Since switching to work-from-home life earlier this year, I’m re-learning being with my kids, and one thing I’ve noticed is that they lack self-sufficiency. It’s entirely my fault – only being off at weekends meant that my priority was spending quality time with them. Whether or not they knew how to make breakfast or get their own drinks or wash the dishes wasn’t on my radar.
And it’s ironic – at work, we always had a very strong information-sharing culture. Being the only one capable of doing a particular job was frowned on. So why wasn’t I implementing the same teaching culture at home?
It didn’t take long – after a week of getting drinks and snacks for them four hundred times a day, I showed them how to look after themselves. And at the same time, I read a bit about Free Range Kids, the US movement founded by Lenore Skenazy, aimed at helping people take a more common-sense approach to parenting – less hovering, more freedom.
I researched some more about it for a feature in the Examiner and was delighted to have contributions from Stella O’Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids, and Lenore Skenazy too – you can read the article here: Letting Kids Run Free Makes Them Better Adults
The biggest contribution was from Joanne Byrne, a Dublin mum of three (two at the time – now three!) I learned a huge amount from what she shared with me, far more than I could fit into the Examiner article. So I’m sharing it here, in case others are also interested in getting a detailed insight into how Free Range Parenting works, and the benefits it can bring.
First of all Joanne explained that to her, free range parenting is about encouraging and supporting her children to be as autonomous and independent in their lives as possible.
“It’s giving them rights and responsibilities, showing them how they can pursue their needs and wants without impinging on others, teaching them how to keep themselves safe and assess risk, giving them the opportunity to practice those skills themselves so that they are able to go out and interact confidently and safely with the world. And not be cocooned in a zone of “safety” (which actually comes with its own risks!) So it’s not about throwing them out to deal with the world and sink or swim. It’s about helping them become self-reliant, confident kids who know how to be in that world.”
I asked her what kind of things she does or will do in the future, to encourage independence and to support them in assessing risks and making decisions.
“It all starts with choice. We’ve set up the kitchen so they can access snacks and drinks themselves – some stuff in lower presses and an Ikea step that’s always getting dragged across the tiles. This works really well, they can get their own fruit or yoghurts or crackers, pour milk or water, and that develops a sense of power over their own needs. We have an arts and crafts area that’s set up so they can access all the items easily.”
Joanne also encourages her kids to interact with adults that they meet out and about, to pay for things in shops, to ask questions about things that are happening on the street if it’s appropriate, and to chat to the librarian about books they want to get.
She goes out a lot with a free range kids group that she connects with, so that her children are in a natural environment – parks, woods, mountains – and then lets them find their own play and explore as they see fit.
Both of Joanne’s boys are allowed out to play in their estate. Her three-year-old plays in view of the window and the six-year-old is allowed to play one street over. “I ask them to let me know where they’re going if they’re out of earshot of the door,” says Joanne, “Just to make it easier to find them really. They love being outside the house in the summer and I think it’s so important for them. Apart from the development that is happening when they are playing unsupervised by adults, there is just no way my three-year-old could be out as much if I was always with him. Things have to get done, dinners have to get made and he would end up indoors much more, maybe watching more telly and doing more sedentary activities or just plain bored. And that’s not good for him long-term, physically, mentally or emotionally. So he goes out.”
So for parents who would like to take some steps towards building independence but are nervous about going too far, what’s the best way to start?
“Start with the choices and the independence in the home. Set things up so they can look after a lot of their own needs and also so they can help. Make it easy for them to get their own food and clean up after themselves. If you’re going out for the day, encourage them to pack their own bags with water and snacks.”
Joanne explains that all of those small things build a sense of control over their lives that will be invaluable when they are out in the big bad world. “If they’re old enough, talk to them about safety. If still young, talk about their body being their own and them being in charge of themselves.”
She advocates skipping the playground and finding a semi-wild area instead. “Let them explore on some small rocks and logs and build up the physical and mental skills that they haven’t yet developed in soft-surfaced play areas. Get used to asking them what they think, what choice they would like to make. For a small child, narrate your own risk assessment: ‘I’d like to cross this stream but I think it’s too deep here. It might make my socks wet or I might fall in and get wet. How about this part, this isn’t so deep. I’ll test this bit but go slowly so I can come back if it’s too deep.’ Huge learning in that. Do what you feel comfortable with always, and as you see them bloom, you’ll want to do more.”
And of course we all worry about stranger-danger or even just falls – are there some tips to make free ranging as safe as possible without inhibiting the whole intention?
“I found the safety rules for kids at safelyeverafter.com very useful. We’ve worked through them with our older fella and review them every now and then. They are so empowering and show how kids can easily interact with adults and enjoy the richness of that experience without putting themselves in danger. She doesn’t talk about strangers but about tricky people, and a tricky person is another adult who asks you to be unsafe, whether you know them or not. So you talk to kids about how safe adults don’t ask kids for help, they get help from other grown-ups. You don’t go anywhere or take anything from someone you don’t know and you always check with your safe grownup if you’re being asked to go somewhere or change your plans. Can’t check – answer is no.
“It also reinforces that it is ok to say ‘no’ firmly to a grownup and that’s where all that early work – allowing them to make choices, express their feelings, shout ‘no’ at you – helps, because now they are not afraid or cowed by grownups. They’re able to trust their intuition and say ‘thanks but NO thanks.'”
Joanne advises parents to read statistics about child harm and see what is actually likely to endanger children, rather than what news and social media are leading you to believe might harm them. “Stella O’Malley’s book Cotton Wool Kids is a great read in the Irish context and highlights that while we’re worried about the almost non-existent threat of child abduction, we’re ignoring the fact that our children are sitting in houses, often on screens, at risk of lifestyle illness due to lack of outdoor exposure and exercise and becoming depressed at alarming rates. These are real threats to the health and lives of our kids, we owe it to them to take them seriously when making decisions!
“With regard to falls, I think if you let kids explore their environment from an early age and respect their own sense of self-preservation, you’d be surprised at how much they learn about keeping themselves safe. Some kids are real risk-takers, some are more cautious, but if you try to scaffold their exploration a bit, point out a possible danger and let them see and assess it, you’re setting them up to be so much more physically able and also able to step back from something they know they can’t do.”
And is there a way to know that a child is ready for a particular step – presumably it all hugely depends on the child and the parents’ instincts rather than age, but I suspect lots of us don’t trust our own instincts anymore?
“It absolutely depends on the child, and the parents know their own child the best. For being out without adults, what I would be looking for is evidence that my child understands those safety rules well and that they have become second nature. That they are able to react to the unexpected and are not too thrown when things don’t go to plan – that they can figure out what to do. That they know what they would do if they found themselves alone and felt unsafe. That they are demonstrating that they are confident and self-reliant and resilient.”
Confident, self-reliant and resilient sounds good. I look forward to continuing my (baby-step) free range endeavours, and in the process, enjoying the look of amazed delight every time I let my children do something unexpected by themselves. Though I suspect the novelty of making breakfast, getting drinks and washing dishes is about to wear off, and just as they got pretty good at it too.