What I Learned from an Afternoon of Free Range Parenting

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

It was a Tuesday and I had just picked up my Kindergartener from school with my four-year-old son in tow. Instead of heading straight home, we made our way up to the blacktop with some other boy moms whose kids needed to burn off some energy. There was plenty of playground structures and space for the kids to run around. The moms usually sit on the bench by the chain link fence that separates the picnic and portable classroom area from the rest of the playground. On this day, however, the wind had picked up and so we headed to the far corner of the blacktop, sheltered from the cold breeze by two brightly colored walls.

We sat on the bench and parked backpacks and strollers nearby, happy to chat while our boys ran around freely. They were so far out of sight, though, clear across the blacktop, past the three playground structures and down below the fence. I couldn’t hear or see any of them. During our conversation, I kept wondering what the boys were up to, if they were okay. Just as soon as that thought would pop into my head, I would tell myself to calm down, that a little unsupervised play was a good thing, that helicopter parenting helped no one. Then I would relax into the conversation again, patting myself on the back for being such a good free-range parent.

Twenty minutes into our play time, I saw my youngest son running over to our mommy bench. He was full of breathless news about his big brother. “He threw a rock! William, he threw a rock and it hit a WINDOW!” All three of us moms were off the bench in a flash, trotting towards where the boys had been playing. We were met halfway there by the rest of the kids, William standing in the middle of the pack, looking fearfully at me and at the boys around him. “It broke!” a first grader reported, “He threw the rock at the window and it broke!”

“Is it true?” I ask. “Did you throw a rock through a window?” William burst into tears and hung his head. He looked so pitiful with his cowlick waving in the breeze and the jam stain on his shirt. I took him immediately into a hug, onto my lap. He choked out the story between tears and hiccups: it was the first-grader’s idea to throw the rocks; they were aiming at the portable classrooms; he hadn’t meant to hit the window; it wasn’t his idea to throw the rocks.

We had a little talk about wanting to impress our friends, and making good and bad judgement calls. I repeated that I wasn’t mad at him, that he wasn’t in trouble, that it was just an accident. But still, he cried. “Why are you still crying?” I asked as gently as I could. “Because” he wailed, “the principal will find out about it!”

When he had calmed down enough, we walked over to the portables to check out the damage. There was a giant crack and hole through the music portable’s window. The school custodian picked that moment to pull up in his golf cart. When I explained, he reassured me that the school district would take care of it.

The only thing left to do was to let the principal know what had happened when we came back to school the next morning. I knew this task weighed heavily on my son’s little heart when we were getting ready for bed. After books, tooth-brushing, and a prayer, William looked at me from the top bunk bed, his head heavy on his Captain America pillowcase, and suggested in all sincerity that tomorrow might be a good day to begin homeschooling.

William tried to convince me he was sick when he woke up the next morning. I put his backpack on his shoulders and led him to the car. “Do you know what ‘psychosomatic’ means?” I asked. He resigned himself to getting out of the car when we arrived at school. I led the way to the principal’s office; William lagged quite a few steps behind, but we got there eventually.

My heart broke for him as I stood next to the chair he was sitting in, watching him twist the leg of his shorts over and over as he explained to the principal what had happened. I wanted to rescue him from this tense, uncomfortable situation. The principal was kind (he has young children of his own, after all) but stern in his reminder to make good choices. William’s bottom lip quivered more than once, and his tongue betrayed his nervousness, poking the inside of one cheek, then the other. He nodded solemnly when the lecture was over, then nearly skipped back to his classroom, giddy with relief.

I am torn between chastising myself for not supervising his play time more closely, and congratulating myself on letting him learn an important life lesson. This isn’t the first time he’ll be exposed to peer pressure, and though the incident was regrettable, it did provide me with a good opportunity to talk to him about using discernment and good judgment.

So I take this to heart: I won’t be able to shield him from trouble in every situation, nor can I expect to protect him from his own decisions for the rest of his life. The best I can do as his mom is to give him the right tools to equip him to navigate this world on his own.

And when he fails, I hope he’ll still come to me for a hug.


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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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