instill the right values from the get go, then years later when you do give them their freedom, they have the tools to be responsible and level headed.

    I found this free-range kids blog early last summer, right around the time my oldest turned 9. My wife and I have tried to be as free range as possible with him since then.

    We have seen positive results. By letting your child have some freedom, it tells them that you trust THEIR judgment. His self-confidence has grown. And so far, he never abused his free(ish) reign and hasn’t given us any reason to tighten up things up.

  6. I agree with reeky about instilling the right values from the beginning. I think a lot of parents have turned their back on free range ideas because they tried letting their kids do whatever they wanted when they were little, so their kids never learned their boundaries and consequently always seem to get into trouble when unsupervised.

    I think some people have a hard time accepting it, but you have to be tough with young children some times so that they learn good behaviors and ethics. They test you to try to find out what is okay, and if you don’t provide the moral guidance they need at a young age, they’ll be set up for trouble all their lives.

  7. “Hmmm…you lost me when you said you were cleaning his room”

    I have to agree there. I’m glad you give him his independence, but he should be responsible for keeping his things — which are in YOUR home, in a fashion at least approaching orderly as a condition of it.

    And I don’t think wanting to know where your child is, and when he’ll be home is ‘tethering’ — it’s just safety and common courtesy. Doesn’t mean you have to drag him home at 10pm and it doesn’t mean you censor his activities. But even if the answer is: “Going out with X and Y; we’ll be late,” at least you’ll know what to expect and who to contact if something *does* happen.

  8. Normally, I am with you all the way…but I am with beanie (the above comment) on all counts…especially cleaning his room!

    I don’t think knowing where they are and who they are with is asking too much. And frankly, heaven forbid something should happen, and you can’t find him…you wouldn’t even begin to know where to look.

  9. This was pretty much how my mother and I worked things out. I was allowed the freedom I wanted and craved as long as I kept up my end of the bargain.

    But the cleaning his room thing? That should TOTALLY be his job. He’s 16. If my 6 year old can clean her room, your 16 yr old should.

    Had to laugh at the last bit….I had a bunch of friends always sneaking out for parties and I never understood it. All I had to do was tell my mother I was going and she’d say the same thing “be careful”. I always came home in one piece, respected the unwritten rules I had laid out, and my mom knew where i was.

  10. I think some people confuse having no limits with having different limits.

    Recently my almost 7 year old and almost 8 year old came to me and said they wanted to decide when to go to bed on their own. Normally, I put them to bed at 8:30 and they stay up and talk until they fall asleep, usually around 9:10.

    I told them that they could decide when they went to bed as long as they did some things for me.

    1. They have to be quiet as I go into bed pretty early (8ish).
    2. They have to keep the house clean.
    3. They have to turn off the lights in the house when they go to bed.
    4. and they have to put the dog in her bed/crate when they go to bed.

    They agreed to these limits and feel quite grown up (although a little nervous too). I’m happy to let my kids have the freedoms they want as long as they can find ways to make me happy too. They’ve become great and respectful negotiators.

  11. I had very restrictive parents growing up. They always wanted to know where I was going, who I would be with, and they were very disapproving and suspicious of my male friends (I’m female). If I was doing something I knew they’d be fine with, I would tell them the truth. However, if, for example, I wanted to hang out with a guy friend after school when, god forbid!, his parents wouldn’t be home, I had to flat out lie lest my parents say no. After all, boys only want one thing; they don’t actually want to be friends with girls.

    My parents wanted so much to protect me from what they saw as the vulnerabilities of my gender that they drove me away from an open and honest relationship with them. Since I moved out, we’ve been very slowly working towards a more honest relationship, but it’s been such a long and rocky road, and we’re only just beginning to make headway 5 years later.

    It’s quite understandable that my parents wanted (and still want!) to keep me safe, but I think it’s far better to understand your child for who they are and to know you can trust them than it is to constantly restrict them.

  12. “That night, I ran into another mother. I told her my son had gone off to some party, and she said hers was spending the evening at the home of another family. The next day, my son told me her kid at been at the same party he was at. ”

    And that says a lot. That is precisely why my teen also has a VERY long leash, and like you, will have it until he falls off the honor roll or does something he knows is not right. He’s a great teen, and he doesn’t have to lie to me.

    Great writing. I love raising my kids EXACTLY the way I was raised (and I didn’t turn out *too* bad… ) and know they’re safe, happy, and getting a great experience in childhood that will teach them independence as an adult. Thank you!

