Raising Richmond: Pushing through parenting fears

We originally intended this installment to be about our thoughts on the “free-range” parenting movement versus the “helicopter” approach to having our kids out in the world. While we do touch on those ideas here, we ended up going a bit deeper than that. We’ll hope you’ll read our thoughts and then share yours.

Editor’s note: Today’s feature is the latest installment of our parenting column written by two Richmond mothers: Patience Salgado (veteran mother of four gorgeous children), and Valerie Catrow (a parenting rookie who has only been doing this “raising a child thing” for a little while). Check back fortnightly to watch them discuss/agree/disagree/throw down over all kinds of parenting issues, Richmond-related and beyond.

Today’s topic: We originally intended this installment to be about our thoughts on the free-range parenting movement versus the “helicopter” parent approach to having our kids out in the world. While we do touch on those ideas here, we both ended up going deeper than that. We’ll hope you’ll read our thoughts and then share yours.

Patience Salgado

I must tell you, I am a classic worrier. The truth is, I was one long before I had children. I’m not sure how the fear of things crept into my heart but it seems my mind can imagine all the worst possibilities in a flash of a moment. Even with all the doom and gloom, I have always had a strong desire to conquer and push past them. It all gets sort of gray though when I think about my kids.

When I first read about Lenore Skenazy and how she let her nine year old ride the subway by himself, I was kind of inspired. Lenore found herself in a media storm super fast and before she knew it, she was leading a movement of redefining this aspect of parenting. She proposes that we absolutely should value safety, but challenges us to consider that maybe we have gone too far as a society? Do kids really need a security detail to be outside? Can safety and independence exist together for kids?

For years when I think about walking somewhere as a kid or teenager, I have had this instant image of a hound dog dressed in a trench coat reminding me as a kid to not take candy from strangers or walk up to cars I didn’t know. There was a feeling that I could be taken at any moment, abduction being a very real possibility. An article on NPR about Christine Barnes, the author of the The Paranoid Parents Guide, revealed the top five worries of parents are:
1. Kidnapping
2. School Snipers
3. Terrorists
4. Dangerous Strangers
5. Drugs

However, the she also points out that the research shows that children are really hurt or killed by:
1. Car Accidents
2. Homicide (not usually by a stranger but by someone the child knows)
3. Abuse
4. Suicide
5. Drowning

So how did we get to the place where we are so afraid to let our kids walk to the local library? Is is one too many CSI shows or scary news stories in our everyday lives building over time? I know I have the tendency to helicopter parent, but I agree with Lenore. I think in the process of trying so hard to be good parents, we may have lost some of our common sense. My 10-year-old is pretty responsible and capable. There are probably lots of things he can do and try that I have not yet allowed him to because of my own fears. So now I take my own baby steps as a parent, to let my kid experience all growing and life have for him.

Valerie Catrow

“Do you have him?”

These words are spoken between my husband and I on a constant loop when we’re out with our two-year-old. It’s just our shorthand way of saying to each other, “I have to do [XYZ] and cannot give him my full attention, so please be on your game.”

In addition to possibly finding it pretty obnoxious, some might think we do this because our son is only two. A toddler. A creature best described as a large-headed, unreasonable (yet adorable) tyrant who seems determined to injure himself. But it’s not that (or just that, I should say).

The “Do you have him?” chorus has two origins:

1. We would hate to be thought of as “those parents” who aren’t watching their kid. He’s our child and we think we need to be the ones keeping tabs on him. We don’t want anyone to ever feel burdened to keep an eye out for our kid if we haven’t specifically asked.

2. At least some amount of fear – more mine than my husband’s. He has his nervous moments, but his brain doesn’t automatically go the worst case scenarios like mine does.

I realize that this sounds quite “helicopter parentish” of us, so I’ll add that we try to never interfere in what our son is doing when he’s out in the world. We encourage him to try new things, and we’re definitely of the “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet” school of thought over the “Stranger danger!” approach. We just prefer to keep him our line of vision. And if we can’t see him, we make damn sure we know where he is and who he’s with. I know the odds of something happening to him are slim, but for my own sanity, I need to be in the know when it comes to my kid.

There’s an Elizabeth Stone quote that’s referred to ad nauseam, but it’s worth mentioning here because it sums up this whole parenting thing for me:

“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Yes. That’s it. That feeling of vulnerability is exactly it for me.

Ever since having our son, I’ve become more aware of the social contracts that make our world go ’round. While we are not defenseless by any means, when we go out into the world, we’re saying “Here I am. I’m going to do my thing and not harm you. I’m trusting you’ll be doing the same thing.” Or in the case of my son, “Here is my heart. Please don’t hurt it.”

I don’t want you to think that I spend my days tearing out my hair in fear of what the world will do to MAH BAY-BEE. That’s not the case — we’re out, we’re having fun, and our son is thriving. And I understand that most people ARE just going about their business. In fact, many of them are also completely willing to lend a helping hand when asked (and sometimes just out of the goodness of their hearts). Nothing has ever happened to us to suggest otherwise.

