Free-Ranging in Less Obvious Ways

Hi Readers! This essay, from Leah R. Weiss Caruso, talks about the less visible side of Free-Range parenting. The part about letting our kids learn from their mistakes — and giving them the freeom to make mistakes at all. One of the chapters of my book is called, “Fail! It’s the New ‘Succeed!'” Leah, a Cleveland mom of three who runs the blog The Momma Rocks,  is on the same track. — Lenore

Raising the Free-Range YOU

By Leah R. Weiss Caruso

Much of what we read about raising Free-Range Kids is about the kind of activities kids are allowed to do.  Do they walk to school by themselves?  Climb trees?  Go to the park themselves – or the subway?

All of these things encourage independence, but they are only about the physical freedom we give our children.  What happens if your kid walks to school proudly by himself and then turns into a puddle of goo because he forgot his homework and you “have” to run it to school?  Or if your kid is engaging in “self-directed playtime” – but comes running in every three minutes to get you because Timmy won’t share the basketball?

Raising Free-Range kids is multi-faceted.  It ultimately isn’t going to matter if you let your kids walk to school by themselves if you rush in to “help” them at every other turn.

Free-Range parenting is not just about letting your 9-year-old ride the subway.  It’s about letting your 1-year-old submerge his hand in mud and then stick it in his mouth.  Letting your preschooler experience a time-out because he hit someone, or get soaked because he refused to wear a raincoat.  It’s about letting your 10-year-old ride a bike to the pool by himself and it’s about letting him lose that privilege for a while because he came home an hour late. 

In other words, “Free-Range” is as much about discipline as it is about freedom. It’s about your own discipline, too: the ability to stop yourself from swooping in to “help.” 

Be brave! Do not save your kids from themselves. Your daughter’s admission to Harvard is not dependent on your fixing her fourth grade book report’s spelling mistakes.  Your son is going to survive not being allowed to drive to the prom because you caught him not wearing the seat belt.  And you will survive knowing you are helping your children to learn to be responsible, whether they’re climbing trees, riding the subway or just getting ready for another day of school.

34 Responses

  1. Independence is always accompanied by accountability and responsibility. Thanks for reminding us that free range means letting our children enjoy and suffer the consequences for their behavior.

  2. My wife and I have always said “we parent by Darwinism”. When our youngest learned to climb the book cases at 10 months, we didn’t think twice about letting him. Even before we had kids I was always in the habit of screwing them very securely to the walls, so I knew that as far as weight goes, I could climb them myself without tipping them over. He took a few spills – and eventually learned not to climb them. No big deal.

  3. I could not agree more. This is a theme I have mulled over a lot. I think it is only by letting kids fail and see the hard and ugly things in life that we can possibly hope to help them develop resilence. And I think the ability to recover from setbacks is probably the single most important contributor to a happy life.

    It’s hard, but I keep trying – and thank you for such a thoughtful reminder of why it’s worth it.

    Lindsey
    http://www.adesignsovast.com

  4. One of my favorite and smallest examples of this that I see is the small child dressed inappropriately for the season. You can sense there was a discussion, the child held their ground, and now its winter and they are wearing a sundress and telling their parent that they are cold. It only takes once (without extra clothing brought along) to learn that lesson.

    As most of my friends have toddler stage children we are getting to watch how they handle the walking/falling over stage – it is depressing how many of them don’t let the kids fall down at all. Last time I checked kids weren’t made of porcelain, nor was a fall from the modest height of a toddler onto carpet considered a serious risk.

  5. I recently spent a weekend with my mother, her college roommate, and my 17-month-old niece. I was thrilled to discover that my niece can get into her stroller unassisted. Her approach isn’t elegant (she climbs in backwards and then flips over), but it’s effective. The other houseguest (my mother’s old friend) didn’t even notice that “Munchkin” could do this herself because she was so busy trying to help her. There really is something to be said for stepping back and seeing what your kids– even very young ones– can do for themselves. They get to feel independent, you get to feel thrilled, they get to hear your praise, everyone’s happy.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. A lot of the progress that I have made in parenting my children in a free range way, has come from letting go of my own inhibitions and just letting them be.

