Lost: Suddenly, Free-Range Parenting Seems Really Stupid

Posted by on July 9, 2009

This 4th of July, we decided to go to the beach to watch fireworks. This particular beach has a lot of activity going on every evening and on Independence Day, even more so.

After letting the kids play on the playground for a while, we made our way down to the water. Though the sun was beginning to set, there were tons of people everywhere.

My kids were playing in the water and digging in the sand with my husband while I stood at the waters edge and took photos. It was when I heard a frantic young girl’s voice that I turned my attention behind me.

“Have you seen a little girl in a green bathing suit? We can’t find my sister.”

The girl was speaking to some other people nearby. I walked up and asked her how old her sister was (six), where they last saw her (about 20 yards up from the water) and how long since they’d seen her (15 minutes).

Her mother came up to me and gave me some more details. I promised to keep my eyes open and that’s pretty much all I did. I couldn’t relax and just carry on as if a little girl wasn’t missing. From time to time, I’d find myself walking back over to the mother to see if there was any news.

I couldn’t believe the beach police patrol was just driving down the beach visually scanning the area. I thought they should let everyone know they were looking for a child and use a megaphone or something to get the word out. At another point there were police officers just sort of wandering around on the beach, like stray ants that had lost their way. If it was my kid that was missing, I don’t think I would have been satisfied with such a half-assed attempt to find them. I mean really, it would have been laughable were it not such a dire situation.

Eventually it got dark and we wandered back up to the pier to get ice cream before the fireworks started. The whole time, I continued to look, without even meaning to, for a little Indian girl with a black bob and a green and yellow flowered swimsuit. I felt sick wondering what might have happened to her and my heart ached for her parents. A morbid statistic plagued my thoughts…if a child isn’t found within three hours of having gone missing, they are unlikely to be  found alive.

After we finished our ice cream, we let the kids go on the playground; my husband watching over them like a hawk while I fiddled with my camera and changed the lens.

It was at that moment that I looked up and saw it — a green and yellow flowered bathing suit. It was just as I had imagined it, as was the wearer— a little Indian girl with a black bob. And then I saw her mother and her older sister and her father.

Without saying a word to my husband, I sprinted across the playground to catch up with them. I tapped the mother on the shoulder. She whirled around.

“You found her… Oh thank God!”

She recognized me from the beach and greeted me with a smile. She told me her daughter had been found pretty far away on a major beach  thoroughfare. After dark. I was so relieved I didn’t think to ask how she got there or if she was alone

I don’t know what I’d do  if anything like an abduction ever happened to either of my children. I can’t even bear to think about—but I know this much—any thoughts I might have had on the merits of free-range parenting (the way I grew up) are completely out the window for now.

What are your thoughts on the whole  free-range parenting/slow-parenting thing?


  • Lisa B says:

    So happy to hear their story had a happy ending!
    .-= Lisa B’s last blog post…Show Me Love =-.

  • SciFi Dad says:

    Stories like that are a parent’s worst nightmare. The whole time I was reading, I was like, “Yeah, yeah. Fireworks, beach, blah blah blah… WHERE IS THE LITTLE GIRL??!?”
    .-= SciFi Dad’s last blog post…The Munchkin Interview =-.

  • Too scary. It’s so easy to lose kids on the beach. My son always ends up playing on the water’s edge and wandering further and further away from us as he travels sideways. I hate that look of panic in his eyes when he looks up and can’t see me sitting there, but then there is such relief when I call his name and wave.

    Poor little girl, so glad she was found!
    .-= Fairly Odd Mother’s last blog post…Her Expanding Vocabulary =-.

  • carolyn says:

    Mine are teenagers now, but I can clearly remember that sinking feeling when I couldn’t immediately lay my eyes on them in some kind of crowded situation. BTW the teen years are no better. Now they really are out of my sight and it can get scary!!

  • Wow, so scary!! Makes you want to scream at people who think parents these days are too vigilant.
    .-= Angela at mommy bytes’s last blog post…Never Too Old for Threadless =-.

  • marymac says:

    it is truly a parents’ nightmare- great post. i also remember the feeling as a kid of looking up at a crowded beach and not being able to find my parents’ umbrella. to this day i make my kids, from the water, get a visual of where we are sitting (‘this side of the lifeguard stand’ etc). Scary stuff.
    .-= marymac’s last blog post…Blog Post About Blog Contests =-.

  • Mayopie says:

    Do you remember when I rode my big wheel to school? There are very few people I can say this to without them thinking I’m psychotic (just ask the people at the grocery store.) I also remember being 9 and walking to the bus stop in complete darkness. That being said, it wasn’t safe. My parents and I were lucky. Around the same time, Adam Walsh disappeared not far from where we lived. Because of the media age we live in, I think we’re just more well aware of the dangers because we hear about them more frequently.
    .-= Mayopie’s last blog post…Judd Nelson is never the answer =-.

