There are a multitude of positions along the ‘free range kids‘ vs helicopter parenting spectrum, and just like with other parenting issues, most likely the approach you take will be informed by a mix of intuitive, environmental, individual (your own and your children’s needs) and historical (the experiences you had in your own childhood) factors. This debate has ignited a great deal of argument about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parenting. Overscheduling? Being too protective? Letting your kids roam freely? Yet it seems to me that whilst all this judgement of other parenting styles doesn’t get us anywhere, what we as parents may need to do is to let go a little and let the children take the lead.
Whilst in our family we believe risk taking is a necessary part of childhood development, there is another frequently overlooked aspect to all of this which, it seems, is less about us as parents and more about the experience of the children themselves.
We have just returned from a week camping with another family on a headland above a beautiful sheltered bay on the South Coast. In addition to lots of all-in family rambles along the shore, the kids (aged between 4 and 8) spent many hours riding their bikes around the campground or down to the beach to play on the sand while we settled in around the campfire for another pot of coffee or an evening glass of wine.
Our children are comfortable doing this type of independent roaming (and we are comfortable with it) only because they are together. Together they provide each other with company, support, and confidence. They look out for one another and assist each other if something goes wrong. The older kids provide instruction, help and guidance to the younger children. They steer them in the right direction if they veer off the course. The group of children, sans adults, play and enjoy themselves on their own terms.
Looking after one another is an aspect of childhood which is much less common now than in previous generations. The insular modern western family unit leads a heavily programmed life mostly aimed at productivity. There are fewer opportunities for groups of children to congregate and engage with one another, especially without adult supervision. In the past, and certainly still in many Indigenous cultures, extended family groups share residential, economic and social interactions and co-dependence. Peer groups of closely related children (or closely residing, in the case of the western concept of ‘neighbourhood’) are a core part of childhood socialisation and development, with older siblings (or neighbours/friends) playing an important role in guiding, instructing, and looking after younger children.
If adults are always around, there is little scope for these relationships of mutual help, collaboration and peer socialisation to occur. Children don’t learn how to be responsible for themselves and for one another. It seems to me to be less of a case of ‘free-ranging’ or ‘helicoptering’, but more that we need to give our kids the chance to develop these important life skills.
We recently met a family who said that they couldn’t let their children (aged the same age as our eldest and older) do stuff by themselves as they were not confident that they would look after one another. This, they said, was the sticking point. Yet in order for kids to understand the imperative of taking responsibility for each other, they have to have the opportunity to learn how to do it in the first place. Our children appear to see looking after one another not only as a prerequisite to doing things by themselves, but also as a preference. Who wouldn’t want to ride down to the beach to play instead of waiting around for the adults to drink more coffee?
Do you have the space in your life/family for children to learn how to look after one another?