Free range parenting requires racial privilege and social acceptance of motherhood — I have neither.
I have been following the dialogue happening in the media and across parenting blogs on free range parenting, an approach to parenting that gives children a great deal of freedom from adult supervision. That freedom can include outdoor play, walks through the woods, and neighborhood bicycle rides – all without adult supervision. Recently, authorities in Maryland charged a couple with child neglect after they let their kids (ages six and ten) walk home alone from a park.
When I initially saw the story, I thought, “Hmmm, that’s interesting.” I am familiar with that area. The park is very close to a busy thoroughfare. Certainly, every parent has the right to make choices about how they raise their children without their ability, intellect or worthiness being judged – as long as their children’s safety is not compromised. While, I would never allow Treasured One (TO) to play in public spaces without supervision, I certainly would have expected a visit from the police or from child protective services. Then again, the social benefit of the doubt (also a privilege) associated with parenting is often not extended to moms like me – Black moms. In her essay, the Impossibility of the Good Black Mother, T.F. Charlton writes that “as mothers, we belong to a global sorority of women laboring under expectations that our parenting be open to any and all interrogation…but we don’t share that burden evenly or identically.”
Black mothers labor under different burdens. The cultural framing of motherhood differs greatly between Black and White moms. My Black motherhood is viewed as largely invisible, lacking and suspicious. This thinking perpetually calls my parenting into question as well as my marital status, my relationship to my child’s other parent, my financial means, and the intimate circumstances that surround how my child came to be. The myth of the good mother is built on the social constructions of “traditional” femininity, which few mothers can embody. If this thinking remained private, meaning its racist and sexist reach never touched my family, I don’t think I would mind as much, but it always somehow reaches us.
For example, on a recent trip to the park, TO wanted to slide. We know this park well, so she walked up alone. A woman climbed the slide with her child and stepped in front of my daughter. Down below, seeing what was happening, I encouraged my daughter to use the adjoining slide. I turned to engage the woman who stepped in front of my daughter. Instead of talking directly to me, she engaged my daughter in conversation! She asked her if she wanted to go down the slide first. And, she offered to move to allow her to allow her to slide. Never mind, we were there first and that I am the adult and fully present in the interaction. Ugh.
Similarly, Black children are not afforded the same privilege of innocence as White children. Research documents that Black children are more likely to be seen as older, more prematurely than their ages grant, which opens the door to many possible negative outcomes. I think of 12-year old Tamir Rice who was shot and killed while playing alone in a park with a toy gun. Police reports indicate that responding officers initially thought he was a 5’7 and 20 years old. Research also suggests that Black girls are also thought to be older than they often are which lends itself to this type of danger and far worse. As the dialogue around free range parenting continues, these events remain fresh in my mind.
I write this piece to amplify the reality that moms, particularly Black moms are differently situated with respect to the degree of freedom they give their children for fear of state involvement and other dangers. I don’t live in a highly surveilled area, but I imagine this fear is worse for Black mothers who do. Black moms are also situated differently in the social benefit of the doubt they receive regarding their approach to parenting and in presumptions made about their competency to parent. I loathe these social constraints, but I recognize them. So, I say no to free range parenting. But I say yes to respect for every mom who labors to make good choices for her children.
Be safe out there.