    Most recently, my son asked if he could climb the big wall around the corner from our house. As we were on our way home anyway, at the end of a walk, I said “yes, but it’s very high so if you fall, it will hurt”. Off he went with that knowledge in his brain and you know what? He did fine. I’m a firm believer that 9 times out of 10, if he’s big enough to get up somewhere on his own, he’s big enough to get down. And I need to trust in his instincts as well as my own.

  7. LOL, @Maggie I find that at I’m already telling my 2.5 y.o. son that “I wouldn’t recommend it,” when he asks if he can do something … risky (er, for 2.5, and I’m not using “risky” as shorthand for “likely to lead to the ER”). As I think he often asks precisely because he’s pretty sure he shouldn’t do something, this seems to work. No doubt as he gets older (and braver) I’ll have to edit the message, at least a bit! I like your approach.

  8. Great points. Indeed, I do tend to focus more on the “physical” and/or outdoorsy type of free range mentality than I do on the “inner strength” of free ranging! Equally as important, for sure.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  9. Brilliant.

    My eight-month-old has recently taken to trying to pull herself up to standing using her swing. She’ll pull up on one bar, and then reach for the seat with her other hand. And I say, “I don’t think that’s going to work out the way you want it to, but I guess you’ll figure that out for yourself.”

    So far nothing awful has happened. But she did split her upper gum open when she lost her balance while holding on to the (completely stable) coffee table. Sometimes they don’t get hurt doing things that seem like a bad idea, and sometimes they do get hurt doing things they’ve done a million and six times. Today.

    But I’m finding it’s worth it to let them figure out for themselves what their limitations are. (Within reason. Every day I pull her out from under my desk & tell her the power strip poses the sort of danger I’m just not comfortable letting her figure out for herself. A million and six times.)

  10. Thank you!! I have always believed in natural consequences when it comes to parenting. If we go camping with our Scout troop, and my son forgets his sleeping bag… then he gets to sleep on the floor of the tent. (Even if it is only a 1/2 hour drive back home.) Bailing your kids out every time they make a mistake does not allow them to learn from it.

  11. I’m a big proponent of cause/effect, and natural consequences of actions. I emphasize frequently “Well, if X happens, B is the likely result” and possibly more importantly “Well, I’m sorry you’re unhappy about X, but because you chose Y action, this is the result”. So often our culture encourages shifting of blame to the environment and NOT to the decision making skills of the individual. I want my kids to grow up with a sense of personal responsibility about how things go in their lives. Frankly, I think knowing that they can affect outcomes is much more empowering than teaching them to be afraid of/on defense about everything.

  12. I was a free-range kid more than a half-century ago, and didn’t even know it. When we were not visiting gran’pa’s farm in Kansas, we were living in the inner city of a large metropolis.

    We played outside from dawn ’til dusk, stopping in at home–or someone else’s–for a snack from time to time. And we lived to tell about it.

    I have been appalled seeing my godson’s wife call the 9 and 10 year old in from the high-fenced back yard and ordered to watch cartoons in the bedroom all day during summer vacation. They were pulled out of Cub Scouts and Brownies “because it is too expensive”. Odd, I was footing the small bill for these activities.
    Play with the other kids on our little cul-de-sac? You’re kidding, aren’t you?

  13. For those who are interested, a lot of these principles are part of Love & Logic – wonderful stuff, good stories!

  14. I completely agree that kids need to be allowed to make their own mistakes. Just yesterday dh was giving ds (4) a bath and asked him how he gotten a rather nasty blister on his foot and he replied, “I wore my Toopy and Beanu shoes (runners) without socks. I should wear socks next time.” I am so proud of him so being able to figure out where he went wrong.

