Several months ago a couple in Maryland was reported to the authorities for allowing their children to walk home alone from the neighborhood park. This latest trend is called Free Range Parenting. While I don’t think anyone longs for the irresponsibility of lax parenting practices in the last century, it does seem that we may be overdoing the caution and adulation. Is there an intermediate approach that is neither free range nor helicopter?
Most parents are driven by love and a desire for their children to be well adjusted and successful. But some are propelled by their own issues such as the haunting of their own childhood adversities. If the child never loses, he’ll never feel like a looser. If she is never called a poo-poo head, she will inevitably like herself throughout life, right? Wrong. Children learn to be strong and to cope by experiencing some adversity, defeat, frustration and even criticism.
Being a spectator to your child’s defeat is uncomfortable and may lead to over control and exaltation. For this reason, parents must remain aware of what is driving their child-rearing approaches. Is anxiety reduction or ego at the helm? They must recognize the negatives of over doing, over involvement, and even over admiring their children. Exaltation of children’s abilities produces anxiety for parents and kids… If Bobby is great he must go to Yale or there is no order in the universe! Next thing you know Bobby is anxious with narcissistic tendencies.
The best practice is to stand aside and get to know the child. What is she good at? What is her temperament? Maybe she can handle walking home from the park if it is reasonably safe and she is responsible. She may not know what she is really good at if she earns an award for everything she does. She will not learn humility if she sits upon a princess chair at each birthday party. When parents take time to observe their child and understand who they are, they can guide and not assume they need to be led, awarded or even protected at every turn.
By the time kids depart for college (or other places) they need to have learned that they are not always best but they persevere. Young adults should be responsible and this is achieved when they have been allowed to do their own homework, be in charge of their own self care and room upkeep. Coping strategies need to have been learned along the way, not freshman year when Mom’s not around. And in the process, parents may learn the love that’s in letting go, allowing mistakes, and maybe even some trouble and heart ache.
While helmets and seatbelts are good things, parents who are doing it well recognize that the point of it all is the long goodbye, standing back and allowing the child to find his or her way with appropriate support and guidance.
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.