    • IzzyMom says:

      You rode your Big Wheel to school? And lived to tell about it? WOW.

      Your sister and I were just on the phone the other night recounting all the ways in which we’d been incredibly lucky to NOT have been abducted and chopped up into tiny pieces as kids, teens and college students. I have no idea how we made it beyond 21…

      I lived in Hollywood when Adam Walsh was abducted. It was a real eye opener for parents.
      .-= IzzyMom’s last blog post…Lost =-.

  • Assertagirl says:

    Hmm, this is one of the many things I’ve been thinking about when it comes to how Graham & I will parent. I think a busy beach where a child can easily be injured or drowned is definitely a bad place to practice free-range parenting. But I mean, we went to the park by ourselves and returned home safe and sound as children many, many times. I just don’t know what the right answer is these days, though.
    .-= Assertagirl’s last blog post…Signs I’m losing brain cells. =-.

    • IzzyMom says:

      When I was my daughter’s age (8), I was off on my bike and all over the place without my parents having any idea at all. The only thing they ever said was not to take candy from strangers. We were all so blissfully ignorant…even AFTER I got grabbed by a creep at a hotel in the Keys. WTH?

  • Aprylsantics says:

    I know that sinking feeling all too well. Some day when I actually get a blog, I’ll write a post about that day.

    I’ve always found it difficult to find the happy medium between helicopter and free-range parenting.

    • IzzyMom says:

      It may (or may not) shock you to know that I’ve let N and P play out front many times unsupervised other than opening a window so I can hear them and occasionally see them from my desk. Not sure what kind of parent (or idiot) that makes me but I don’t think I’ll be doing it again anytime soon.

  • If I lose my daughter for even 5 seconds I freak out. I can’t even imagine losing her somewhere like a crowded beach.

    Can we lo-jack our kids?
    .-= creative type dad’s last blog post…Happy 4th Birthday Sunshine Sparkles Princess Ballerina Fairy Olivia Newton-John! =-.

  • BigBaby says:

    Dammit, I don’t even live near a beach but I’m getting panicked about visiting my MA relatives this summer who do after reading that post :( My little guy is just starting to test his walking ability and I freak out when he’s out of eyesight in my tiny house (can’t imagine what I would do in public). Thanks for the post though, I am making my husband read it because he thinks I can be too vigilant and overprotective.
    .-= BigBaby’s last undefined post…(Enjoy 10 returned posts for 2 weeks) =-.

  • Lisse says:

    My younger son was quite the escape artist when he was younger, and one he did manage to get quite far away. I used to have nightmare that both boys would take off in different directions and I’d have to choose which one to go after.

    @BigBaby – friends of ours bought us a huge red floppy hat when my oldest was a toddler. We put it on him when we went to the beach and we always knew where he was!
    .-= Lisse’s last blog post…Free-range Chicken =-.

    • IzzyMom says:

      Whenever we’re going somewhere that I know is going to be crowded, I try to dress my kids, particularly my younger one, in bright red or orange shirts so I can better spot them in a crowd.

      Re two kids… I used to worry about my kids taking off in opposite directions when I was pregnant with my second child.

  • Amanda says:

    Didn’t breathe.
    .-= Amanda’s last blog post…You’ll Never Know =-.

  • Cara says:

    This is the stuff of my nightmares. I want to be a free range parent, but I am far too paranoid to let that happen. Sorry, kids.
    .-= Cara’s last blog post…A Little Mystery =-.

  • Debs says:

    Im not good at free-range parenting. I live in the sticks, and I am still worried. About people, animals etc. I let them think they are doing whatever, but I have my eyes on them at all times. I’ve been told I’m paranoid, but what you described is one of my biggest nightmares.

  • Amy says:

    I am an INFP too. Let’s fist bump and say Shazam!!!
    .-= Amy’s last blog post…Open Letters to a Thug and my Therapist =-.

  • Amy says:

    Once I was at the beach. The mother was in the water with the older child. The father on the beach was reading a paper instead of watching the toddler. I retrieved the toddler from the water twice. I should have held the father under. I was way too polite back then. Now I’d do it.
    .-= Amy’s last blog post…Open Letters to a Thug and my Therapist =-.

  • Miss Britt says:

    Hm – I’m not really an expert on what “free range parenting” is, but I skimmed the site you linked to quickly.

    What happened here doesn’t SOUND like free range parenting to me.

    I let me son walk to the bus stop. It’s two blocks away from my house. But we also have strict rules about how to handle strangers, etc. etc.

    I let him run around the neighborhood with some freedom. But – I also have to be able to know EXACTLY where to find him within five minutes of needing to reach him.