  15. @Sara, I was just about to post that people may want to read some of the info about Love & Logic. I’m so glad this was posted… I’ve been focusing more on the physical freedom aspect of free-range, because this part of it I’ve been doing pretty much all along. I never understand why parents “check” their kids’ homework and tell them what’s wrong so they can correct it and turn in an assignment with no errors. Even last year in first grade, my daughter knew that her homework was HER responsibility (doing it, and remembering to bring it to school), and if she had a question by all means I would help but I didn’t tell her about everything she got wrong. What’s going to happen? She gets a bad grade? I am a big fan of letting kids be responsible for decisions that only affect themselves. My daughter wasn’t perfect at the homework thing… she forgot more than once, and several times turned in assignments mostly done but with 1-2 questions blank because she had overlooked them… but that’s how they learn.

    One thing that drove me crazy at our school was that if a kid forgot their lunch, they would let them “buy” lunch, and send the parent a bill. Lesson given by me: “if you forget to make or bring your lunch, you’ll be hungry”. Lesson being taught at school: “if you don’t feel like making your lunch in the morning, or don’t have enough money saved from your allowance to buy lunch, just say you forgot it and we’ll make your mom take care of it”. WHAT?! It would only take a couple of times of not having lunch to stop forgetting it, but if she’s rewarded for forgetting it with the priviledge of buying school lunch, there is no incentive to be more responsible.

  16. I think this, rather than physical freedom, is the bigger problem in today’s society. This is where so often I get those disapproving looks from my friends. If we can fix this, I believe the physical freedom would then follow. Great post.

  17. […] You Lenore By the Rebbetzin It’s gratifying when someone takes what you have to say seriously.  Thank you Lenore for allowing me space on your blog to write what I am passionate about!  […]

  18. […] It’s gratifying when someone takes what you have to say seriously. Thank you Lenore for allowing me space on your blog to write what I am passionate about! Here’s to raising responsible, self-sufficient kids who are not afraid to be themselves. L’chaim […]

  19. Hey this is LEAH – thanks so much for all the comments. and of course thanks to Lenore for the forum! I’m glad I’m not alone🙂 I’ve just read Love & Logic recently; I hadn’t heard of it before about a month ago. Thought it was interesting. Our ‘go-to’ methodology has been STEP, Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, which is similar. And, of course our own common sense!! Again, thanks for all the comments.

  20. Amen, once again.

    I sometimes wish that Harvard university (and its ilk) would disappear from the face of the earth. So much hovering comes from this distant wish of getting into some big name college, as if that automatically makes your child successful and bullet proof forevermore. This model of “Ivy league, else failure” leads parents to flash cards at 6 months, overscheduling, hounding teachers over every perceived slight, writing application letters for their kids, and generally micromanaging every aspect of their kids’ lives.

    Full disclosure: I went to MIT. But I hadn’t heard of it until junior year in high school, and really didn’t understand the caliber of school I got accepted into until I got there. My parents had a great system for ensuring I got into a good college. They held me accountable for my own learning and stayed out of my way. They did not pay my way to college (they had no money) so I got loans and scholarships. They sacrificed to get me into a good Catholic high school, but expected me to get a job to help defray the cost. They spoke highly about the value of education, but let me decide my own path. They did not choose or recommend colleges for me – that was my job. And being rejected and making mistakes was all part of the process.

  21. this is a great post! it’s exactly where we are at with our nearly 16 month old twins. my mom was here over the weekend and kept trying to intervene in their EVERY activity, taking away leaves, removing rocks from their hands “because they might put them in their mouths!”. I had to remind her that this is how they learn, experience their environment, learn textures, etc. She was also surprised that we’d let them navigate the 3 stairs (going into the living room from the dining area) by themselves because “what if they fall?” Well, if they fall, maybe they’ll remember to hold on to the wall as they go down next time. (we do have a couple squares of ‘workout mat’ at the bottom since the landing is hardwood). But we’re definitely not carrying the twins up and down them every time and we’re not going to put up a gate.

    In my profession, the energy business, there is “upstream” oil & gas (the exploration for and development of the resources) and “downstream” oil & gas (the processing, refining, and delivery of) resources.

    I consider what we’re doing at 16 months “upstream” Free Range parenting in preparation.

