Free-Range Parenting Fail or Accidents Happen?

Posted by on September 10, 2012

My seven year old son has recently developed an interest in running which always makes me smile a little because this is not something I’d ever expect from him. Like his mom, he’s a very firm believer in never exerting himself too terribly much.

Soooo…when he started asking to come along and run the track while my daughter and I are at cheer practice three nights a week, I happily let him.

He was like Forrest Gump…just running and running and running around that track and he swears he did ten laps one night. But then he realized he has access to the playground at the school next to the football field and has been going over there to play while I sit on my butt watching cheer practice and talking to the other parents.

He’s not super close by (maybe 3/4 of a football field away) but I can see him and every minute or so, I look over there to make sure all is well. He’s usually running around and playing with other kids or climbing all over an elaborate array of monkey bars. Of course that part makes me a little nervous because it’s a long way to the ground but I figure we all grew up playing on monkey bars and it’s good exercise for him so I just try to relax and let him have his fun.

Last week, while he ran the track and then went to the playground, I walked over to let him know I was going to the fieldhouse for a minute and would be right back. Upon my return, I again went to him to let him know I’d be over on the bleachers if he needed me.

As per usual, I kept an eye on him while watching the girls and chatting with the other moms and dads.

Well, I must have forgotten to look over for a more than a couple minutes because when I tried to spot him, he was nowhere to be found. It was dusk and I figured I just couldn’t see him and was getting up to walk over there when one of the coaches came over and told me the nurse called her from the fieldhouse and asked her to let me know my son was injured and bleeding.

I leapt up and walked super fast to the fieldhouse (I can’t run…an unfortunate side effect of trying to push out a baby for 2+ hours. I’ll spare you the details). When I walked in the the nurse was holding a gauze pad on his head and his hair was all matted with blood in the back. I was speechless and also feeling a bit faint as blood is my kryptonite.

“He’s going to need stitches” the nurse told me. I got the brief overview on what happened, thanked her profusely, scooped him up in my arms and hustled back down the field to grab my daughter and get him to a doctor.

He was a real trouper and went home and hour and a half later with a few staples in his head and a great story to tell everyone at school while I wrestled with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Was I irresponsible?

Should I have been there with him?

Who helped him?

In the car on the way home, I made him tell me in detail what had happened…

He was that only kid left on the playground and was climbing the ladder to the monkey bars. Some mulch was stuck to his shoe and he lost his footing. He fell backwards and hit his head hard on a metal pole.

He sat up and his head hurt really bad. He touched the back of his head and his hand was covered with blood. He got up and exited the playground onto the track.

He was crying and some man, most likely a football dad, asked him what was wrong. He said he was bleeding and the man took him all the way down to the fieldhouse where the nurse kept pressure on his head and called my cell phone, which I never heard and didn’t answer.

I didn’t see him get hurt.

I didn’t see him exit the playground.

I didn’t see him on the track talking to a stranger, albeit a kind, helpful one.

I didn’t see him go to the fieldhouse.

I didn’t hear my phone ring.

I kept trying to tell myself that kids have accidents. It happens. I was watching him as much as could reasonably be expected when you don’t want to be a total helicopter mom. I didn’t screw up.

But in my heart, I knew the truth.

I’d failed on so many levels.

If I had been watching him as well as I thought I was, I would have, at the very least, SEEN HIM leave that playground.

I wouldn’t have taken that small amount of pride in letting my little boy have some independence like I had at his age.

What if it hadn’t been an accident? What if some creep had talked him into going to see the puppy in the back of his windowless van and hurt or abducted him?

I’ve been over this in my head so many times and on one hand, even if I was right there, it wouldn’t have prevented his head injury.

But I took my eyes off him and that’s where I can’t come up with any decent rationalization.

I could say that we stayed gone all day when I was a kid; that my mom only ever had a vague idea of where I might be at any time and she sure as hell didn’t sit at the playground watching me play.

But I’m not sure I can use my own childhood as a valid excuse. We live in a society that expects us to be watching our kids every second; where stories of child abductions, assaults and murders are all too common on the evening news. We are afraid and perhaps with good cause—maybe successful free-range parenting is just a foolish pipe dream in this day…

I can’t help wanting my children to be carefree and not always under my maternal microscope. I want them to learn how to be in the world without me dictating their every move.

To be honest, I think my biggest fear is not, specifically, an injury or an abduction. It’s the fear of regret. I don’t want to make any decision that may end up haunting me for the rest of my life.


Tomorrow he gets his staples out and I’m sure he will soon ask to go back on the playground.

Will I let him go alone again?

I have no idea.




