Free Range Kids

Living next door to one’s in-laws has its perks. (If you’re me, anyway. I’m sure mileage varies.)

For example, my MIL makes sure the lawn guys cut our lawn, and she gives them our payments. She will sit with the baby while I take the girls to Flora’s soccer practice. Once a week, she comes over at 6:30 a.m. so I can get to work early. (This is especially helpful if I have to unexpectedly bolt early another day to take a child to the doctor or something.) And we all usually have dinner together once a week, at her place. Tadone sits with an under-the-weather Kate and keeps her entertained with YouTube videos of laughing babies so I don’t have to burn personal or vacation time.

Because of our arrangement, my children often feel free to go over to Bella and Tadone’s whenever they feel like it.

Unfortunately, this arrangement has blurred the boundaries when it comes to the rest of the world.

My children operate under the false assumption that if it’s okay to just go into Bella’s house, it’s okay to go into our other neighbors’ yards if not houses. Kate has, actually, walked into the house of the people who live across the street from us.

She wanted to play with their dog.

Mind you, we have attempted to instill in them boundaries. They have been expressly forbidden to go into anyone’s house, even if the person invites them. They are to come to us first. And we will, nine times out of ten say, “No. You cannot go into that person’s house without Mommy or Daddy.” (The tenth one had better be the ILs, otherwise it’s 10 out of 10.)

They are not even supposed to go into any yard except for ours or Bella’s. Again, unless I am with them, for example, on an evening walk.

The neighbors across the “street” — we’ll call them the Smiths, and they live across the driveway, really, not a street — are a couple the same age as Dan and I, but their children (a boy and a girl) are 20 and 17. They are done with the baby/toddler/childhood stages. They are very friendly, with Dan and me as well as with the children. They have never, ever called or taken me aside to say, “Please keep your children out of our yard.” Their daughter has babysat for us.

The time that Kate came into their house, they laughed it off. Mrs. Smith just said, “We just wanted you to know in case you were worried where she was.” Mr. Smith takes great delight in our Kate, actually, even enjoying my exasperation with her.

Now Dan and I have differing philosophies about children outside. My thinking is that a 6 year old and a 4 year old are fine outside, without direct adult supervision for up to half an hour at a time, for example. Dan thinks the children should be supervised at all times — this even goes for in the house. He wants them in sight, always.

I have clear rules for outside: They have to stay in our yard (or Bella’s). When I call, they have to come. They know these rules, and Flora, for one, follows them to the letter. (There is one other yard they are allowed in, with permission — they have to come ask — and they have to stay outside, and they are not allowed on the trampoline. If they go into this yard with the children who live there, I seldom let them stay longer than 15 or 20 minutes without me.)

Kate, not surprisingly, is another story, and is making me rethink my “free range kids” philosophy. She, clearly, is not abiding by the boundaries we have set. Lately, she has been asking to go outside with Flora, and when I hesitate, she says, quite seriously, “I will not go into Mr. Smith’s house.” Well, okay, kid, but there are larger issues here.

I am struggling with this, especially after such a long, rainy spring season. Children need to play outside — hence the backyard playset going up this weekend. Yet, I am not in a position to be outside with them every second. Sometimes I am stuck giving Michael his bottle or changing his diaper, or I am trying to get dinner to the table. I think letting them go outside while I do these things — with the rules outlined above — is reasonable.

Should I have different rules for Flora and Kate? Should I make Flora her sister’s keeper (i.e. she can’t do anything Kate can’t do)? Should I tell them they can’t go outside unless I am going with them — without exception?

We have also instituted another rule that I was very relaxed about until this week. When we come home, we are to get all of our stuff — purses, lunch bags, stuffed animals, what have you — out of the car and go directly into the house. For awhile, I was relaxed about it because if they didn’t go into my house, they went to Bella’s. But lately they have taken to roaming into the Smith’s yard (especially if they are outside in their garden), or looking for Kate’s friend “Lisa” who lives in a house below us. I can’t have that when I am juggling my stuff and the baby, and anxious to get dinner ready. So I’ve put the kibosh on that, and  now it’s “in the house until after dinner” for the most part. Seems to be working.

What do you do? Let your kids roam, or don’t let them out of sight? How do you balance it? What are your kids’ boundaries, and do they obey them?

11 thoughts on “Free Range Kids

  1. We’re dealing with this right now as well. Not so much Maggie going into other people’s houses (OMG I WOULD DIE. LOL) but how long/much do we let her go off on her own or with the other kids? Our neighborhood is SERIOUSLY ridiculous with how open and caring and ‘hangy-outy’ everybody is, so there is almost always someone else outside to play with, and every parents watches out for the other kids, you know? Last year, we were new to the ‘hood and Maggie was just turning three. But this year, she’s so much older and able to keep up with the big kids now. So… I think she’s ready? I think I’m ready? Maybe? It’s weird for both of us, actually. She is hesitant at first to go across the street alone, but I’ve encouraged her to go play with the girls on their swings when they called for her, I stood on the sidewalk and watched her cross safely. Then I sat on the porch while she played.