And yet here I am, working (and sometimes struggling) to find a balance between giving my child the space to find his way in the world and taking my role as his protector extremely seriously. I’m not suggesting at all that those things are mutually exclusive, but it’s tricky for me to honor both roles simultaneously and equally.

So where do I go from here? I’m really not sure. Do I feel like I’m doing something wrong? Not exactly…but part of me thinks I do focus too much on the “What ifs?” and not enough on the good stuff. I wonder what he might be missing out on, if I’m holding him back. But I’m working on it, which is the best any of us can do. More than anything, I want to make sure we’re all enjoying this incredibly brief period of time we do have him with us.

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Patience Salgado

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. On Sunday I was putting on my coat to walk 5-yr-old B to her friend A’s house a block away. When she asked to go it alone, I let her (leaving my coat on and watching her until she crossed the street and left my view). I’m proud of both of us, although I do fall more on the free-range than helicopter side of the divide.

  2. Thanks, Maggi.

    I’m sure my attitude and approach will change as our little boy gets older. Right now I still see him as so little and defenseless — and at 2, he basically is. Maybe I just need to find a way to time the baby steps so it just feels natural when the time comes. If not for his sake, then for mine and my fretful brain.

  3. Bre Holt on said:

    I have dealt a lot with this over the last year, as my 5.5 year old has asked for (at times demanded) more and more freedom and independence, and her 2.5 year old sister has watched and expected to be included. They are both fairly cautious and mature for their ages, and with my older daughter I have found it to be pretty enjoyable for both of us to let her explore more of her world out of my line of sight. And the little one sticks to her sister like glue, so I actually feel pretty comfortable when they’re both running around somewhere together.

    What I find difficult is the way we then bump up against the well meaning strangers who feel my husband and I are being lax parents and step in to try to assist us/our children, when that is not needed. If my children were ever in danger I would gladly welcome the assistance of strangers, but I don’t enjoy being chastised or commented on when my kids are doing something I feel is safe.

    As an example- a couple of months ago my husband was walking the girls home from the park, and as always, our 2.5 year old ran ahead of him, across a playfield, towards her favorite park sign that she runs to and then stops at to name the colors on it. A man was coaching a soccer team on the field, assumed she was going to run into the nearby street, and charged after her yelling loudly “STOP! NO! DON”T DO THAT!”, caught up to her and grabbed her arm and then marched her back to my husband and got upset at him for letting her run ahead. Our daughter was in hysterics- she had been terrified by this large unknown man screaming at her when she was doing something she’s done many times before- she couldn’t understand why he was upset. We know she would never run into the street, my husband was watching her and was comfortable with what she was doing. We want to give her the freedom to run ahead, but also want to protect her from something like that, where a (I’m sure well intentioned) stranger interfered and created a fearful situation where it did not need to exist. It’s a struggle.

  4. Whoa, yeah, I’d say that man was out of line. It’s one thing to say to ask a child where her mother or father is, or to just make a point to keep an eye on him or her until you see that all is well. And you definitely don’t put your hands on another person’s kid.

    Bre, you also mentioned that your girls are mature and and cautious. I think a lot of it is being aware of your child’s personality and going from there.

  5. Mollie on said:

    I am there, period. There are plenty of really sick people in the world. I don’t have to quote statistics on how many children go missing each year or write about what happens to them. We know it. We may choose to temporarily suspend our belief and think that it won’t happen to those we love, but what if it does? What if it does, and you weren’t there? Who does a child depend on to protect them? There is, of course, an art to this protection. To be the silent ninja; alert, aware, and conscious while at once seemingly detached and allowing our children to practice independence. Always giving our children a range of choices, but with the wisdom to only present the choices with which we would be okay with. In that way they feel as if they are constructing their own experience / life which fosters autonomy. There is no one right answer for every parent. And every parent’s personal style is correct for them if they are choosing it consciously.

  6. The real question isn’t what your parenting style is…it’s whether or not you live in Florida.

    Free Range Parenting to some degree is healthy, accept in Florida.

  7. My older cousin was given a lot of freedom while growing up, ex. riding the city bus by herself. She grew into a confident and independent woman. She credits this solely to the freedom she had as a child. I, on the other hand, had very protective parents. Which makes me to wonder if that is why I am generally less confident, and independent. Just a thought…

  8. Jennifer C. on said:

    When you have a two-year-old, you have to keep an eye on him. Once they get older, you can ease up.

    My issues haven’t been so much having to supervise the kids because I’m worried about outside influence as much as keeping an eye on the, ah, brotherly interactions. I let my kids (almost-7 and 4) play in the front yard of our southside house by themselves, and they’ve been able to play in the fenced backyard by themselves for a while. I’m ready to let my older son walk within the neighborhood, provided I can get a check-in at the other end.

    I took my boys to REI on Black Friday, and before we went in, I reminded them to hang close because the store might be crowded. I said, “If you get lost, look for a store employee or a mom, okay? They’ll help you find me.” My four-year-old listened carefully, then said, “I think I’ll just look for you.” They have more sense than we do, sometimes.

