The day I realized I’m a “free-range” parent

IMG_20160308_163827It was the moment I was instructed to ask my 16-month-old if I was allowed to go to the bathroom something clicked inside me. 

Allow me to explain how this happened.

We live in Chicago and in Chicago the search for preschools tends to start shockingly early for parents for many reasons that are too numerous and possibly too politically charged to go into here. Though my friends in New York and DC are want to tell me that Chicago can’t even possibly compare to their situation (“You can still get into a preschool with a child that’s 16 months old? Pshah!”), education – even private education – in Chicago is a notoriously prickly scenario with education intrinsically tied to the politics, unions, and budget crises plaguing the city and state. Many of these reasons are why I, a stay-at-home mother of a 16-month-old, found myself attending a preschool open house. In their packet the kind folks at this particular preschool included articles outlining the values of “free play”, one of which, an Atlantic article outlining the crushing of preschoolers, I had shared on my own personal Facebook wall not three days earlier. “Is this a bastion of free play?” I thought to myself. “What luck to have a place four blocks away from our place that has also read the millions of articles about the Finnish schools allowing children to play that are circulating these days!”

As luck (I thought, foolishly, at the time) would have it this particular preschool also offered a “parent and toddler” class for the littler ones. They again boasted of pure “free play”, no light-up toys, and “dramatic play spaces” (which as best as I can gather in the preschool world now means miniature play kitchens). They offered a trial class to me in order to try the class to which I enthusiastically replied “yes,” and immediately started daydreaming about all the energy my son would burn off while he “free played” and how I could get out of the house and spend a morning talking to other parents. It really was a win-win scenario when I looked at it on paper.

When we arrived it turned out my “win-win” scenario was best left to paper. It didn’t take long for me to be grateful I wasn’t tall, else I’d fear being buzzed with all the helicoptering going on.

Prior to this the only “organized” activities my son and I had attended were a play group at the local German school where I was typically either the only American or one of two Americans and a music class we attended weekly where the toddlers all play together while the parents chat interspersed by songs or books. I very much did not want to get into a habit of overloading my son (or myself) with too many activities per week, mostly due to the fact that, first, I simply don’t have the patience for that and, more importantly, I actually wanted my son to be able to have true free time to explore his own spaces and imagine ways to play without structure. Some days we would go to the park, some days we would go to the coffee shop with a little play area, and some days we play – dare I say “free play”, even – around our home. Needless to say I was ill-prepared for the culture shock of witnessing the true-blue helicopter parenting that lay ahead of me that day.

The setup for the class was admittedly fantastic: there were two rooms, one with all sorts of art supplies such as clay, paints, sand, water, etc., and another room with toys such as puzzles, blocks, balls, kitchen and tea sets, and scooter bikes for the little ones to explore. We arrived, I introduced myself to the teacher and my son was off like a shot, ready to explore and play. I was relieved things were going to plan and then suddenly realized: none of the children were playing by themselves or with each other. I kept looking and was shocked to see every single parent playing with their child. I finally looked closer and realized that was actually a misjudgment: these parents weren’t playing with their children, they were playing for their children.

While pregnant, I read Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman and it resonated with me in many profound ways. One of the items she brought up as a difference between English-speaking parents (as she included Brits and Aussies as having this American habit as well) and the central-Europeans was the habit of a constant narration as their child played. It’s not that the French (or Germans, Italians, Swiss, etc.) don’t speak, read, and play with their children, it’s that they don’t constantly find the need to narrate their child’s every move when there is a perfectly good play environment and other children around them. That time is considered their time to explore and live in a child’s world with other children, and your time to hang back and allow them to do just that while also modeling peer-to-peer communication.

This would have been considered heresy at this mom and toddler class. Not only was a constant narration accepted, it was required. A quick soundbite went something along the lines of, “Oh, Suzy [an 18-month-old], you have a dolly? Oh do you like dollies? Do you want to put the dolly in the stroller? Can you push the dolly? Oh, are you done with the dolly now? Okay, do you want to go over to the kitchen now? Oh my goodness, the kitchen! Look at the kitchen! It’s a plate! Do you see the plate? Look at the plate! Oh, you have the plate! What goes on the plate? Does the tomato go on the plate? Oh, are you done with the kitchen now? Do you want to play with the ball?”

This narration never stopped. I was exhausted just watching these parents within five minutes. What I witnessed was not children “free playing” but children with a constant external voice butting itself into their heads. I couldn’t imagine trying to do anything with someone chattering away at me. “Oh, Taylor, are you putting away the dishes? Oh, do you have a plate? Where does the plate go, Taylor? Oh, no, the plate doesn’t go in the drawer, where does the plate go?” I would be a nervous wreck before finally getting so annoyed I would give up and let the person narrating do the dishes Indeed, this is exactly what happened for the toddlers. Upon finding a new toy and trying to play with it the toddlers would be swamped with an adult’s voice in their ear, not allowing them to discover and play on their own. Frustrated, they would then look at the parent playing with their new toy and move on only to have the cycle start again.

