“Free Range” Hits the Protective Bubble: Where’s the Balance?

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April 28, 2015

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I stopped at a gas station on our way to do some work. I noticed a sale on Gatorade, gave her a few bucks, and sent her in to get us a few while I filled the tank. Her reaction looked like I’d asked her to drive over to the grocery store to pick them up.

My daughter is ten. My childhood was a little too independent, so by that age I could more or less live on my own provided someone sent money every few weeks. Obviously I never wanted that for her, but I’d hoped to hit a more balanced middle ground, especially after writing, The Overprotected Kid: A Summary That Needs a Discussion, which caused me to seriously reflect on my parenting.

I want my kids to be risk takers. I want them to know how to face and defeat a challenge. I agree that children these days can be way too protected. So how is it that my daughter feels unsure of herself walking into a convenience store with me standing ten feet away? I am happy to report that she did, in fact, go into to the store and successfully buy Gatorade. Next step: college!

Not too long after that Gatorade Challenge, the story of two children being taken by CPS for being at the park by themselves broke. Their parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv,  argue that they want the kids to be “free range” and the debate rages. The theoretical question has now hit real life, something anyone could have predicted. This fight was inevitable. What is safe? And who gets to decide?

The bubble of protection keeps growing. Parents become more fearful as they watch the news and hear about every terrible event, not just in their area or town or county, but in the entire nation, sometimes the world. On top of that, companies and organizations fear litigation, so continue to limit risk until playgrounds either look barren or require a waiver. None of us want to be the parent that doesn’t follow the “safest” practices because, God forbid, something does happen to our child, we don’t want to have them taken away from us or us taken away from them.

On the other hand, logic tells us that we can’t stop everything from reaching our children. They will get sick, break bones, feel sad, and face obstacles. They need to know how to deal with these things. Deal with them on their own. Rehashing all of this reminded me of an article I read a long time ago, Why My Child Will Be Your Child’s Boss, in which the author details a forest adventure class her three-year old attended in Switzerland that included saws and fire but not parents or litigation. Her point is that the children who have been allowed to practice risk management and other real world obstacles will be more equipped to handle them as they grow.  It can be assumed that my daughter will, at some point in her life, need to go into a store to buy something and I won’t be there to supervise. More than that, she will have to face a lot of insecurity and doubt. I firmly believe that my kids need to function without me.

There is a tension between “What could happen to my child?” and “What could my child learn?” that has no easy solution, especially in the American culture. I would say each parent needs to decide for themselves, but we’ve seen in the case of the Metivs that isn’t always the case.

Children absolutely need protection. But who gets to decide how much? I wish I had an answer, but there isn’t an easy one.

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