The Pandemic Has Made Me More of a Free-Range Parent

I have no choice but to let go.

kids on scooters and bikes

Getty Images/Shannon Fagan

If I thought I was a free-range parent prior to 2020, it was nothing compared to the way I operate now. The pandemic had the surprising effect of making me an extreme free-range parent out of necessity. There's nothing like being stuck in a house with your partner and children—and working full-time while simultaneously managing their individual educations—to make one let go.

"There are only so many Cheerios that will fit on the string," my husband likes to joke, referring to his mental capacity for multi-tasking, and when you're juggling as many things as we (and all other parents) have been for the past 14 months, there comes a point when you just stop caring about certain details.

My two older children are now free to roam pretty much wherever they want. When they've finished their daily schoolwork and are sick of playing in the backyard, they head off on their bicycles or scooters to explore local trails, the Lake Huron shoreline, or playgrounds in other neighborhoods. Sometimes they meet friends, sometimes they go alone, but the point is they leave the house, get fresh air and exercise, and I get a few blissful (and highly productive) hours in a quiet house.

Using these new swaths of uninterrupted time, my kids have built several forts in the forest bordering a cornfield on the far side of town. Together with a gang of neighborhood kids, they've constructed a two-story fort that sticks out the side of a hill—quite the architectural accomplishment, I'm told. They disappear to this project for hours each week, refueling as needed at a friend's house, but always returning home at the appointed time. 

This building of wild tree forts is the kind of stuff Richard Louv writes about in "Last Child in the Woods," saying that more kids need to be doing it in order to have intimate interactions with nature—but sadly it has taken a global pandemic to create an atmosphere that is conducive to it.

In the past parents gave children far more freedom because it was necessary. They had no choice but to let kids roam because they were busy working and could not keep an eye on them all day long. I feel like I have reached that point now, where necessity has surpassed desire as my main motivation for free-range parenting. Now I just need them out of the house, and they need to get out of the house, and we all feel better when they do.

I have worked for years to give my kids the tools to navigate their hometown and now I must release them into the world, trusting them to use the lessons I've taught. Sometimes it's nerve-racking, but we live in a small town where most people know each other, so I am confident that others are looking out for them, too. This, I realize, is different from other parents' experiences, particularly in urban areas.

As I've let my kids roam over the past year, I have had the privilege of watching them flourish. In situations that used to challenge or make them feel nervous, they now move with absolute confidence. They think nothing of crossing town to meet a friend, of riding several miles on a bike trail, of going to the store on an errand for me. They've grown into themselves in a way that's delightful and gratifying to see. 

Without a pandemic, I may not have let them have such freedom so early, but "desperate times call for desperate measures," as the saying goes. It's a true silver lining that has emerged from a tough situation, and for that I am grateful.