And We Thought Free Range Was For Chickens

Irony of ironies, as we’ve become vigilant advocates for providing our future dinner foul with proper elbow room to roam freely, our children may be the ones living in caged conditions. Actually, there is a bit of a media storm erupting over a “new” style of parenting that has been labeled---wait for it---free range parenting. 
Yes. Some parents are under scrutiny in a town close to mine for allowing their ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to walk a mile to the park by themselves and play unsupervised. An outraged onlooker has turned them in and now Montgomery County Child Protective Services is investigating this family. Subsequently, this free range philosophy of parenting is being debated all over social media.
I will be upfront and say that when my children were that age, I was too overprotective to risk allowing them to walk that far independently. I can think of too many things that could go wrong with that scenario. But I do think this is a healthy debate. On one hand, I am quick to criticize the helicopter parenting that is rampant in our society. On the other, I am a total hypocrite. Sure, I would let my 15, 12, and 9 year olds walk a mile together to the park without me or their dad---but probably not without their cell phones. And they have been so pampered in their upbringing that they would expect a ride. 
Even then I would worry over whether I have coached them enough on safety precautions. The truth is, I may have coached them too much. They may actually prefer singing in cages rather than free roaming to a park with all its dangerous variables.
I don’t want to pay the consequences of potentially neglectful parenting. And I certainly don’t want my kids to pay those consequences. But I also don’t want to base my parenting on fear. My job is to raise my kids to need me less. My husband and I are supposed to raise adults.
I struggled with this topic two years ago on my blog, and I’m still asking some of the same questions:
I find myself now wondering which apron strings to loosen as my kids are growing. Do I still need to regulate every calorie that goes into their mouths? Do I let them go to school not listening to my advice that their outfit just isn’t working out, or do I make them change? At what point should I stop editing their papers and let them find out for themselves through the red pen?
An article in Psychology Today, A Nation of Wimps, has provoked a lot of thought about my own parenting. Instead of healthy, functioning adults, are we raising a bunch of co-dependent, anxious, namby-pambies? The article suggests that the cell phone is functioning as an eternal umbilicus that we are all too happy to continue coddling our children through. Here’s an excerpt of my favorite part that makes the point oh too well:
It's bad enough that today's children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone. Even in college—or perhaps especially at college—students are typically in contact with their parents several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: "Hi, Mom. I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on the bottom as well as on top?"
"Kids are constantly talking to parents," laments Cornell student Kramer, which makes them perpetually homesick. Of course, they're not telling the folks everything, notes Portmann. "They're not calling their parents to say, 'I really went wild last Friday at the frat house and now I might have chlamydia. Should I go to the student health center?'"
If I am running five minutes late, I get the text, “Are you coming?” Or, a half hour before time to pick my daughter up from school I may be alerted with, “I’m so thirsty, please bring a water bottle.” I get pictures sent to my phone while my daughter is out and about. It feels great that she’s thinking of me. And I have the benefit of knowing that a psycho-maniac has not abducted her while she’s away from me (just a little fear of mine). But is it good for our children to have this constant communication with us?
The perpetual access to parents infantilizes the young, keeping them in a permanent state of dependency. Whenever the slightest difficulty arises, "they're constantly referring to their parents for guidance," reports Kramer. They're not learning how to manage for themselves.
Again, I encourage you to read this article for yourself. Studies are showing that our children are missing out on major coping skills and it is leading to depression, immaturity, short-sightedness, and curtailing their intelligence.
Of course, this isn’t just a Christian issue, but I think our faith has a lot to do with over-parenting. We should certainly take our responsibility in raising kids seriously. As Christians, we know at a deeper lever what a privilege our vocation is. But as I mentioned before, we are hurting our children when we perpetually step in as their savior. This is hard. Our vocation is to reflect, to point to, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But as our children grow, we need to make sure we are not usurping his title.
As far as the cell phone is concerned, I wonder if we are stunting our child’s prayer life when we are their constant lifeline? Instead of remembering to pray without ceasing, our children can just pick up the phone—“Let me ask mom…” Even in our relationship with God, we don’t have this kind of growth-stunting immediate response. We are called to seek him continuously in prayer, confident that he is working all things for the glory of his Son and our good. But we hold to his authoritative Word revealed in Scripture. We need to study it, mediate on it, and all the while, the Holy Spirit helps us to recall it as we make our decisions throughout the day. 
This is how God works to grow us in wisdom. He doesn’t verbally tell us what to make for dinner or how to dress each day. He lets us wrestle with the everyday issues as we apply his Word and grow in wisdom. He is our God, not our crutch.
Cell phones aren’t evil. And I will admit that I mostly like the way that they enable me to “be there” in some way when I’m not physically there. But my kids need more than their dad and me. 
Free range parenting isn’t new, it’s actually a return to the way our grandparents did it. But we can’t exactly rewind the clock. While I’d like to be challenged as a parent that the helicopter approach is harmful, and that every minute and crumb in my child’s day does not need to be planned and accounted for, our changing technology presents both benefits and challenges our ancestors didn’t face. Perhaps if we don’t ruin them too much, the next generation can contribute to the future of sustainable parenting.