Free Range Parenting

Perhaps it’s because they’re cute and perhaps it’s because I fear the long-reaching arm of the government, but lately I find myself wanting to preserve the lives of Nate and Sam. Occasionally, I even augment their little existences with some learning. Nate can recognize and identify all his colors and shapes — even pentagons and octagons! He knows all his letters and numbers through 20, some basic traffic laws, where the free cheese samples are located in the grocery store, how to calculate standard deviations, and some simple, practical sight words, like Mom, Dad, Sam, and Machiavellianism. 


Meanwhile Sam knows how to duck when he hears Nate shriek…and…uh…oh yeah, the contents of every low cabinet in our kitchen. You need a cutting board? Cookie sheet? Sam can show you! Need the pump for our physio ball? Sam’s your guy. I also think he’s seen a book before, so there’s hope that he might someday be learned. 


So, they’re both pretty smart young bucks, thanks to me, and most importantly, they’re alive. Still! Nate just celebrated his three year anniversary and Sam, almost fourteen months. I feel like we all deserve some sobriety chips from AA. 


Which brings me to free-range parenting, a hands-off approach to parenting, the antithesis to helicopter parenting. The idea is that by encouraging a child’s independence, the child will then develop an increased sense of self-confidence, growing to trust in his/her own instincts and experiences and judgment. Thus, a child becomes more and more self-sufficient and consequently, happier. Plus, self-sufficient. Did I mention self-sufficient? I won’t bore you with persuasive arguments with their provocative facts and research — this isn’t climate change, just how to best raise the next generation.


Personally, I love it. When I was pregnant with Nate, everyone insisted that expectant mothers have a “birth plan.” This was mine! Hands-off! I gave you nine months, now you’re on your own, baby!


In fact, I still have plans to stuff their little backpacks with graham crackers, juice boxes, and clean socks and drop them off a few towns over and tell them to call me when they’re eighteen, or better, when they’ve finished the renovations on their in-law suites. But I just remembered that juice boxes are empty calories that lack the nutritional value and even the fiber content of actual fruit. So, bad idea, Erin. Plus, thanks to a fruit snack addiction when he was two, Nate has terrible credit. There’s no way he could get a lease on an apartment or a car. You know what they say: takes money to make money! 


And there might be a criminal record there, too, not sure. Nate was a pretty desperate little guy when it came to those gelatinous little gummies shaped like dinosaurs and sharks and minions and superheroes and other really cool things that kids can’t turn away from. He would do anything for those morsels, especially the red ones. He’s three, who cares about the consequences? I mean, can you blame him? They’re delicious. 


Ok, let’s think. I need to keep them alive…they have sketchy backgrounds and amateurish resumes…juice boxes have questionable nutritional value...the government is scary, patriarchal, and quick to arrest and charge moms and dads with “unsubstantiated child neglect”… Hmm…re-evaluating life decisions here...


Alright, I might have to institute my back-up plan. Poop! We were almost empty-nesters, Tighe! It’s been our dream for so long now. We were going to do an RV tour of the SEC football programs! I had already fast-forwarded my life to spying on young co-eds and bloated alumni boosters, separated by campus police and tailgating tents, stuffing our faces with pulled pork, po’ boy sandwiches and other Southern delicacies while sporting our seersucker suits with matching bow ties. Also, I want to meet Lee Corso before he kicks the bucket! I’m afraid my days to hold up my Home Depot sponsored College Game Day sign are numbered. No so fast, my friends!


Ok, we’ll compromise. We’ll use some common sense (“What’s that, Mom?” “You’ll find out later, Nate, I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”) and find a balance between being really, really ridiculously (good-looking?) hands-off and way too hands-on. I will give them both freedom and responsibility and be ever-readying them for it. I’m preparing Nate and Sam for the world, not the world for Nate and Sam! 


I have a feeling the latter is impossible anyway. 


And so, while I’ll continue to let both boys live in our house, I’ll not be doing their homework for them. Though maybe I’ll photocopy some pages from their textbooks when they’re in bed just to make sure I still got it. I want to factor polynomials! I want to write a five paragraph essay about why Sam Adams was so adamant that the tea not be unloaded into the Boston Harbor!  


While I’ll continue to provide food and climate-appropriate apparel for him, I’ll not be working on his science fair projects. If I decide that I want to investigate how a hovercraft works, whether or not we can teach Wally to use a yo-yo — I suspect we can! — or how many radishes Sam can eat before he throws up, I’ll have to do it on my own time, with my own radishes, and submit it to my own 6th grade science teacher. Last I heard, she was still at my old middle school, still flirting with the unsightly male science teachers and finding excuses to show Kevin Costner movies to her students. 


And while I’ll sign them up for drum lessons and sports and other endeavors when they want to, I won’t intervene in those activities. If one of them gets cut from a team or isn’t getting the playing time he wants, I’ll be happy to have the “it’s because you suck” conversation with him, rather than heading to the school administration and threatening to pull my child from enrollment and demanding that they refund our tuition check. 


I’ll probably refrain from having them hitchhike back east to visit their grandparents just yet — at least until they hit double digits, or Sam’s able to walk more than fifteen feet without toppling over — but I will strongly encourage them to get a job and spend their own damn money at the store.  


I’ll not be cleaning out my sons’ school lockers. Ever. And if, by some unfortunate chance, I see the inside of his locker or backpack at that age and it resembles an overflowing cornucopia of papers, dirty gym socks, and fruit snack wrappers, that’ll be reason to send him to boarding school or a military academy! 


But I’m thinking this won’t be a problem with Nate. He’s pretty specific when it comes to the organization of his belongings: toys and food. He lines up his favorite toys-du-jour — usually some Batmans, minions, monkeys, very carefully chosen matchbox cars, and his latest Lego productions — on his window sill at night as he goes to bed and brings them all down in the morning to line them up so they can watch him eat breakfast. When he has to take a bathroom break while he’s playing, he brings them into the powder room with him and lines them up along the sink so they can watch him. Creepy, I know. And we’ve almost had some soiled underwear on multiple occasions because he struggles to gather them all in time. He does his pee dance, his thighs pinched together, one hand adjusting his pants, while his other hand is reaching down on the floor to grab as many figures from his inner circle as he can. It’s really excruciating to watch.


And for about a minute this morning, I thought Sam had a little clean-freak in him, too. He was furiously wiping the Little Tikes chair in the dining room, like a little white OJ Simpson scrubbing the blood out of his Ford Bronco. Then I looked closer and realized that he actually had a long train of snot coming down from his little pink nostril. He was patiently waiting for it to land on the chair, and then taking some time to really smear it into the plastic. I don’t know that I’d describe that behavior as “conscientious” or “meticulous,” though. He might need a little more intervention. I see a long future of being double-booked for parent-teacher conferences with Sam. You know, the special time slots that teachers reserve for parents with whom they need to discuss some sensitive topics. Usually, they’re scheduled for mid-morning, after the caffeine has kicked in for both parties, when problem-solving skills are turned on, and we’re all our most amiable selves — but well before we risk running into the cherished lunch hour.



So, we’ll take our time with the free-range thing, ever pushing them toward self-sufficiency, but within reason. Our goal: self-confident, independent children, all in one piece until the age of eighteen. Maybe we’ll have to scrap our SEC road trip plans — football will probably be extinct by then — but at least I can factor polynomials and eat my fruit snacks in peace!