The trials and tribulations of the free range parent

These days, the topic of childhood freedom seems to be everywhere. The story of the children in Maryland who were picked up by police–for a second time–because they were allowed to walk home from the park lit up my social media stream early in the week.

Then I saw Sarah Smiley’s thoughtful piece about how being the one to buck the safety trend takes a certain amount of guts.

Then my sister sent me this great article about a group that went camping with children in Alaska’s grizzly country.

Everywhere I turn, I see the battle between the instinctive protectors and the edge walkers. The people who see danger everywhere and the ones who see growth everywhere. Everyone has dug their line in the sand and all I can think is: what if there is no line? What if it’s more like a gradient?

If I am being forced to choose a side (which, as far as I know, I am not), I would choose the side of childhood freedom. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a small pond down the road from my house. It’s not particularly frightening. Frogs proliferate there, Canadian geese nest on a small island in the middle, there’s a snapping turtle or two around the edges, stepping stones over the outlet stream and a stellar climbing tree provide a natural playground. It’s not particularly good for swimming but otherwise it’s a perfectly idyllic pond custom-made for childhood enjoyment.

That pond scares the bejeezus out of me.

I am terrified of my children drowning. I think every parent has some dark internal corner that provides a comfy home for their personal variety of elemental terror. Some people look at cars and see killing machines. Some people cannot abide the invisible threat of germs. Some are convinced every wild animal, even insects, are ravenous beasts with a taste for children. For all of us, having a child means that you will suddenly learn what aspect, what thing in this uncontrollable world is simply one uncontrolled step too far. From that point on, that thing will make you crazy.

My thing is drowning.

No one close to me has ever drowned. I have never been in danger myself. I don’t know why I’m so scared of drowning, though I suspect reading Melissa Coleman‘s This Life is In Your Hands when my daughter was the same age as Coleman’s sister may have had something to do with it. The why doesn’t matter. Get my kids near water and I am a nervous wreck. I still check on my seven-year-old in the bathtub. Pool time is spent with one eye on my child and one on the lifeguard, who is always too young, too inattentive, and too relaxed for my taste. If I could, I would wrap my children in life jackets and water wings for a round of puddle jumping.

But I don’t.

I don’t because part of being a parent is being aware of your blind spots, being aware of your failings, being aware of when your fear crosses over to the side of insanity and compensating for that insanity the best you can. What was interesting to me about the families camping in Alaska is that going into it, they knew that what they were doing was a little crazy. They were taking a risk. They were taking a tasty little four-year-old camping in grizzly country, for heaven’s sake. That’s pretty loony no matter how free range you are. But they knew it was crazy. So they made rules. They stuck to them. They prepared. They made sure they didn’t take more risks than they had to. They had the trip of a lifetime. Heck, now I want to take my kids camping with the grizzlies.

There’s a lesson there. A lesson about weighing exactly how many chances you are willing to take, minimizing the risk as much as you can, and doing it anyway. What makes this childhood freedom conversation so difficult is that weighing the chances against whatever our own particular deep, dark parenting terror is looks different for all of us. So, sure, taking your kids camping in the wilderness might seem crazy. But to me it seems saner than letting my kids play by a neighborhood pond unattended.

I don’t know. Maybe I will let them go to pond alone this summer. Or maybe I’ll just bring a book along so I can distract myself while they play.

You know, for practice.

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.