Yesterday I appeared on the This Morning sofa to talk about ‘Free Range Parenting’. Now, I consider myself a ‘normal parent’ bringing up three boys in a manner similar to the upbringing I enjoyed. I certainly don’t think I am lazy (not a chance with my three), uncaring (far from it) or a slack parent – all online criticisms that were levelled against my style of parenting.
You can check me out on This Morning here.
To be fair a minute and half is not enough time to give a full picture of what our life is like, so providing top line details means many fill in the gaps and assume the worst.
This blog, I hope goes someway to filling in the gaps!
My home is nestled in a large village on the edge of a Yorkshire moor. My back garden overlooks miles and miles of greenbelt and it’s a quick hop over the drystone wall at the end of the garden and into a world of adventure. More of that later.
As a ‘free range parent’ (I didn’t even know I was one really) I believe that it’s important for children to develop skills, strategies and decision-making capabilities, independently of me. That does not mean, open the door and out you go. Not at all! Everything and anything that happens to my children is ultimately my responsibility. I want my boys to develop life skills, sound decision making and have an I Can Do That attitude.
To develop life skills does not mean me or my husband providing them with the answers and thinking for them every step of the way to adulthood. For me it starts from the moment they begin to crawl. As soon as they’re on the move, I teach my children how to navigate stairs safely and, once I am happy they’re getting it right, it means, I can go to the loo safe on the knowledge that I don’t have to follow them every time! I did that not only because it teaches them how to be safe but also practically and for my sanity. I had three children under three years old – I simply couldn’t physically follow the childrens’ every move. And we all know just how quickly they can shift when they want to!
We teach them how to dress, wash, eat for themselves…and coping in the world outside the house is a natural extension of that.
For example, when I had a 3, 4 and 6 year old playing in the park, it was more dangerous for me to helicopter parent. Stepping away, allowing them to play independently in order that I could see all of them and be able to step in and help when needed meant they were all safe.
Anyone that’s been brought up in a family of more than one child knows that inevitably you’re tougher on the oldest – they’re your benchmark. They’re clearing the way for the diddlers behind. The parent path is easier to navigate as you’ve already trodden it. You’ll inevitably come across parental potholes you’d missed first time out of course.
So where am I today? My boys are 6, 7 and 9.
The nine year old regularly walks to school independently and has done, at his own request since he was seven. Where I live, that’s fine. The closest we get to a ‘school run’ is “you’re late….run!” School is along our very quiet road, cross a lane and walk over the school field into school – it’s three minutes! Middle diddler sometimes takes himself off and the king of the diddlers, my youngest at six would take himself off everyday, given the opportunity. Usually we walk together and then one or more run on and I’m not needed. If it’s muddy, I get to go along and change their wellies.
I pick up every day from KS1, but they always, always run home ahead of me – often home before I’ve even left the playground. I never go to the KS2 playground, unless I need to speak to a teacher.
Playing out? Where we live is a housing estate that borders a rural setting. I am waaaaay past organised play dates. The boys simply go and call for their friends. And they are not alone. When our doorbell goes at any time between the hours of 3.30 and 6.30pm – inevitably it’s one of their friends coming to call. We have a large green in front of the house that lots of kids play footy on from the ages of 5 -15 – all playing together and it’s lovely to see!
My children are allowed out of my sight.
They’ll ask if they can go out. I’ll ask where are they going and the answer will be something like, I’m taking my bike to my friend’s house and I’m gonna see if they want to play on the rope swing. No problem. I have an arc of space within which I know they’ll be playing. If they then wanted to play out the back or walk the dogs through the woods, they’d come back, ask and I’d say yes.
Each scenario is different and has to be treated as such.
If they don’t come home and check in when asked then their freedom is reduced to playing on our estate only, instead of neighbouring estates or visiting friends.
I get the boys to walk or cycle the third of a mile to the post box and post letters. They each are capable of going to the local shop (similar distance) and buying a pint of milk.
The 6 year old and 7 year old have walked home together from the local rugby club– a distance of about 1 mile with four or five small roads to cross via three housing estates.