    I think it’s good to let them go, just a little bit at least. I remember being 5, 6? And we spent ALL DAY outside either at our house or up the street. Our moms knew where we all were (and we knew we would TOTALLY get in trouble by The Other Mom if we did anything wrong! She was In Charge! heh) So I think it’s fine, personally. As long as the kid is ready, and as long as it makes sense for whatever we have going on (to answer your ‘making dinner’ question) Darn kids, growing up! 🙂

    • Right, I remember the “halcyon days of summer”, too, where we kids played outside, usually in someone’s backyard. Or exploring the nearby “woods”, and riding bikes up and down the street.

      Where we live now, my kids are the youngest ones, and because of where our house is located relative to the street and the rest of the neighborhood, I would be nervous about them playing “down there”. I think especially Kate is too young to be that “far” away from supervision. But letting them (and their 7 and 5 year old cousins) roam our backyard should be fine. I’m glad we’re putting up a playset, because it will give them something very concrete to do. In case kicking a soccer ball or digging for worms gets too boring.

      And, yeah, I just about DIED from embarrassment when Mrs. Smith came over and said, “Um, I just want you to know, Kate was in our house.” Again, she totally laughed it off, but it was mortifying.

  2. I hear you. My husband is like you, he thinks it’s OK to let the kids play alone in the backyard. My kids, however, are 3 and 2. I think that’s WAY too young. Claire is perfectly trustworthy, but Luca is not. Claire is very good at keeping her eye on Luca, but there are times when she gets involved in something and forgets about him.

    I’m so afraid that my kid is going to get snatched up. People are stupid and scary these days. Sure, I live in a cul de sac in the middle of nowhere, but who knows?

    I’m a more relaxed mother. I let my kids roam the house freely. We never used baby gates because I think they’re insane. Kids need space and freedom to explore, but still know that there are boundaries. I give my kids that and expect them to respect me in return. So far, so good.

    It also reminds me to parent my kids. So when I give them space I have to remember to check in on them and parent them. And I try to be equally tough on them.

    But it doesn’t always work…

    • Oh, but something I do when the kids are outside below the deck playing, I set up the baby monitor. That way I can hear them and know where they are, even if I can’t see them. I understand your issues with M. I never know if I have to change Mae, feed her, or what have you.

      • I often have the monitor upstairs on, and it’s hilarious to come upstairs and yell at the girls for talking/playing when they should be sleeping. They’re always like, “how does she KNOW?” They think I have super powers. Aw, hell, I’m a mom; I DO have super powers!

    • I do think that 3 and 2 is too young, especially if the yard isn’t fenced in. I used to let Flora wander a little more last summer, but I supervised Kate pretty closely.

      Dan has a rabid fear of one of our children being kidnapped — or raped. It really haunts him. We live away from a main street, kind of above our neighborhood, and I have emphasized to the girls that if they *ever* saw a stranger near our houses, they are to run inside screaming. Without hesitation. I think the media build up the “luring” and “kidnapping” stories — hey, they gotta sell ad space, right? But we can’t let it scare us into caging the kids. I think there has to be a balance of “free ranging” and supervision. that’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.

      As far as in the house — it’s a total free for all. 🙂

  3. My older two are allowed in the fenced backyard by themselves. Usually, I’m sitting at the kitchen table watching them. And usually they get bored pretty quickly and want to be where I am. But, hey, I try! And I do let them roam the house freely, mostly out of necessity while I am attending to the baby, working, or cleaning. That means they generally leave big messes in their wake, but they know they have to clean it all up before dinner. Do they actually clean it up? Sometimes. And sometimes I have to prod and yell and beg and threaten. I’m not above it. =>

    • Something else I try to impress on the girls is they have to be either where I can see them instantly if I come outdoors, or when I call them, they have to immediately respond. I have to know where they are. If they go too far, they are inside the rest of the night. I think they are learning!

  4. I was also a “free range” kid growing up, and I was tempted to say, “But that was another time.” But you know what? There were pervs and molesters around then too… it’s just that you didn’t hear about it very often. Today’s news-driven media gives a megaphone to every lurid story, the more tragic or depraved, the better. So it just seems as though there’s a threat to your child around every corner and under every rock.

    I think if you remain reasonably vigilent and work with your kids on rules and boundaries, AND if you have a neighborhood full of like-minded adults, the kids can have a little freedom, the parents can have a little peace and everyone wins.

    So sayeth Another Childless Douche.

    • I wish I knew the neighbors a little better. Because of where our house is located in the neighborhood, aside from Mr. & Mrs. Smith (and my ILs), I don’t interact with my neighbors daily. Or even weekly. We haven’t gotten into a evening groove (as far as walks, etc.) yet between the weather and the baby’s schedule. I’m pretty sure most of my neighbors don’t even know I was pregnant! I think right now it’s going to be rules and boundaries. Unless I try to start an annual block party… which probably isn’t a bad idea, but I’m not sure I can take on another project!

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