  13. […] **My Family Life** | Tags: curfew, free rang kids, lies, motherhood, parenting, teenagers |   https://freerangekids.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/a-longer-leash-a-better-relationship/#comment-3874 “That night, I ran into another mother. I told her my son had gone off to some party, and she […]

  14. Wonderful! People like you give me hope.

  15. I am female, and I never had a curfew. There were rules:

    -I had to tell them where I was going to be
    -I had to tell them if my plans changed
    -I was to call at any time, day or night if I did not have a safe ride home or I was not comfortable with the situation
    -I was not allowed to skip any work, school, church or family commitments I had previously agreed to.
    -My dad was a cop. If I got busted by one of his co-workers, my rear end would be left in jail overnight.

    I would sometimes come home at 4am on a Saturday. But I knew better than to complain when I had to get up on Sunday to go to work. I never had to lie to my parents, because I knew better than to break their trust.

  16. I had similar restrictions to BMS growing up (minus the dad-cop) — I was the only daughter of a single mom, and the way she explained it to me was that we BOTH should know (generally speaking) where the other was, and when they were expected home. We both courtesy-called each other if our plans changed. In pre-cell-phone days, this made it easier to find each other if we needed to.

    Later on, when I lived on my own in VA, I did a lot of solo backpacking trips. I called my mom with my general itinerary and expected check-in time as a safety net — if I sprained an ankle or got lost, someone would know when I was “late” and where to start looking.

  17. Would you like it your kid or your spouse, say, didn’t like the way you keep your stuff so they ‘cleaned it up’ for you? Might you not feel violated and disrespected? Why would you expect it to be any different for a child in regard to how they like to keep their stuff?

    Does the house belong only to the parents? Why do we call it ‘my child’s room’ if the child is not able to do what s/he wants with it? Isn’t that a misnomer? And how confusing, to say ‘this is your stuff’ but then to take control over it against their wishes, or at best, without their consent?

    Food for thought. How far does respect- for autonomy, for property rights, for good and clear communication- go, and who gets to say, and when? Seems like the ground shifts unexpectedly for children, lots of times, like in this case of ‘this room is yours for you and your stuff’ but then ‘parent gets to say how you keep it and what you do with it and when and how, at parent’s whim’.

  18. Sue,

    I’m not sure how I will feel when my kids are 16. But I know that right now, for my own sanity, I have to make them clean their rooms. My kids are 8 and 7. If left to their own devices, their rooms become a wasteland of legos, blocks, and Playmobil. When their rooms become a mess, they become a mess. They suddenly don’t know what to do. They are bored and whiny. They can’t find anything, and so they start arguing with me, and with each other. Their room gets cleaned up, and the irritating behavior disappears like magic.

    So no, the house does not belong only to me. But I have to live with the consequences of their disorganization. So to make for an organized, happier house, I enforce my standards on their room. It’s like making them take their medicine – unpleasant, but necessary.

  19. I was raised by a single mom and in high school I never had a curfew. My mom would ask two questions – who are you going with and what time will you be home. No matter what time I said, she would say the same thing, wake me up when you get home. I always got home when I said I would, be it midnight or 2 am.

    I loved that plan and it worked for us both. Of course I was on the honor roll at school, student body president and generally a good girl. Someday when my kids are that age, this is how I want to be.

    Thanks for this amazing blog! It’s kinda the “anti-mommy” blog and I’m so glad to have found it!

  20. I’m not sure I equate letting a teenager go off without leaving any information where they are going or when they’ll be back with free-range parenting. I thought free-range parenting was about teaching personal responsibility. My husband and I let each other know where we’re going and when we’re going to be back, it’s just common courtesy. I would therefore expect the same of a teenager. It’s not the same as a curfew. When I was spending a year working and traveling abroad in my late teens, I let my host family know where I was going, and how many days I’d be away. If you live with other people you have a responsibility to them. Being considerate of other people does not mean your freedom is curtailed in anyway.

    And as for tidying rooms, yes at age 9 I ask my daughter to tidy her room, but I certainly don’t do it FOR her (I might do it with her). And when I was a teenager, my room was mine, and nobody was allowed in without my permission. Yes it was a mess, but it was my mess, and no business of anyone else’s. Public areas of the house are different, but I do think teenagers have a right to privacy in their own bedroom. Aren’t we supposed to be letting them learn the consequences of their actions? If they can’t find stuff or get ready for school in the morning because it’s too disorganized, then maybe they’ll learn. By tidying a teenage boy’s room all you’re doing is teaching them that all their life some woman will come along picking up after them. Your future daughter in law will not thank you!

  21. I had a similar arrangement with my (single) mom when I was a teenager: I had to tell her (in general terms) where I was going and who with, and what time I intended to be home; I had to call if I wasn’t going to make it home by that time; and I was never to get in a car with someone who had been drinking, but could call for a lift or to say I was sleeping over somewhere if necessary. (Though I did end up sleeping at a friend’s house a few times, it wasn’t because anyone was drinking — my friends and I weren’t really into that, beyond a glass of wine or beer from time to time.)