  • Rita Arens says:

    I’m so sorry your boy got hurt! But I don’t find fault with your parenting, not at all. It was an accident. Thank goodness he was able to get medical care. And hello, cool-headed child who went for help when he realized he was bleeding. He went to solve the problem, which is exactly what you’d want him to do. And the other adults in the vicinity helped him and made every effort to find you, which is exactly what you’d want them to do. If he had to get hurt, it sounds like he was well taken care of, including you driving him immediately to get staples in his poor noggin.

    I don’t think it does any good to play out other ways that scenario could’ve ended. I fight every day not to play out in my anxiety-ridden head all the things that could go wrong for my girl, and I totally would’ve let me eight-year-old go play on the playground if she was in eyesight.

    I understand the need to feel the fear. Now I encourage you as your friend to let it go. If anything, this story makes me feel better about the state of the world — look how many people jumped in to help you!

  • I agree with Rita. You taught him well! He did exactly what he was supposed to. I know bad things do happen (oh how I know) with strangers, etc, but the odds are in our favor.

    And well, kids get hurt. That is a fact we can’t deny…sometimes we’re with them, sometimes we’re not!

  • Hello Izzy — it’s natural you’re going to be wracked with guilt over this. We’d all be wracked with guilt over this because we’re good moms. But if anything I think this is a really positive story that it takes a village to raise a child and that there was a helpful adult there for your child. Every single one of us could’ve been in your situation and just got lucky our kids didn’t get hurt. I lost my youngest daughter for a horrifying two minutes in a park when she was 4 because I was pitching a baseball game to her older sister’s friends. Slowly, bit by bit you will give yourself a break. And remember that the world is made up of mostly really good people. xo

  • Sometimes I wish I could put my kids back inside…but we can’t protect them from life.

  • Greg says:

    Hey. The discussion you might have with your son about caution and handling slips and bangs will be priceless. He’ll likely be a better climber now too. Absolutely remember your guilt, but focus on the gratitude.

    Glad he’s okay. The story could have gone a million other ways.

  • Collins Batchelor says:

    Don’t give it a second thought. The same thing could have happened in your yard. Your soon is fine. Please encourage him to go back to the playground. You certainly don’t want him to become frightened of normal childhood activities.

    • IzzyMom says:

      You’re right. Something like this already happened in my backyard when my little climber was 3. Only difference is there was no blood or strangers involved and I wasn’t 75 yards away… But thanks for trying to make me feel better.

  • When I was in 2nd grade, I got my finger caught in the hinge-side of a heavy metal bathroom door. I had to open the door myself as the other girls in the bathroom were frozen in terror. I walked, screaming and dripping blood to my classroom, but my teacher wasn’t there. I wandered the hall for what seemed like a long time before another teacher grabbed me and carried me to the nurse’s office. When she called my mom (pre cell phone) she wasn’t home. The emergency backup contact wasn’t home either, because she was with my mom. So, the nurse drove me to the doctor and sat with me while I got stitches.

    I share this story simply to show that kids have been getting hurt when their moms (and teachers!) aren’t around for a long time. I have no memories of feeling upset with my mom for not being there. Mom still feels guilty, which I can understand now that I am a mom, but I can guarantee that the experience has not had a negative impact on our lives as a whole. Staples (and stitches) build character. ;)

  • Apryl's Antics says:

    A friend told me just the other day about an accident at the baseball field. The boy was injured enough to leave in an ambulance. His parents were on vacation and the boy had come with another boy and his parents. They had to wait for permission before the ambulance could leave.

    Should those parents not have gone on vacation? Of course, not. Do they feel guilty? Probably. It’s the sucky part of parenting they keep a secret until you join the club (others include the almost unbearable soreness of breastfeeding and the fact that you may dislike a majority of adults you are forced to deal with on your kid’s behalf).

    I myself let my daughter stay for intramurals for the first time the other day. I just printed out a form, signed it and let her go. I didn’t even bother to figure out where I would pick her up after school. I got there when it was time to pick her up and there were NO OTHER PARENTS picking up their kids. Turns out it was on the other side of the school. She was the last kid there sitting on the floor with all of the coaches and assistants. I was kicking myself for not asking beforehand!

    I agree with Fawn. Kids get hurt when we’re not looking. They get hurt when we are. They can be unsafe in a situation we’ve verified as safe.

    I hope he’s doing okay and that you are, too.

  • Amy says:

    I think your story is just more proof that Free Range parenting works! Your child got hurt, yes, but he did exactly what he was supposed to do – he found a trustworthy adult and got the help he needed. When we were kids, we didn’t need to be looked after every minute because our parents trusted the community to help us if we needed helping. The community is even more trustworthy than it was in the 80s! Crime rates are down everywhere. The world is as safe now as it was 50 years ago, if not safer.

