Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Free-Range is my Philosophy and Lenore Skenazy is my Hero

I'm new to the official Free Range movement, but it was my free range thinking that brought me here. I've always wanted to foster a sense of independence with my children. Whether it's letting my then 4-year-old order her own meal at Wendy's while I watched from a booth or letting my 10-year-old walk on his own less than a mile to soccer practice, I am trying to teach my children to be in charge of their own lives. My youngest daughter is now completely at home doing her own shopping. She can find prices – even though she cannot add or subtract much yet – and handle the entire checkout process herself. She keeps track of her money, even if her allowance doesn't last very long because she wants to spend it as soon as she gets it. But hey, it's her allowance and I don't buy her things she can afford for herself, even if her money is gone.

When my son asked permission to walk to soccer alone, I wasn't sure I was ready to let him, but couldn't come up with a good reason to deny him. Despite the fact that numerous people called 911 and he got a police escort the last ½ mile to practice, I have gotten not one single report that he did anything dangerous or inappropriate. In fact, I'm sure he got a ride to practice because he insisted that was where he was supposed to be and not driven back home. Now, he encourages me to let his younger sisters walk that way, "so that they can have their 15 minutes of fame." I'm not quite that free-range, but I am meeting with city officials to see what can be done to make that stretch of road as safe as possible for my girls to walk by themselves to school next year.

I remember when I first heard about Lenore's story of letting her nine-year-old son ride the NYC subway (who could resist clicking on the link that said "America's worst mom" – at least it wasn't me!). She sounded very sane and confident in the fact her son was capable of managing the NYC subway. That is why after my encounter with the local police, who threatened me with child endangerment, I Googled her story for the details. I found her website ( and posted my story. She responded to me via email and it was in those exchanges with her that I decided to approach the police chief for actual crime statistics for my neighborhood. Fortunately for me, my local police chief was extremely responsive and assured me that the streets of Columbus, MS are safe for my children.

Having been through this myself, I was interested in reading what Lenore had to say on her blog. I found her very reasonable. I looked forward to reading her book and I can honestly say that it was one of the best books I have read on parenting – ever! I believe in common sense and she has that in spades. She is also a reporter by training so her ideas are well-researched and documented. As a former researcher myself, I very much appreciate the documentation (even if I am perfectly happy to take her word for it). What is most admirable about her is that she trusted her own instincts about what was safe for her children and instead of backing off under criticism, she armed herself with actual research and stood up to her critics.

I am now making a conscience effort to let my children stretch their wings. I still believe in safety, but I also don't believe in worrying about things that are extremely rare. I don't play the lottery because I understand statistics and I'm not running to the doctor today because I'm not feeling well and might have the swine flu. And, I believe my children are safe playing outside and walking in my neighborhood. After all, I know my neighbors are watching!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Free Range Kids Book Launch

Today I celebrate the launch of Lenore Skenazy's book, Free Range Kids. She also runs a blog by the same name. How does she describe her philosophy? Here, from her website: Do you ever.....let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk alone to school? Take a bus, solo? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free Range Kid! At Free Range, we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail. Most of us grew up Free Range and lived to tell the tale.

Lenore became famous last spring when she let her nine-year-old take the subway home alone in NYC and then wrote a column about it. She was proud that he tested his independence and proved his ability to navigate the subway and make it home safe and sound. Unfortunately, however, much of the rest of America wasn't so impressed and she was dubbed "America's Worst Mom".

I bought an early copy of her book and I loved it! Not only does she have great – and very sane – ideas, but she has done research and as a good reporter would, documented it as well. I think this is the perfect book club read. You could guarantee a great discussion.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mojomom interviews Lenore Skenazy

Mojomom (Amy Tieman) interviewed Lenore Skenazy for her weekly podcast and they were talking about my story, among other things. Check out the mojomom podcast. Amy happens to be a neighbor of my in-laws, and heard about my story from them.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why I chose Stay-at-home

The stay-at-home versus working mother is such a debated topic. I thought I would add my story. Maybe it will resonate with someone.

I grew up in a very traditional home. My mother stayed home and my father worked. I was taught that a woman's role was in the home and that's what I planned on. But, education was important and there was no question that I would complete college. I did. Then I went to graduate school and finished, still with no prospects for marriage that would lead me to a stay-at-home path. Fortunately, I was excited about a career path by then, which I pursued. And, I found a career that I enjoyed and was successful at (market research, if anyone wants to know). I did get married a few years later, at which time my career moved forward and I was really enjoying it. My husband and I actually had discussions about who would stay home full-time. We made the exact same amount of money, so that wasn't part of the discussion and my husband loves kids. But, it finally came down to the fact that I had more training and desire to organize the home. One of my criteria, however, was that I wanted to be making a choice to stay home, not feel like I was running away from a bad job. I can honestly say that it was totally my choice, not that it was easy to quit working in a field that I really enjoyed.

