A "free-range kids" conversation
7 December 12
What does “free-range” within the context of parenting mean to you? What level of adult attention merits the term “supervising”? What boundaries are necessary with children? Which ones are merely acceptable, and are some harmful? When is adult supervision essential, and how cultural are the answers we accept?
Friends have joined this conversation with me on Facebook, and I welcome others’ perspectives. We need to have this conversation about how children can grow in freedom — safely — and we must start talking about it within our family units, within our communities and online. It may mean asking ourselves difficult questions and truly analysing why we make our parenting decisions.
Do we set boundaries because we are reacting from our own fear stories? Have we heard stories from others, including the media? What decisions do we make because we are afraid of what others think and don’t want to appear neglectful? Or are there simply realities that set the occasions where we must supervise our children?
I don’t know the answers to all these questions. But I think about them all the time as I consider the way our children are growing up. And I’m willing to consider cultural alternatives — even though they may be currently unpopular. One thing to remember is that we are all doing the best job we can for our children, and as individuals, we have many different influences that affect our decisions. So let’s not be afraid to ask some questions and make changes if necessary … for the sake of our children.
How safe is our modern, Western society? Statistics show that we are safer — our children are safer — but it appears that we perceive that the risk of abduction, sexual attacks, accidents and death is much higher than “when we were kids”. Many childhood accidents happen at home — or school — with adults around, so why do we insist that our children are safer when they’re under adult supervision?
Many parents’ best sources of information are other parents. If our culture is largely reactionary and fearful, surely that says something about the conversations we’re having with each other. Are we sharing stories of positive affirmation or do we focus on what goes wrong? Are we willing to stop perpetuating the negative aspects of parenting and childhood within our own communities?
One of the things I like to remember is that our idea of childhood is a modern, Western concept. Other civilisations considered pubescence to be the beginning of adulthood, and children were rapidly given the full responsibilities of adulthood around the ages of 12-14. Some cultures still do. I grew up around five-year-olds who were responsible for their toddler siblings. Our culture’s definition of childhood extends through the thirteen years of their formal schooling, but is this really necessary? Are we extending the length of our children’s perceived immaturity to their detriment?
A standard curriculum syllabus often includes “Lord of the Flies”. Without adults around, the kids have no positive guiding influence. How has this affected our beliefs about children who come together as a group to play freely? Do we really believe the premise that children — left to themselves — will degenerate into chaos or bullying? And if this is so, how have we created the conditions for our children that will direct them into selfishness and power-grabs when they have the opportunity?
Another popular reason for adult supervision is to make sure that children don’t misbehave. If a child acts differently around adults than they would when alone or within the company of other children, have we created a culture of inauthenticity that prevents our children from being themselves all the time? If we know that our child is different when a grown-up is not around, how and why is this, and we are ready to accept a continued state of inauthenticity?
It takes a village to raise a child. What are the factors that make a community safe for children to free-range? Are we willing to participate in this — today, now?
Surely individuality plays a part. What are the acceptable limits on a child’s independence? Are we prepared to accept a range of standards for our children based on their maturity levels? Can we trust other parents to make good decisions based on their loving assessment of their child? Or do we need to factor everything down to the lowest common denominator in the name of fairness?
What is the government’s role in your view of a child’s need for supervision? In New Zealand, an eleven-year-old is not allowed to be at home alone, but she can legally roam the streets and shopping centres until an adult is at home. We can’t legislate against neglect and accidents, but it seems as though our governments are trying to anyway.
What are the values that we would like our children to develop? What are the qualities that they will need in the future? Do we want them to grow into creative problem-solvers, or are we more content to be the problem-solver on the end of a mobile-phone? If we don’t allow our children to make mistakes, how will they learn?
At what point do we allow our children to gain their own skills and wisdom instead of lecturing them on what is best for their own lives? Can this happen at five years old? At ten? At fourteen? All along the way? Do we know our children well enough to offer them appropriate freedoms as soon as they can handle them?
If our children are always under “appropriate supervision”, how are they seeking freedoms and thrills? Have our fears and the limits we have placed on our children created a culture where children no longer seek adventure through physical activity, but through relationship dramas, substances and material possessions?
Our own experiences often define the areas where we seek most to protect our children. Some parents are keen to protect their kids from emotional harm (e.g. keeping them home from traditional schooling, eschewing religious institutions), and others are focused on physical dangers (e.g. water, traffic, sex abuse). Can we overcome our own past pains and find the proper balance in which we can offer freedom to our children?
I welcome the conversation to continue on this page — in love and kindness, without judgement. Or it can continue with your comments on Facebook. At the very least, this topic should be discussed at home and within our communities. Our children deserve this consideration, and their futures are at stake.
Assessing child-rearing within modern Australia is confusing. It is not the way I was raised — not the way most Australian parents were raised either, it seems. The beauty of life is that we can change — today. We can learn together, fashion a better world for our children to inhabit, and usher in a free society into which our grandchildren will be born.