Family Matters

Growing Up: Free-Range Kids or Smother Mother?

How's a parent to know when a child is old enough to cross the street — or, in Laura Dekker's case, the ocean — alone?

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It’s hard to know how much freedom to give your kids and at what age to bestow it: when are kids old enough to stay home alone? To babysit their siblings? To circumnavigate the globe?

On Jan. 21, Dutch teen Laura Dekker, 16, glided into St. Maarten and proclaimed herself the youngest person to sail around the world. A few days before that milestone, over at the-kids-are-alright Free-Range Kids blog, author Lenore Skenazy published a note she’d received from “a gal named Heather” entitled “Wish I’d been raised more free-range.”

In our contemporary lexicon, “free-range” typically refers to chickens. Very fortunate fowl who — unfettered by cages — get to roam where they want. Now substitute children for chickens. You get the point.

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Skenazy launched the blog a couple years ago after acquiescing to her 9-year-old son’s request to ride the New York City subway home alone. He returned, brimming with self-confidence, and Skenazy coined the term “free-range kids” to refer to that elusive middle ground of being responsible for your children while letting their independence blossom. Think of it as the opposite of the hover-mother.

“[H]elicoptered kids do miss out on a lot of childhood…,” wrote Skenazy in a lead-in to Heather’s letter, in which Heather describes growing up with parents who were so cautious that they made her drive only on neighborhood streets and avoid the freeway. When Heather’s dad died when she was 18, she recalls “with irony” driving home on the freeway for the first time, and worse, “feeling completely unprepared to be an adult.” As a result, she’s done things differently with her own 10-year-old, starting with allowing him to walk home from school alone in second grade. “He’s an amazing kid with lots of independence,” wrote Heather.

For so many parents, the transition from babe-in-arms to capable kid is paved with uncertainty. When I’m running late, I uneasily let my 7-year-old and 9-year-old start walking to school without me. If I don’t catch up with them in time, they have to cross a busy street at a crosswalk. They’ve done it twice, holding hands as they walk. When I caught up to them the last time, they were still holding hands, sharing a bond that comes from accomplishing something that they knew required caution and care. My 7-year-old was bursting with pride. “Mommy, be late all the time,” she said.

And yet one of the commenters on Skenazy’s blog noted the potential pitfalls of giving children too much freedom, a situation she had experienced as a child: “It didn’t help my confidence as many people mention,” wrote a reader named Sylvana. “I was shy and self-conscious and was faced with situations I didn’t know how to handle. I felt abandoned and awkward and wished that I had more parental guidance.”

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As I wrote last summer after the tragic murder of Leiby Kletzky, who was killed by a stranger after getting lost on his first day walking home from camp alone:

There is no magical age at which children become ready to tackle a new challenge, and moms and dads who think otherwise are only deluding themselves. As parents, it’s our job to foster independence in our children and to gauge when they’re ready for each incremental step. Some 6-year-olds may be ready to cross the street without an adult; others may be too dreamy to accomplish that task safely for several more years.

And forget crossing the street; what about crossing the sea? On Babble, Meredith Carroll questioned how Laura Dekker’s parents could have watched her sail away. “I think it’s fabulous when little kids have big dreams, particularly when they work hard to make them become a reality… [But] how can that kind of risk possibly be worth the reward? I know, I know. You think this girl and her feat are fabulous, blah, blah, blah. But, what if?”

Parents, how do you navigate the tenuous line between being over- and under-protective?