    I would never let him go wander around on a crowded beach alone. I’d let him go play a little ways away from me – sure – but where I could see him. A beach is dangerous even if there aren’t tons of strangers milling around because of the water factor.

    In other words – I don’t think you have to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, when it comes to more “relaxed” parenting.
    .-= Miss Britt’s last blog post…The Hard Part. =-.

  • IzzyMom says:

    No, I’m not sure the thing at the beach was free-range parenting but it does bring to mind my own children and the fair amt of freedom they have (or had). If you could have seen and felt the panic and fear in that poor mother’s eyes and the sick feeling in my stomach… It was enough to make me re-think my own free-range parenting tendencies—I don’t ever want to be in that woman’s shoes.

    ( I posted this whole comment from my phone and it just…disapppeared. Fucking phone FAIL)

  • patois says:

    I’m good with the free range parenting for the most part. Not with a six-year-old at the beach. I’m sorry. I know anything can happen in the blink of an eye. But at the water’s edge with kids? You don’t get to stand down. At the park? Sure. Walking to school? Okay. Jumping on the trampoline in the backyard or climbing the tree house or playing in our white-trash pop-up camper in the driveway? Sure. Not at the beach. Not at the pool. I swear, my heart was pound-pound-pounding reading your tale.
    .-= patois’s last blog post…The Weekly Wonderings #115 =-.

  • wookie says:

    I am all about having my kids exercise their freedom and responsibilities in age appropriate ways. I don’t think kids are that much more in danger of being kidnapped and chopping into bitty pieces today than they were 30 years ago. I am a big fan of the buddy system and giving kids clear expectations of what is appropriate and how to handle themselves.

    That being said, near open water and in big crowds is not my idea of the appropriate time and place to practice these skills, at least not at 6. Nevertheless, it’s hard to say if that is what these parents were doing or if she wandered off while they were doing something completely benign, like getting the cooler out of the car or unfolding the umbrella. My cousin had her middle child, 2.5 at the time, head straight for and get into the pond while she had her head down changing the baby’s diaper. Elapsed time, less than 3 minutes before she had a fisherman tapping her on the shoulder, holding the dripping wet little dude by the back of the overalls saying “Excuse me m’am, but is this yours?”

    • IzzyMom says:

      In Florida, where I live and everyone has pools, things similar to that happen all the time. A parent will leave the child for mere seconds and in that blink of an eye they’ve gone straight into the pool and sadly, a lot of little ones drown.
      .-= IzzyMom’s last blog post…WTF? A Visual Essay =-.

  • tanglet says:

    i fear the same thing but would consider free range only when appropriate. if we don;t let them have abit of freedom they will be crippled later.
    .-= tanglet’s last blog post…herbaliciousness =-.

  • So happy it ended well!

    I wrote a post about this very thing a few weeks ago. As much as I would like to embrace the whole “free-range parenting” philosophy (totally NOT how I grew up, by the way), things like this make me want to cling to my babies even closer.

    I agree with the comments that there’s a time and a place for “free-range”. It also needs to be a gradual process, learned over time and considered in light of the kid’s maturity and ability to handle certain situations.

    Now a six-year old alone on a dark, crowded beach… buddy system or not, that’s insane.
    .-= Formerly Gracie ‘s last blog post…Never Go Grocery Shopping With An Empty Tummy… Or One Filled With Baby =-.

  • Nicole says:

    Aack, a lot of comments, cannot read them all :) Around a beach or water I am probably hyper vigilant, but I still want my kids to have freedom and teach them independence. Six is a bit young, though (my oldest is 6). They’ve played outside and I’ve let them round a corner or head home when out walking the dogs, but I hope when they are 9 they can walk/ride to a nearby park, around the block, etc. I’ve lost my son a few times lately, twice I was not too worried, at a park at a birthday party, and at the SJ Earthquakes event, but fortunately it only took a few minutes to find him. I was more panicky when he was 4 and I could not find him at a Children’s museum, there were literally 3 kids reported lost, and they were very responsive, but it was me that found him. It’s the crowds of people that freak me out more than a potential stranger in my neighborhood.
    .-= Nicole’s last blog post…The Role(s) of a Parent =-.

  • Oh my — so glad your story had a happy ending.

    As my two oldest boys get older and wiser, I find myself relaxing and giving them room to roam . In spite of all that’s bad “out there” I think it’s important for their growth and independence. I always know where they are though! Thanks for sharing!
    .-= Karen @ If I Could Escape’s last blog post…Thursday 13 . . . Places I Visited in the Last Month =-.

  • Lena says:

    I lost Savannah twice.

    Once at Target when she was 2 and they had to announce a “Code Red” which means that all the doors go on lockdown (did you know they do this?) and once for 15 minutes on our street when the neighbor girl thought it would be fun to visit strangers.

    The most terrifying experiences of my life.

