“Free-Range Children” and the Rise of Parental Dogmatism

So, there’s this: a woman in NYC who is charging parents $350 for children to have unsupervised playtime in Central Park.  I was confused by the headline, and still am to some degree.  But it seems as if she is advocating for children to be allowed more freedom and less restriction in their play, and in their lives in general.  The whole $350 part seems to be a commentary on the fact that parents are more likely to do something for their kids if they have to pay a lot of money for it, as the cost itself seems to validate its worth.  Very clever.

This of course is just another salvo in the whole debate over how we nurture our children, and whether we are supposed to enrich their lives by filling their days with planned activities, or are just supposed let them run free and wild, and in so doing, cultivate their creativity and independence.  There are obvious benefits and drawbacks to both sides, but the free and wild ideology seems to be picking up more steam as of late.

As for myself, I am kind of amused by the whole discussion.  For many Americans, especially those of solid financial means, free-range children is much like free-range chicken: a choice of preference, and a discussion based on ideology.  They could take either path in parenting, but just want to know which one is absolutely best for their children, which is a completely admirable mentality.

But what’s funny is that for children of immigrants (like myself), we were “free range” not by a matter of choice or preference, but necessity.  Our parents left us at home not because they necessarily advocated for creativity and free thought, but because they worked 100 hours a week in dingy stores that were simultaneously boring and dangerous, and there were few childcare options available at the time.  So we often stayed at home by ourselves, a common story for many, many immigrant children.

And we can testify to the fact that having that kind of freedom is fun, and some of my fondest memories are of the imaginary stories and situations that I cooked up for myself in that unsupervised space.  I created castles and catapults out of chopsticks, masking tape and rubber bands, ate sugar packets with reckless abandon, and dammed up the sewer grate outside my house to create a small pond in which to float the small raft I had made out of my dad’s shoes.  Ah, fun times!

And the fun memories don’t end there!  For instance, my brother and I would often use our family’s lawnmower to pull us on a skateboard.  We would sit on the skateboard together, tilt back the lawnmower, and it would roar us around the driveway, with its blade spinning happily in front of us.  And one time, we set a small glass jar of gasoline on fire.  That seemed to go well enough until the heat of the flame shattered the glass, and a river of burning gasoline started to flow down our driveway, which being stupid kids, we tried to extinguish using water from our garden hose.

Good times.  But come to think of it, more than a little unsafe.  And if I saw my kids lighting a jar of gasoline on fire, I wouldn’t chuckle at the impish ways of children, but would shout at the top of my lungs, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??”

What I learned in the experience of being a truly free range child is that unsupervised playtime does assuredly foster greater creativity, but also fosters a much greater chance of serious harm.  I could have seriously hurt myself, or have been hurt by others in that environment.  That is the unavoidable reality of “free range”, that opportunities for creativity and harm go hand in hand.  It is only as good or bad as the context that surrounds it.  Unsupervised play might be great for a child who lives in a safe home and neighborhood, but terrible for a child who lives in the inner city.  Tons of kids in DC are “unsupervised”, but that’s not a positive thing at all.  It’s totally relative to context and situation.

That’s why I find this whole debate rather strange, and unsettling.  It’s striking that this conversation is carried primarily by individuals who support free range childrearing not out of practical necessity, but out of ideological conviction.  If they had no choice but to leave their kids at home, like my own parents, they would be much more sober about the benefits and drawbacks.  But the fact is that they do have a choice, and so carry the discussion on a largely ideological level.  And in this context, where ideals and arguments are given more weight than practical reality and individual situation, it is far easier to see one perspective as clearly right and the other as irredeemably wrong.  The issue becomes more of a debate than a discussion.

And this unbalanced dynamic that lends greater weight to ideals than context is hardly limited to this topic – just think about home schooling, or breast feeding, cloth diapers, stay at home moms.  All of these issues have legions of die-hard fanatics and passionate detractors, lighting the blogosphere on fiah.  Parenting has become a matter of conviction and belief, where one methodology is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, instead of being right for some, wrong for others, and not even a choice for the rest of the world.

I think it’s great that parents are becoming more intellectually aware of issues, and as a result, feel convicted to raise their children in one fashion or the other.  It would be strange for a pastor not to be supportive of convictions.  But I think we need to stop being so dogmatic as parents.  It’s asinine for parents to become ideologically entrenched behind one philosophy because every person’s context, culture, children and spouses are so different and unique.  Die-hard anythings have no place in such a fluid and diverse reality as parenting.  Etiquette has little place on the battlefield.

But besides from the logical inconsistencies, I think there are also huge personal benefits to toning down the parental dogmatism.  You are able to be much more dynamic, adjusting more easily to each individual situation and child as the need inevitably arises.  You will be much more bearable to other parents, because let’s face it: everyone hates that parent who is always going on about how great it is to home-school or breast feed or whatever, the opinion and situation of others be damned.  Hate to break it to you, but it’s true.  And finally, being less dogmatic helps parents avoid the unnecessary and crippling self-condemnation that we inevitably face when we fail to live up to an imaginary and inflexible standard: “I’m a failure because I really wanted to stay at home with my child but my financial reality does not allow it.”  Ugh.

We should be careful that our ideals never eclipse the reality of our situations because parenting is not about figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong, but instead, figuring out what’s best for our families.

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4 thoughts on ““Free-Range Children” and the Rise of Parental Dogmatism

      1. You’re right, Peter. Dogmatic approaches are very likely to fail because, not only are circumsances not always equal, but neither are chlldren. When one of my daughters-in-law was expecting, I told her that people would offer lots of advice and opinions about child-rearing, but to keep in mind that, short of neglect and abuse, there isn’t a right way or wrong way, just different ways, and to just do whatever works for her. That’s the only advice I’ve given her. Her parenting is definitely different from mine, but her kids are terrific because she and my son are terrific parents. One size does not fit all.

        I have two sons whom I adore. But they weren’t raised in quite the same way as each other, because they have very different personalities and thus required different parenting efforts (and this isn’t based on age/time differences – they’re 13 months apart in age.) I could allow more freedom in some areas to one because he was more responsible; I could allow more freedom to the other in some areas because he had a greater sense of survival and more human fears of injury than his brother. Had I offered total free range to both, one woud have bankrupted me and the other may not have survived intact. Had I been dogmatically restrictive I would have stifled the strengths and gifts of both of them. By setting the immovable boundaries but within those boundaries allowing them to be who they are, adjusting according to their (and my) individual needs, I allowed them to grow and bloom and become men I’d want to know even if we had no family relationships.

      2. amen, that is EXACTLY what i am getting at. parents today prize ideology and ideals so highly, when the fact of the matter is that parenting (and life in general) requires so much pragmatism and flexibility and adjustment. and this is especially hard for Christians, as we are so focused on ideals and beliefs. i find Christians are the most susceptible to dogmatic parenting, and their children often suffer as a result. hoping that more parents follow your example and blend faith and flexibility in raising their children!

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