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Free-Range Parenting & the Working Parent

Free-Range Parenting & the Working Parent

Last summer, I suggested to my soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter that she ride her bike five houses down to visit her neighborhood friend. She declined and asked (pleaded really) that I walk her over. At the time, I thought it was her lack of confidence. But with the recent debate over free-range parenting, I am starting to wonder if maybe I haven’t given her the opportunities to nurture the independence and build the resiliency skills needed to make that simple ride around the block. Was I the stereotypical Gen X “helicopter” parent I keep seeing referenced in articles?

Deep down, I know I’m not. I let my children fail and make mistakes. My daughter takes 100% responsibility for her homework and gets to choose whether she wants to learn from her errors or hand it to the teacher “as is.” I give them opportunities to be independent. My 3-year-old son can choose and prepare his own breakfast. I let my children have free play outside without me hovering nearby. There are boundaries and limits based on each of their ages, of course, but I see the difference a few hours of outdoor play has on their attitude, confidence, and independence.

Preschool boy hiking

I may not be a helicopter parent but I am a working parent. By sheer logistics, my kids have to be at child care or in activities until my husband or I get home. We don’t have a grandmother living in the downstairs apartment like I did growing up. My mom was a single, working mom but the make-up of neighborhoods are different today for us. There are no city buses that can transport my kids from school to the library and then back home. I have wonderful neighbors but a majority have children in different schools or in their own sports and after-school activities. When I think about my own childhood experiences, I long for my kids to experience riding their bikes to a friend’s house or the park. But our town doesn’t have sidewalks and the ride to a park on a busy street is dangerous for me, let alone a distracted 8-year-old.

So what do you do as a working parent to give children the free-range they need to become independent? Honestly, I think they get a lot of opportunities to build confidence and independence. From preschool to camps to sports, they have to trust other adults and adapt to new situations. They often learn how to do things on their own and figure out when to seek help from a teacher or instructor. They have to make friends and trust their judgment in situations when mom and dad aren’t available. They inevitably make mistakes and face failures and learn problem-solving skills through trial and error. Do I wish I could be the person who is guiding them in these lessons? Sure! But I can’t always be there and maybe that’s a good thing for them. Well, that’s what I tell myself when working mom guilt creeps in.

And about that bike ride to our neighbor’s house? This weekend, my daughter and a friend rode their bikes together around the neighborhood solo and it was no big deal. So maybe it was just needing to grow up a bit and my daughter finally feeling ready to make that ride on her own.

Siblings hiking a mountain

Bright Horizons Parent Podcast

Hear from early childhood experts Ellen Galinsky, the Chief Science Officer at the Bezos Family Foundation and Executive Director at Mind in the Making, and Rachel Robertson, the Education and Development Vice President at Bright Horizons, as they discuss common parenting challenges and the science behind parenting that can turn frustration into skills for life.


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