Free Range versus Highly Engaged Parenthood: The Debate goes on

Via Flickr: Pink Sherbert Photography, D. Sharon Pruitt

This is not a new debate. Not on this blog and not in the world of parenting. But it rages on none the less. And being a topic that is of great interest to me, I am content to bring it up and discuss it over and over again. The last time we talked around this issue was a ControverSunday topic. Check it out here.

This time, I am responding to this article, “Modern Parenting; If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable?” by Katie Roiphe. Go read it, I will wait.

Her point is this, there is a tendency in modern parenting whereby parents are highly involved in their children’s lives. (Not all parents, but many). This high involvement seems to include parents going to great effort to ‘control and perfect’ the child and the environment the child grows up in. It is in part a response to perceived and/or real risk, both of which exist. And it is in part a response to try and give our kids a ‘head start’ at success. There many many examples of things that parents now do that were not common place 30-50 years ago. Playing classical music to your baby with earphones before they are even born. DVD’s, toys and flashcards promising to make your baby capable of things not taught until preschool. Enrollment in a wide wide range of activities and programs to try and ’round out’ your child with art, music, sports, ect. Advanced education programs promising to get your high school kid a head start at university.

And then there are the more subtle changes. Closer supervision. “Showing” babies how to play. Doing homework ‘with’ your child. Parents calling up University professors to argue their kids mark. Did you know that some employers are now sending an information package to the parents of the new graduates they are sending offers of employment to, as they are recognizing that winning over the parent is key in the new grad decision.

Not all parents do this. And not all kids that experience this are anything but wonderful, engaged, warm children. But. But.

Think about the homework thing for a minute. In the article, Katie says:

“I can recall my own mother vaguely calling upstairs “Have you done your homework?” but I cannot recall her rolling up her sleeves to work side by side with me cutting out pictures of rice paddies for a project about Vietnam, or monitoring how many pages of Wuthering Heights I had read.”

Here the thing. If you are eight and your parent asks if you have done your homework and you say you have, but they don’t do it with you. You haven’t done your homework. You go to school and you fail a test. You have just learned there is a consequence to your action. Then the next time you study and do your homework, and you get a B. You have just learned that you can do it. You motivated yourself and you accomplished something. You feel proud of yourself.

But if every time you do your homework your parent sits down with you a monitors to see if you have it done. Answers any questions you have. Helps you through it. What happens when you go off to university and you don’t have someone to do that? No one to give you a gold sticker for finishing your homework.

Obviously, not every kid who’s parents do their homework with them is going to lack internal motivation. It is metaphor for the larger point. Our job as parents is to support our kids to live their own lives. Learn what they are passionate about. Learn their strengths and weaknesses. Learn how to make decisions, make mistakes, make changes, and motivate themselves. Learn how to like themselves.

“One sometimes sees these exhausted, devoted, slightly drab parents, piling out of the car, and thinks, is all of this high-level watching and steering and analysing really making anyone happier?… Is there something reassuring in parental selfishness, in the idea that your parents have busy, mysterious lives of their own, in which they sometimes do things that are not entirely dedicated to your entertainment or improvement?”

Children have their own lives. From the time they are babies their lives are their own. And as parents, we need to have our own lives too. Living your life through your child’s accomplishments is so not a life I want to live.

“Built into this model of the perfectible child is, of course, an inevitable failure. You can’t control everything, the universe offers up rogue moments that will make your child unhappy or sick or ­broken-hearted, there will be faithless friends and failed auditions and bad teachers. The one true ­terrifying fact of bringing an innocent baby into the fallen world is that no matter how much rubber flooring you ship to the villa in the south of France, you can’t protect her from being hurt.”

All you can do is set your child up to handle that disappointment, hurt, challenge. And setting them up means letting them practice, when they are young and you can be there to give them a hug and make them cookies.