The transition was more difficult than I had imagined, but I still felt good about my decision. Then, when we added 3 children to our family within a span of 4 years, going back to work wasn't even an option. It's not that I thought I couldn't manage it all, but it would have meant a much more harried life. It's not that I don't like harried – sometimes I get really energized by harried – but mostly I wanted a more calm life. When it's calm, I feel as though I am able to get more of the important things done, because my time isn't completely taken up by the urgent (Stephen Covey time-management training anyone?).

I remember telling a woman at church when my child were babies that I fully intended to return to work full-time when my children were all in school. She gave me that look that seasoned mothers give new mothers that indicated that she thought I would realize eventually that wasn't possible. And, I have to admit that so far, she is right. There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal recently that reinforced my thinking.

This was the first year all three of my children were in school full-time. I had my mother living with me most of the year and taking care of her made working impossible, but even now I wonder how I could possibly juggle it all. I'm involved in a lot of community things, plus volunteering in the school. I did renew my teaching license (that was my undergraduate) and if the right teaching job came alone I might take it. Actually, if the right opportunity came along either in teaching or research or even something totally new, I would take it. But, the timing doesn't seem quite right yet. So, I'll wait for the right timing. Meanwhile I work at enriching my children's lives and exploring other personal interests and feel glad that in this economy I still have the freedom to make my own choices.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Taking Charge

A friend sent me the link to this article on CNN about taking charge as the mom. As I read it, I realized how I had moved from controlled to in-charge.

When my children were very young, I felt very controlled. I remember specifically wondering what my former work colleagues who didn’t have children would think about someone that small being in charge of my life. But, when they were babies, that was ok. Seriously. They are only communicating needs and it was my job to provide what they needed.

But, once they got old enough to communicate, the power shifted. Not that I’m a tyrant, but I’m definitely in charge. My children do negotiate – my oldest is a master at never giving up – but they aren’t in charge. At least I don’t think they are. I’ll have to watch my behavior over the next few days just to make sure.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Does the title make you wince? It’s one of the more critical parenting skills, yet at the same time one of the more challenging. For infants and toddlers, consistency mostly means eating regular intervals and sleeping on a regular schedule. I found that with my own children, the more consistent their routines were at this age, the less I had to deal with cross or misbehaving children. That was an outcome worth a little bit of sacrifice, so I tried very hard to be consistent. (I have to note my personal belief in not punishing young children for misbehavior if they are tired or hungry. Fix the problem first, then see if the behavior doesn’t fix itself.)

But consistency is difficult. And, I found that it gets more challenging as my children get old enough to remember and negotiate. I have children who don’t forget that a week ago I promised them we would get donuts after school in a week. Or, that once when my girls were fighting I let my seven-year-old sit in the front seat with her car seat. I ran across a quote this week in a book I happened across at the library – Guilt-free Motherhood by Julianna Slattery. “The average kid has much more time and energy to devote to lobbying than his mother does to staying consistent.” Ain’t that the truth?

But, this blog is about sane parenting, not expecting perfection out of ourselves with unrealistic goals. Is being consistent good? Absolutely. Is it possible to always be consistent? Maybe, but not likely (didn’t we all have parents who forgot they grounded us? I know mine always did.). So, what do we do instead? The best we can. Know what the really important things for you are and stay consistent with them.

The easiest way to be as consistent as possible? Don’t promise anything you aren’t sure you can remember and deliver. I’m really good at vague responses – just ask my kids. Or, better yet, make your children responsible for reminding you.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Letting Go

I had an "ah-ha" moment a week or so ago about being a hovering parent. We were at a mall in a large metro area. We had driven 250 miles that morning and were meeting my sister and her family for lunch (and spend the rest of the weekend, we don't drive that far just for lunch). My children were excited and quickly got out of the car and walked toward the mall entrance. We were parked very close to the entrance, so they only had to cross one traffic area. Still, I called to them to wait for me before crossing.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized just how protective I was being. My youngest child is five and I have taught her how to look for traffic before crossing. She is responsible enough to remember to do it. She is also responsible enough to get herself up in the morning, make her bed, get dressed, and put breakfast on the table before school. Of course, anyone can get excited and forget to look for cars coming and I'm right there, why not be completely safe? Because she will never gain her own sense of independence if I'm always hovering, double-checking her decisions.

