Free-range parenting: Why it's OK to rescue your kids

The secret to free-range parenting isn't to leave kids to fend for themselves—it's actually the opposite.

Gillian on an outdoor winter adventure. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski
Gillian on an outdoor winter adventure. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

One of my four-year-old daughter Gillian’s favourite outdoor winter activities is to follow the animal tracks in the woods behind our house. Last year, we discovered the tracks of a rabbit, moose, squirrel, deer, fox and turkey. Sometimes she punches holes in the snow and pretends that they are the footprints of a giant snow beast and we roar and gallop through the drifts together as if we’re being chased. Other times she’ll lay down in the snow, swinging her arms at her side to create a snow angel, claiming that a snow fairy dropped from the clouds and that we needed to be quiet to let her sleep. And each time we trek, we end up further than expected, and into to snow piles that pass her knees. Stiff little fingers that hurt from the cold are a guarantee. So are the tears.

Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>

Now, I could have taken a (very aggressive) page from the free-range parenting handbook and made her walk home on her own. I could let her cold fingers be a lesson on why she should wear warmer gloves when we play outside or why she should listen to me when I suggest turning around, instead of continuing to explore.

But I don’t. Instead, I’ll hoist her up for a piggy-back ride home, letting her tuck her little fingers into the crook of my neck to warm up.

Read more: Let’s end helicopter parenting right now>

Catherine Newman brought up an interesting aspect of the free-range parenting versus helicopter parenting debate last week in Motherlode. Often, very definitive lines are drawn between the two: overbearing helicopter parents forgoing teachable moments (“Here’s your hat, honey! It is cold outside!”) versus the hardier children of free-rangers (“They’re your ears! Hope you like frostbite!”). Proponents of free-range parenting boast that their children are better prepared for adulthood because they’ve learned from their mistakes. Free-range kids are independent.

Read more: Overprotected children>

But like Newman, I believe my sherpa-like rescuing of my preschool daughter is teaching her a lesson far greater than the importance of properly dressing for the weather. It’s more about why we need to help each other out.

In her article “‘Not Rescuing’ Our Kids Shouldn’t Mean Letting Them Flounder”, Newman writes:

“Not to sound like a bad capitalist, but independence may not be such a great goal either. Everyone taking good care of themselves, efficiently separated from the needs of others—is that the best possible world we can live in?

What about something else altogether? Not dependence, not independence, but something more like interdependence, where we acknowledge our mutual reliance, count on cooperation, and nurture generosity, compassion and charity. Interdependence means saying, in a million ways, “How can I help?”—to your children, your partner, your friends, your community—and expecting them to do the same.”

Now that the winter weather in upon us again, Gillian may not always remember to to bring her warmer gloves on an outdoor adventure, but I can guarantee she would be one of the first to offer hers up should her friends ever need them.

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. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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