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The Moment I Realized My (Semi) Free-Range Parenting Paid Off

I give my kids boundaries, but they have a lot of freedom. But it's worked out.

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Mark Shandrow is 47 and lives in Costa Mesa, California. He has two teenagers — a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Mark, who shares custody of his kids with his ex-wife, took his kids and their friends to the Huntington Beach US Open. While Mark hung out with a friend, he gave his kids free reign of the event with a few ground rules. The weekend went really well. Here, Mark talks about his free-range parenting philosophy, and how much it soothed him when his friend complimented his kid’s behavior. 

We’re lucky enough to live close to the ocean here in Costa Mesa. Huntington Beach is very close — right around the corner, about 10 minutes from my house. Every year, there’s an annual event called the Huntington Beach US Open. It’s a huge surfing competition.

So this year for the US Open weekend, I had a friend staying in town with me. He’s known me for about five or six years. I’m a weekend dad. My kids actually live full time with their mom in Long Beach and I have them every weekend. My friend has gotten to know them over the past few years, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. He’s been traveling.

So we all went to the Open. My friend, my daughter, a friend of hers, my son and a friend of his. The six of us went to the US Open for the day. I basically gave my kids some money and said, “Have fun. Check in with me every hour.” And off they went. It was great. They behaved perfectly. They’re both young teens, the US Open is a great event, there’s a lot of fun stuff going on — skateboarding, biking, and surfing.

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And really, my friend and I got to go do what we wanted to do, which was to go to restaurants and bars and hang out there. The kids went off. They each had their own individual experiences. They got to buy merchandise. My son and his friend wanted to go home early. So we met up, they came to the restaurant that we were at. I called an Uber for my son and his friend. They shot on back home. They carried on for the whole afternoon and then my daughter, her friend, my friend and I all went back home together. 

At the end of the event, my friend said, “I’m really impressed by your kids. They took care of themselves. They managed their friends, they used money. They used Uber?” He was impressed by how independent and mature they were, and how they checked in with me, responsibly, every hour on their cell phone so I knew they were okay. He was just incredibly impressed by how they had grown up, how much independence that he had seen them take on over the years. He was very surprised.

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When my friend complimented my kids — and my parenting — I felt great. I felt incredibly fortunate and very lucky. And, you know, in a lot of ways, it makes you feel comfortable. Especially with what’s on television today, and everything that’s happening, you’re concerned for your kids welfare. But the reality is that the best way you can protect your kids is by giving them the tools to take care of themselves and defend themselves. I felt like I had done that in that moment. I know they have those and I feel a sense of relief when other people notice that. Really, the only bad thing that happened that weekend was too much sun

I attribute my kids being so mature to a few things. I have a good relationship with my ex-wife and I give her a lot of credit for raising our kids well. But it’s one thing to take your kid to a big event and let them go do their thing and check in with them every hour. The scarier thing — and ht I think most parents are afraid of the most, and they should be, is social media and phones. 

At this event that weekend, my kids were very visible; they were “right there.” But you don’t know what happens when they’re up at 11 o’clock at night in their room with their cellphone and their games. So one thing I’ve always been strong on is monitoring their electronic devices on a regular and random basis. I’ve had instances with both of my kids where they got into conversations with adults that were just inappropriate for someone of their age. A lot of that is just them being adventurous, exploratory and curious. They didn’t have bad intentions. They were just kids. The internet is a big, wide open world. 

So when you catch your kids, you’ve got to confront them and explain it’s not appropriate and clamp down to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Like most people, kids will be even more curious. So I’ve always given my kids strict boundaries.

I’ve also always given both of my kids a tremendous amount of freedom to do, essentially, whatever they want when they are under my care. But they have basic guidelines. They need to check in with me on a regular basis. Their curfew is 10 o’clock and that’s when they need to be in the house. They can’t be engaging with weird internet conversations with people. And honestly? That’s about it. I do not have to do a whole lot more. I’m fortunate to be in California, where there’s a lot of stuff going on, and if they have enough freedom, they can easily entertain themselves.

I give my kids a lot of freedom — but I make sure they don’t get into trouble. They know the rules. It’s like wearing a helmet on a scooter. I make sure that my kids follow the basic rules. I do not need to be overprotective. It’s common sense in a lot of ways. And that way they can do things and be explorative but be safe. I was happy to see that philosophy pay off, and have my friends notice, too.