I don’t believe Katie is suggesting we should stop parenting based on what we think is best. I don’t believe she is suggesting that we shouldn’t be involved and shouldn’t do things that mitigate real risk. What I believe she is suggesting is that we remember that the perfect world and the perfect child are unobtainable and that we need to remember that children have their own lives. And live is about ups and downs. From a very early age, children can direct aspects of their own lives. Make choices. Make mistakes. Learn consequences.  She says: “It might be time to dabble in the laissez faire; to let the imagination run to art instead of art projects; to let the imperfect universe and its imperfect ­children be themselves.” Dabble. Just dabble. Sure, I can dabble.

If you haven’t read it, I would highly highly recommend reading a book call “Under Pressure”, by Carl Honore. It is a fantastic book about the high pressure that many of our parenting and educations practices put our children under. If you want to really understand this whole debate, it is a great place to start.


12 responses to “Free Range versus Highly Engaged Parenthood: The Debate goes on

  1. Brooke November 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I think there is a lot of space between Free Range and Overbearing. I certainly believe in exposing children to learning opportunities early, and I find that he enjoys the activities and is much more prone to good sleep than playing with his trains day in and day out. But I also give him space to make mistakes. He’s already had stitches, and even the most careful supervision is not going to make my two year old son not get hurt every so often.

    I believe it’s important that parents provide some education, whether that be helping with homework or engaging their child in other learning activities. But I don’t agree with parents DOING their kids’ homework or projects, which I see more of in wealthier schools. I once tutored a boy whose mom made the flashcards for a test, even though I told her that research shows the actual process of reading, processing, writing was a huge part of studying. It made me so mad. But totally disengaged doesn’t work for me either.

    And those moms who look exhausted, drained, with kids piling out of the car is not a new phenomenon. I think that’s just motherhood, whether it’s 1955 or 2005.

    • amoment2think November 27, 2010 at 5:23 pm

      Here here to balance. I totally agree- it’s great to give our kids a variety of experiences. I think when this is done in the spirit of variety and fun it’s great.

      And of course there is a middle ground between being involved in homework and doing it ‘for’ them to make sure they get it ‘right’.

      I also agree that parenting is hard no matter the generation. But I do think many parents focus more time and energy on parenting then, for example, the ‘latch key’ generation. For better in some cases, for not so better in other.

      • SlackerInc November 27, 2010 at 11:09 pm

        I was part of that “latchkey” generation. Both my parents worked, and not only did I spend the afternoons without them at home (starting at about age ten), they often didn’t come home until close to bedtime and my sister and I were left to make TV dinners for supper several nights a week. When my parents were at home, they were often still busy working (they were both college professors). So it was very laissez-faire.

        Part of that “laissez-faire” was that the responsibility to deal with homework was left totally up to me. And guess what? I didn’t do it. I established the pattern of blowing it off in grade school, and kept it going all through junior high and high school. I remember having laughably optimistic intentions every single school day after years and years of the same pattern should have allowed me to know better. I would put all my assignments and textbooks into my backpack, lug it home, set it in my room, procrastinate even opening the backpack up hour after hour. I stayed up pretty late (and was lacking in sleep as a result but that’s a different topic) but the way I recall it is that I didn’t ever actually open up that backpack (perhaps I did a few times and don’t recall, though I kind of doubt it). It just came home and then rode back with me, where I’d unload those textbooks and notebooks back into my locker until I repeated the process at the end of the school day.

        As a result, I defined the term “underachiever”. My test scores were sky high (on standardised tests as well as classroom tests), but my failure to do a white of homework left me barely graduating high school with a terrible GPA (as in, the bottom half of my graduating class). It was really right around when I turned 18 that I realised I had really blown it and could have gone to the top flight college of my choice had I just gotten in the habit of getting my homework done; but by then the damage was done (not to mention the terrible study habits cemented).

        Laissez-faire also extended to TV (I could and did watch whatever junk I wanted, for many hours a day including pretty much continuously when the weather wasn’t nice), food and exercise (no one interceded as I got fatter and fatter from serving myself up bowl after bowl of ice cream to eat in front of the TV or spending all my allowance on candy; nor was my sedentary lifestyle challenged).

