Free Range Parenting Is Hard


I really want to be a free-range parent.

Something about that particular parenting style resonates in my gut. I believe it’s good for kids to be trained, prepared, and then allowed to navigate the world without adults hovering in the background. I believe in the value of unstructured time in the woods. I want my kids to have a sense of independence that comes from doing things by themselves.

But as it turns out, I just can’t do the free-range parenting thing.

My kids are 8, 7, and 4. Obviously the four-year-old requires constant supervision at all times, a fact that hurts her dear little heart. But my boys are definitely old enough to do a few things with the neighborhood kids. At least, they should be.

This weekend, I let them head into the woods behind our house with a horde of neighborhood boys. It’s a protected creek bed with neighborhood houses on both sides. The creek is so tiny it barely qualifies as a creek. The neighborhood is safe, if you can really define anything as “safe.” The older boys—three of them 13—are kids I trust. I told my kids to stay within earshot and then defined “earshot,” just in case they didn’t know.

Then I sat on my back porch with my daughter and listened to all the delighted squeals (and other, less-delightful noises) that a bunch of boys make in the woods. I even patted myself on the back. This was good—much better than crashing on the couch and watching football.

After a while, I noticed the noise moving farther away, up the creek toward the bamboo forest. The bamboo forest (named by children, clearly) is the only part of the creek that borders on an actual road. My stomach started to twist.

I called for them and quickly realized that they’d left earshot. In fact, I couldn’t hear any of the group anymore. Immediately my mind went to all the scary places. Maybe it’s the stories I heard in the 14 years that I taught school. Maybe I read the news too much. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all the variables that could go wrong. I imagined them separating from the bigger kids. I imagined them getting lost. (My neighbors who know this patch of woods will certainly laugh at that one.) I imagined them deciding to walk home on the busy road.

I remembered every single poor decision they’ve made. (I mean, my oldest filled my car CD player full of pennies and effectively killed it. He was newly 2, but still.) So I put on my boots and headed outside to find them. Fortunately, one of the big boys made the wise decision to head home and grab waterproof boots, and I was able to intercept him. With a “yes, “ma’am!” and “I can understand why you want them to stay within earshot,” he headed out to wrangle my crew and bring them home.

And a few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and I discovered that my boys had stripped to their underwear on the front porch because they had to cross a creek and apparently that means getting wet up to your knees. Perhaps before I give free-range parenting another go, I should focus on training my children that the neighborhood does not need to know they wear Star Wars underwear. On the upside, they knew better than to track that creek water into my house.

And now they are, in fact, sprawled on the couch, watching football on a beautiful fall day. Their gym shoes are drying in the garage. I’ve stopped patting myself on the back, but my heart isn’t beating out of my rib cage anymore, so I’ll take it.

All that to say, my hat is off to all of you who have mastered the skill of letting your kids run free, however little or much you do it. Free-range parenting is hard. Really hard.


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