I've been a fan of the free-range parenting movement for quite some time and I hope that I can confidently say I am raising two free-range kids.
I meet many like-minded parents who want to teach their children to be confident, competent, and responsible individuals and they realize that means allowing them freedom along the way.
So I am always surprised when these parents -- the same ones who are encouraging their children to walk to the park alone, to venture out into the woods, to play without adults around -- say things like "but we always supervise their technology use."
Technology. Where even free-range parents seem to stumble.
Free-range parenting is rooted in the idea that despite what the media might tell us, our children are NOT in constant danger. In fact, crime is lower than it has been in decades. Free-range parents believe that instead of sheltering their children from harsh realities they should prepare them to make smart decisions when they are faced with adversity. Free-range parents believe that children learn through exploration, curiosity, and sometimes even mistakes.
Except when it comes to the digital world?
I recently got this comment on a blog I wrote about allowing my children to use handheld devices.
"YOU LEAVE YOUR CHILDREN UNATTENDED WITH YOUR IPAD? Whatever happened to 'ask your parents' permission?' There's so many good reasons to NOT DO THAT. There is absolutely NO way to filter everything a child should NOT have to see and learn about from the INTERNET." (Caps abuse left intact since they went through the trouble of adding so many.)
"You leave your children unattended with your iPad?" sure feels like the new "you let your children play at the park alone?"
And the answer to both of those is "yes."
I do leave my children, now 9 and almost 7, alone with their iPad. They have an account on Netflix, they know how to get to sites like XtraMath and GoNoodle. They can research better than many college students I've met. Most of the time I don't fully know what they are doing online just like most of the time I don't fully know what they are doing when they are playing outside. And I think that is OK.
The reality is that commenter was right. There is no way to filter everything a child should not see from the internet. Do you know what else is impossible to filter?
As parents, we always want to protect our children from the bad things in the world. We want to bubble wrap them, hamster ball them, even lock and key them at times. But those measures can't ever really hold. All that we can accomplish when we add layer after layer of security is we create children who can't function without us.
And we make ourselves crazy in the meantime.
The main thing I think we can impart on our children when they play, whether it is online or outside, is to question things that don't feel right, and talk to us about them when they happen.
I was tucking my oldest into bed a few months ago and she said something that caught me off guard.
"Mom, I think (little sister) has been watching inappropriate videos on the iPad."
Of course my heart stopped in that instant. I don't lack the parenting gene that makes us want to supervise everything our children do -- I've just learned to suppress it at times.
"Ok sis. Thanks for telling me. I'll talk to her about it."
I grabbed the iPad so I could determine what type of crisis I was dealing with. My kid is six, how inappropriate are we talking here?
One quick glance at the search history would leave me in a ball on the floor.
"How does a mom give birth to twins."
As I tucked my youngest in I asked her if there was anything she had seen on the iPad that she wanted to talk about. Immediately the flood gates opened.
"I wanted to know how a mom has two babies at the same time. I don't want to know anymore."
I assured her that any time she wanted to know something like that she could ask me, and I would help her find the answer. I told her that I know about sites where we can find accurate information, and not even Siri can promise that.
The truth is, it could have been something much worse that she saw. But the best-case scenario in any situation is that she would talk to a trusted adult about what happened. You can limit screen time, you can know all their passwords, you can watch every move they make while they are online and yet the reality is they will be faced with online moral dilemmas just like they will be faced by real life ones. If not at your house then somewhere else.
And, the hardest part for all of us to realize-they will learn through making mistakes.
They will google "how does a mom give birth to twins," they will say something mean online, they will give someone their number when they shouldn't and hopefully, when they make these kind of mistakes they can tell you about it so you can help.
The digital landscape isn't that much different than the playground landscape. We have to teach our children how to be safe and thoughtful, but we also have to teach them how to navigate it alone. We can't help them up the steps every time. We can't always catch them at the bottom of the slide. What we can, and should do, is demonstrate how it is done and let them explore the terrain for themselves.
That's what being a free-range parent in the digital age means to me.