Free-range vs. helicopter

I have a lot of friends in their 30s who are having kids. So my news feeds and conversations are including a lot of buzzwords like “helicopter parenting” and “free-range kids.” The folks I know are pretty adamant about NOT being helicopter parents — they intend to let their kids go out and about on their own (when they’re older), make their own decisions (within reason), and experience failure (while providing support as needed).

First, I’ll just quote my own mother: “Don’t get smug.” Pretty much everything you say you won’t do, you’ll do. Pretty much everything you say you will do, you’ll fail to do in the way you currently envision it. And I say that as a parent who is ridiculously self-satisfied and smug about my own parenting 90% of the time.

Overall, I support my friends’ aspirations. As a parent and a teacher, I’ve met a lot of kids who suffer from one or more of the unfortunate side-effects of being well protected, well cared-for, and well supported in all they do. And I am a huge fan of the idea that our kids need time on their own, out in the great big world, with people other than their families, where we aren’t there to save them from the consequences. Toss your kids on a bike, push them out the door, slap a bus pass in their hands — send them out to go try things for themselves, navigate their worlds on their own, and see some things they would not see with you around.

But before you do that, would you do me, and everyone else around them a favor, please? Teach them to behave in ways that show respect for other people, remembering first and foremost that those other people are not you, do not love them unconditionally, and don’t necessarily find them cute or charming.

Here are some ideas to start with:

1. It’s not yours.

This is a great way for almost everyone, not just kids, to approach the world. Unless you are absolutely sure that you are the sole and uncontested owner of it, don’t treat it like it’s yours. This notion helps my kids understand why I tell them to not put their feet up on chairs or benches or pews, why you walk on the sidewalk rather than the yards, why you offer your seat to a grown up on a crowded bus or train, why you’re quiet in a movie, why you clean up after yourself in a bathroom, and why you can’t get your knickers in a twist about not being able to find parking, get free wi-fi, or get a turn on the swings. It’s not yours. Don’t have the expectations of ownership, and don’t treat it like you are the only person with a right to it.

2. Kids gotta do what adults say.

I will admit this one is controversial. But it’s served me and my kids well, so I’m offering it up as an idea to live by.

Adults have the responsibilities, so they get the rights. It’s the flip-side to the social compact that says that adults are responsible for taking care of children — ALL children (a blog post for another day…). If I am in any way responsible for your welfare, and as an adult, I am in some way responsible for the welfare of any children around me, then I get to set the rules. If an adult tells a child to be quiet, that child needs to be quiet. If an adult asks a child to move, that child should move. Adults do not owe children explanations or justifications; children do owe adults respectful behavior. I know this one makes some folks uncomfortable — our collective pendulum has swung WAY over to the side of “kids have rights” and “question authority.” But self-control is a learned behavior, and a great way to practice it (and make it easier) is to do what you’re told. So what if Mrs. McGillicudy tells your kids to pipe down? They should pipe down — regardless of whether you or they understand why, it’s good self-control practice, and it certainly won’t hurt them to be a little quieter once in a while.

3. Be nice.

Be nice to people — old people, young people, mean people, fun people, people who are working, people who are playing. Being nice takes work — it’s not the easy, care-free (or care-less) behavior of home or usual haunts. It means thinking about someone else FIRST. (And if we can learn to do it in unfamiliar environments, maybe we could even learn to do it at home….)

Be nice to things. Books, toys, playground equipment, bathrooms, storefront windows, your clothes, the earth, the air, our water supplies. If you use it, put it back nicely. Leave it clean, leave it neat, heck, leave it better than you found it if you can.

Be nice, even when you don’t feel like it. Be nice, even when you don’t think other people are being nice. Be nice, even when the people you are with aren’t. Be nice even when you’re having a difficult conversation, confrontation, or negotiation with someone.

So, yeah. Send your kids out in the world. Free-range the heck out of them. But before you do, please:  teach them manners. The likelihood that something awful will happen to your unattended children in infinitesimal. The likelihood that they will behave in a way that adversely affects someone else is huge, unless you do the work ahead of time. And if you do, thanks — I look forward to meeting them out there someday.

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