  9. Beth Ann on said:


    I am not a parent but I could easily see myself grabbing a kid that I thought was going to run into the street, especially if I didn’t have time to ascertain whether a parent was around or paying attention. Safety is more important than good manners.

  10. Jennifer C. on said:

    @Beth: tone is everything, though. He scared her with his approach. I think we’d all grab a kid before she actually takes off across the curb, but a stranger chasing her down while yowling at her is more likely to scare her *into* the street..

  11. Becka on said:

    I think something that people tend to forget is that “free range parenting” often leads to your children stepping out of their place. I am a mom of two wonderfully behaved children. Why? Because I am all over them about it. My husband and I have spent a lot of time teaching them that they are not adults and therefore do not belong in most adult situations. It is disgusting that so many people think it is okay to let their kids go off and do their own thing. You have a responsibility to not only your child, but to the rest of society to teach your child how to act and interact. And your “decision” to let them figure it out on their own only infringes on other people’s lives.

    My example? At the children’s museum my son was waiting to go into the cave (this was back when you still had to wait for a “tour” to go in) There was another child with his mother and grandmother waiting as well. This kid was significantly smaller than my son so when he started to climb on my son I didn’t worry overly much. I told my son to “use his words” and let the kid know that he didn’t want him there. Please, keep in mind that his mother is standing two feet away watching this exchange as well. I typically do NOT get involved in these situations other than reminding my son that he can handle it. But, when this child began beating my son in the face with a plastic iguana he found laying there it was ME that was forced to step in and physically remove him. My son is very sweet and does not like confrontations and I knew that he was not going to fight back, so at that point I knew I had to step in – the other mom was not going to apparently. I did give that woman a piece of my mind (I felt justified as my son was bleeding profusely.) When I took him to get first aid, I made sure that the manager found this family and escorted them to the door as well. BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO PARENT YOUR CHILDREN.

    I am so sick of this crap. Look around people. You can teach your child independence without setting them loose on the unsuspecting townspeople.

    I understand that this was supposed to be a debate about the differences of helicopter vs. free range parenting, but I feel like both methods are junk. Helicopter parents are more likely to intercede on their child’s behalf – meaning they will step in and tell someone else how to do something, rather than addressing the child directly. [Management classes now include a section on helicopter parents. These are the parents that will call the work place of a grown child to complain about the way their child is being treated.] Helicopter parenting is what has lead to the “Teacup Generation” – they’re pretty to look at, but fragile as h*#%. These kids expect their way 100% of the time and demand that their parents make it happen. Free range parenting is letting your kids make their mistakes and suffer the consequences. Great if those consequences only affect your child or your family, not great when you are inflicting your child’s “mistakes” on other people.

    I think the common denominator is that people don’t expect their children to stay in line. Both of those methods have a “don’t tell my kid what to do” aspect. For helicopter parents, it’s because you don’t want your child’s feelings hurt, for free range it’s that you want them to figure it out for themselves. Either way, it sucks. Some of the stuff that kids get away with today is mind boggling.

    I get that there are no right answers in parenting. I make zillions of mistakes everyday. I pray that my children will grow up and forgive me those mistakes. But I know that it is still my responsibility to teach them how to behave, how to handle themselves in all situations, and how to be respectful. As a parent, it is my job to respectful to those around us by keeping my children in line. And, I’m not going to lie – I don’t want to be the mom that people are looking at thinking “Can you believe her? Who let her be a mom?!”

    You can say what you want about that man “chasing” your daughter, but at 2 1/2 I’m guessing she’s pretty small. Of course he’s going to assume that she’s going to run into the street. instead of talking about how horrible it is that he did something, you should be thanking him profusely for caring. THAT is what is wrong with people today. You say that his tone was wrong. Well, can you say that as a parent you never lost it when your child was doing something that you were afraid would get him hurt? I have SCREAMED at my kids in public, not because I wanted to yell at them but because they almost stepped in front of a car in a parking lot, or pulled a rack on top of themselves, etc. And my first reaction was to stop that immediately. I think that man should be commended. Even if she wasn’t going to go in the street, even if you *know* that (because, I forgot – all two year olds are completely predictable) he didn’t and he was trying to protect her.

  12. wow, what a great comment by becka

  13. Kudos for yet another conversation starter! I have begun to regularly print and hand out the articles you write in my practice as parents are leaving. We all learn so much from one another, and the best learning always comes in sharing ideas.

    I grew up in the city with a lot more independence than kids have today, so in many ways, when I advocate for more Free Range Parenting, I am secretly validating my own upbringing, I suspect. We did get into some mischief, but there’s learning to be had in every aspect of growing up…rule following and mischief alike.

    My own experience as a parent has been to give just enough rope so that my kids can explore but not hang themselves (metaphorically speaking!) We’ve had our share of mishaps, but I know that I’m on the right path when my teens comment that their friends’ parents won’t let them even walk from school (high school!) to our house ( 4 or 5 blocks away).

    Remembering that it does take a village to raise a child, I’d like to make a plea for more Free Range options in a community of parents who all look out for the neighborhood youngsters and teens…from their helicopters, of course!

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