    I never had a formal curfew; few of my friends did, and the rest of us considered those kids’ parents unduly harsh. Oddly enough, none of us ever got into any real trouble, either, despite the lack of curfew and the relative lack of hovering (no cell phones in those days …). Funny thing.

    My mother also left me in sole charge of the house (my little brother went and stayed with our dad, who at that point was not speaking to me) for three weeks over the winter vacation when I was 17. Nothing bad happened the whole time, except that some food in the fridge went bad because so many people invited me over for meals. My co-workers who have teens say they would never leave their kids alone in the house for even a few days, because they worry that the speed of teen-to-teen communication would result in house-trashing parties populated by dozens of kids their kids don’t even know. They may be right — these are women who, in general, do give their kids reasonable freedom and responsibility, not paranoid wackos who track their teens’ movements via GPS😉 — but I’m still sad for the kids.

  22. I have no children and therefore I realize my opinion is worth probably nothing, but I am currently doing a project in which I am living out this year as if it is 1955 (with some aceptions such as internet, obviously) but in my research as I go along, I find it odd that this concept of freerange is so controversial now. I mean, in the 1950s parents let their small children literally ‘go out and play’ and then had the responsiblity to be back home for dinner at such and such a time, get cleaned up, often change into clean clothes and be ready to help set the table. This is a type of responsiblity I could see really helping a child as he grows into the teenage years. Even with a curfew, from what I am learning thus far, the restrictive times we tend to think of as the 1950s seems to actually show alot of maturity and responsibility towards their children. I guess, having been through the depression and WWII these parents felt their children could handle watching before crossing the street, calling if they were going to be late, and managing their time to get home and cleaned up for dinner. I think a return to these days are certainly become more popular in many ways that I am discovering, such as homemaking and such, and now it seems we should look back to better provide better children in the future. LET THEM GO, is my motto, but again, I have no children (yet) so my opinion is what it is. I am for letting children be responsible so that finally grown people can be grown ups. Somthing I think we are all just learning to do with our present economy and world. I really like this blog!

  23. I have no children and therefore I realize my opinion is worth probably nothing, but I am currently doing a project in which I am living out this year as if it is 1955 (with some aceptions such as internet, obviously) but in my research as I go along, I find it odd that this concept of freerange is so controversial now. I mean, in the 1950s parents let their small children literally ‘go out and play’ and then had the responsiblity to be back home for dinner at such and such a time, get cleaned up, often change into clean clothes and be ready to help set the table. This is a type of responsiblity I could see really helping a child as he grows into the teenage years. Even with a curfew, from what I am learning thus far, the restrictive times we tend to think of as the 1950s seems to actually show alot of maturity and responsibility towards their children. I guess, having been through the depression and WWII these parents felt their children could handle watching before crossing the street, calling if they were going to be late, and managing their time to get home and cleaned up for dinner. I think a return to these days are certainly become more popular in many ways that I am discovering, such as homemaking and such, and now it seems we should look back to better provide better children in the future. LET THEM GO, is my motto, but again, I have no children (yet) so my opinion is what it is. I am for letting children be responsible so that finally grown people can be grown ups. Somthing I think we are all just learning to do with our present economy and world. I really like this blog!

  24. I was that kid. The only curfew rule I had was to call home sometime before midnight and then check in when I finally got home. I had a long leash, but I respected it. Also, every so often I would get lax enough in cleaning my room that my Mom couldn’t stand it anymore. She would clean it during the day. After I got home, it freaked me out enough that I would keep the room spotless for months afterward. Now I follow similar rules with my kids (not quite as free range, since they’re nowhere near 16 yet), and I have the most responsible 8 and 5 year-olds on the block. My kids are usually home when they say they will be. If not, they call me from wherever they’re at. The neighbors are pretty envious.

  25. This was how my Mom raised me; tell me where you’re going, call if you’re going to be late, and no curfew. The only other rule was that no matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, if I felt unsafe or didn’t want to drive with a possibly intoxicated friend, she would pick me up, no questions asked. I never had to take her up on that, but it was always nice to know she had my back.

    Also, her idea of ‘cleaning our rooms’ was to take a leaf&lawn bag and stuff it with everything on the floor, then tie it up and plop it in the middle of our room. Whatever wasn’t put away got thrown away.🙂 I’ve already done that once with my 5-year old!!

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  27. Not having an expected return time isn’t always the greatest thing. My husband and I grew up with a similar rule: let someone know when you expect to be back. We still have this rule with each other. if you’re going to be late, let me know so I know something didn’t go wrong (living in a rural area, this usually involves car problems).

  28. I love the concept of this method of parenting, but I wonder if it would be different if the teen was a girl instead of a boy?

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