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This summer I met Maria, a kind, smart and serene woman. She talked about how she became a mother in her 40s, and therefore decided to ease herself back into her career gently so she could spend as much time as possible with her 4-year-old child. My immediate response to this comment from a woman who is almost the same age as me (I’m 48) and whose face was alight with the love she feels for her child, who she says was very much wanted, was, ‘Above all, raise him well!’ To which Maria replied that she had decided to take the free-range parenting approach, which makes setting boundaries rather difficult. I thought to myself, “I don’t believe these concepts are impossible to combine”.

Similarly, Juan also became a parent later in life, and has likewise decided to take the free-range parenting approach. He rationalised his decision by saying, ‘I don’t need to be hard on my child; life will take care of that for me, all I want is for him to be happy’. These stories really got me thinking. In fact, they got me thinking so much that they inspired me to blog about it!

The way children are brought up has changed a lot over the past 40 years; the way I was brought up has absolutely nothing in common with the way I have brought my children up. The world changes, and it’s only natural that the way families raise their children changes too. My question is: why is it that despite having generations of mothers and fathers who have lived in a democracy, we are talking about free-range parenting now more than ever? I have to admit that just hearing the phrase gives me the chills, and I start asking myself questions like: Can children do whatever they want? What role are the parents playing here? Is it healthy for children to have the power to decide what to do from a very young age? Do they have this freedom all the time or only in some situations? What about the fact that parents have vast amounts of experience that their children lack? Or is the whole point of this to not let our experiences influence them? Is that what free-range parenting is all about?

With all these thoughts and questions jumbled up in my head, I decided that it would be a good idea to read up on it myself. I came across some articles that grabbed my attention, for example, one expert claims he only uses the word “no” once a day with his daughters. I must admit I had to read the interview more than once because I couldn’t believe what I was reading: One “no” a day? How do you even do that? In short, the expert in question claimed that saying “no” clips children’s wings, and I couldn’t help but turn to look at my teenage child and think, “Poor kid, thank God he doesn’t need to fly!” ;)

I must confess I’ve tried to raise my children as best I can to prepare them for life in today’s society and for whatever the future may hold for them, and “no” has always played an essential role in their upbringing. Besides establishing the ground rules for a pacific coexistence, saying “no” stimulates children to think harder and look for alternatives, which helps them to develop their ingenuity. Let’s not forget this is also how they learn to manage their frustration. Saying “no” with moderation invites them to reflect, to challenge it, and to seek arguments to refute it.

In any case, I wasn’t satisfied with the information I had found so far, so I decided to bring the topic up at a meal with my brother-in-law and his wife, who are younger than me and have 3 young children, so they were surely familiar with the whole “free-range parenting” concept. I brought it up over coffee, and at one point in the conversation someone said, ‘Parents who choose this type of parenting start from a premise that human beings are good, empathetic, and generous by nature’. This comment conjured up some memories from the past: I was back in the park with my children, reliving everyday scenes from their nursery-school days. I saw images of one child hitting another, trying to take his bucket and spade, I remembered my child making up excuses while waiting for his turn on the swings so they would let him go first, another child throwing sand in my friend’s son’s eyes, and so on and so forth.

My experience tells me that as children we have a strong survival instinct which fortunately, we channel and redirect as we grow older. Undoubtedly, the process to control our instincts limits our spontaneity, but I personally believe that reason should always prevail over our most primal instincts.

In my opinion, the idea of free-range parenting is to help our children make their own judgment, to set boundaries and to set standards, without restricting essential aspects such as creativity, participation in the family, responsibility and, above all, personal freedom. If managing freedom is already quite complex for adults, how can it not be for children? As adults, we also need to be told “no” and even someone giving us a warning from time to time. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society where limits are necessary to facilitate coexistence. If there were no boundaries, managing freedom well would depend largely on common sense, and as it happens, common sense isn’t all that common.

What does free-range parenting mean to you?

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