I refused to narrate my son’s every move. It’s simply not in my DNA to interrupt my child’s good time to needlessly narrate his actions constantly or break his ability to imagine and create on his own. The teacher every so often would come over and try to “teach” me what to do and I in turn would try to break her narrative to talk to her on an adult level. I tried making conversations with the other moms but had little to no luck. All conversation responses tended to be short interruptions of their one and only focus: their children. At one point one of the moms saw her child walk not six feet away and she broke in mid-sentence to go over to him despite him being completely content with the activity he had chosen. I felt like I had walked into an entirely different parenting universe.

In my first of what would be many errors that day I stupidly became overwhelmed with the urge to use the bathroom. To this day I don’t know what I was thinking: having a bodily function come over me like that. The bathroom was not only on the same floor as the mom/toddler class, but was so close it shared a wall. Under normal circumstances I would have seen my son happy as a lark playing on a little riding toy and I would have slipped out knowing that even if he became distressed in my absence by the time he noticed I would have been halfway back (to say nothing of the fact that I feel my son needs to learn that everyone goes to the bathroom and he will survive in the time away from me). However, in trying to play nice with the atmosphere I decided instead to notify the teacher I was going to use the bathroom so that she could, theoretically, look after my son since the adult-to-child ratio in the room would still be 1:1 even during my temporary departure.

In this moment I felt time slow between us. She not only looked shocked but appalled. I tried to fill in the space with a meager, “Is the one right next to the door okay for me to use?” as if to say, “I’m not actually asking you, you know.” She in turn filled the space with an, “Ummm” noise, a pause, and then followed with the words that would ring in my ears for weeks to come, “Have you asked your son’s permission to use the bathroom?” I thought about laughing and in a moment of rare clarity held back. I then thought about saying what I thought of this question (something along the lines of, “Why, no, because he is 16 months old and I don’t ask anyone, let alone a 16-month-old, if I may use the bathroom.”) and again, with remarkable clarity of mind, held back. I replied that, no, I had not, but he should be fine, and as I was turning around the teacher stood her ground and rephrased her position. This was not what I was expecting from this willowy teacher whose name I could only assume was something along the lines of “Moonbeam” or “Coriander.” “No,” she replied, “You need to ask his permission first so that he can understand and acknowledge what is going on.”

I walked over to my son. I knew what was about to happen but was so dumbstruck by Moonbeam’s sudden fortitude I decided to cede the ground. I looked down at my son, stammered something along the lines of, “Okay, um, so, I’m going to go to the bathroom, okay? Okay, cool,” turned around, and walked away in one fell swoop. Then, because I had not only alerted my son to my leaving but made a big deal out of it, he lost his composure and started crying as soon as I walked away. It was not lost on me that I could have already been back from the bathroom, hands washed, dried, and ready to go in the time it took for all of this to take place.

I sat down and outside the door and I heard my son’s wails not through the wall but right outside the door to the bathroom. Then I heard Moonbeam “comforting” my son, continuing the “narrate at all costs at all times” pedagogy that has been slammed into her brain, yet somehow this narrative seemed directed at me this time. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, your mom is right inside this door,” she said. “She will be right back, I promise, won’t she?” I heard her face swivel toward the door accusing me of emotionally neglecting my son as I committed the grave error of using the bathroom. I swung open the door, told my son to come in as I washed my hands, and Moonbeam half-flitted-half-stormed off.

We aren’t treating our children like little kings, I thought, we are treating them like gods. The rest of the 75-minute class continued in much the same way.

At one point my 16-month-old stumbled and fell onto his bottom running as toddlers are want to do. Moonbeam immediately comforted him and started to explain to him that, “Sometimes in life we fall down, and that’s okay…” and while I tried to stop her so as to head off another episode of upsetting my son for no reason I joked (what I was thinking I will still never know) that having a 50-pound Border Collie in the house was like a built-in big brother and my son was “resilient.” Moonbeam looked pensive and explained that while, yes, some children might seem more resilient than others, falling actually “crushed” a toddler’s self esteem. I made a mental note that my toddler was surely in the negative digits for self esteem points for all the times he’s fallen and yet somehow seems to still get out of his crib every morning. Were toddlers not designed to fall down so they could learn how to walk with their low centers of gravity and cushy rear ends? If a toddler puts one foot on top of the other and falls then haven’t they learned that’s not how walking works and they will try to not do that in the future? I was under the assumption that accomplishing something after trying different ways of doing it was what created self esteem, but again I was mistaken.

Toward the end of class my son was standing on top of a little platform and one of the older toddlers who was probably 2.5 years old actually pushed him down the ramp leading up to it. In no way do I believe a 2.5-year-old has malintent or was “bullying” my son. Instead I witnessed this preschool’s proudly-touted “conflict-resolution” in action. The adults came in with, “Oh, let’s play with this ball instead! Would you like this ball? This ball is so neat!” I sat there stunned yet again. Did I just witness what I think I witnessed? Did those adults in the room actually reward this other toddler’s behavior of pushing a smaller child down a ramp? The answer I inevitably came to? Yes. Yes they did.

