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Free-Range Parenting: The Unintended Consequences

I do not support the concept of free-range parenting as a parental strategy or approach. Free-range parenting exists when a child's needs are provided in-excess of typical freedoms and entitlements (in either scope or sequence), typically both.
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The concept of free-range products and branding is spectacularly successful in the culinary world. I must admit I appreciate and buy into the concept of free-range in that arena; however, I do not support the concept of free-range parenting as a parental strategy or approach. Free-range parenting exists when a child's needs are provided in-excess of typical freedoms and entitlements (in either scope or sequence), typically both.

Buying my 5 year-old ice cream, a hot chocolate or a balloon provides me with instant validation; I'm a good parent. My child is happy. I can afford them without hesitation. Her smile is authentic -- for the moment I am the dad she thinks I should be, and I am the dad I think I should be. Symbiotic complacency. Nevermind that she already had sugar for breakfast, or that we're going to a party later where they're giving balloons away and no doubt cake will be served. Nevermind that hot chocolate and ice cream as a cornerstone in her diet can lead to health issues: teeth, weight, skin, addiction. Nevermind that instant validation served in small, consistent, innocent doses has compounding effects. Ultimately it inadvertently creates an underlying reality that her requests, and my delivery of such requests (conscious or not) have become a contingency of our relationship; I must give her what she wants in order to continue the normalcy of her happiness and my feeling of fulfillment as a good dad. This is particularly gratifying if she has a friend or cousin with her, someone to share her perspective joy and further my sense of validation and personal paradigm as a loving father.

I lead with that anecdote as my olive branch. I am not judging you. I am simply relating to you on a scale that is my reality. This is about understanding the unforeseen effects of your parenting: producing children either unable or unwilling to leave the nest.

For many parents hot chocolate is a child's Uber account linked to their credit card. The ice cream is the child's fake ID. And the balloon? It is the wristband to Coachella, a week of partying in Cabo. These are increasingly becoming parental norms at the moment in Newport Beach and have become noticeable contingencies to the relationships between parents and their children.

These tangibles have become status quo and symbols of status. Uber, Fake ID, Coachella; this is social capital. In the same way I was given an allowance by my parents, today's teens are provided an allowance in the form of social capital and access. The college experience delivered in advance; but like a payday advance loan, the high interest paid on the back-end will overwhelmingly outweigh the initial benefits. Adult situations granted prematurely are dangerous to our teens and damage the still-developing adolescent brain.

This year I have witnessed more kids pack up early return from college than I can remember in my 11 years working at a high school in Newport Beach. One the greatest joys in my job are the relationships developed with students as they traverse through the array of experiences and emotions of high school and college. This year there has been an alarming trend in my dialogue with students: they want to come home. We discuss where the experience of college went wrong. Why home is a more viable option. Occasionally I have coached them through the journey home. From broaching the topic with their parents and finally gathering courage to admit they are unable to cope with their new reality or simply aren't ready. The children have been so doted on, so defended, so parented from the watchtower, all while having full access to the social capital of an adult. Make no mistake about it, intellectually they are capable, but the delivery mechanism for long term survival is absent. The return home from college is the first true evidence of the unintended consequences of free-range parenting.

Traditionally the allure of college is newfound freedom: both intellectually and more so, socially. But parents are producing children that are more advanced than the environment they are entering. When I went to college I had significantly less rules and restrictions. Now our college freshmen are finding the opposite. They have more freedom at home than at college. Access to alcohol. Access to luxury accommodations. Access to highly educated advocates who can get them into full classes and mirco-engineer a successful resume. Access to excused absences in lieu of test-taking. All of this is in direct contradiction to the reality of the colleges they enter. Colleges have non-negotiable consequences regarding alcohol and behavior. High standards regarding intellectual property and plagiarism. Professors are not interested in why they missed a class, or a test.

Systemically our children are being failed by the free-range parenting systems in place at home in affluent communities. Why could we expect these children to want to live in an environment with more tangible consequences and less tangible access than the home they left. Certainly they have already had the college experience. Unfortunately their college experience happened in high school, in Newport Beach.

Build a fence and they'll play in the yard. I'm not suggesting that we lock our children up and throw away the key. I am, however, charging you with the mission to be more aware of the hot chocolate, ice cream, and balloons that you give your children. Parenting is crazy. It is exhausting. It is hard to say no, and excruciatingly painful to hear I hate you and be emotionally beaten down a hormonal teenager. But more painful will be parenting them at that level for the rest of their lives, devoid of coping skills as they remain ever-grasping to the concept that you, as a parent, owe them anything beyond the roof over their head, the clothes on their back and food on their plate. The rest, as they say, is gravy; just make sure it's organic.