Balancing Freedom

Hello! Tela here. Between national television appearances, raising my four-year-old, and uh, work, I’ve been a little busy. So I reached out to Dana to ask her to write a guest post. (Because I’m too busy to write a post myself, OBVI. I kid! I kid! I have some thoughts brewing and post a’coming. Promises.) Dana is a frequent reader/commenter on WMAG, I love her perspective on things, and I wanted to hear more. Today she writes about one of the many aspects of the all-important parent balancing act–“balancing freedom.”

I would not describe myself as a helicopter mother. My children attended a local church daycare from a young age, while I worked from my home office and traveled on business occasionally.

I let my daughter take the school bus. I rarely chaperone school trips, so that she can have adventures without me. When she started kindergarten, I requested she be in a class with kids that didn’t attend her preschool so she’d be forced to make new friends. And when she was five, I found her a field hockey day camp for ages five through eighteen. At drop-off, I dried her tears, told her she’d figure it out, and make some friends. And then I left—granted, I did hide in the bushes for the first half-hour to make sure she didn’t puke immediately. She was fine.

So a few years ago, when I heard about a blog and book called Free Range Kids, I thought it was terrific. I agree that kids need some freedom to explore. Kids need time to practice life skills, have fun, and experiment. They need to see that their parents are human beings, and not robots sent to hover over them with a damp Kleenex and a bottle of hand sanitizer. I love the idea of taking our kids to the park and leaving them there to play, but how do we prepare them? There is a lot of talk about giving our kids more freedom, but very little practical information about what the real risks are and how we can make sure our kids are ready to face them. It’s not as simple as opening the door and pushing them outside.

I enjoy my work. After some false starts, bad fits, and leaps of faith over the seven years since my daughter was born, I’ve found an arrangement that meets my goals as a mother and a professional woman. Both my husband and I have pretty flexible jobs, so we share the responsibilities of sick days and doctors appointments. Most of the time, it works really well.

The reality is, though, that even on the best days, my kids are out of my sight for most of their waking hours. This never bothered me because I built a network of trusted caregivers, friends and professionals. I hadn’t seen the need to have a lot of “the big talks” with my kids because I trusted everyone they’d come in contact with during the course of a day. When my mom took my daughter on a trip across county when she was five, I spent some time role playing “what to do if you get lost” scenarios and had talks about what happens at airports and how to stay safe. I thought that was good enough.

About a year ago, a few things happened in our community that changed everything. I’ll go into more detail about these events in a future post, but today I’d like to share the my two biggest takeaways from the aftermath:


  • I really know very little about what my kids really do every day.

I don’t need to know about every playground squabble or minor drama, but I wrongly assumed my kids would tell me about anything out of the ordinary. I also assumed that if they faced a problem they would bring it up over dinner or at bedtime. For example, my daughter started eating lunch in the school cafeteria this year. She kept bringing home the small container of peaches I packed for her. I know she likes peaches, so I found this strange.

The second time it happened, I asked her about it. She shrugged and said she didn’t like them anymore. It took about a week of asking the question in different ways before she burst into tears and told me that she didn’t know where the trashcan was in the cafeteria. If she ate the peaches, she would have to throw away the empty cup. The solution was easy enough—bring home the trash or ask a teacher to help—but the incident floored me.

If this was something too embarrassing for her to tell me, what if she was being bullied or worse? And here is where the working mother questions herself—if I had more time, or wasn’t so tired at night or didn’t have that business trip—would we have more conversations? Would I somehow be more engaged without actually hovering?

  • I had no idea how many people in my life had been mistreated as a child, and how few of them ever told their parents (or waited years before telling).

As the local stories in my community unfolded, and I shared the information with family and close friends, I was flabbergasted at how many people in my life were abused as children. They were abused by teachers, doctors, family members, family friends, neighbors. Some of it was close calls or just nuisance advances, but much of it was the worst you can imagine. I came to the realization that most of us probably have someone in their extended circle of trust that doesn’t belong there.

