FreeRange-Ocopter Parenting

And so it has come to this: It’s about time to declare my parenting style because, apparently, that’s everyone’s business.

I’m not as active in the “Parenting and Faith” Sunday school class at our church as I should be. Truthfully, I’m not active in the class at all. By that I mean that I don’t ever go. The Wife goes now and again, but, right or wrong, I haven’t filed the class into the “must do” part of my brain. Besides, Micah 6:8 says, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It doesn’t say anything about getting kids ready an hour before worship and then fighting to get the 2-year-old to go tearfully into the nursery for a couple hours. Anyway, we’re off topic and I don’t want to make God angrier than s/he already is with me. [What’s up, Jesus!]

One of the leaders of the class sent out an email asking for discussion on this article in The New Yorker about so-called “free range kids.” Well, here we go…

In theory, hell yes! raising free-range kids would be awesome. Let ’em do what they do and learn from it without me having to intervene? Uh, yeah. I’ll take it. Similarly, in theory, helicopter parenting keeps your kids safer, which is also awesome. Follow them closely to make sure no harm ever comes to them and be there to teach lessons the way I want them taught? Yeah, that sounds good, too. But as my good friend and mentor, Homer Simpson, notes, “In theory, communism works. In theory.” My kids are young, so I can’t say how I’ll feel when they’re old enough to, say, walk or bike to school, but right now I fall somewhere in between the two contrasting parenting styles, but a good bit over on the free-range end of the spectrum — and that’s a direct result of how I was raised. Although I’m sure there wasn’t a name for it in the 1980’s, I’m going to call it “FreeRange-Ocopter Parenting.”

It's a free range chicken with a helicopter rotor on its head. Get it?
It’s a free range chicken with a helicopter rotor on its head. Get it?

I have no doubt my parents kept a good eye on me when I was a kid, but more often than not, they did so without my knowledge. One of my best friends growing up lived toward the back of the neighborhood and I lived in the front — probably about a half- to three-quarters of a mile from door to door. We routinely rode bikes to one another’s houses starting around age 6 or 7. I distinctly remember the feeling of freedom as I rode my Huffy down the hill where Wild Rose Drive met Hickory Hollow Lane, the wind blowing against my face. The trip probably took me 5-8 minutes, but it might as well have been an hour. I was out on my own and it was awesome. What I didn’t know was that my mom and my friend’s mom would call one another to let the other know when he or I arrived. A little parenting from the free-range column, and a parenting little from the helicopter column.

When I was a older, my parent-drawn borders expanded. They let me ride to the creek a few miles away. Usually, my crew of friends would take our BB guns and target frogs or pinecones in trees or each other whatever else. (In the interest of full disclosure, sometimes one of us would bring a .22 rifle. I doubt my mom knew that was happening. Surprise, Mom! Thanks for reading!) We were almost always given a time to return and check in at someone’s house — usually mine. I’m sure there were times that letting me go out and explore, even close to home, made Mom nervous, but she still let it happen. When I was old enough, she even let me drive 7 of my friends in our station wagon 40 miles across Houston to the Astrodome to watch the Astros play — and made us call on our briefcase cell phone as soon as we were in the parking lot.

Freedom with limits. That’s what FreeRange-Ocopter Parenting is about. Here’s how I practice it right now with my 4yo and 2yo:

4yo: Hey Dad, can I run to that tree over there?
Me: Go for it. I’ll time you.
[4yo runs 20 yards away, comes back]
Me: 20 seconds! Great job!
4yo: Can I run to the fence over there?!
Me: Go for it!
[4yo runs 200 yards away while I make the 2yo stop throwing mulch on other kids. I am not watching the 4yo run across the park and back but I know where she is and what she’s doing. I can look up and see her at any time. She’s fine, and she feels like she’s been on a huge adventure.]

See how easy that is? Freedom with limits. As the kids get older and more responsible, the limits are expanded. If they break my trust, the limits contract.

Give it a try. If you’re a helicopter parent, you might feel scared. If you’re a free range parent, you might feel oppressive. But think about how your kid will feel — trusted, adventurous, free.

Of course, this is all subject to change when the kids can drive…


  1. Janis Williams

    Great one, Matt. I like your style, and your kids are wonderful. However, we DO miss you in Sunday School.

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