In a nutshell, parenting really boils down to caring and protecting, teaching, and then letting go. And, knowing when to let go can be just as hard as the other responsibilities. The bottom line is that you have to let go at some point. I don't yet have teenagers, but I have heard that the challenges of the teenage years are the juxtaposition of children wanting their independence and parents not wanting to give it to them. I figure if I start now learning how to let go little by little, I just might learn something about me and my children before I am the mother of a teenager.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Right Timing

Sometimes timing is everything. My mother once told me that I could work hard to potty train my child at two, or I could wait until he was three and he would potty train himself. My sister will attest to the fact that even at three potty training isn't easy, but I like her point. Timing is everything.

Sometimes it's important for things to happen right at a particular time, but most of the time we save ourselves a lot of extra effort we could expend doing something else if we just wait for the right time. I waited to potty train my kids. I found that I much preferred changing diapers to changing pull-ups and remembering to take my child to the bathroom. Of course, it didn't help that I was, twice, pregnant when my children turned 2 and new baby and potty training just don't mix. So, I waited. And it was easier.

My son had bed-wetting issues. We tried the easy stuff, reducing liquids and waking him up at night. Nothing helped. We just lost sleep. I finally decided just to wait; after all GoodNights work really well. Then, he turned 10 and we were talking about going to summer camps. We tried prescription medication with limited success. Ultimately, the doctor suggested stopping for a couple of weeks. Out of the blue, I decided to tell my son that if he went 14 nights dry, I would buy him Guitar Hero. I figured I was pretty safe, he hadn't gone a single night, much less two in a row. Guess what happened? He went fourteen straight nights, though he ended up with a subscription to Wizard 101 (his choice). He has now gone six weeks. WOW! That was so much easier than I had feared.

So, I tried it with my daughters. They had been biting their nails for years and I just hadn't had the energy to make a big deal out it. I promised them manicures and pedicures if they stopped biting their nails long enough for them to grow. Guess what? They stopped immediately and we had a great day at the spa.

It also sometimes happens the other way around too. Like if your 10-year-old asks to be able to walk to soccer practice alone. You might not be ready, but he apparently is. So, let him. It might just change your life.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Finding your inner voice

This is the post I had planned to do second. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since I finished my first post (which was also published in the local newspaper as a column).

All parents should find their own voice and learn to trust themselves. Let me explain.

As a first-time parent I was overwhelmed. There was a human being totally dependent on me and I knew next to nothing. I thought as the oldest of six kids I knew a lot, but a lot wasn’t nearly enough. So, I went searching for advice. Lots of advice. Some of it conflicting.

I tried a lot of things. Some things worked and some didn’t. And then there were some decisions that my children made all on their own. One example was our sleeping arrangement. I had never intended to do co-sleeping. I liked sleeping without worrying about rolling onto a baby. My daughter, however, had other ideas.

The very first night in the hospital, I tried to lay her down to sleep in her bassinet and she woke up immediately. I picked her up and tried again. Again, she woke up. Now, I was fairly experience at putting babies to sleep, so it wasn’t that I was doing something wrong. She just wouldn’t sleep there. I took her to my bed and slept with her in my arms. We came home and it continued. Every once in awhile I would try to put her down to sleep, but she wouldn’t have it. Not even for naps. So, my daughter became permanently attached to me.

If I had needed separation, I’m sure I could have found a way. But I was a full-time mom by then and just decided to indulge her. I figure it wouldn’t last forever and sure enough, when she was six months old she started sleeping through the night and moved to her crib.

I made a choice to listen to my “inner voice” that told me this was the right choice for me. I think every parent has this kind of personal voice. As a religious person, I believe sometimes this is God, speaking directly to me so that I can make good choices for my children. Others may just see it as mother’s intuition or instinct. My point, though, is that there is an inner voice that we all have to help us make good choices. Lots of people love to give advice (me included, hence the blog) but each parent is capable of being the best judge of what’s best for their children.

So, no matter who gives you advice (even if it’s your mother-in-law), listen politely and do what feels right for you and your child. I found, over time, that some people’s advice made more sense than others. I also developed a confidence in my own ability to make the right choices for my children. I’m not saying every choice is the best one, I have made some bad ones and had to deal with the repercussions, but over time a lot of them have turned out to be the best – even if they seemed a little questionable at the time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Keep a Feeding Schedule?

I was going to do my second post on something different and then I turned on the NBC Today Show this morning and watched a segment about the first year of mothering that made me think. You can see the short segment here. The part that struck me was the suggestion of writing down your child’s nursing schedule.

First, let me give the disclaimer that I believe every parent should be making his or her own decisions and that we should respect that autonomy (that’s what my second post was going to be about, so watch for it later). My response isn’t to say that this idea is wrong, just to share why it might not be necessary for every mom.

One of the greatest eye-opening moments for me when I became pregnant for the first time was that my body had been built for it. I have an endocrine system that doesn’t always work right and caused frustration during the years that we went through unsuccessful infertility treatment and testing. So, I was amazed that once I got pregnant, my body just seemed to right itself. Once the horrible morning sickness was over, I felt better that I had in a long time and my system worked properly. There was a more direct correlation between how much and what I ate and whether or not I gained weight – and I only gained 20 pounds with both pregnancies.