  22. Yup, I was definitely a product of university-or-bust. (Thankfully, my parents weren’t quite Ivy-League-Or-Bust.) In fifth grade, my parents insisted on correcting my book reports and assignments to make sure they were up to snuff. When project time came around, they took control. They didn’t let me go up to my room while they did my projects for me, but they took control of them. I remember them yelling at me in eighth grade because I had 70’s on my report card. My dad told me, “You’ll never get into college with these marks!” The university where we lived accepted kids with a 65% average. (In Canada, university admissions are a lot less intense. Basically, submit your grade 12 grades and wait to hear back.)

    Although I went away to university, the hovering didn’t. One of my professors had extended the due date for an assignment past the time when I was supposed to go home, so being a procrastinator, I waited until I was at home to do it. My parents, rather than letting me look after my own university assignment, constantly nagged me until it was done.

    You know what happened? I decided I wanted to be a housewife instead of a lawyer, so I dropped out. You would have thought I told my parents that I wanted to be a serial killer, the way they reacted. I ended up dropping out of university. (Too much money for something I’ll never use. No, they weren’t paying.) Because of that, we don’t talk anymore.

    Although schoolwork was the biggest thing, they practically never let me experience the consequences of my actions. They’d fix it or make me fix it, then punish me for it. There were several times when I asked them to let me not do my homework. I told them that I would suffer the consequences. But my family was too bound up in my success to listen. Even in grade 12, I was still getting grounded for not doing my homework.

  23. And, it’s not just about what you don’t “not let” your kids do that could be somewhat risky, like wearing the wrong clothes or getting potentially dirty or a little bit bumped up, but what you do let and encourage them (and even require!) them to do that might have a little risk associated with it but ALSO is positive. For example, some people would be horrified at the way I let my kids use the stove at eight years old and above (though they’re rather small, so sometimes I held off until they were older to make sure they could reach things safely.)

    None of them has ever had anything worse than a 1-inch 1st degree burn on an arm. OTOH, they can fix themselves food, bake tasty treats for the family,etc.. Not only does that mean they can do something without always asking for help, it also means they feel like there are things they can do, period. (They don’t even really think about it, I don’t think. That’s just the way life is for them.) I can’t imagine what it’s like for some of these kids who have everything done for them until they’re 13 or more — everything new they have to learn to do must seem like a huge deal, rather than just the next thing to do.

    BTW, none of them are gourmet cooks — I have friends whose kids put mine to shame in the cooking department, at similar ages. But at least the kitchen isn’t a foreign country to them, or worse, an extreme expedition where they need a guide to hold their hands and keep them alive.

  24. @meghann, oh, the way mouth/gum injuries bleed! I’m sorry you had to deal with that. Mine was a big older when he stumbled over in a store, biting his lip … fortunately, the resulting cut actually quit bleeding quite quickly, but until it did …

    Yes, I’ve realized (as hinted in my earlier comment) that my basic decision rule isn’t, “Might he fall down?” or “Could there be blood?” but “Is this likely to lead to an ER visit?” As long as the answer to that last one is no, I tend to leave well enough alone.

  25. Finally!
    I was about ready to give up on this blog. With the “outrage of the week,” which isn’t always an outrage, or the general whining (in comments or blog posts) about how society is anti-free-range I’ve been beginning to think this was just a place for people to vent about things and rationalize why free-range isn’t possible.

    This post goes a long way toward discussing parenting. I see “free-range” not as letting your kid use the subway or climb trees, but as a step-back from micromanaging your kids’ lives.

    For this entry, I’ll give this blog another chance.

  26. I almost think this is the more important part of free-range parenting.

    There’s a story in our family that’s been repeated many times, about the time when my 8yo cousin wore his hat in the classroom, and the teacher took it, as was his well-known policy. The story goes that my grandfather marched down to the school and demanded the hat be given back because it was my cousin’s favorite.

    They tell the story as if it’s a good thing, and I guess to them it shows love and family sticking up for each other and all those “good” things. But many of us just sit around the room looking at each other as we all think, “And you wonder why he’s a 26yo BOY now who can’t take responsibility for anything and has totally screwed up the past 10 years of his life.”

    I don’t know if I’ll ever let my kids ride the subway themselves (as if there was a subway in the middle of the boondocks of West Virginia…), but you can bet they’ll be learning responsibility and accepting consequences and all that jazz.

