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In one of his famous rants George Carlin came up with a name for parents like me. He called us “Obsessive diaper sniffers.” Raging against the loss of childhood freedom—that kids can no longer do mundane things like play outside alone with sticks and dig holes—he likened the over-parenting trend to a “sophisticated form of child abuse.”
I thought of Carlin a few weeks back as I watched a mother fussing over her daughter at the VIA Rail station in Oshawa. She was carrying the girl’s backpack, taking charge of communication at the wicket, organizing her daughter’s wallet, and showing her where all the bits of paper had been filed.
For her part the girl looked anxious and bewildered. Wallets can be complicated, I get it. But what scared me the most is she was a student at Queen’s University. The distinctive coat of arms was all over her person.
The tableau got me thinking about my own parenting style and how I might also be unwittingly preventing my son from achieving self-mastery. I also wondered if Free-Range Parenting is the answer to cultivating the art of getting out of my son’s way.
George Carlin died in 2008, before the term Free-Range Parenting (FRP) was coined. No doubt he would have had something to say about the oxymoronic phrase. A friend of mine living in Rotterdam says, “The Dutch would howl with laughter if they were told they were ‘free-range parenting’; they're just raising their kids to be self-sufficient and capable.” Apparently, in Europe, there remains an as yet uncategorized activity called “parenting.”
While I’m drawn to many aspects of FRP, it remains impractical because it’s the exception rather than the rule. I love the idea of increasing Joe’s unsupervised roaming area, but more of my peers would have to be doing it too. Only when public parks are filled with the sounds of children playing can parents rely on the age-old rule of safety that there’s strength in numbers.
The truth is I’d love to hear the Dickie Dee bell ring through the streets again and see kids crowded around it buying Turbo Rockets and creamsicles. I’d buy a round for the whole neighbourhood if I could, and we’d breathe a collective sigh of relief that the hysteria had finally come to an end.
But the critical mass isn’t there yet and this isn’t a dance floor where many people want to be the first to bust-a-move.
Another problem with FRP is its emphasis on locomotion which is key to independence-making, but not exclusively so. Even if you’re not comfortable pasturing your kids there are plenty of low-risk growth opportunities waiting to be nurtured indoors.
For example, I’d like to think my boy could qualify as certified, Grade A free range if he graduates high school knowing how to complete his own Passport application. And I mean start to finish: licked-it, sticked-it, stamped-it. (Boarding a train carrying his own back-pack is a given.)
In an effort to move Joseph in this direction I recently resigned as his personal secretary. I might not be able to holler him in from the back forty at suppertime—which is a shame, because I’m a damn fine hollerer—but he has an iPad with an electronic calendar and now is as good a time as any to apprentice him in managing paperwork and a hectic schedule: reading the school newsletter, pulling out key dates, programming them into his calendar, and creating reminders.
This week was the first time he clued in to Hot Lunch Day on his own because he’d added it as a recurring weekly appointment. I refrained from my habit of laying out pen and paper and correct change and a Ziploc bag and reminding him three, four, maybe sixteen times to write down the order and put everything in his school bag. Instead, I kept my mouth shut, sat quietly in the living room, and watched him run around, figuring out the whole complicated business on his own.
“I did it mom!” he said, proudly, 35 minutes later. (I’ll wait a few more weeks before bringing in the stop watch.) Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I arrived back home after drop-off when I saw the lunch money bag on the kitchen counter.
I’m pretty sure I know what George Carlin would have done.
Later that morning I could see my little chicken with his beak in a book—another fine day in second grade was in full swing. One of his classmates saw me and got his attention. I held up the lunch money bag in front of the wire-mesh safety glass in the door panel for Joe to see.
“Thanks mom” he said, sheepishly.
What can I say? Self-mastery is a work-in-progress.
Michelle Hauser is a former professional fundraiser turned humorist and freelance writer. She lives in Eastern Ontario (Canada) with her husband Mark and their son Joseph. Please click here to sign up for her monthly Newsletter.