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I Want to Stop Smothering My Kids, But I Don't Know How

03/27/2014 12:19 EDT | Updated 05/27/2014 05:59 EDT

"Oh, wow. That school has a great playground."

I was talking to a mom with a child just starting kindergarten. This was a few years ago and I wanted to know how he was adjusting.

"Yeah, the playground's alright -- except for all the balls!"

"...balls?"

"They let the older boys throw balls around the school yard, whipping them against the wall, they go everywhere. There are little kids right next to them in the playground. Someone could get hurt!"

I backed away slowly. I mean, really. In a couple short years this woman's son would be old enough to throw a ball around with his friends. Shouldn't he be given enough space and freedom to that, at least?

I've been reading about helicopter versus free range parenting for years now. I've been hearing about how our kids are being raised on back-lit screens and shuttled from one scheduled activity to another. They don't get the time or space to explore their neighbourhoods by themselves and learn independence in the process. They aren't active enough and, quite frankly, all this tab keeping is exhausting for everyone. If there was ever a question about which side I'd take, helicopter or free-range, I'd already long decided to be free-range.

But it's not that easy.

Hanna Rosin's latest feature for The Atlantic,"The Overprotected Kid," explores yet again the ways we manage to short change our kids in the name of safety. Rosin looks at the wide-spread efforts to toddler-proof play structures and account for our children's every move and contrasts that with the relative freedom and lack of structure that defined childhood in previous generations. It's worth a read.

My generation of parents really is just shy of bubble-wrapping our kids and sending them out into the world with a GPS embedded in their bodies. We keep our kids in five-point-car-seat-harnesses for as long as possible, micromanage every detail of their locally-sourced, organic diet and get them cell phones as soon as they're likely to be away from us all in the name of health and safety. It goes against every fibre of our collective consciousness to send them out to the woods with pointed sticks and sling shots. And to be fair, we all read Lord of the Flies in school.

Listen, I was born in December of 1978. I didn't grow up picking daisies in some idyllic, nostalgia-era, freedom pasture. I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Toronto's west end, in an atmosphere that was rife with fears about stranger danger. I was nine-years-old before I ever went to a park with just a friend and no adult. I was 10-years-old when I first rode a public bus by myself and that was only once or twice during a one-year stay in the much smaller city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I turned 11 the year my family lived in the Little Italy of the Bronx, New York and only started being able to walk a couple blocks over to my friend's apartment on Saturday afternoons at the tail end of that year. My mom or dad walked my brother and I to and from school every day.

Returning to Toronto for grade seven, I finally had the freedom to come and go to friends houses (during daylight and only with express permission), ride my bike down to the lake shore and explore the wooden footpaths and trails of nearby park lands. But by then I was already 12.

So as much as I do buy into a lot of the free-range movement -- as much as I nod my head in agreement when I read about children forging their own ways and learning independence and responsibility -- I know that acting on it is a whole different story. For one, there's everybody else.

We don't parent in a vacuum. (Nor do I vacuum in my house ever since last week's sock incident, but that's a different story.) Even if I wanted to let my eight-year-old son walk over to his friends house this summer, his parents would likely not want their son walking over here, for example. They might not even be comfortable letting him walk home on his own. Sure, go to the park by yourself while I do some shopping, I might say. But I know there's half a dozen other watchful eyes on the kids at the park. They're not alone and the more surprising part is that they don't even want to be alone.

At least my kids don't.

"How would you like it if I let you walk to the park from the end of the street this summer?" I asked my son. I didn't even suggest he walk all the way from home because we live on a busy street. I would walk him to the street with the park and let him walk the three sleepy blocks or so on his own.

"Without you?! I don't know."

"Okay. Well, is there some place you guys do want to explore on your own? Some place it might be fun to check out if I left you for a few minutes to play with no grown ups around?"

"No grown ups? No, I don't think so. Why don't you want to stay with us!?"

And then, of course, there's me. Ed came home and asked if I'd read Rosin's article. Duh. What do you think I'm scribbling notes about right now? We agreed that modern kids are missing out and that we wanted to start giving ours a bit more freedom.

"I think I'll start taking them on Saturday morning adventure walks," Ed said. "I know it's not the same as them exploring on their own, but maybe they'll at least become familiar with the streets around here. They'll get to know the area. And maybe there'll be some place with a stack of crates or something and I can just sit and read while they climb on them. Or something."

"What do you mean crates? Like just some random construction waste? I don't know if I like the sound of that."

"But that's just what we were talking about! They tried to child-proof the school yards and playgrounds and there's no difference in the number of reported injuries. Kids still get hurt, they just don't learn how to navigate the risks."

"I know. But I feel like we can't turn back time. I mean, now we know better. We can't go back to a time when, Oh, look at that! Little Jimmy drowned in the river. Lose one every year."

Because even if there is no statistical difference in the total number of childhood injuries, there is a metric shit-tonne more blame heaped upon the parents. If we let our kids go off by themselves and someone were to get injured or something horrible did happen, everyone (ourselves included), would agree that we should have known better.

So I do want to let go a little. I really do. I just don't know how.

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