Free-range parenting?

A big question has risen on my mind since we moved: to let or not to let my child go play outside in the courtyard by himself.

There was no question about it when we lived on the fourth floor. I wouldn’t dream of letting a 3-year-old go four stories down the elevator to play by himself (with his own key so he can come back up). But now we are on the ground floor with a door onto the courtyard and a patio door, too. So sometimes when the baby is sleeping and my son wants to go out, it’s very tempting to let him go by himself.

Our courtyard is pretty much enclosed. There are doors on the back alley that are locked from the outside, but they do open on the inside so kids could in theory open them. There are stairs leading to the street in the front, but the stairs seem to act like natural barriers and my son has never, ever tried to leave the courtyard. So I’m not too worried about him bolting. He could chase after a ball; we have told him not to, but you never know. A stranger could come into the courtyard, but really, what are the odds that it could happen AND end up badly. There are 100 windows on the courtyard with people who can possibly witness an abduction, people who for the most part know all the kids who live here and who they belong to.

I’m more concerned about the fact that if I’m not there, I can’t make sure my son is acting properly. He could do something stupid and hurt himself, like the time he decided to go down a pole by himself and fell flat on his back. Most likely it would result in no more than skinned knees, but you never know. I am also missing occasions to teach him how to interact properly with other children. But I am also banking on the older kids kinda regulating that; I have heard some of them say, before, “Well, I might share if you ask me nicely”. If my son is whiny, eventually they will tell him. And it’s not like I’m never around: as soon as my daughter wakes up, I’m outside playing with her and loosely watching my son. I don’t hover over him anyway, so even when I’m there he skins his knees and hears (or uses) improper manners.

So what is a parent to do? So far we go on a case by case basis. If my son is alone outside, I’ll ask him to stay right in front of our door and I check up on him often (I simply have to pop my head out the patio door). If there are kids I know and trust, or kids with parents I like, or when the older kids allow my son to play with them (10 or 12 year olds I know are reasonable), I let him roam the courtyard. I still check up on him regularly. I can always hear him if he shouts or starts crying (usually from above-stated skinned knees – concrete is a bitch). And there is that one kid who is never supervised and has a knack for doing careless things (in his defense, I believe he is mildly autistic). When that kid is out, my son stays in until I can go out with him.

Am I right? In the last few weeks, I have come upon two different kids who almost went down the front stairs (12 concrete steps with a landing in the middle) on a tricycle. The first time I yelled at the kid to stop. The second time I didn’t see it in time, but the kid jumped off the bicycle just before it went down. So there is definitely the potential for some serious injuries out there. Although in both cases it didn’t end up badly, and I am kinda counting on other adults to do for my son the same thing I did for theirs on occasions. My son will also learn some bad language, I’m sure. But he’ll learn that anyway, and we can always work on eliminating it afterwards. I mean, my son is a very good kid, he has never tried to leave the courtyard, he acts extremely reasonably, he comes back to ask us for permissions before he does something he has never tried before or asks for my help when he’s not sure he can do something. I mostly trust him, at least as much as you can trust a four-year-old.

Of course there is danger. Of course if something happens I’ll feel horrible. But I also know that you cannot eliminate all danger. He needs to figure some things out for himself. He needs to fall to figure out what he can or cannot do. I am trying to keep him safe while giving him space. I am trying to strike a balance between keeping him locked inside because he has a baby sister and giving him time and space to play, run, exercise and learn social skills without having me to remind him what he should do… I keep thinking of the freedom Zak and I enjoyed when we were kids, or even more so the freedom of previous generations. My grandma had 9 kids; when her oldest was 4, she had 3 more. Do you really think she was watching him all the time? Yet he survived just fine. I think it’s healthy. As long as I don’t think about it for too long. Then it scares the crap out of me. Kids did die in those years – just like some do today, but back then they didn’t look for culprits, they just accepted the fact that accidents happen. Now we strive for eliminating all risk, but are we also eliminating all fun?

What do you think?

One Response to “Free-range parenting?”

  1. marie Says:

    c’est une question difficile, mais il faut être conscients que tu ne peux pas être toujours à côté de lui et que les accidents peuvent arriver quand tu es tout près, comme la fois où tu te félicitais qu’il ait porté son casque de vélo.
    alors quelle est la différence si tu es à l’intérieur et que tu surveilles à l’occasion? tu n’es presque pas plus loi. si tu es capable de ne pas culpabiliser en cas d’accident, laisse le faire; il est assez fiable, mais garde l’oeil ouvert
    voici l’opinion de ta vieille mère