    I say let the kids play.

  • Jeanne says:

    Thanks for posting on my piece over at The Stir! I agree with the others who say you were NOT an irresponsible parent here. As I said in my piece about Skenazy, I don’t think we need to hover over our kids in order to keep them safe. Accidents happen to anyone. What’s important is how we respond to them … and you were within a safe enough distance to respond rather quickly. Not to mention you had judged the safety of the general area before deciding not to be all up his butt when he was on the playground!

  • Samantha says:

    I love the positive response to this! Your son was fine, and he knew how to take care of himself in this situation – a sign of great parenting! I don’t blame you for feeling guilty, but I don’t think you should. Oh – and as far as all the media we hear about kidnappings, etc., it was actually more likely statistically for a child to be abducted in the ’70′s than it is now, so we shouldn’t be worrying any more about that than our parents did… Thanks for posting this!

  • order essay says:

    You sure have a gift for writing such great articles! Thank you!

  • Don’t beat yourself up. You are being too hard on yourself. Accidents happen all the time on playgrounds. I was once standing beside my 3 yo as she climbed on a spider-leg like monkey bar. I was holding her as she climbed. Worrying about whether I should even let her try to climb. She lost her footing and fell through even while I was holding on to her. Scary. She hit the back of her head.

  • Vachi says:

    He’s a boy, and boys get hurt (yes girls too, but bear with me). You’re a mom, and mom’s worry (yes, dads do too, shush). When it comes right down to it, you’re right. You were right to try to allow him some freedom of play, but wrong to forget about him while he was in a risky situation. School sporting events are a prime ‘target’. You already know in your heart that you should be more aware in future, but you also need to avoid letting this incident make you over-protective. He needs to feel confident, and that’s hard when you’re being smothered by the mom who feels guilty for leaving you to bang your head. For him, this is a story to tell. For you, it’s a guilt-ridden experience. Take a step back though, and remind yourself that all that happened was a bump (albiet a good one) on the noggin. You’ll be more aware next time, and hopefully so will he.

  • As moms, we will continue to find fault with ourselves over myriad things small and large. It matters not; when our child is hurt, and even when there was nothing we could have done to prevent it, and there is no fault be laid on anyone’s part, we will find fault with ourself because we are moms who love our children, and we would rather suffer pain of death rather than have our children suffer. So has it been since the beginning of human time.

    You’ve learned a valuable lesson, and now we hope your son has as well. I’m glad he was not more seriously hurt.

  • If this had happened to one of my kids, I’d be wrestling with the exact same questions.
    Totally get where you’re coming from, and there just are no easy answers, are there?

  • I am so sorry to hear about your son. I find it hard as well to give my girls the space they need to be on their own, and have fun without me being ‘that overprotected crazy mom who always has to be right there 24/7′. Things are so different from when I was little…people are so crazy with the abductions and assaults on children these days. I truly miss being able to tell my mom ‘be back later’ and that was good enough. I would be asking myself the same questions though if this has happened to me. At the end of the day though, you have to tell yourself you did the best you could, because like you said even if you we watching him constantly like you thought you were, it couldn’t have prevented the fall. =/

  • Chantel says:

    My older child is very involved in football and my younger daughter since birth has always been dragged along. I let her play on the playground (monkey bars included) but will admit I probably don’t look over to check on her as often as my mommy guilt thinks I should.

    You both are very lucky to have other good, responsible people around to help him. :)

    If it helps, I’m sure your son does NOT blame you and 10 years from now he won’t even remember.

  • Cathy Cantu says:

    I’m glad everyone in the comments has given you support. I do too. It was at your school for goodness sake! One of the commenters said that he did exactly as he was supposed to do. And that’s right. One summer both my teen girls were playing small sided soccer games at a big soccer complex. Lots of teams and I was watching my older. The younger (maybe 13) was about 6 or 7 small fields away. (100 yards?) I looked over and saw the goalkeeper on her field was down. She doesn’t play that position – except I guess in these small sided games. When she didn’t get up, I walked in that direction to get a better look. Of course, in soccer, that stuff happens all the time. Got there, crying hard (not like her), had to cut goalie gloves off. Broken hand. Some mom I was! BTW – thanks for commenting at Aiming Low on my story about the new phone for Middle-aged moms!

  • You did nothing wrong and you’re not irresponsible as a parent! People can’t watch their kids 24-7 and kids get hurt all the time! It’s great that your kid knew to go to the nurse and try to call you. You raised a smart one! Remember that.

  • Helene Fosa says:

    Kids are always be kids.. being a kid only happens once and we just need to help but to look after them… Children specially boys tend to hurt themselves but then it’s part of growing up, we’ll just hope that they will not seriously hurt. :)

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