The perils of raising free-range children

The Baltimore Sun

As I removed yet another Lego block that had become painfully embedded in the bare arch of my right foot, I scanned what had once been our living room, now a minefield of plastic droppings from my five free-range children.

When my first child was born more than 15 years ago, my wife and I considered several parenting styles, including authoritative, authoritarian, assertive-democratic and Jong-Ilian.

Our discussions began with a brief analysis and evaluation of how each of us was parented. That discussion remained all too brief and inconclusive, however, because neither of us could afford a psychiatrist.

The parenting style that we ended up with was less a conscious decision than a survival tactic.

We have always wanted our children to see their home as a communal living place where each has his or her role in maintaining basic upkeep. Domestic chores are something one does not for a weekly allowance but to ensure the whole dwelling is inhabitable. To that end, we realized that raising free-range children gives them a sense of ownership of the entire house rather than just one room.

There are, nonetheless, pitfalls to raising free-range children - as exemplified by my throbbing foot.

One problem is that my 7- and 4-year-old sons feel free to stow toys in any available nook and cranny of the house. We are pretty adamant about putting toys away before playing with something else. Unfortunately, "away" translates to behind the recliner, under the couch, behind books on shelves, or next to the TV (because dinosaurs look cool).

Another problem is that "clean" is a relative and mutable term. Take my 15-year-old son. Any piece of clothing on the floor - whether it toppled from the top of a clean laundry pile his mother just placed on his bed or had been worn for three days straight - is deemed dirty because it's far easier to toss it in the hamper than it is to fold it and put it away. However, if he wants to wear a particular shirt, he'll dive-bomb the hamper and insist the shirt is "clean enough."

My 13-year-old daughter's idea of clean is if you can't see it, it doesn't count. The last time we moved her bed, we found several shirts, a couple of homework assignments, a math test, socks, the remote for the DVD player, half a bagel, and a big ball of fur that could have been our neighbor's missing cat.

Rubbing my foot, I yell out for an emergency family meeting. My 7-month-old daughter was napping, but since we had a quorum, we could begin.

I held up my foot to show them the detailed impression of a Lego. After the laughter subsided, my darling wife being loudest, I told the kids that before there would be any friends over, any phone calls, any television, video games, bike rides or anything they deemed fun, the house must be cleaned up. And clean means everything goes where it is supposed to go - not under beds, not behind furniture.

The kids scattered and in less than 10 minutes, the house was spotless, every toy in its assigned place.

Why, I asked, why couldn't they just pick up after themselves like that all the time? It clearly does not take that long when they try. Why did it always seem to take my stepping on a Lego block and undergoing excruciating pain before they put everything where it belonged?

They all shrugged and went their separate ways. I looked over at my wife, who smiled and patted my sore foot. As she stood, a couple of Legos slipped out of her pocket like chicken feed. Without a word, she scooped them up and left the room.

Dean P. Johnson teaches high school English in Camden, N.J. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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