Predictably, this preschool and my family were not a good fit. Moonbeam made a cursory, “Let us know if you have any questions or would…um…like to enroll in the parent/toddler class…” as we left and I made the requisite, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go talk it over with my husband and tell him all about it!” response (which, to be fair, was completely accurate) . We both knew we had just been on the childcare equivalent of one of the worst first dates in history. It was a firm swipe left on both sides.

Prior to this experience I had defiantly opposed trying to “label” my parenting style and getting caught up into a side in the “mommy wars.” This idea of non-labeling was taken straight from Bringing Up Bébé. Unfortunately the key difference between Pamela Druckerman (author) and I is that while not labeling your parenting style works in Europe it doesn’t quite translate for an American in America. By happenstance a few days prior to this entire experience I had started reading How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford, who saw exactly what overparenting had been doing to students and decided to write about not only how not to helicopter parent but also why we got to this point of believing that if a toddler stumbled it could crush his self esteem. She references Bringing Up Bébé often but frames her book from the perspective of an American parent and falls in line with actually labeling the anti-helicopter parent movement “Free-Range” parenting.

After coming home in a huff I realized it was time to decide allegiances and finally declare myself eligible for the “free-range” parenting draft.

To me the term “free-range” parent is misleading. Before reading about it I assumed “free-range” parenting equated to “let your child do whatever they want, whenever they want” when in fact it’s quite the opposite. “Free-range” parenting can better be described as, “allowing your child the space to make informed decisions, become an independent thinker, all while living within a reasonable frame of expectations and rules” parenting. “Free-range” seems a little easier to type out. It clicked with me thinking back to Bringing Up Bébé: expectations often yield reality. Essentially it’s the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy: whether you expect your child to behave like a tyrant or expect them to act decently they will satisfy your expectations. If you allow your child freedom to act within boundaries they will learn their own limits and feel secure knowing they are safe. I allow my son to climb and fall off play structures at the playground when other parents run to catch their children. As a result my son safely fell off the small obstacles but now respects edges of heights in a way I simply do not see with children whose parents have always hovered and caught them. Risk management is an important skill and begins on the playground and translates to the rest of their lives. If I do things for my son he can almost do, he will expect me to swoop in to finish the final details the rest of his life because he was never allowed to experiment, fail, and finally succeed.

Julie Lythcott-Haims goes into horrifying details about these patterns of young adults emerging into colleges and workplaces. Parents increasingly are asking to be involved in their child’s job interview processes because they have been involved with every aspect of their child’s life to that point and suddenly their children are unable to function. College students’ parents call their professors for them regarding bad grades on tests and essays. They arrive at college unable to perform basic functions such as cleaning their rooms, laundry, or basic cooking. High schoolers have a list of colleges chosen for them by their parents and their applications are entirely filled out for them because parents feel their child’s “only job” should be the job of high school and taking the SAT/ACTs. This lack of self reliance and self-actualization, Lythcott-Haims found in her research, goes all the way back to when parents like me are putting their children on the playground and not allowing them to fall or trip, believing things like “it will crush their self esteem” when in fact what you are telling your child’s self esteem that “you cannot do things for yourself, so I will do them for you.”

Many parents see unstructured, unsupervised time as wasteful. I see it as the time when imaginations and independence grow.We still do many things like reading, playing, and music/dancing together, but that is but one piece of the puzzle. I am not the center of my child’s universe, I am a part of it. An important part, but a part nonetheless. If he cannot find who he is without me he will be lost forever. 

Helicopter parents clearly come from a place of love. There is no doubt the parents in the toddler-mom class I attended love their children and feel they are doing the best they can for them. We all hope that hope. The world is becoming increasingly stratified and parents fear without their help their children will be trampled in the frenzy of college admissions, the job market, and a more complex and frightening world. The 24-hour news cycle does nothing to assuage their fears. However, some of the biggest success stories of our time come from people whose parents were decidedly uninvolved with their paths. They found new ways of thinking because they were allowed the freedom to think differently than their parents.

Parents play an important role in shaping their children’s lives, morals, ethics, and rules. They play important advice-givers and give their children the courage to grow their own wings while being supportive if they stumble. My hope for my son is that his wings will carry him to soaring heights with few crashes along the way. I think all parents hope that but have confused carrying their children on their own wings with their children branching out on their own. It is impossibly difficult to watch my son fall, but it is doubly worth seeing that frustration to see him take that next step up after he has stumbled and finally succeed on his own.

And I solemnly swear I will never ask my son’s permission to use the bathroom again.

Recommended (by me) reading:

Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman (also referenced by me before, here)

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims (shorter Washington Post article can be found here)

2 thoughts on “The day I realized I’m a “free-range” parent

  1. I’m so glad you’re going through this whole parenting thing before I am. I’m just planning on referencing this blog when I start contemplating springing my own spawn upon the world.

  2. Because just keeping a kid fed, reasonably well -rested, and generally alive isn’t exhausting enough, we must hover over them at all times. No wonder people don’t think they can possibly have more than one or two. If you have to parent this way, you CAN’T really have more than one. I’m all for conversation and interaction with young kids, but seriously?

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