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?