Dr. Phil recently ran a program entitled “New Parenting Styles.” The show sets up a dichotomy between the current dominant “overparenting” approach and “free-range parenting.”
Yikes – do folks out there really think that Free-Range is a parenting style?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m in huge agreement with the Free-Range movement. Parents have wayyy too much control over their children these days. Lack of autonomy is the root of my critique of childhood in America today.
I thoroughly applaud the Free-Range Kids movement, but it’s important to understand what it is and what it isn’t. It does an excellent job of telling parents what they shouldn’t do, but it doesn’t tell them what they should do instead. It is absolutely not a viable parenting style. As we rebels against overparenting gain the strength to swim against the tide, we need to start defining our parenting by what we do.I’ll give an analogy: Remember the Iraq War to remove Saddam Hussein from power a few years ago? Well, the US government was pretty darned good at accomplishing that objective, but it turned out to be a hollow objective. Our government had no clear vision for what it wanted after Saddam other than some vague notion of “democracy.” The successful invasion created a vacuum, and our not filling it well immediately invited al Qaeda to step in and reap all sorts of havoc. We’re still paying a huge price for our government’s failure to clearly articulate a new vision for Iraq’s government before we overthrew the old one.
Similarly, if we pro-Free-Range parents really do succeed in convincing lots of other parents that they should do less controlling, then we need to already have a very well-articulated new parenting style that tells us what we should be doing more of. After all, there is quite a range of possibilities. Should we spy on our kids to make sure they’re not getting into trouble? Should we think less about our kids and turn our attention to other things we’ve been neglecting?
Well, “no” and “no.” Regarding the former, we need to develop relationships of integrity and respect with our kids, so this is out of the question. Regarding the latter, this would, in a sense, be like turning the clock back to the way parents were decades ago. As I’ve written recently, parents spend more time with their kids than they did decades ago. I believe it’s a very good thing that parents are investing so much more time into their children, but I am disturbed that most of that time is allocated to controlling and guiding children’s lives to prepare their credentials for college. Meanwhile, children’s present emotional well-being, among other things, is suffering.
So, if we don’t spy on our kids and we don’t neglect them, what do we do with all that time that we’ve been spending driving them around and organizing/planning their lives?
This is what I spend all my time thinking about these days. To me, arguing against overcontrolling parents is sooo last decade, sooo 2000s. (I call the last decade the “nots”!) I’m over it. Even if that battle is far from over, I can see enough signs in the media (we have Dr. Phil on board at least!) and among parents that they get it.
Overparenting is bad for our kids. OK. Got it. What do we do now?
I’ve been writing a lot these days about a “facilitative” approach to parenting. Certainly, when kids are first born, we need to totally control their lives, but from the moment they start walking, we constantly have decisions to make about how to deal with their quests for independence. These quests, if they’re aimed properly, become outstanding opportunities for our children to mature and achieve competence in the world.
This facilitative approach I’ve been working on puts emphasis on setting up safe conditions in which children can develop on their own. If you think about it, your neighborhood is the only place where this could possibly happen. However, most neighborhoods are either unsafe or dead boring for kids. Making them safe and interesting is our job.
So, instead of taking my oldest son, Marco (5) to organized soccer and baseball and basketball, I spend a lot of time in our neighborhood with him and his younger brothers. We spend a lot of time talking to neighbors, we play a lot with them there, and I put lots of things in my yard (see this and this) to make it a fascinating place that will captivate my kids for years to come.
There’s an awful lot more to say on this, but I’ll leave that to future articles and maybe a book on all of this.