        And there was the time (I believe I’ve mentioned this here before) when I was around ten and was hanging out downtown (I have a ten year old now and it is shocking to me in retrospect that I was allowed to go downtown in the pre-cell phone days with my whereabouts unknown to my parents for hours and hours on end–maybe as many as eight hours on a Saturday without checking in) and was lulled into accepting a ride with an adult who I’m now 95% sure was intending to molest me. Only a request to stop for candy at a store, and then my refusing to get back in the car or tell him exactly where I lived, saved me that day I believe.

        My parents loved me and wanted good things for me–I don’t think (especially by the cultural standards of the time) they were actually neglectful–but I can just see so many ways in which that laissez-faire approach was not good for me even if it did allow them to devote more attention to their own adult lives.

        I do think though that there are some straw men apparent in Roiphe’s article. First off, I don’t get at all where actively trying to enrich your children’s lives means you can’t stay up late and party. It doesn’t work that way for me, especially not now that they are school-aged. And for that matter, even our eight month old routinely sleeps in past noon because she stays up until midnight or later. But since babies sleep significantly longer than adults, that still gives us a few hours late at night to ourselves.

        And I definitely don’t agree with doing your kids homework for them. But any parent who does that is simply cheating–and shortchanging their kids, since their lack of understanding of the subject matter will show up when they are tested. That’s not the kind of enrichment-oriented parenting I try to practise. If they are having trouble with their homework, I help them in the same way I have when I have successfully tutored kids for pay: by showing them [i]how[/i] to do the work. If for instance they are having trouble dividing 843 by 17, I will demonstrate how to divide 765 by 22, then I’ll guide them through dividing 698 by 16, then I’ll back off and watch as they divide 728 by 31 and–if they mess up–show them after the fact where they went astray. When I’m satisfied they have the concept down, I’ll send them back to the original problem to work on their own.

        When it comes to TV and video games, they can only watch/play those we have approved, and then only after they have checked off everything on their daily “to do” list. That starts with getting their homework done, then includes getting a certain number of steps on their pedometers (which can be done on their own just playing, or they can and often do achieve them by our going as a family to play tennis), and eating the scientifically determined “superfoods” they are assigned for that day (in addition to a mega-superfood smoothie I make for us all each evening). They are also assigned to drink a certain amount of (filtered, natch) water each day ever since I read how dehydrated most kids are.

        I drill them daily from flashcards in French vocabulary, and we regularly watch science documentaries after which I quiz them. But they actually do not seem to find this drudgery in general: they may complain about the steps or their least favourite superfoods from time to time, but they have both recently indicated they want to spend more time here than at their much more laissez-faire mom’s house, so I guess it must not be too horrible.

        I think part of it is that at the same time as we have all these requirements for them, we also try to provide fun and enjoyment as compensations. Once they have checked off their checklist items, we try to help them find movies they might like on Netflix and watch them as a family, or help show them how to use the Internet for fun and exploration (while supervising their computer use to avoid potential dangers). We talk about all kinds of things and don’t shy away from almost any topic. And we are willing to hear them out if they want to argue a parenting decision we make, though they understand we are the final authority (but when exercising that authority, we always explain our reasoning rather than resorting to “because we said so”).

        So yes, we put a lot more time and energy into parenting than parents of the latchkey generation, but I firmly believe it does pay off. I should note though that we are doing it ourselves. I see these comments about how supposedly exhausted the new type of “enrichment” oriented parent is; but the examples given seem to be mostly about shuttling kids to various extracurricular activities. Is that really so much work? For our part, our daughter is currently almost done with a six-week, once a week tumbling class; our son has no extracurriculars of any type. They do go to day camps for a couple weeks in July courtesy of my mom; but throughout the year I’d say they are not at all “overscheduled” in the way that term is normally used.

