How Much Freedom Do You Give Your Kids?

Going out in public by myself, or even to play in the backyard, with three little kids (the smallest of whom are no longer content to stay in their stroller for very long) is challenging. They run in opposite directions. The constantly need to be re-directed, or corralled, or scooped up. I feel like I need at least eight arms and Roadrunner legs to keep up with them.

There are a lot of errands I simply can't run (or choose not to run, because the hassle far outweighs the benefit) with my three in tow. While I can take all three grocery shopping, thanks to carts that accommodate three, Target, pharmacies, and smaller stores are out. Pushing a gigantic stroller through narrow aisles and crowds of people seems foolish to me.

It's crossed my mind many a time to simply leave them in the car while I run in to grab a latte at Starbucks, a tube of toothpaste at CVS, a package of diapers at Target. Of course, I never would. I value my freedom too much, and I certainly don't need a CPS hassle in addition to everything else I have going on. But most of all, it's because I don't trust anyone.

Yes, we're bombarded in the media with the message that "Danger is Lurking Around Every Corner! Protect Your Children!" And yes, the greatest danger to kids often comes from people they know, and not complete strangers.

But still. They are my babies. And I'm not willing to take the chance, however small, that something might happen to them while I'm not there.

So I read with surprise this article, whose events took place in my home town. The basics are this: Mom and five-year-old are together in the children's section of their local library, a place they visit often. Mom wants to run upstairs to the adult section to check out a book. Instead of taking her daughter upstairs with her, mom asks daughter if she would like to stay in the children's section alone for a few minutes, or head upstairs with her. Five-year-old chooses to stay put. Mom informs librarian that daughter is staying and that she'll be right back. Librarian warns mother about "stranger danger." Mom leaves daughter for three minutes to check out book upstairs.

And so the question is this: Are we too over-protective of our kids? The author of this piece seems to feel that yes, we most certainly are. I did a little digging, and found that she's the founder of a movement and a book called Free-Range Kids, which is designed to "raise safe, self-reliant children, without going nuts with worry." (Incidentally, the mother was the subject of a huge public outcry a year ago when she allowed her nine-year-old son to take the NYC subway home from Bloomingdales by himself.)

I am all for fostering independence in Isabella (much as I would love the twins to change their own damn diapers every day, they just aren't there yet). Simply by virtue of being the older sibling to two very demanding toddlers who occupy a lot of my time, there are a lot of things she's able to do by herself that I know many of her peers are not. I want to raise her to be a strong and confident child who isn't afraid of new circumstances and surroundings. I want to raise an independent daughter.

But at the same time, I cannot see myself (in 1.5-years' time, when she turns 5) allowing her to stay in the children's section of the library by herself, even for a couple of minutes. In general, she's a very well-behaved kid. She listens when we're out in public, and she's not overly inquisitive or prone to escapism. It's not her that I would not trust. It's everyone else. And even in my neighborhood library, a place Isabella knows very well, and where some of the librarians know her, I would not place the safety of my child in someone else's hands (someone whose job is to help people find books, and not watch my child).

Isabella is in my constant sight when we're at the playground, the museum, and at the library. Hell, I watch her constantly when we're in our own yard. And of course, as she gets a little older, she will have more freedom. I am not a helicopter mom. At all. I want her to fall. To experience failure and disappointment, outrage and sadness. I want her to test boundaries. These things will make her stronger.

But leave her (or the twins) alone in the library, or any other public place, as a kindergartner in a few years? Not a chance.

What do you think?

13 Responses to “How Much Freedom Do You Give Your Kids?”

  1. # Anonymous Ness at Drovers Run

    I don't leave my kids...ever. They don't even play out in our HIGH fenced yard without my eyeballs on BOTH of them, outside with them.

    Right now in South Africa there is a HUGE threat of child trafficking with the Soccer World cup being hosted here in just 60 days. There are constant emails coming through about kids being snatched, or nannies being offered thousands to hand over their charges. It.Is.Insane.

    It's a big part of the reason that I am going through another *need to leave the country NOW* phase. Then there's all the political stuff going on right now, that is even scarier.

    Shudder. If the opportunity arose to leave here in the next 5 minutes, I could be packed and ready to go with 4 minutes to spare.  

  2. # Blogger Sasha

    I don't let my kids out of my sight really yet, but I was given a lot of independence as a child and I think it is what allowed me to travel the world alone (several times), to move away from the place I grew up, to grow the confidence I now have in most things I do. I think it is important and, incidentally, I totally agree with Lenore Skenazy's subway situation. I was doing stuff like that at 10, too (flying by myself, taking the bus). I think we are way too over protective of our kids as a culture b/c the media focuses on child-snatchings as if they are normal. They aren't.