And, then I noticed that my body was changing to accommodate both the pregnancy and the mothering that would follow. Without me consciously doing a thing, my body was doing what it needed to do all on its own!

I still remember my fascination with being able to rely on my body completely to feed my baby. I didn’t have to know how to mix a bottle of formula, I didn’t have to keep track of how much she ate – I couldn’t even if I wanted to, and I had a built-in system to let me know when it was time to feed her again. I did have to learn the mechanics of breastfeeding, and that was harder than I thought it would be. But, once I learned how the system worked, it needed no further direction from me.

WOW! My body made exactly what my daughter needed to eat and regulated itself to make only as much as she was going to eat. I guess I could have kept a record of when and for how long I fed her. But, unless I thought there was a problem, why? So, I can get reassurance from my pediatrician? I can see how that might be nice, but he did weigh my daughter at each visit and said she was gaining weight just fine.

As much as I thought I would stress about feeding, I found it very comforting to know that my body knew how to handle that. I loved sitting in the rocker feeding my baby. It was so easy. I wish fixing food for my family now was that easy.

So, if you have time on your hands with your newborn (I personally preferred sleep over anything else), feel free to keep track of her feeding schedule. If it seems too much – skip it! Ask your mom if she kept a record of when you ate as a baby and see if she doesn’t laugh.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why I Started This

When my son asked permission to walk to soccer practice alone, I knew that deciding whether or not to let him was a fairly significant decision. Still, I had no idea how it would reverberate.

Parents make a lot of decisions about their children. At first, they seem overwhelming. Is it ok to give my baby a bottle of formula, or should I pump if someone else is going to take responsibility for a feeding? Is it too warm to wrap my baby up in a blanket, or will he be colder than I am? What’s the right temperature for the nursery? Didn’t this child come with an owner’s manual?

Eventually I learned a few things, listened to a lot of opinions, and I started to trust myself. I found that the choices my friends and family made for their children weren’t always the best choice for mine and vice versa. I also realized that most of the millions of horrible things that I imagined could possibly happen, didn’t. And, I got to know my children.

So, then my 10-year-old wants to walk to soccer alone. I knew immediately that my choice wasn’t clear cut. I imagined him alone on the street. Any number of things could happen. But would they? I knew William could be trusted to walk directly to soccer and use good judgment. We set high expectations for our children. We expect them to tell the truth. We expect that they will treat us and others with courtesy and respect. We expect excellent grades and that they will never end up in the principal’s office for bad behavior. We expect them to be in church with us every Sunday. We expect that they will graduate from college and go to graduate school. These expectations are the norm in our families and so far my children have lived up to our expectations pretty well. I knew I could trust my son and he had earned the right to exercise some independence.

Could I trust everyone else along his path in Columbus? I know a lot of my neighbors and I know they are caring people who watch out for children. I expected that a lot of caring adults would watch my son walk along the street. I also expected that any potential criminal would also realize that there would be lots of eyes watching. As scary as it might be to imagine all the possible things that could happen on the street – a freak storm could come up and he could be struck by lightning, for heaven’s sake. But, it wasn’t likely that anything bad would happen.

I took a deep breath and told him it would be ok for him to walk. We discussed the route and walking safety, especially along 18th Ave. I gave him my cell phone and said I would be at the soccer field 25 minutes after he left.

What happened next surprised me. My neighbors called the police, who threatened me with child endangerment. A day or so later I called our local chief of police who assured me that my neighborhood was safe and that the officer had over-reacted. Read reports at Free Range Kids, CBC Radio, and the Commercial Dispatch.

Do I regret the decision that I made? Absolutely not. Walking is good. We should all be walking more and I hope to take advantage of the nice weather to get out and about more in Columbus. I also hope we can get a few more sidewalks built in Columbus to make walking safer. William proved he was trustworthy and would have walked directly to soccer had he not been intercepted. He also exercised some independence and I’m proud that he wanted to do that. Children are supposed to learn to be independent and it’s a natural thing for a child, once he has been taught how to do something, to want to do it himself without help. Most of us remember that at his age we had the freedom to explore our world fairly freely. We also remember the scrapes and near scrapes that we got into, but we survived them and learned from each one. We learned how to be aware of the world around us and how to tell when something didn’t seem quite right. The skills we developed in our “free-range” days are valuable. What will our children be like if they don’t learn them?

Would other parents make the same decision? No. But that’s ok too. Our children are different, our expectations are different, and our fears are different. But a good parent (and yes, I do put myself in that category), will be the best judge of what’s right for her child.