About a year or so ago, I asked my mother and father — parents of five — if, before they had me, they'd had conversations about how they wanted to parent.
After they stopped laughing, my mom gasped, "Parenting wasn't a verb back then, honey." And Dad said, "No one had a parenting philosophy. You just 'had kids.' "
Ahhh, the good old days, when Saturday mornings meant a bowl full of sugary cereal and three hours of cartoons.No one would have looked askance at my mom or her sisters for not carting my cousins and me to Gymboree or Music Together or Kumon on weekends. No one would've blinked at how the pack of us were ushered out of the house on summer days and allowed to roam the neighborhood on our Big Wheels, not expected back until the streetlights came on.
If folks did have parenting philosophies back then, surely they would have been "free range."
Free-range parenting is a hands-off style of child-rearing, based on the theory that kids are less fragile and more resilient than we give them credit for, and that giving them responsibility, some measure of autonomy and chances to experience risk help develop them into mature, self-confident, capable adults. The theory got a lot of press recently, including here, when the police visited a Montgomery County family after they let their kids, ages 6 and 10, walk home from a park alone. (That story still boils my blood.)
Another plus to a freer style, if the approach appeals to you, is that it's also a less stressful way to parent. Forgot to read a bedtime story — again? That's cool. Your kid is fine. Paci fell on the floor? Wipe that sucker on your shirt and pop it right back in. Sugar's not the enemy; neither is TV. Free play — without Mom or Dad's involvement — is encouraged, giving you more time to watch a marathon of "House Hunters."
This type of parenting style resonates with my husband and me. We always said we wanted to be "old-school" with our kids. Loving, but laid back. Empowerers, not enablers. Not ruled by the children or fueled by angst. Because-I-said-so-that's-why kind of parents.
If I'm honest, though, we are less like that than we imagined we would be. We count sugar grams in yogurt. We hover more than we care to admit. We plead with the children and over-explain. We kill ourselves to get out of the house on Saturdays to take this one to tumbling class and these two to yoga, and we come home irritated because there were tantrums and misbehavior and refusals to participate and NO ONE IN THIS HOUSE APPRECIATES ANYTHING WE DO AROUND HERE!
But it's not just our personal failing. Society makes it really hard to be a free-range parent. People judge you and your kids if you allow them to play outside unsupervised, or eat processed or fast food or (gasp!) figure things out on their own.
Once, at a family-friendly party, I let my twin boys play in the basement — which had been outfitted with toys and snacks for all the guests' kids — while I ventured upstairs with my toddler daughter to enjoy some time chatting and laughing with the adults.
"Do you know there are no adults down there?" someone asked me, concerned. When I said yes, and that my boys knew to come upstairs if they needed anything, the party guest went and asked the same thing of my husband, making him feel so judged that he eventually quarantined himself in the basement with the kids. We left the party early.
Why don't we trust parents to raise their own children, judgment- and police-intervention-free? Is it because of the sad and scary stories we read about bad actors who really do mistreat or abuse their children? Or is it because we don't trust ourselves and our own methods — so we seek validation by demanding others do with their kids as we do with ours?
There are some things we're not free-range about: seat belts, vaccines, manners, hygiene. But with many other things, we're just figuring it out, doing the best we can to raise these kids and enjoy them, too.
It would be great if we, and all caring parents, felt able to do that — freely.
Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as director at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 4-year-old sons, a 21/2-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap.
Her column appears monthly.