  27. I like this post because it reinforces what I’ve been saying all along, which is that free-range isn’t just about letting your kids do more things, it’s about teaching them HOW to do those things. And yes, consequences are a natural part of learning.

    I think it also speaks to a larger issue that free-range is more about the parents than it is about the children. We are the ones who need to change so that the children can just be their natural selves. We need to let go so that they can be kids.

  28. Right on! For me, letting go of the outcomes of my toddler’s activities makes life a lot easier. If I can let him carry and spill his own snack, jump off the stairs and fall, spill water on the floor AND teach him how to clean it up (without blamin’ and shamin’), I feel like my day has not been a constant battle to control his little environment. I enjoy his company more and feel more relaxed by day’s end. That’s priceless when you have a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old! And I think he learns a lot more by doing things himself than by being told what to do and not do and why. (Kids hate lectures!)

  29. For those who are interested, a lot of these principles are part of Love & Logic – wonderful stuff, good stories!

  30. You guys ever read Understood Betsy? Oh gosh, I loved that book as a kid. LOVED it. Still do, in fact – I’ve read my new-to-me copy twice this year alone! I’ve gotta put it on my reading list for the nieces, GOT to.

    The author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was all about the Montessori school. One of the purposes of writing the book, in fact, was to show some aspects of the Montessori philosophy – giving kids real tasks to do, assuming independence – in real life.

    From another angle, it’s an informative contrast between more free-range and more helicoptery (well, helicopters weren’t invented yet, but you know what I mean) forms of child-raising. But with more plot.

  31. Ya the other day Jake asked to go into town by himself with a friend, and I was so worried and wondering if I did the right thing letting him go.

    He’s going into grade NINE for God’s sake. We did sit down after and go over some rules, plus the places he had to stay away from (the drug hangouts), but I’m glad he went. He has plans now to go again!🙂

    I do think next time I’ll get him to take my cell phone, though.

  32. Terrific. I was just thinking about “who was that mom that put her 9yo on the subway?” the other day, and then I just happened to find you via Twitter. Score!!

    I’ve been scouting out for ways to let my 9yo and 7yo boys do things all by themselves, but it’s not easy in a small town. But I came up with putting them on the new biking path to the library the other day while I went to the post office (on my way to the library). SO proud. 😀 lol

  33. I love this post. I had long been feeling that I was the only one in town letting my 8 and 10 year olds go to music lessons on their own (by bike, maybe 10 blocks), let alone handling their own life ‘mistakes’. Most recently, we let them handle the consequences of not following through on an extra-curriculuar project. My husband and I feel that the fall-out of a destroyed library book/missed appointment/unsmoothed-out misunderstanding is a much better (if more uncomfortable) life lesson than our manipulative (and lecturing) one.

  34. I witnessed my parents raising my younger brother in an extreme helicopter-like way. They were (seriously) still pouring his juice and cutting his food for him until he was wayyy past being able to do it himself (I’m talking early teens here people). They wanted to hold on to their baby for dear life, it seemed. My brother had many problems in school and my parents were always there to “save” him (ex: cutting out stuff for his science fair presentation bristol board at 2am on a weeknight because my brother hadn’t done it). Well, what do you know, he completely flunked out his first year of college (I live in Quebec where we have 2 yrs of post high-school education before university) and got kicked out. He could only attend night classes for over a year with remedial students. Big surprise. His writing skills are awful (for a 20 year old!!) and my father is hell-bent on him going to a particular university (but you have to be accepted first, right?!!), the same one that I had suggested when it was my time to apply to schools but was not allowed because my father didn’t want to pay for it and created a huge scene (I only suggested, I needed to get out of a bad and dysfunctional family environment). Thankfully, I turned out sop much differently. I was always the independent one and would get extremely frustrated when my father would go around panicked shouting “Let ME do it for you!!”. G-d willing I will have children someday and they will be raised to deal with the consequences of their own actions. I don’t want them to grow up and become like my brother, who, sadly, is a rude, self-centered adult with an embarrassing sense of entitlement.

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