They ride electric OSET trials motorbikes. The sport is the art of riding over obstacles without putting your feet down. My oldest was second in the British championship and the middle child bagged seventh. In my view it’s safer than horse riding.
I don’t share the same view as Samia (with whim I appeared on the This Morning sofa) regarding kids bedtimes and mealtimes. Generally speaking the boys are in bed for 8.30ish. We’ve slipped lately with that and it’s on our to do list to get bedtimes back on track – it’s making us all too crotchety! We read with/to each of them and then it’s lights out and time to sleep. Similarly at mealtimes – the most choice they get is red or green pasta?
I want my children to grow up to be confident, independent thinkers that have a Can Do attitude. So when at 6 years old my little one asks me if ‘Can he do something’ I do my best to say yes. Otherwise the message he subliminally hears is “No you can’t do that you’re too small/young/not strong enough/not old enough”. Rubbish! So when my six year old says, can I walk home? I say…how are you going to do that? How are going to cross the road? I tell him I trust that he can do that based on what he’s told me and I’ll see him at home. I know the route he plans to take, I know how long it takes, I know where I can ‘sneak a peek’ without him realising and I know he feels exceptionally proud and ‘grown up’ in what feels like a landmark moment in a child’s life.
Free range is not a euphemism for no discipline/free roam. Manners and politeness are non negotiables. Good behaviour is rewarded, bad behaviour is punished with time outs, confiscations, reduced freedoms and chores. Punishments fit the child and the ‘crime’.
I love that we trust and have open dialogue with each other. No topic is off limits. Although clearly you do not have to be a “free range parent” to achieve this.
As a parent, I have to be prepared to say sorry to. For instance, recently they were messing about, carrying on at bedtime. I’d had a looooong day, I was tired and my cup of patience far from runneth over was drained dry! So I shouted…a lot! When I calmed down, I apologised to the kids for losing my temper and we agreed it’s much better when I don’t shout. I agreed to try not to do that. When I asked them what had lead me to shout and asked them to evaluate their behaviour, they self-analysed and admitted the areas that they needed to work on and promised that too. My nine year old suggested we write it down to help us remember! Great idea! So, this is a bit off topic I know but really just to say that I am a mum who, together with my husband, is trying to raise kids in a healthy, non-judgemental and trusting home. We have daily battles over teeth brushing, homework, eating tea, going to bed, tidying up etc etc etc – the same as EVERY other parent!
We are a very (sometimes too) busy family. There’s lots of structured activities in our children’s lives, including, beavers, rugby, cross country, swimming, drum lessons, trials bike riding, drama club, friends for tea and sleepovers…it doesn’t leave a lot of time for roaming the streets!
My boys are not hanging around when given freedom to play out. Clue’s in the title – they’re playing! Playing, armies, practicing wheelies and endos, playing footy, hide and seek, climbing trees, swinging on rope swings or whatever….they are doing what boys of 6, 7 and 9 should be doing! And the very last thing they are doing is getting fat, playing X-box, the Wii or iPad at every given opportunity. Those things are available but inevitably, before long they’re outside probably bouncing naked on the trampoline – because that’s also what little boys like doing – getting naked!
So what’s next for my free range kids?
Learning how to negotiate public transport next summer for the then 10 year old. That’ll be a big step –the world that he perceives as accessible to him will suddenly become much bigger! He’ll be in year 6 in less than year and then it’s high school! No child (from where we live anyway) goes to high school holding a parent’s hand!
We don’t want these steps in our children’s lives to be huge. Small and incremental, means they will have the confidence to take them in their stride…without even looking back! I believe this is how it should be. I’m more than halfway through my nine year old’s childhood. If I’m lucky I have maybe seven or eight summers left with him…it’s not long and there’s so much to learn!
At 18 I want all my children to look forward with excitement, anticipation and the feeling that the world is theirs to grab. They will always have the safety and security of home to come back to their entire life. If you let them go…they will come back! And when that time comes I cannot wait to hear about the myriad of adventures they’ve enjoyed as they’ve experienced all that they can!