Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Free-Range Kids

Jack and Fred are outside and I have no idea what they are doing. They rolled out of bed, ate breakfast, and headed out. I'm happy that my kids look at the outdoors as another room in the house. They certainly don't have to ask me first if they can go out there, any more than they would ask me if they can walk into the kitchen. (Unless I'm mopping, which I rarely am.)

When I first read the book Last Child in the Woods and started following Lenore Skenazy's blog about free-range parenting, we still lived in a subdivision, Bonnie was about seven, and my boys were toddlers. I had mostly practiced attachment parenting with my babies... breastfed them on demand until they weaned themselves (with the exception of Fred, who received some maternal encouragement to wean after his third birthday), didn't let them "cry it out", and generally let their needs determine my parenting. Free-range parenting really seemed intuitive to me, the way attachment parenting had with the kids were babies, but it took a while to transition to it. We had a fenced in back yard, and Bonnie was able to play back there any time she wanted, but I kept her on a fairly short leash when it came to playing in the front yard. She did play with her friends in the front, but we had a rule that she had to come tell me any time she was going to be walking behind a house or before she went into her friends' house. There was a driveway several houses down that was the "border" she was not allowed to cross. The boys played in the backyard, but I'd only just started letting them play in the fenced in area unsupervised. I was fairly scared of moving vehicles in the neighborhood, and no, I'm not talking about kidnapping. I know that is statistically not something worth worrying about, especially if you raise strong-willed kids. (You think anyone could make Bonnie get in a car if she didn't want to?) But I was scared of moving cars that could potentially hurt my kids if they were playing outside. Now I believe that we should have been teaching Bonnie respect for moving vehicles rather than keeping her essentially at the base of our driveway on very quiet culdesac. I also recognize that my personal fear came from the fact that I was not raised in town where I learned the rules of being a pedestrian or cyclist and sharing the road with cars. Kelly did spend parts of his childhood in large cities and towns, and he was always more comfortable with the kids around vehicles than I was.

(Fred just brought me a  "clam shell" which ended up being a peach pit the dog dragged out of the compost. The boys decided to plant it.)

When we moved to the Hill, I was more than comfortable letting Bonnie and Jack run around outside to their hearts' content, but I really worried about letting Fred (then two and a half) outside AT ALL without me. I had completely bought into the idea of free-range parenting, but a culture of helicopter parenting still nagged at me. What if he eats something he shouldn't? What if he steps on a bee? What if he goes down the driveway to the road? What if he goes up the driveway to the lake? What if I don't know which way he went and go the wrong way when looking for him? The questions and worries went on and on. What I kept going back to however, was the fact that I had grown up here and not only survived, but thrived with the freedoms I had outside. I didn't want to stifle that with my kids. I also knew that a two and a half year old is still more baby than not, so I wasn't about to throw Fred to the wolves either. Jack was four and very serious for his age. Over time, I drilled it into Jack's head that if he was outside alone with Fred and he saw Fred go up the driveway toward the lake or down the driveway toward the road, NOT to follow him but to come get me quickly. (I was worried that if he followed him, he'd end up chasing him and then I wouldn't know which way either of them had gone.) Over the course of that first spring and summer, I gradually let the boys outside without me for longer and longer periods of time, keeping an eye on them through the window, making sure I knew the general area they were playing. Bonnie was still in public school then, but in the afternoons, she was out there with them. Of course, I was out with them a lot too, but it seemed ridiculous to bring them in every time the phone rang, or I needed to use the bathroom, or if it was time to start supper and they were having fun outside.

(Jack just ran excitedly in the house to tell me that they found a toad. Toads and frogs are on the decrease, and this is only about the fifth we have seen this spring. Jack knows it's a big deal!)

Only once last year did Jack come in and tell me Fred was going down the driveway. In retrospect I feel like I drilled it into his head a little too hard, because he was near hysterical. I ran out, and Fred was slowly walking on the driveway. In fact, if I'd been outside with him, I wouldn't even have thought he was "going down the driveway" at that point, but Jack took his role as big brother very seriously!

Now, at three and a half, Fred does understand that there are some boundaries outside, and that it's not safe to go up to the lake or down to the road without Kelly or me. The boys are also not allowed in the barn, until we repair the loft. During hunting season, the kids know that they aren't allowed to wander into certain areas of the woods. Usually they come find me and clarify anytime they hear gunshots in the distance. (The hunters know where our house is, and would never shoot anywhere near us.) Bonnie and Jack are starting to go farther and farther into the woods together, always with the dogs, which reassures me, as it did my mom when my brother and I played in the woods when we were young. Fred's little legs don't keep up well on those long adventures, so they usually go without him while he's napping. We have a general understanding that if they are going to be out of yelling range of the house, they need to let me know first, and they always do. This way I don't worry, and I can give them a time to be home if we have something else going on that day. They respect the boundaries they have, because they understand the reasons behind them.

(Bonnie's awake now and outside with the boys, and they've found two baby toads. We've been watching and waiting for them for weeks.)

The kids love it outside so much, it's hard for me to imagine a life where they didn't have such easy access to nature anymore. I'd like to think that if we were still in the neighborhood, the kids would spend more time in the woods behind our house, than inside that fence. But even in that small back yard, my boys were learning the joys of getting dirt under their nails and finding all sorts of bugs. I love spending time with my kids, but there is a special joy in having them excitedly tell me about something they did without me. And yes, often it's something I would not have allowed them to do had I known about it at the time.


  1. My mother had a whistle. It was a naval whistle and could be heard for miles. If we heard it we had to come or risk the hairbrush. As we got older there were different 'codes' and it meant we all didn't have to come.

  2. Like the Captain in the Sound of Music? That could be fun.

  3. Hey Leanna,

    My name is Allie and I came across your blog today. I really enjoyed reading your posting.

    I'm working with an award-winning production company and a top-rated national cable network to cast a new docu-series that will explore unique perspectives on parenting. We are looking for perspectives about "Free Range" parenting. I think you could be a great fit for the show!

    If you are interested in speaking with me about the show, please e-mail me at with a summary of your family and parenting style and a family photo. More information is available at

    Over the coming weeks, we'll be conducting interviews with prospective parents and families. These interviews will largely take place via webcam, so no travel will be required. If you are interested in participating in the show, I would love to speak with you on the phone.

    Looking forward to talking with you!