The Limits of Free-Range Parenting

I watched a good documentary last night, Born into Brothels. It’s not new (released 2004-2005). I remember hearing about it a long time ago, and it’s now on Netflix! A photographer, Zana Briski, gave cameras to the children of sex-trade workers in Calcutta, and documented their images and their struggles to escape the red light district. It won an Oscar, deservedly so, I think.

Anyway, there is a recurring scene in the film of a toddler (2-3 years old), chained by the ankle. It’s shocking. It reminded me of a film I’ve shown about Romanticism in which William Blake’s shock at chained children in the late 18th century are narrated. The idea is the same: these children are trapped by their upbringing, by their poverty, no better off than zoo animals (another extended metaphor in the Born into Brothels film).

Obviously, I am not condoning chaining up children and obviously, I found the scene horrific, but what struck me most about it is the reason the child is chained: for his safety. If you are a sex-trade worker and can’t afford a babysitter (a point made in the film), then it kind of makes sense, if you love your child, to tie him up so he doesn’t get into trouble – fall off the building, get run over by a bus, etc.

Please understand that I am not going to put chains on my children, but I had my own moment of wanting to tie up my five-year-old child last week. He LOVES his scooter. It makes him “cooler than a mustache,” as fast as fast can be and, apparently, fearless. After going for a coffee in the village with my friend and her daughter, we were walking home and I was pushing Seamus in his stroller. Halfway there, Owen told me he had to go to the bathroom. I told him he had two options: hold it till we got home, or pee in the bushes. He opted for the first option. Now usually, we have a deal that Owen blitzes ahead but waits for me at the next stop sign. We’re in a low-traffic village, but there are no sidewalks. Anyway, this time, I quickly lost sight of him altogether. I thought I would see him when I got around the corner, but he was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t THAT worried, but I was a bit anxious. I imagined he had made his way home – BUT he has to cross a fairly major street and has been known to drift across without looking, so there was some cause for worry. I am all for free-range parenting, but maybe not with a kid who seems to have so little fear of cars hitting him.

In the end, all was well. He had made it home and got to the bathroom in time. But we took away his scooter for a week because we wanted to make an impression – that he can’t just lose sight of us and go off on his own. Another thought that crossed my mind, given some recent cases in the media, was what if someone did call the police about an unaccompanied child. I am pretty sure we would have been in trouble as parents.

So, while I am not going to lock the boy up, and while I am horrified by the circumstances that would drive a parent to do so, I am sympathetic to the underlying desire to keep a child — who still lacks judgment — safe.