    All that said, I still don't let my kids out of my sight. Ever. But I would like to think I will feel differently in a few years. I certainly am much more light on Sam now at the playground, etc, since I focus all my attention on her baby brother.  

  3. # Blogger shokufeh

    I struggle with this, because I do want MrMan (and me) to feel comfortable about his doing his own thing. But I also recognize that it can take just a minute for things to go horribly wrong. For now, I'll do things like let us be a couple of aisles apart in a store, while trying to calm the panic fluttering in my chest. One might say I'm trying to suppress my instincts, but I think I'm trying to suppress my over-anxious personality combined with a culture of fear. I hope that in another year or two (he's almost 4.5 years now), I'll feel comfortable enough (and he'll have mastered crossing streets enough) to let him walk the five blocks to my parents' house. Some might consider it a weird goal. Even more might consider it an irresponsible one. But I cherish the freedom I had as a kid, want him to have the same, and feel like it has to be a gradual thing.
    And while the libraries we regularly frequent don't fit the setup described in the story, if they did, I think I would let MrMan stay in the kid's section for five minutes.  

  4. # Blogger Nonnie

    I agree with you mostly. I am not a hovering parent. LG can explore the playground, children section of the library, Chuck E. Cheese, etc on her own, but she knows how far is too far, and she is in my sight nearly every second. Of course, since her sisters have been mobile, I do lose sight of LG at times, and have had a few minor freak outs, but overall I'd say they are under my thumb without keeping them too too close.  

  5. # Blogger Simply-Mel

    This is very specific to age, circumstance and location.

    I will leave my almost 9yr old at home while I run errands 5mins from home for up to an hour. I do, however, live in a gated community.

    I also let all 3 of my kids roam around our estate (8,5,3) within a road or two of where we live. As long as my eldest is with them.

    I dont let them out of sight in public places. Ever.

    I wont allow them to stay in the car alone. Ever. Even if I can see them from the store.

    I consider myself a responsible parent as oppose to an overprotective parent.

    To each his own. You have to live with yourself if anything happens - that is how I weigh each decision.  

  6. # Blogger Christine

    Having no kids myself, you can take my thoughts with a grain of salt, but I do think that some of the concern is overblown. But a five year old? why not bring her upstairs with you?

    Weirdly if it were a six year old it would bother me less, maybe because I remember the age of six and the freedoms I had, which was basically free range of a three block radius?

    I didn't have a problem with Lenor Skenazy's nine year old taking the subway to school either, in fact, I think that if it had been a lower income child or a minority child, no one would have even noticed. And why? because people ride public transportation every single day, even kids. She only made a big deal out of it to sell books, which is fine, but how much do I care? not at all.

    In the end it really is the decision of the parent and a case by case study of the kid, and what he or she is ready for, you know?  

  7. # Blogger Mom24

    It's so hard!!! I let J&J walk to school, makes me a little twitchy, but I think it's good for them. They have to cross one street, a non-busy street, half a block from our house, then just follow the curve of the road until they're there. It's barely a half mile, yet I still feels pangs of mommy guilt.

    I wouldn't leave a five year old alone in the library. I've thought about leaving J&J alone while I run to the high school a mile away to get Rebekah, but I wouldn't. It's just not worth the chance of something happening.

    I don't give my kids a lot of freedom. I wouldn't describe myself as a helicopter parent either though. I think in the end we all have to do what we feel is right, to listen to our own voice and pray with all our might that it's okay.  

  8. # Blogger Pregnantly Plump

    I know that most of my family thinks I'm way too overprotective with Little Elvis (Baby Plum prefers to be attached to my breast, so no worries about him leaving my side yet) but I don't feel I'm too overprotective with him. I remember reading the subway story and finding it interesting. I think situations like that depend on the child (or person.) As an adult, my husband or my mother, would never leave me alone in New York with a subway pass and expect me to get home. I get lost in my hometown. But, my husband's brother was plotting family vacations at age 6. I would certainly have let him navigate his way home at 9. He could handle it. I think lots of situations depend on the child, the child's maturity and the situation.
    Right now, with a 3 year old and six month old, they don't leave my sight. But when they are older, well, we'll see if I can handle giving them their freedom. I hope I can. I remember playing for hours outside with my buddies when I was in elementary school.  

  9. # Blogger Jesser

    I struggle with this because the big bad world scares me, but I want my kids to have the same kind of freedom I had when I was a kid ... riding my bike to our neighborhood school and to the pool. It was such a feeling of accomplishment when I could do that. I haven't yet worked it out. I hope I can find a happy, safe medium ...  

  10. # Blogger Veronica

    My parents were both over-protective and not enough. And I did travel alone (with my sister who was younger) by the time I was 10 and to foreign countries. Granted, there were always adults who would pick us up and ensure we were on our way, but we were given a certain level of freedom that I think is surprising.

