Thursday, August 12, 2010

Helicopter vs Free-Range Parenting

I don't think I've ever given as much thought to how my parents raised me more than I have been these days. It's not because I'm trying to test the waters myself anytime soon, but rather because A. and I are now regularly discussing parenting styles and the results of raising your child in a sheltered environment versus a more liberal approach. While he's a product and a complete supporter of "free-range" parenting, I grew up in a protective bubble made out of fear and the walls of our one-bedroom apartment in Uptown Manhattan.

Crazy thing is my parents were raised fairly free-range themselves. Sure they each had an incredibly strict parent, but you can't get more free-range than the campos of the Dominican Republic. They grew up on farms probably sharing a bed with the chickens they raised; they walked miles of dirt roads to get to school; hitched rides on the backs of motorcycles; muddied their clothes, played with dirt, pigs and sticks and climbed coconut trees for a snack; and they packed their mules with harvested produce to go sell on the city streets.

But us? Ha! It seems that once they came to New York City, the urban jungle scared the daylights out of them because my siblings and I were extremely overprotected by our mother. We couldn't go outside on our own because of the thugs that hung around the area. We were supposed to come right back home when school was done (though this didn't apply until I finally started commuting on my own in junior high). If the train was delayed, my friends and I would all line up at a pay phone, quarters in hand, to let our parents know we hadn't been kidnapped yet. Oh, and the rapists! It just so happened that there was always one "lurking" wherever we happened to be. For all my mother knows, there's probably one living next door to me now.

These parents have eyes everywhere, which is how they get you to be on your best behavior at all times. You just never know who could be watching you because in my culture, "it takes a village" is law. Other parents and friends, also known as pajaritos or "little birds," will check on you and snitch if you so much as think about stepping out of line. Growing up, Mom would freak me out with her "A little bird told me..." stories so much so that I thought the woman practiced black magic while I was off at school. And the news continue to come in to this day! Just last week she said, "Oh, so-and-so saw you walking around downtown with A. the other morning."

"What? Where? ...What were we doing?"

Needless to say, I grew up extremely sensitive, skittish and hesitant to rebel. Although you automatically gain street smarts just by living your whole life in the city, there's still this underlying fear that affects the things I do. I'm scared of being pushed into the train tracks. I still have nightmares about being kidnapped and raped. I'm constantly worried about pleasing others and making choices is oftentimes a nerve-wracking experience. I clearly remember Mom saying she'd never support my decision to go away for undergrad even though it was only an hour and a half drive away and feeling torn about my decision. (I did her one better when I chose a grad school four hours away - the same one I'd rejected for a much less prestigious one in undergrad because it was simply too far from home.) But even though I've gained some independence over the last several years, I'm still too dependent on my parents' presence. I find comfort in knowing that if I do need them, they're only 15 minutes away.

A. on the other hand was raised by liberal parents who gave him and his older sisters the freedom to do as they wished. Early on in our relationship, I couldn't get enough of his childhood stories. There were those about riding his bike God-knows-where and getting into all sorts of trouble; about spending hours at his friends' houses and his lax curfew. I admire his gutsy decision to leave Los Angeles for New York on a whim, without a job or an apartment secured. I would've been a wreck. Actually, that's not true; I would never put myself in that position to begin with. But I wish I had such adventures to tell and when we find ourselves dreaming about up and moving away from here, I also find myself hoping I'm brave enough to follow if and when that time comes.

But despite the short leash I was raised on and the consequences of that type of parenting, I don't know if I'm carefree enough to give my child the kind of freedom A. experienced. I'd be a bundle of nerves every single second wondering if they're hurt, if they're in trouble...if they've been kidnapped. My list of things I want to protect them from grows with each passing week: skateboards, roller blades, actually all things with wheels, pedophiles, night time, bullies, the Internet, Mom, but I know that I could never be everywhere at once and would only drive myself mad trying to do so. A. on the other hand is looking forward to the opportunity saying, "Expect injuries." How comforting.

How were you raised and how do you/ will you raise your children?



  1. I was sort of brought up somewhere in the middle. There were rules, but I was allowed to have a certain amount of freedom. I did have to go straight home from school, but once I was out of my uniform could go out and do pretty much what I wanted until dinner time. I had a bed time, but as long as I was quiet could get away with staying up past it - I just had to get up good in the morning. That sort of thing.

    But I was one of those kids who didn't take advantage of it most of the time. I've had my share of accidents... A slight limp and easily sprainable ankle is a constant reminder of a couple of them - but I also had my fair share of days spent curled up with a book rather than out playing.

    I plan to bring my kids up in a similar way... Follow the few rules I put in place for your protection (curfews, etc) and the rest of the time you can be free to do whatever it is kids do that causes them to come home with grazed knees, skinned elbows, bruises, etc.

  2. I think it definitely depends on where you live. My parents would have most likely been very different parents if we'd lived in places like NYC or LA. But we grew up in a small midwestern town that allowed freedom to roam.

    While we were able to ride our bikes from one side of town to the other and I never had a curfew, even through high school, my siblings and I never went looking for trouble, nor did we "find" ourselves in any.

    Maybe we were just nerdy?

    My parents weren't strict in the rule setting way, we just knew not to mess around and do something that would get us in trouble. My dad's voice commanded proper behavior, my mom was always close enough to dole out punishment if necessary. Good behavior was just expected from the get-go, and we never really tried to step over those unspoken boundaries.

    I am trying to establish something similar for my children, but it's a bit more difficult since we live in a bigger city than where I grew up. I wish we could move back to a smaller town where they could have more freedom. Maybe some day.

    I think we'll never know if we're doing the right thing. All we can do is consistently evaluate what we're doing and how effective it is, and then try and change things up if it's not working. The old adage about insanity being the repetition of the same act, expecting different results is certainly true about parenting. But I think parents fail to adjust more than anyone.

  3. I've lived in several places as a kid, all of which were safe neighborhoods with some sort of open space or woods nearby. My brothers and I would spend the entire day out of the house, wielding axes and hammers into the woods to build tree forts, riding our bikes all over the place, walking up to the neighborhood park...I loved it.

    I hope to be carefree enough to raise my children the same way. I think it's important to instill common sense into kids at an early age and to let them discover things on their own.

    But who knows, I'll probably end up being the complete opposite when I have kids of my own!

  4. My mom let me do all kinds of stuff that I would never allow a child to do today. I stayed home alone after school from second grade on. We moved to the city when I started fifth grade, and I ran all over the place by myself.

  5. My parents are not divorced, but for 3 years of my childhood, my brothers and I were raised by my dad in Taiwan while my mom studied in the US. I had a very carefree, innocent childhood. Did nothing bad, even though I hardly had any supervision. Went to school, did my homework, and hung out with my best friend.

    But that was then, more than 20+ years ago. I will probably be very protective and keep a careful watch of Anna, given the environment I will raise her in is very different.

  6. I was brought up in the "sane" middle grounds too...

    Moderation in all things...



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