My eleven year-old carries a pocket knife.
He cooks his own eggs. He rides a bike without a helmet. He hangs out on the front porch alone and digs through his dad’s woodworking tools without supervision.
After 11 years of parenting and four kids, I have never “baby-proofed” my home. No outlet covers, no table corner pads, no baby gates. No hiding the kitchen knives. No carrying hand sanitizer on my keychain.
We are a bumps and bruises, trial and error kind of family.
This sometimes gives people the impression that my husband and I are careless with our children or negligent. But the truth is that I welcome a healthy dose of vulnerability to danger in my home because I need to, not because I want to. In fact, I want none of this.
Sometimes it sounds like a dream to have quiet, calm, safe children who think nothing of setting fires in the backyard or being left home alone before they’re 16.
But “safe” is not what most children are. Nor what they should be.
Left to their own devices, children are small madmen, conjuring experiments and fairytales while dressed in their father’s work coat. They are con-artists. They are magicians. They are storytellers and thieves and tightrope walkers. They dream big and believe everything and sometimes really do think they could fly if they tried.
And the more alive they are in their child-ness, the more vulnerable to danger they become and the more their safety falls outside my control.
I want control.
I want power.
So none of this “free range kids” stuff feels good to me, at least not at first, because it is a daily reminder of the frailty of life and the powerlesness of parenting.
It doesn’t matter how smart and competent my kid is or how well my toddler can climb the stairs. The truth is: I cannot protect them from all the dangers of the world. I obviously know this. But every time they make a small mistake that leads to a small consequence–they cut their finger, they trip running down the sidewalk, etc.–it’s like a reminder that they may one day make a big mistake with a big consequence. And then the reality hits me that, one day, they might get hurt. Hurt bad. Or hurt someone else. (Or both.)
The anxiety can sometimes feel crippling.
I worry for my kids all the time. I worry about both rational and irrational things. I worry about them being bit by angry dogs, being abused by a friend, or getting stuck on an elevator alone.
House fires, flash floods, bee stings, hiking accidents, infectious diseases, accidental poisoning. I worry about all of it.
“Then put a lock on the medicine cabinet, you idiot!”
Maybe. But probably not.
(Don’t take it personally; It’s okay if you lock your medicine cabinet.)
The lengths to which we’ll go to protect our children vary at different times, at different ages, and with different kids. Hard and fast rules don’t apply to most of this stuff. Every parent has to exercise wisdom and weigh which risks are work the benefits of taking the risk and which are not.
But, trying to ensure the absolute safety of your child with more elbow pads or a larger carseat is an exercise in futility if you haven’t first done the hard work of accepting that your children live in a world that simply not safe.
Safety–as least so far as it depends on you–is a bit of an illusion. You can wash your kids’ hands a million times and they’ll still end up sick eventually.
We often exact our control over our children in immediate ways as a way of coping with our fears about all of the things that are possible and yet completely outside our control–things like being in the wrong place at the wrong time, needing the one thing missing from the first aid kit, a freak accident, or a random act of violence.
But, the irony of making our kids “safe” and under our control is that, in these kinds of unforeseen and scary scenarios, our children’s best chance of overcoming is to conjure that mad scientist to life. (The mad scientist that some of us killed long ago with our “Be careful!” and “Slow down!” and “Stop taking my garlic powder into the backyard!”)
Our kids need to have a survival instinct as they grow. They need to be able to think on their feet, to come up with creative solutions, and to be confident enough to actually try them. Most kids start with those gifts. We need to make sure they keep and develop them.
How do we do this?
Well, it has less to do with how long their carseat faces backwards and more to do with our posture toward them and their desire to exercise their freedom.
It means training ourselves to replace the words “be careful” with “think about what might happen if you do that.”
It means no longer insisting on doing for them the things they are capable of doing themselves, whether it’s packing their lunch or putting on their mittens or leading the way to the library.
It means no longer interpreting their confidence and independence as an assault on my authority.
It means cultivating strength into benevolent leadership, pride into confidence, and strong-will into tenacity.
It means teaching them the difference between being willing to take a risk and being reckless.
It means letting them experience the power of cause and effect.
It means giving them many opportunities to solve a problem on their own.
The specifics of how you do this with your kids will look different from mine because every kid is different. (And their natural ability to navigate danger will be different, too.)
Just start somewhere and let it grow from the ground up.
What’s the pay off? Well, they grow up. And it’s awesome.
Case in point:
Last Summer, when we were at the pool, my son took my keys and ran home to grab something we’d forgotten.
Meaning: I didn’t need to pack up the four kids and all of our crap and walk back home.
Often, I’ll send my kids down the road for a loaf of bread from the bakery.
Meaning: It doesn’t ruin soup night anymore if I forget the milk.
Lately, my daughter (who is 8), has been asking if she can go spend time at the coffeeshop alone. (“When you’re ten,” I told her. And I meant it.)
Meaning: My daughter feels confident and brave and is excited to exercise those gifts.
When my kids are in a really lousy mood, I send the three oldest for a run around the block.
Meaning: They get exercise and I don’t have to deal with them when they’re acting like monsters.
Recently, I was neck deep into cooking dinner when I realized I didn’t have any milk for the recipe. So, I gave my kids $5 (which I borrowed from my son who always has more cash than me because he’s like that) and sent them down the road for a carton of milk. They were $.50 short (organic milk, dang), so my son left his sister there with the milk and he hightailed it home for the two quarters he needed.
They both returned a few minutes later.
And it felt totally normal.
This freedom should be normal for kids. I know it has been a real game-changer for us.
And, suddenly, this free-range kid thing starts to make a lot more sense.