I am not built to be a free-range mother. I am anxious and over-protective by nature, and my years of experience as a social worker have only increased my awareness of everything that could happen to my daughters, from sexual abuse to traumatic brain injuries. If I had my way, my girls wouldn’t leave the house without a GPS tracking device, a helmet, a cellphone, and a Taser Jr.
And so I was as surprised as anyone when I realized I had started free-range parenting my daughters, ages 7 and 8.5. The girls will spend weekend afternoons running to the neighbors’ house, and then sometimes the other neighbors’ house, and eventually either my husband or I end up texting the other parents on the block in order to figure out where they are.
We recently went on a Shabbaton with the girls’ day school. We spent the weekend on the grounds of a Jewish summer camp with a bunch of other families, and from Friday night to Sunday morning, I wasn’t entirely sure where my daughters were unless they were eating, sleeping, or playing in the lake. Spending the weekend drinking coffee and chatting with other parents (rather than hovering over my kids) got me thinking. How exactly did I become a free-range parent? And if I, the Mother of All Anxious Jewish Mothers, can do it, can’t anyone?
The answer is, well, sort of, but not for the reasons you’d think. Despite what a variety of parenting experts and opinionators would have you believe, the ability to free-range parent has relatively little to do with the actual parent. Our individual desire or commitment to letting our kids off the leash is one relatively small factor in the grand scheme of things.
Rather, it’s almost entirely a combination of good timing, good luck, community support, and a hefty dose of privilege.
First, my girls are now old enough, healthy enough, and generally reliable enough to be allowed to wander. Before this year, they just were too young to play alone, as I couldn’t necessarily count on them to make safe decisions or come get my husband or me if things went wrong. They’re also young enough that I’m not yet worried about drunk driving or date rape; peak elementary school really is the sweet spot for independent play.
I’m also lucky to have kids who can usually be trusted, who look out for each other, and who are healthy enough to be on their own. This last point is an important one; my older daughter had an asthma attack back in kindergarten that required a 911 call from the school, which definitely set us back a year or two. (Nothing makes a mom tighten the leash more than the possibility that her kiddo might suddenly stop breathing.)
In addition, all of their independent wandering happens in the context of our community, either in our neighborhood or at school events. We’re lucky enough to live in an unusually safe town, the girls go to a small Jewish day school where most of the families know each other and feel a sense of responsibility for each other, and our home is on a densely populated street where the houses are just a few feet away from each other. The girls don’t have to go far to feel as though they’re on their own, and even when they’re out of my range, I trust my friends, neighbors, and fellow parents to keep an eye on them.
Underlying all of this, of course, is our privilege, a reality that cannot, and should not, be underestimated. We are white Americans with enough money to live in the town of our choosing and to send our daughters to day school. This means that if strange adults see my children alone, they’re far more likely to not only help them, but to give me and my husband the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, the same isn’t necessarily true for families of color, immigrant families, or those facing poverty or other economic hurdles, who are far more likely to face significant consequences should they leave their children unsupervised.
Some of these factors —such as my children’s age (both developmental and physical), the color of their skin, and their health status, are beyond my control. Fortunately, the most important element isn’t.
The reality is that my daughters’ independence, and my ability to free-range parent them, is entirely dependent on the other adults in our community, and the extent to which we trust each other to watch out for our kids. In fact, in many communities across the spectrum of experience, parents are able to overcome the burdens of modern life by banding together and keeping an eye on each others offpsring.
So, the next time you doubt yourself for being too over-protective or concerned about your child’s independence, remember, it’s not entirely about you. The ability to free-range parent requires a delicate combination of factors that are, to some degree or another, beyond your control. Even a hyper-anxious Jewish Mama can free-range parent under the best of circumstances, which means it’s incumbent upon each of us to do what we can to support our fellow parents who are also doing their best to raise happy, independent kids.