People Judge My 'Free Range' Parenting All the Damn Time
In the past five years I’ve spent wading through the dark and choppy waters of parenting my two kids, I’ve realized some hilarious and humbling shit about myself. There’s one particular discovery that takes the cake for me, because it’s forced me into all kinds of awkward scenarios. Knowing this doesn’t make me want to stop being the kind of mom that I am. If anything, it just makes me want to keep doing my thing.
When it comes to raising kids, I’m the mom at the playground who seems to make a whole lot of other moms very nervous. It’s been this way since I can remember, and it will probably be this way until they graduate high school.
My nearly 5-year old daughter is that kid you see happily dangling off the top of most playground structures with a giant smile smeared across her dirty face. My 18-month old son is often barefoot and pants-less, his hands and feet always playfully submerged in some sort of mud at whatever local park we’re frequenting. When the other moms inevitably jump in — and they do — to ask me if I actually have my eyes on whatever ridiculous shenanigans my kids get involved in, I just half-smile and casually say, “yup.”
I am a free-range mama to my core. And it drives a lot of helicopter parents bonkers.
It’s taken a long time to not only embrace my free-range mom game, but to also reckon with the varied responses I receive for letting my kids’ freak flags fly. I’ve been questioned about if the way I raise my children is actually considered “real parenting.” I’ve encountered the predictable eye rolls when someone has a random, unsolicited opinion of my daughter reaching Evel Knievel levels. Kids will even come up to me with their faces all scrunched up like they just tasted a lemon for the first time as they blurt out, “why does that baby have paint all over his body?!” When I explain to them that in our house, everyone’s allowed to do things like tattoo themselves, it blows their tiny freaking minds.
According to a 2019 article in Good Housekeeping, free-range parenting “aims to foster independence in children by giving them greater autonomy and less adult supervision. It is not a total abdication of rules, the way permissive parenting is.” This key distinction is an important one to make. My house isn’t a free-for-all of ruleless living. I don’t let my kids run around being assholes to everyone around them. They also aren’t just wandering aimlessly in the neighborhood alone at all hours of the day either. The truth of the matter is, I devote 99.9% my time to giving them the ample space to be human, make plenty of mistakes, and figure some of this life shit out for themselves. I also allow them full body autonomy so they can express themselves as they see fit, say “no thanks” to hugs if they don’t want them, and stand up to their peers and adults if they’ve been treated in a way that makes them feel unsafe.
In my home, respect is a two-way street between my children and me. I guide them to honor the personal boundaries of everyone in our house, boundaries for which they get to advocate as well. We have bedtimes and meal times like the average family, but we also have TV dinners and lunches consisting only of snacks because that’s what they occasionally request. In lieu of dishing out harsh disciplines or time-outs, I validate emotions and sincerely talk with my kids during every tough moment they encounter. If they want to do something wacky like defy gravity in an unexpected spot in my house or outside, I’ll spot them without getting involved unless they need me to. If they happen to fall down or get scraped up during their trial-and-error escapades, I don’t sprint over to them all freaked out while panic-dialing 911.
I also never — ever — tell them to quit the waterworks when tears are popping out of their little eyes. If they need to cry, they are safe to do it any time around me for as long as they want.
Most of these choices cause the adults in the room to feel worried about my kids. They see a relaxed mom who doesn’t conform to societal standards and it makes them all kinds of uncomfortable. But there is one tough pill for people to swallow as they witness my style of parenting. Folks tend to actively object when I — gasp! — give my kids actual time to go through the mess of their emotions before making the effort to apologize for their screw ups. It may sound odd, but I believe that the repair is as important as the tear, as my therapist has skillfully taught me. This means that I model for and teach my kids the self-care practice of regulating their emotions in real time and also the authentic repair of mistakes made once their young nervous systems have had a real chance to calm down. To some around me, this looks like I’m “letting them off the hook,” or “spoiling them,” which couldn’t be further from the truth.
For the old school parents, the non-immediate “I’m sorry” looks like complete and total disrespect. And for the modern age ones, it just makes everyone in the room feel impatient and wondering when the apology will ever make its appearance. I assure you, it always does. But just like I don’t force them to spit out “please” and “thank you” at every given moment just to appease the elders in front of them, I also don’t force apologies if the timing isn’t right for my children. I want them to learn to mean it when they show kindness, ask for help, and make amends with those they’ve hurt. And I’ve found that parenting in this way actually leads to an outcome where they do.
So why do I mildly torture the grownups around me by giving my children so much autonomy? To be honest, it’s because I’m more concerned with raising genuine, self-loving, and courageous kids than making sure the adults in the room are comfy.
The benefits of parenting in this way are endless for me. Not only do my kiddos trust me, but they know I trust them too. They feel seen, heard, and supported as they lean into whoever they truly want to be. They’re able to make and keep friends, participate with enthusiastic cooperation in school, help take care of our home together, and love everyone in our family with robust affection. And they get to do all of this on their own terms, in their own time, and with their own personal spin on it.
I’ve learned so much from my children by simply offering them the space to show me who they are, what they individually need, and why it’s so damn important to just let them be. At the end of the day, I love the kind of mom I am for my kids, and I love the woman I am growing into as a result of raising them like this. That’s all that matters.
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