  2. Megan November 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I loved this article. I need to make my husband read it since he tends to be more of the helicopter variety. I can already tell that he will disagree with some of the author’s points, but hopefully he will take something away from it.

  3. Sophie November 27, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    In the same train of thought, we really enjoyed the documentary Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids from the CBC at
    Quite entertaining to see that mother who throws a thousands of dollars party for her one-year-old!

    • SlackerInc November 27, 2010 at 11:37 pm

      To me that is a whole different matter, more about excessive wealth and conspicuous consumption. My sense of it is (and admittedly I don’t have hard facts to cite in this case) that the kids who live in the most opulent homes and are showered with expensive gifts are the ones who spend the least time actually interacting with their parents.

  4. Perpetua November 28, 2010 at 4:24 am

    I think so much of this has to do with the individual kid. My parents didn’t have to monitor my homework situation, but I knew that if I did poorly on a test or assignment because I slacked off, I’d be in trouble. Eventually I internalized and made my parents’ rules my own.

    I would probably be a helicopter parent in the sense that, if my kid were screwing off enough to endanger him from graduating high school, I would hold his hand and walk him to the front door if I had to (mostly to embarrass the crap out of him :). I’d also stay in touch with teachers, etc. to make sure he was getting work done. However, in that case, I don’t think being overbearing would take the place of my kid learning responsibility. Rather, the point would be to mortify him so much that he would be forced to take over responsibility just to get me off his back.

    The line is drawn at university, though. Except in cases of illness or mental distress, where I’m happy to talk to parents, my rule is that if your kid is about to make a 20K mistake by failing or dropping out, that’s a mistake he needs to make and a lesson he needs to learn. (We also have a rule in our department about not talking to parents, and a state law that requires student permission for parental contact.)

  5. amoment2think November 28, 2010 at 8:44 am

    As I said above, I do think it is all about balance and finding the middle ground. (warning Alan, I am about to flip flop). It’s not that I don’t think parents should get involved, for example, if it was at the point of their child failing high school. I know if my child was failing high school I would certainly do everything I can to support her. Failing one test is different then flunking out. The long term impact is much different. But in getting involved my goal would be to support, not to fix the problem. And I would recognize that ultimately it is my child’s life, not mine. I want her to achieve what she wants to achieve and not what I think she should achieve.

    Which I think is what many of you above are suggesting and I think that is perfectly reasonable. As Brooke says above, there is lots inbetween the extremes. And extremes, generally, are not a good thing. I think kids can do really well with highly involved parents, so long as those parents support the child to learn how to make choices in life, don’t fix all their problems, don’t prevent all their problems, instill a sense of responsibility and respect the unique goals and aspirations of their child.

    Furthermore, I do to some extent agree with what Alan was implying in his reply to Sophie’s comment- part of this has to do with consumption… There was a comment made on the original article that suggested that some parents are replacing spending real, quality time connecting with their kids with over scheduling them, trying to enrich them constantly and showering them with stuff. That commenter suggested that it was the replacement of connection with ‘activity’ which was the real culprit. I don’t think that is the whole answer, I still disagree with going to the extremes to protect your child from every hurt and challenge, but I do agree that we sometimes have trouble focusing on connecting with our kids, rather then trying to enrich them.

    Anyways, nuance, ambiguity, middle ground, balance. You know, the usual.

  6. Mama Tortoise December 7, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Had to leave a comment since this is the topic that I blog about. The other inspiring book that I’ve read on the topic is The Idle Parent (

    I think that a distinction should be made between slow parenting and free-range parenting. All slow parents are free-range parents at heart – they want to leave their kids alone to play, discover their world on their own and not be micromanaged. But free-range parents are not necessarily slow parents. Like SlackerInc pointed out, he was left on his own but exposed to elements that are not part of slow parenting (fast food, lots of screen time, etc.) Slow parenting is about not entertaining your kids but teaching them about living a slow life – cooking, reading, limited TV, being outside!

    Just had to put in my two cents. Thanks for the article, Kathleen.


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