    I’m so glad your story ended well!
    .-= Lena’s last blog post…Flying and Parenting: Both Defy Logic (I Declare That the Theme Of This Post) =-.

    • IzzyMom says:

      I lost my son in a store once when he was 3. He actually wasn’t super far away (but far enough) and I almost shit my pants when I couldn’t find him. SO GLAD Savannah never got hurt and that Target will lock the doors if necessary. The store thing kind of terrifies me.
      .-= IzzyMom’s last blog post…WTF? A Visual Essay =-.

  • Hi! Lenore from Free-Range Kids here: I’d panic, too, but Free-Range Kids never says let your 6-year- old wander off out of your sight at night on the beach. Water is dangerous, night is dangerous and the combo truly is terrifying. Free-Range Kids believes in freedom AND safety. It says teach your 6-year-old how to not run out into the street, so she can play tag on the lawn. Teach your 9-year- old how to walk to cross the street safely, so he can walk to school. It’s all about helping kids learn the lessons we knew as kids, so they can have the kind of childhood we had, and go skipping up the block to knock on their friend’s door for a playdate: confident and happy and responsible. It has nothing to do with leaving them on their own, at dusk, near a body of water. You were scared, rightfully so. Very glad of the happy ending! — Lenore Skenazy freerangekids.com
    .-= Lenore Skenazy’s last blog post…Outrage of the Week: “Marshmallow Safety Tips” =-.

    • IzzyMom says:

      I totally agree and I didn’t mean to imply that the parents on the beach were practicing free-range parenting. Perhaps I should have clarified that I was referring to my own free-range leanings. What I meant was that after being so close to a missing child situation, it scared the holy hell out of me and that I’m not as comfortable as I was before letting my kids have the degree of freedom I typically allow them.
      .-= IzzyMom’s last blog post…WTF? A Visual Essay =-.

  • MadManMoon says:

    Did it get lost on you that the parents found their child? And that the child very likely learned a very valuable lifelong lesson and is smarter/stronger because of it?

    For what it’s worth, the chances of a child becoming among the missing, kidnapped by a stranger, are nearly half that of being struck by lightning.

  • Amy says:

    Thank God the little girl was found!

    I know people who practiced the free range parenting style back when I was in elementary school. Most of them quickly changed their ways when a group of FOUR kids (10 year olds) who were walking to school together were all kidnapped and strangled.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to teach a child independence by having them walk to school or go places by themselves. I have friends who are products of free range parenting while my mom found a happy medium between free range parenting and helicopter parenting. My friends are intelligent and very funny, but they are incredibly irresponsible. They all spend their money as if money grows on trees. They don’t take their education seriously and although they don’t think for a second that mommy and daddy will bail them out, they rely on everyone else to help them when they get into trouble.

    My mom never let me go anywhere by myself unless I was on a school trip until I finished high school. In college, we do talk on the phone everyday (we’re very close), but I manage my own life. She’s there if I need advice, but she doesn’t micromanage my life. She doesn’t call my professors to check if I did my homework or attend class. I manage my money well and don’t depend on my parents or friends to bail me out.

    I think they key to parenting is letting your kids know that you care about them and are there for you if you need them. Teach your kids to see you as a resource for advice. Teach them responsibility and decision-making skills by gradually teaching them about how to deal with people, planning for the future and the consequences for their actions.

    Sure, for the most part if you let your 9 year old play in the park at night alone, chances are nothing will happen. But if they get kidnapped or seriously hurt, that’s when the parents start freaking out. It only takes one time for something to happen. This isn’t to say that parents need to be joined at the hip with their kids, but rather keep them at a distance where you can see them. Before they become a teenager, have them take some self-defense classes so that if they want to go out with their friends or date, they will at least be prepared if something were to happen.

  • Liz says:

    I know this must have been terrifying for everyone involved, but I’ve got to say that I don’t think this is a case against free-range parenting.

    A girl wandered off, and nothing happened. She went off exploring and all the adults around her freaked out. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t know where their kids are on a crowded beach, but I am saying that maybe feeling scared about an imaginary “bad guy” doesn’t justify not giving a child the freedom to explore a little bit.

    • IzzyMom says:

      There are few things in life more guaranteed than the fact that someone will completely misunderstand this post, which was actually NOT about the little girl (who was SIX and way too young to have ANY “freedom” to be out “exploring” on the busiest holiday of the year in a metropolitan tourist area, along a heavily traveled road).

  • rashel says:

    It’s really important for us to be protective about the welfare of our kids especially when there are people you suspect to have bad intentions. I swear to God I never have tried leaving my kids even for a while when we are at the mall or the beach. I always have my eyes on them.
    .-= rashel’s last blog post…Nanny Search – How and What To Ask Your Nanny-To-Be =-.

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