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  • Melissa Westemeier


Much has been written and much more has been said about parenting styles and while my oldest would beg to differ at times (specifically the time when I forced him to remain in AP Stats his senior year of high school), I trend more free-range than helicopter and never bulldozer/snowplow/lawnmower. One reason for choosing free-range is because I'm lazy and prefer to pick my battles. Another reason came out of my experience as a high school teacher. Students who never experience difficulty or failure or struggle or have to solve problems for themselves wilt when they confronted with their first obstacles. I mean, it can absolutely WRECK a kid for whom it has all come easy when suddenly at age 17 they discover life is hard. Or not fair. And eventually most kids find themselves out of range from their parents' interference/influence and they're on their own to figure it out. My theory is by gradually releasing kids to responsibility for themselves, they'll be smarter, tougher, and more persevering.

DISCLAIMER: I acknowledge that my approach might not work for parenting a child with a disability or dysfunction requiring more assistance. Every parent needs to choose what's best for their situation and their offspring.

Now, free-range parenting didn't mean life here was without boundaries. We had rules about honesty, snitching, minding our own business, fighting (take it OUTSIDE--yes, once we had to repair a hole the size of a teen-aged boy's butt in our drywall), pulling phones and technology privileges when grades weren't up to snuff. Team Testosterone had to let us where they were and when they'd be home. Use the buddy system in the pool. Nobody touches guns without passing a Hunter's Safety course and everyone took swimming lessons. Be good teammates, respect teachers, use manners. From the start, we expected Team Testosterone to use their voices, like placing their own order at a restaurant. When problems cropped up, I'd end on "What did you learn from this?" and encourage reflection on failure and mistakes because that's how you learn. When the boys had trouble here or at school or with friends, we provided more sounding board and didn't jump to their rescue unless they requested or on the very rare occasion required it. As they got older I became more, "Do you want my advice on this? Do you want me to do anything?" The fancy term for this in education is "Gradual Release." It works well for teaching kids everything from algebra to riding a bicycle.

It was, however, a risky business at times.

Team Testosterone also enjoyed enormous freedom, bordering on Lord of the Flies-level madness on a few occasions. They were in charge of their own grooming except on special occasions that demanded upping their game. I refused to battle the boys on things like hair length or whether their beds got made. I let them use spray paint, matches, airsoft guns, and power tools. Once I stood behind them at Target while they bought cigarette lighters and the cashier asked for ID. The lighters were for starting a fire in a pit where they planned to roast marshmallows and boil crawdads they caught in the creek. We were all surprised they got carded for that type of purchase, and I told the boys they could pay me back and handed over my credit card for the cigarette lighters while ignoring the judgemental stare from the woman waiting in line behind me.

When Mr. B and Mr. T went to college, I left them to it, sending a text message or occasionally calling. They capably managed themselves and once in a while called to ask for input ("What's the name of the drug I have an allergic reaction to?" came from one son who was in the college health services office--I'll be honest, that question sent me into a brief panic). From a distance I fielded questions about phone plans, streaming passwords, and whether to sort laundry by color. When Mr. G went to college this year a friend told me about the parent Facebook page where people shared information and asked questions. I'd never joined that sort of group before, so I signed up. Maybe this third time around I'd be a more involved type of parent. Maybe I'd learn some useful information.

Or not.

Within three weeks I left the group and deleted the feed. The questions people ask display so much--too much--involvement in their adult children's lives. It's a land of snowplow/bulldozer/lawnmower parents. Maybe it's because Mr. G's my youngest, maybe it's because I'm old and crabby, but I can't deal with the stream of complaints about other people's children (Vaping in the dorms! Sex! Noisy neighbors after hours!). It's so negative and honestly, what are a bunch of parents on Facebook supposed to do about this anyway? The kids need to figure out how to live together on their own--or figure out how to change up their situation. They're adults now, legally and in the sense that they enrolled in college. Dorm life involves more than buying coordinating throw pillows and a lava lamp for your room. I realize it's tough, especially for freshmen feeling their oats and for kids who've never before had to share a room with anyone else. It's a lot. But from what I've seen, colleges provide resources and structure for students to help them navigate these life changes. And if living away from home is too big a leap, then students might opt for commuting to college or taking coursework online. In this modern era people have options, right?

I can't understand why the parents on the College Town Parents Facebook Group express so much helplessness, either. The college provides plenty of resources and information online, and really, at this stage in the game, our job is to point our kids to using them instead of trying to learn what power we have in fixing our kids' problems. (Spoiler alert: Once your kid turns 18, you don't have much power at all. Legally. Medically. Financially. Almost no power. Actually, as I write this I'm realizing Free-Range kind of prepares parents to let go as much as it prepares kids to take over.)

Then there are the arguably RIDICULOUS questions parents posted, like "Where is there a good barber in College Town?" Seriously? Does your college student not have internet access so they might use Google Maps and locate a haircut? Or, and mine have done it, can your child not cut their own hair? Or let it grow out until they're home on a holiday break? Here's another fun nugget: "Does anyone have a child looking for a roommate next year? My child needs one." No joke. These parents micromanage their offspring to such a degree that I'm shocked they even let them out of the house to go to college. One would expect a child capable of attending college to be capable of tracking down a haircut, right? I know. I'm being super judgemental. But I honestly thought this uber-controlling type of parent was the exception, not the rule.

If I can't say anything nice, I shouldn't say anything at all, so I left no comments. I just left the page. Perhaps there's value in creating groups based on parenting style, but I have a hunch Free-Range parents don't have much use for a Facebook Parent Group in the first place. If Mr. G runs into any problems this year, he probably has the resources to figure it out before he reaches out to us.

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