In a Nutshell: Children, like chickens, need fences as well as freedom.
Despite the fact that we live in a typical house with a typical small yard, we are proud chicken-keepers. We frequently let them out in the yard to eat bugs and “play” with kids, but since losing our first little flock to a neighbor’s dog a couple of years ago, we’ve been pretty diligent to keep them contained and safe in their cozy coup and large run, especially at night. That changed when we added three chicks this summer. Until they are bigger, chicks need a separate place to be until they join the adult flock, so we created a separate small coup and small run for them.Because it wasn’t permanent, it wasn’t super sturdy, and those little chickens soon found every loophole in our plan. They kept escaping their run to graze on our garden or hide in the shade. At first, we diligently put them back in the coup and fixed wherever they had escaped, but then we got a bit lazy and more often than not, just let them run around in the yard. They were pretty safe, and they usually went back to their coup at night. I stopped worrying about them. In fact, I even thought they were kind of cute. I called them my little “hippie chickens” who knew no boundaries and needed their freedom. They grew up with the backyard as their boundary. Their desire for freedom became their norm.
When they became “teenagers,” we began to introduce them into the large coup and run. The rest of the chickens, who had happily grown up in this coup, seemed to watch in wonder as the newbies flew right up and over the fence. As soon as the sun was up, they were out. They went back to wandering in the yard, and even flew over the neighbors fence! We clipped their wings to try to keep them contained, but they learned to hop on the coup and scurry over the fence. The problem was, they couldn’t fly back over, so they would perch in a tree for the night, away from the safety and warmth of the coup. They were used to freedom, and we were buckling down for the first time in their lives. It was our own fault, and I felt so bad for those freedom-loving birds. We needed to keep them protected, and I wanted the backyard clean from their droppings, so we covered their run with netting, found all their escape routes, and finally kept them contained. At first, they were clucking unhappily and couldn’t figure out where to sleep, but now, a couple weeks later, they have gotten used to their new home, their new boundaries, and their new companions. And they are safe.
This isn’t a post about chicken-keeping, and the merits or downsides to free-range chicken eggs. It is about Free Range Parenting, which is everywhere. It is so easy in early years of parenting to let the boundaries we believe in evaporate in the wake of tiredness, business, and distractedness. Some kids are simply being raised without a fence. They play video games endlessly, whine about dinner and get a sandwich, set their own bedtime, and habitually practice rudeness and ingratitude. They make the rules in the home, and many parents, afraid of a fight, forget that children need fences every bit as much as much as they need freedom. Children deserve parents who aren’t afraid to say “No,” parents who proactively set rules and stick to them, and parents who are more interested in raising a responsible child than scoring high in the opinion polls.
When young children, like young chickens, are raised in this kind of safe, secure, consistent atmosphere, they will be ready to leave the coup a bit when they hit their teen years. They can enjoy an increased sense of personal responsibility and freedom, because they have learned from the start to stay within appropriate boundaries. But some, like my poorly-raised chickens, grow up used to setting their own rules and having their parents bend to their will. Fences are just something to keep flying over.
If you are the parent of a boundary-pushing teen, it isn’t too late to learn how to set consistent rules. It will be harder, but you can lovingly express limits and follow through with consequences. If you are parenting a younger child, make sure that you are not setting up a future crisis by falling into the trap of Free Range Parenting. Put up your fences, close the escape routes, stick to your rules, and don’t be afraid to parent. Someday, your chicks will thank you.