“Free-range parenting is the concept of raising children in the spirit of encouraging them to function independently and with little parental supervision, in accordance of their age of development and with a reasonable acceptance of realistic personal risks.”
My mom was a free-range mother before it was a “thing.” In the early 1970s, when my twin brother and I were in second grade, she let us walk to and from school every day, half a mile each way, without adults- though with lots of other kids. In third grade, my best friend and I began coming home each day for lunch, unlocking the front door ourselves, always without adults. On weekends and throughout the summer, my mom let us out the door every morning; we only returned for food, bathroom breaks, thunderstorms, and darkness. We were pretty much on our own, roaming the neighborhood with the sons of other free-range moms.
What did we do out on the streets of Kew Gardens Hills? We flipped baseball cards, we climbed monkey bars, and we ran around back alleys. We played football, roller hockey, one-on-one basketball, and fungo down at the schoolyard. We had endless games of stickball- the Queens version, fast pitch against the wall. We cut through strangers’ backyards, ate slices of pizza at Mama Lucy’s, and saw movies at the Main Street Theater.
There were some close calls. We crashed our bikes and jumped out of the way of speeding cars. One time down by the Van Wyck Expressway, a hairy guy in an overcoat tried to sell us LSD. My friend Rosie broke his elbow after a vicious tackle in Cunningham Park. A German Shepherd took a chunk out of my right ankle when I tried to retrieve a spaldeen from his yard. We acquired excellent survival skills.
What happened to that world? Instead of opening the front door, we schedule play dates. Pickup games have evolved almost entirely into supervised, organized sports. Few children walk to school by themselves. At my daughter’s school, parents escort the younger kids all the way into their classrooms; the older ones are released at the sidewalk so they can navigate the last thirty feet alone. I can’t remember my mom ever looking over my homework; in too many modern families, homework has become a group affair.
The parallels in residency training seem clear to me and are probably no coincidence. When I was a resident, most attendings joined us for about an hour a day, perhaps a little more in the ICUs. As an intern, I found answers to my questions in a spiral Washington Manual, which I kept in my pocket; if the answers weren’t there, I asked my resident. Attendings encouraged us, they explained global concepts, and they told great stories. For practical concerns, we were on our own.
My point is not to complain that we’re going backwards or to deny progress. Kids are safer today and our patients are too. Children have many more meaningful experiences with their parents, and residents and faculty have phenomenal mentoring relationships that I wish I had. But that doesn’t mean something isn’t lost when helicopter parents, and helicopter attendings, hover too close.
If faculty provide answers too freely, do trainees learn to answer questions themselves? If we are omnipresent, do residents develop the same sense of independence and ownership? If our career advice is too specific, can they map their own paths? If we hover too closely, do young physicians develop the problem-solving skills they need to thrive on their own?
We need to strike a balance. Looking back on my childhood, I’m grateful that my mom was a free-range parent. She gave me the space and freedom I needed to grow, to solve problems, to navigate friendships, to rebound from failures, to build resilience, and to learn how to live. Instead of hovering, she focused on the parts of mothering that matter most- the safe home, the warm meals, the steady love. I think she found the right mix, which is the mix that informs the type of parent I try to be, and the type of free-range Program Director I hope to be: balancing support and independence so the people I care about most can flourish.
And now it’s time to call my mom.
Have a very happy Mother’s Day everyone,
PS Heide and the girls and I are on our way to Àvert in West Hartford to celebrate the big day.