    My parents were overprotective in the sense that they did two things: 1) instill fear about all the possible dangers (which I'm sure they were thinking they were informing me, but they were really just scaring me instead) and 2) believed that if there was an adult there, everything was fine.

    Clearly, they had never been to a girl's sleepover party.

    But they did allow me to travel on long school trips with family and teachers and friends (as long as there was an adult present!) and I can't thank them enough for that. I know I am much more confident adult because of it.

    That was years ago of course. The next point that I wanted to make was from my boyfriend and his children.

    He's an involved father, I used to think too involved, but he has shown me an approach that I really like when it comes to freedom and kids.

    With his own children, he was protective, like any father, but he also recognized that he needed to give them little freedoms, because they weren't going to stay close to mommy or daddy every single day of their lives forever.

    So, he started by educating them of "stranger danger" and other "safety" techniques and explaining why they were important.

    Then, he would let them go off on their own, but he would watch. When he felt they were comfortable at that level, he would PRETEND to them go off on their own, but he would follow behind or stay close, but hidden.

    He wanted them to have the confidence but still be able to control a situation if anything happened.

    Once he followed them enough that he felt that they were handling each situation well -- they did in fact NOT talk to strangers, they did go to him later and tell him what happened on their adventure, and so on -- he would actually let them go on their own, without spying on them.

    It produced both confidence and trust on the part of the kids and on him. The kids felt they could do things on their own. He felt that his kids knew enough how to handle different situation on their own.

    I think what he does is BRILLIANT. And he even does it to the bigger ones too -- they think he's let them go to that party on their own, but he's actually following them to make sure they get to the party safely (and not the crackhouse downtown).

    I used to think he was insane for spying on his kids, but now I realize that he's is being very smart. He's giving them training wheels and they're growing up to feel pretty confident of their skills to assess situations and how to handle themselves.  

  11. # Blogger The Princess

    I tease my husband and call him "Mr. Safety First" when it comes to 99% of the childrearing issues. I don't mind my kids doing certain things that might hurt them, like running to fast outside, or swinging on their tummies. I don't want to quelch the wonder of being a child with the fear of a scratch or bump.

    With that being said, however, I am SUPER SUPER protective when it comes to them being out of my sight. It is my opinion that our society is not the same one I grew up in. Where I'm okay with them climbing a tree and possibly falling and scraping their knee? I can kiss that scrape, and hug them and send them on their way. If someone was to take them or hurt them? There's no kiss to make that better. I think of the parents who have lost their children and I bet you they would go back in a heartbeat and be overprotective for that moment.

    My children will learn how to trust the world around them the same way they have learned how their ABC's....by me, lovingly leading right beside them.  

  12. # Blogger Rachel

    I know I'm super-late to this discussion but ... anyway, it made me laugh. I'm pretty sure that I have left my 16 month old alone in public for 5 minutes. See, bathrooms here tend to be up or down windy dangerous stairs, and I'm certainly not going to wake a sleeping baby to drag her up stairs and hold her precariously in the bathroom. And sometimes stores are just too narrow for the stroller, so I'll park her near the entrance and run in. But parents here also routinely let 4 and 5 year olds walk to the playground alone and home from school.

    Yes, it's a small, safe country but they certainly also have 'stranger danger' here. It's just that American parenting seems to be all about fear, and it's not here. I realize something awful could happen when I leave my daughter asleep at a cafe and run to the bathroom in the next store over, but the chances are so miniscule compared to the chances she'll be in a car crash or even break into the baby-proof cabinet and play with the cleaning products. Statistically the vast majority of child abuse is by friends and relatives of the family. I just can't imagine never letting her out of my sight as a (temporary) single parent who has now traveled large parts of the world with her in tow.  

  13. # Blogger Suzanne

    Honestly? You hear from me about my littlest two the most, but I don't let any of my kids out of my sight no matter where we are, and that includes the nearly-9-year-old and 6 1/2-year-old. I wonder sometimes if I'm too overprotective, that not being given the opportunity to be independent in that way will turn them into scared adults who can't think for themselves.

    The littlest two aren't even to that point yet. We went to the kids' section of the library yesterday because I thought I could get in a little bit of reading while the boys played. Ha. Nate took off every time I put him down and made friends with the surprised and confused librarians while Nick went off in the other direction. I couldn't keep them both in the same place at the same time so we just left. When we go to the playground, if it's not fenced in, everyone stays together. If I can't see all 4 children at the same time, we regroup and start over. Just thinking about leaving any of the kids in any public place alone for even just a few minutes terrifies me. Not so much that a big bad guy will get them, but because they may look up and not see me and then wander off looking for me and end up getting lost and panicky, and then we all have a breakdown at the end. I don't leave them in the car alone at the gas station for partly the same reason: I don't want them to look for Mommy and freak out because I'm not there. I'm not sure if I'm helping or hurting...  

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