Confessions of a free-range parent

Jennifer Pinarski shares her ideas on how kids and parents can both be a little braver when it comes to free-range parenting.
Jen

Gillian, barefoot tree climber. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

At the front of our house, about a dozen half-sawn tree stumps are pushed clumsily together in a semi-circle. Broken sticks poke out at threatening angles from the spongy rotten centre of one of the stumps. Another dozen logs are haphazardly lined up on the ground next to the stumps in a quasi-bridge over the bristly dry grasses and lichens that we call our lawn. If you don’t watch where you are going, chances are the gaps between the logs will swallow your ankles—and, according to my daughter, the bridge is best crossed barefoot. The stumps and sticks are left over from work hydro crews did two years ago to prevent trees falling on the power lines next to our house. To anyone driving past our house, the decaying logs are probably an eye sore, but to my children they’ve been rocketships, bakeries, ninja hideouts and haunted houses. People driving past our house probably wonder if we have a real playground in the backyard or wonder why we can’t afford to have toys for our kids.

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This week, Hanna Rosin’s essay “The Overprotected Kid” made the rounds on social media. In my Facebook and Twitter feeds, her essay was praised for identifying everything that was wrong with today’s kids. Usually the link was framed by “YES!” or “THIS!” or “Why can’t all playgrounds be like this!” in reference to The Land, a one-acre playground in North Wales. The Land is the star in Rosin’s essay, a place where plastic slides have been traded for discarded car tires and crates and children play mostly unsupervised. The more I read about Rosin’s description of The Land, the more I wondered if she’d been dropped in our backyard instead of a suburb in the UK.

That’s because our unconventional backyard—complete with poison ivy, bear visits, salvaged tire swings and a fast moving river—makes a few of my friends uncomfortable, as does the fact that I let my kids explore it with minimal supervision. I didn’t find Rosin’s view of The Land revolutionary because I don’t think that letting kids start fires and get dirty is risky, but that is my narrow view and experience with free-range parenting.

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The truth is free-range parenting is easier said than done. It requires a good measure of courage to trust not only your own instincts, but your children’s instincts, too. It is a very personal choice—dependent on how well your kids know the lay of the land. My children have the confidence to climb trees to dizzying heights, yet are overwhelmed when we visit Toronto because they just don’t understand the concept of traffic lights or revolving doors. This isn’t entirely their fault either. I was raised on a farm and while I can kill and pluck a chicken, I had to be taught how to hail a cab when I was in Toronto for a conference last year. My children’s confidence and my willingness to my kids to run wild in our wilderness backyard looks impressive, but it is tempered with the fact that, beyond the safety of our surroundings, my kids are vulnerable, nervous and clingy—because I am too.

Free-range parenting has been unfairly framed as an “all or nothing” effort. Either you let your children romp and roam freely or you’re doing free-range parenting all wrong. What?! You don’t let your kid ride their bike three blocks to school? Well, you’re crushing their independence. How dare you check in on your kids playing? Aren’t you ashamed of hovering? Instead of calling each other out on how we ought be raising our kids, let’s work together to be less fearful and support each other when our kids take risks, especially when we’re not ready to let them go.

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“Look! It’s the perfect ballerina!” shouted my daughter. We’d spent the last few hours on our riverfront building a fire pit out of discarded cement blocks and needed a break to play. The “ballerina” she meant was a fallen tree that she could turn into a balance beam. A vicious wind storm a few years ago meant that our property is littered with “ballerinas.” She scrambles up the log, barefoot and brave. She either is unaware or ignores the distance between her and the ground, and crosses the top of the log easily, adding a tipsy pirouette at the end that causes me to catch my breath. I’m in awe of her confidence, wishing I had just a smidgen of hers. As she crosses the log again, I notice she doesn’t look down, but straight ahead at me. It’s then I realize her confidence doesn’t come from not knowing about where the ground is, but from knowing where I am.

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