We’ve all heard news stories about “free-range children,” those unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on who you ask) children who are allowed to BE OUTSIDE WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS! One news story involved 6- and 10-year-old siblings. Their parents dropped them at a nearby park with instructions to be home for dinner at 6:00 p.m. When 6:00 p.m. came and went, the parents went into full panic mode, only to be contacted a few hours later by Maryland Child Protective Services, which had taken custody of the children after a neighbor had seen them unsupervised and called 911. This seemed a bit extreme to me.
After all, I was a free-range child, as were most of my contemporaries. We were shooed outside to play and expected to come back for dinner. After dinner, we went out again and stayed out until dark. Parents were not on the scene. We built forts, explored vacant lots, and played a lot of Ghost in the Graveyard. We had no cell phones; instead of text messages calling us home, we would hear actual voices yelling from backdoors. We were dirty and full of scratches and mosquito bites, but otherwise unharmed.
However, despite my unsupervised sojourner background, I would be a hypocrite if I jumped on the “free-range” bandwagon, despite my genuine discomfort of having a government agency intervene as it did. I must confess my helicopter blades are so long and whirl so frantically that I’m surprised I haven’t decapitated one of my offspring. I never thought of myself as a control freak until I had children, and that is because I never understood the true meaning of fear until I had my first child. When you are fearful, you yearn for control, and control and free-range parenting don’t mix.
I remember coming home from the hospital with my first baby, clutching her like I had created her myself! I was crazy in love with her. I loved her so much my heart felt tender and bruised. She was my everything.
When she was 3 weeks old, I was in her nursery holding her, smelling her, simply drinking her in. I was thinking to myself, “She’s mine, she’s all mine,” when I heard an audible voice in my head, gently rebuking me saying, “No. She’s mine.” And I realized then the very hardest part of being a parent: I was not in control. My baby was God’s child, and his plan would prevail for her, not mine. He brought her into my life, but she was, and is, first and foremost, his.
I remember literally staggering with this realization. I was to hold this child lightly because she was God’s, and through his infinite grace, he had loaned her to me.
Although I had a relationship with God for many years prior to this revelation, I had never truly grasped this truth before. He is in control, not me. Oh, I said I believed that, but until that moment, I did not.
What does this have to do with free-range parenting? Everything. Because the opposite of free-range parenting is helicopter parenting, and that is all about control. Ever since my encounter with God in the nursery, I have fought my inclination to try to control my children’s lives. Sometimes, I even succeed.
Often, however, I know I’m failing. When my children were small, they were not free range, at least not often. You see, I was scared of being out of control. I wanted to hover over them to ensure their safety. And if I’m honest with myself, I’m still guilty of this, even as my children are 14, 16 and 18. Yes, we are called by God to be the best parents we can be to the children he’s blessed us with. But we need to remember that only God is in control, and we are not him.
That’s why this latest episode of free-range parenting is disquieting to me. There are folks (like myself) who point to their own free-range childhood and declare they grew up safely and with a sense of self-sufficiency. Yet, we know in our hearts that we are allowing fear to drive our parenting decisions because despite all we know about God and about ourselves, we still attempt to play God in our children’s lives. And that makes many of us a bit uncomfortable. If we dropped even some of our fear and focused more on a loving God being in control, we’d probably be better parents. At least I know I would.
As I look back on my children’s grade school days, I realize I could have given them more autonomy. It’s too late to let them play in the park without me. But, it’s not too late for me to relinquish some parental control during these challenging teenage years. Too much blush? She’ll live. Not spending enough time rehearsing for the part? She’ll learn. Procrastinating until the night before an English paper is due? He can sleep when he’s 70.
Free-range parenting reminds us of what we wish we could do, but can’t always achieve – parent without fear, with great joy, and with an assurance that God is in control, and he is good.