So while I can nod in agreement with the notion that letting my kids walk to the school bus is not putting them in danger of being taken by a stranger, I now know it isn’t strangers that are the problem. It’s the sweet neighbor with the cute dog who knows my kid is walking home every day at the same time and occasionally invites her in her home for a cookie. This person is someone I know well, someone I trust, but I’m just not so sure that trust beats reality. And again, if something did happen, does having my attention occasionally focused on something besides my children, such as my work, make it harder for me to see hidden signs or have the right conversations?

I’m a civil engineer, and I tend to think of life risks like maybe… a dam. An old dam might have a low risk of failure but if it did fail, there would be a high risk of damage to life and property. These risks must be balanced when deciding on action. Do we rebuild the dam? Relocate people who live downstream? Or simply keep an eye on it and educate the public the best we can?

I’m still in the evaluation phase when it comes to my kids. I love this TED talk from Brene Brown about that research shows that people who let themselves be vulnerable live more rich lives. I want that for myself and my children. I just have to figure out how.

Dana is a Civil Engineer and a mother of three. Dana tweets about work and life at @civil3diva and blogs about civil engineering software.

15 thoughts on “Balancing Freedom

  1. Anonymous says:

    Love this post! You captured perfectly the situation I am in with my 5 year old and trying not to hover vs. giving her freedom plus you gave me some ideas on some discussions I need to have with her. I look forward to your follow up.

  2. Mary Zolene says:

    I am anxious to read a sequel to this post. How do you find that balance when it comes to trusting your child with someone else? I struggle with hovering over the caregivers and letting them organize their own day with my child. She is only 16mths old and can’t tell me what is going on.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I feel the exact same way. I frequently read the free range kids blog, but never really know where the line should be drawn. Also, I had an “ok” childhood (not the worst, but certainly not the best) and I know there are many things that either I didn’t tell my parents, or that they knew about, but they thought I “got over” quite easily. In fact, some of these things bothered me for years, and impacted my personality to an extent. So, I wonder, will my children tell me everything? Getting any information out of my daughter about her day is very difficult already (she’s 9).One more thought…somewhat related. My daughter was invited to a friend’s house. We know that the friend’s mom has a new boyfriend. My husband was worried about our daughter going over there since we don’t know him. I defended him, and said he could be just as good or bad as any of the other dads, it shouldn’t matter that he’s a “boyfriend”. So…we let her go with them for the day. My daughter then told me that night that he had gotten into a fight with her friend at the restaurant, and pushed the dinner table towards her so hard that she fell off of her chair onto the floor. My daughter said that everyone in the restaurant was staring, and that the mom had had to intervene. I know this could have happened with any kid’s parent…but just as I was getting comfortable letting our daughter have some more freedom, this made me question my judgement.

  4. What a great post describing exactly how I feel about that line between risk and free-range, that internal struggle that us moms have. I figure as long as we are thinking about ways to be more free range we are ahead of the curve. Mine are 3.5 but I’m lucky I have twins, so between the two of them they can often figure things out and one of them will usually tell me whats going on.

  5. First, with regard to the conversation you have with yourself about your parenting and the results, remember that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. You’re gonna do what you, you’re gonna try your best, and then stuff’s gonna happen anyway. Let yourself off the hook. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’, but don’t judge yourself. Forgive yourself.Second, same goes for your children, let them off the hook. They are going to continue to go through big changes and mental anguish, just like you. What they need from you is to know that you like them, whether they succeed or fail. So separate the lessons from the respect. Teach them during the teachable moments, but articulate your lack of judgement and your unconditional respect for them. Helicopter vs. Free-Range is, in the end, a debate that must always end with your child truly feeling your respect.

  6. I didn’t mean to completely frame the conversation around abuse- I have the same concerns over safety-driving in the car, when left home alone, when playing outside… One thing the Free Range book/blog talkss about is leaving the baby in the car while you run in to pay for gas, etc. She also talks of an example of leaving babies in strollers outside of restaurants in Germany.I realize this is not likely to result in abduction, but what value is to be gained by doing that? I can be proactive and plan on getting gas most of the time when I am driving alone, pay with my debit card, or just suck it up and take the kids inside the few times I need to. It might be annoying to me, and they might be just fine in the car, but why? I don’t want my kids perma-glued to my legs, but they are also not a burden to me. I want them to grow up strong and self assured, but they are also only small once. In a few years, my husband and I will look at each other and realize its just us and we can go to restaurants alone any time we want to. Loving the comments so far and hope to hear more.

