A Free-Range Mom Talks About Why She Refuses to Helicopter

Oh, give me a home, where the children roam.

Margot Black doesn't fear kidnappers, but she is afraid of well-meaning strangers stopping her kids to ask where their parents are.

The Multnomah Village mom is a self-identified free-range parent. Haven't heard the term? You will. New Yorker Lenore Skenazy coined the phrase in 2008, when she was excoriated in the national press after writing a New York Sun column where she described sending her then-9-year-old son out alone on the subway. Parents in Maryland and South Carolina were prosecuted in 2015 for letting 9- and 10-year-olds play in a park without parental presence.

Black, a Lewis & Clark College math professor with three children ages 5, 8 and 18, talked to WW about leaving your kids in the car, helicopter moms and college students who drink too much.

WW: So what's a free-range parent? Like, the kids just run loose in a field?

Margot Black: I've always had a parenting philosophy of not living in fear of all the possible bad things that can happen to our kids. There's a misconception that free-range parenting is absent parenting or laissez faire. I'm very engaged, I'm hands on, but not helicopter.

Have you been questioned for letting your kids roam?

No. But I have worried. Not long ago my 8-year-old walked to his friend's house. We live in an apartment complex that backs up on a golf course. He had to walk over the golf course, across two blocks of the neighborhood and then across Capitol Highway. My concern was a neighbor stopping him and saying, "Where are you parents?" I knew he was smart enough to get there. I wasn't worried about him coming across a gingerbread house and eating it.

So free-range kids are like kids in the '80s? I think I had a 5-mile radius by the time I was 10.

I grew up in Salt Lake City, and in my earliest memories I was riding my bike from one end of 12th Avenue to the other. I would take a dollar down to the market and buy a dollar worth of penny candy. All the kids at the elementary school, everybody walked to school.

Why are people more afraid now?

I feel like the trend is toward more helicopter parenting. Before [children] are born there are like 5,000 parenting books, and you're so worried that if you don't follow the instructions, somehow they'll break or die. People are watching and timing every nap, every milestone, super-regulating exactly how much formula or milk or apples they have.

But has the world also gotten more dangerous?

I'm a numbers person, and the statistics just don't bear that out. There was an article published about the statistics we use to talk about stranger danger. It was some horrifying thing, like 800,000 kids were kidnapped. But the definition of a missing child was hugely broad. It included teenage runaways. And all they had to do was be reported missing. Those kids might come back later that night. Parents and family kidnappings, there are so many false positives. When you look at the scary stranger kidnappings, the boogeyman kidnappings, it was such a small number. [The study, which came out in 2002, showed 115 "stereotypical" kidnappings that year.]

You're not afraid your kids will get abducted?

My biggest fear as a free-range parent is well-meaning people coming in and worrying too much about my children on their behalf. One of the things that made us feel safer when I was young was vigilant neighbors. If I fell and scraped my knee, I could knock on any door. Now I would tell my kids to knock on the door if they needed help, but I would also be afraid that anyone who answered the door would say, "How are you out by yourself?" and possibly get me in trouble. I feel that there aren't well-defined laws, but any chance to make laws stricter is seized.

Do other Portland parents think you're nuts?

I'm in a [Facebook] group called PDX Mamas. One of the fights I've had is leaving your kid in the car for a minute. Obviously you do not let your children sleep in a hot car while you grocery shop at Fred Meyer. There are some dangers associated. But have I left my kids in the car while I go to the ATM or the Redbox or gotten gas? Yes, without thinking twice. One of the conversations at PDX Mamas, they were wondering, what do you do while you're at the grocery store and put your kid in the car seat and then you have to return the shopping cart? Not to the grocery store, but to the carousel. It's like 10 feet away. There's this long thread about how they lock the door and then run, and then run back. I was like, how is this an issue?

What do they think is going to happen?

I literally don't know. There's the abduction fear. There's the anxiety that if I take my eyes off them for one second, they will choke or stop breathing or get something wrapped around their neck. The conversation was so mystifying. If you really want to worry about your kids, there are so many other things to worry about. We cannot inoculate ourselves from risk. It consumes so much energy and worry and really deprives kids as they get older. I see that from my college students. They are terrified of taking any risks whatsoever—creative risk, intellectual risk—or they go off the deep end and drink too much. They don't know how to self-regulate.

So helicopter moms create bad kids?

I see the effects of helicopter parenting in my students. They want to know exactly what the instructions are and the parameters, and when you say "open-ended"…. Their whole childhood has been really carefully scripted. They haven't had to assess situations themselves.

Do you find this to be less the case with your 18-year-old?

She's incredibly autonomous and independent. We've had bumps in the road, but she's generally pretty good at self-regulating. Like most teenagers, she prefers to have her waking hours be at night. I know that she drinks, I know she's been at parties where people are drinking. But I trust her not to drive drunk. I think I've instilled that value. I absolutely worry about other drunk drivers out there, and I wish she wouldn't drive so late at night. At a certain point, it's not your call. She has a job hostessing, she's a tutor, she made her own fliers. That's impressive. She's going to graduate from high school, she's not pregnant and doesn't have a criminal record. My kids are really well-adjusted. I've never had problems with them at school—they're happy and healthy.

Have you had scares?

I had a moment that was not related to parenting style. I thought my son had been kidnapped. It was the most mind-altering experience ever. I thought, this is the moment where my life changes. It turned out he was asleep under the dining-room table. He was 4, and the door was wide open to the outside when I got out of putting down his brother for a nap. He was sleeping across two chairs pushed in under the table. After 20 minutes of looking, I was on the phone with 911 when I turned around and saw him. It's the most terrifying thing in the world. But how much can we really do aside from watch them every single moment? When they go out in the world as adults, we don't watch them. How do we expect them to learn to be cautious when they don't learn how to watch themselves?


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