Mike Kerrigan: Home on the free range – a son's gratitude for a trailblazing mom

Much is written today on free-range parenting, the philosophy of raising children with limited supervision to maximize their independence. Coming of age in the 1980s, I knew the school of thought by its simpler name: parenting.

My mom and dad – indeed, all my friends’ parents – were inveterate riders of the free-range. I know this because childhood memories of adults in my life are vivid up until about the fourth grade. Shortly after college, elders reappear on my mind’s stage. Throughout the years between, grown-ups were like their counterparts in Charlie Brown television specials: invisible, and inarticulate in the essential language of childhood.

Looking back, even I cannot believe some of the things I was left to figure out for myself. One memory that stands out was a harrowing 1983 commute with my kid brother, Jack, to tennis practice.

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It was the summer before seventh grade for me and fifth grade for Jack. Our parents both worked, making months out of school vexing to schedule. On this day, the high school senior mom had engaged to drive us — a budding herbalist, so to speak — called to renege, just as she was getting ready for work.

Mom’s solution? She left cab fare on the kitchen table, with a note telling my brother and me to take a taxi to practice that afternoon. She’d pick us up at the courts after work. So far, so good. The problem was the amount of money she’d left us. When we were about halfway to our destination, I realized we were fast approaching our cash ceiling.

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I told the driver the reason why we needed to stop. The coachman, an apparent free-range devotee himself, immediately halted his cab, accepted my handful of dollars and left us on the side of the road.

After a few minutes of walking, Jack realized we’d never make it to practice on time by staying on the main roads. He suggested we cut across the field to our right, a rolling expanse of fenced Virginia countryside.

I could see he was right. We’d still have to double-time it, but it would save about a mile off our trip and was our only shot. We changed course, and raced like Gen. George Patton closing in on Messina.

Things went well enough over hill. It was over dale where we ran into trouble. Specifically, a dog of unknown breed but known ill temper pursued us, diplomacy not top of mind. Thankfully, we heard the hound before we saw him and, sprinting the last hundred yards, maintained bodily integrity as we cleared the fence at the property line.

Jack and I made it to practice on time. The funny thing is, when we shared the details of our commute to our parents at dinner that night, our reporting was more matter-of-fact than breathless. Had the dog bitten us, perhaps we’d have led with the story.

Recalling these childhood memories of laissez-faire supervision, I realize something. It was my mom who practiced free-range parenting with particular panache. I think I know why.

From a young age, she knew she wanted to make life better for those with cancer. The problem was in the 1960s, there weren’t a ton of role models for women who shared her passion. So my mom charted her own course.

She pursued her Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Illinois. Married and pregnant with my older sister, she couldn’t finish her doctorate so settled for a master's degree. For years she worked in cancer research (immunology and molecular pharmacology) while raising a family. After two decades of research she left the lab and moved into cancer communications, writing about newer and better-targeted combination therapies.

I don’t share my mom's passion for science, but I do share her passion for writing about helpful things I've learned. And this I know: The self-discovery that comes from blazing your own trail was something she felt compelled to pass on to her children. Even when that trail might lead you across a field policed by an angry dog. Especially then.

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That’s the thing about comfort zones. You never really know your true limits until you're miles passed what you thought they were. It's there you find that you can do more than you think, and you have everything you need. Mom learned these lessons early in her life because she had to do so. She made teaching them to her children a priority.

I realize mine is not the only way to have a rich childhood, nor is it right for every kid. But mercy, was it right for me, and I’m so grateful for it, and for a mom who always let me figure things out for myself.

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