  7. First of all, I LOVE your blog’s name! I am a mom of 2 boys, ages 6 and 3 – and no one told me what GUILT and WORRY came with motherhood!I am struggling with similar issues as my son is in kindergarden, and is not very open about his day. I worry about working – I work 4 days a week. I worry about the little guy having to go to daycare. My mom was a stay at home mom – but I don’t think she knew much about our day at school either! She was busy but always there for us when we really needed her. I have a new appreciation for her, that is for sure. She may have made some mistakes – but she did a good job overall, on all three of her kids!I love this quote my SIL found (not sure who it is from)”A mother’s job is to teach her children to not need her anymore. The hardest part of that job is accepting success.”It is hard to see your kids fail or be hurt or disappointed – but that is just part of life really. It is our job to protect them, yes – but we cannot protect them from everything and it is also our job to help them through the hard times and learn to cope.

  8. @Laura- my mom was stay at home for a few years and a teacher for the balance of my childhood. One thing that keeps me from feeling guilt about working is that I don’t think she would have been a different kind of mother if she had continued to stay home full time. I think she would have had the same human strengths and weaknesses even with more time to focus on “just us”. Instead of being busy with getting out the door for work, it would have been something else.I don’t think I would be a different kind of mother if I stopped working tomorrow either. Any time I have felt guilty about our family situation it meant that something really did need to change- like maybe I really was spending too much time in front of the computer or reading my blackberry at the playground.99.9% of the time I love how we have our lives organized. I just need to remind myself not to get complacent. I need to never take the relationship with my kids and my spouse for granted.

  9. just wanted to add that I have enjoyed this though-provokig article and the discussion that followed. I question the appropriate balance constantly but I really liked what Stu said ‘they need from you is to know that you like them, whether they succeed or fail.’

  10. Anonymous says:

    What a shame…sounds like you're missing out on a lot of the wonderful things in your child's life…but guess work may be more important to you now, hope you don't regret it!

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Not everyone has the financial means to be a SAHM. Shame on the SAHMs who feel it necessary to shame and guilt the mothers who do work. The problem with most mommy clubs is that every way but their way is the wring way. We have to raise our kids the way that feels right to us, not the way other people tell us.

  13. I'd gamble that most of us could have the financial means to stay home if we made serious lifestyle adjustments- like moving to a cheaper town, buying a much smaller house, making serious compromises. Of course there are exceptions- widows, divorce, hard times, lay offs, etc.

    The way I think about it is not "I cannot afford to be a SAHM". It's "I cannot afford to live the life that I think is best for my family unless I work."

    Regardless of how you feel about SAHMs or if I am missing out on my kids' lives- consider this: Most children will eventually be out of your sight for a significant chunk of their waking hours. It might be daycare, or elementary school, or college or maybe not until they get married and move away. But it will happen.

    How will you prepare them?

  14. Anonymous says:

    I am so glad your article took the turn it did – the entire time I was reading the first portion I kept thinking of the risks not being recognized… I do not consider myself a helicopter parent but, because I was sexually abused as a child by a 'trusted' family member I am highly sensitive to danger signs and odd behaviors, which makes me very particular about who my children interact with. I don't have any answers or recommendations but I, like many of you, am searching for that perfect balance between providing freedom to explore and experience things on their own but also letting them know I am here for them always and in any situation. I chose to be a parent and I feel I need to be the person who provides my children with enough tools to navigate through life and to stand up for themselves when needed. We talk a lot about feeling uncomfortable or 'funny in your tummy' in certain situations and we also talk about trusting that feeling enough to walk away. Lastly, one of the best parts of our day is bed time, when I ask them all sorts of curious questions about their day and try my best to let them feel safe about talking to me about anything. It's hard and can be uncomfortable at times but I have been so relieved to hear my children offer their struggles and hurts and fears to me so we can talk about them. I know they won't share everything – I never did – but I hope I am creating a space for them to come to when they need it and when it matters most.

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