05.24.2017People

From city life to country life : Lessons learned in parenting

By: Mary Heffernan

Photo credit: Joy Prouty

Three years ago we picked up our cushy suburban existence and moved to the country. Since then I’ve seen a big change in my children, their independence and capabilities, and changed my parenting style to a much more “free range” approach.

By necessity, life works differently on a farm or in the country, children need to be more independent and more is expected of them - but I think a lot of the same lessons can be applied to raising children in any environment no matter where you live. 

By necessity, life works differently on a farm or in the country…but I think a lot of the same lessons can be applied to raising children in any environment no matter where you live.

My husband Brian and I were raising our girls in the heart of Silicon Valley, a place where everything is available in an instant and things happen quickly. He was an attorney at a big law firm and I was an entrepreneur with a series of small businesses and restaurants based around children and families in the Bay Area.

Family photos 3 years apart…..BEFORE: May 2013 on our old front porch. L to R: Tessa, 9 months; Mary (me); Maisie, 4 years; Francie, 5 years; Brian; Janie, 2 years.

We had four girls in five years, all named Mary after our grandmothers, who go by nicknames. We lived a typical suburban family life in a bustling suburban town.

But we longed for a different way of life and somehow - that very different life found us.  Looking to source really good beef, we bought an 1800 acre cattle ranch to raise these really high quality meats to serve our customers at our restaurants.

We started coming up to the ranch on the weekends and loved being out in the wide open spaces working together for a greater goal - our animals and our land. But come Monday we’d pile back in the car, with four little girls in four car seats, and make the eight hour drive back to the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area.

We longed for what we had together as a family on the weekends at the ranch… sunrise mornings and hard working days and well-earned cocktails at night on the front porch, falling into bed after a full day of manual labor, dirty kids filling the bath with their muddy handprints and a very happy family together through all of it. 

AFTER: May 2016 at our favorite place on the ranch, “The Saddle”. L to R: Tessa, 3 years; Mary (me); Maisie, 7 years; Brian; Janie, 5 years; Francie, 8 years. Photo credit Joy Prouty.

It was actually a very easy decision to make. We wanted to change our life and we wanted to do this full time. We put our plan into action, sold our local businesses, put our house on the market and packed our car with just what we needed to live in our little 780 square foot cabin on the ranch. We moved our family to become full time ranchers one sunny day in June three years ago and have never looked back.

My children run around barefoot and dirty all day. They have a long list of chores to complete on a daily basis, seven days a week. There are no days off in ranching and no shortcuts. Our kids know that we feed our animals before we feed ourselves, even if this means sitting down around the dinner table at 10pm. They are right by our side helping to raise these animals right, completing the long list of chores and projects that come up on a ranch every day, and they’ve learned so much because of it. We all have. 

Photo credit: Joy Prouty

They live up (or down) to your expectations

In our suburban life, I didn’t expect anything of my children. I filled their sippy cups and got their favorite cozy things and set them up with a table full of pre-made or pre-purchased activities that lasted for an average of six minutes before I had to clean it all up for them.  I made their lunches and washed their backpacks and picked out their (usually matching) outfits every day. Their laundry was usually picked up off the floor for them, washed, folded and placed neatly back in their closet.

We saw most parents around us entrenched in the “helicopter parenting” style - sometimes to an extreme. Children were catered to and parents made sure to clear any obstacle in front of them so they didn’t meet any challenge or bumpy road.

Sometimes I’d try to have them help or we’d give them gratuitous “chores” - but it was usually easier to just do it for them. I didn’t expect they could or would do these things, so we just did it for them most of the time. 

But they weren’t learning anything - except to expect that these things would all just happen for them.

But they weren’t learning anything - except to expect that these things would all just happen for them.  They weren’t learning to solve problems or take care of themselves. They weren’t learning about natural consequences. They weren’t learning much except how to be catered to by adults.

When we moved to the country, everything changed. By necessity, I couldn’t cater to their every need, I didn’t have time. 

Photo credit: Mary Heffernan

I quickly realized - only when they had to step up to the plate - that my kids could actually do all of these things themselves. They could be helpful! They were capable! I just hadn’t expected this of them before.

I started asking more of them and doing less for them. They were entirely capable of almost any chore I needed done if I took the time to show them how to do it right the first time.

And they did it. And I saw a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and pride I hadn’t seen before

When I expected more from them, they rose to the challenge and they were proud of it.

These are all things they are capable of with a little supervision on the front end. No matter their age. 

360 video: Spend a day in the life with Five Marys.

Once I really needed them to help, my expectations changed and so did their behavior. They started naturally helping without being asked every time and they became stronger, more capable people in the process.

Help when they need it, not when they don’t

The less help we give them when they don’t absolutely need it, the more they will do themselves.

My nine-year-old can operate a tractor because we’ve needed her to on occasion without an extra ranch hand or make dinner for our family if we are working on an animal with an issue late at night.

My seven-year-old can bathe her sisters, wash their hair and get them dressed for church when I’m out helping Brian with the ranch dilemmas that inevitably creep up on a Sunday morning.

My five-year-old can use a pocket knife to cut open a hay bale and feed it to the livestock off the back of the truck by herself.

My three-year-old can open all the gates and secure them behind us as we drive from pasture to pasture checking cows and water troughs. 

Photo credit: Joy Prouty

I’m not saying this to boast or brag - and most kids don’t have the opportunity to do these things in their backyard - but every kid is capable of these tasks and so much more.

And the best part is, they feel so proud and accomplished of what they’ve done - especially when it’s actually helpful.

And the best part is, they feel so proud and accomplished of what they’ve done - especially when it’s actually helpful.

The girls also each wear a GizmoPal watch on their wrist, which allows their level of independence and security on the ranch to be so much greater than it was without these tools. My girls love to be able to run off and explore or build forts all day all over our 1800 acre ranch, but knowing where they are and that they are safe is always a concern.

With the Gizmo phone two-way calling capabilities and GPS tracking, they can explore together in wide open spaces to their hearts content and we feel a lot better knowing we can always get ahold of them or vice versa.

The Gizmo’s also help us call them in when it’s time for chores too!

I don’t want to raise children who need someone to take care of them. I want to raise people who take care of themselves and don’t expect anything from anyone else. I wanted them to feel accomplished at the end of the day from a job well done. 

It took moving to a totally different way of life for me to realize these things - but raising your expectations of your kids can open up a whole new world of independence and ability, and a lot fewer chores around the house for you! 

My hope is that the next generation gets to experience the free range independence my children are experiencing, all the while using the incredible advances in technology to make for a better quality of life for the whole family.

Read more about Mary’s family and their experiences with their big lifestyle change.

Get more information on the GizmoPal mentioned in this article. 

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About the author(s): 

Mary Heffernan previously lived with her husband and four children in Silicon Valley. She ran nine businesses while he worked as an attorney. Unsatisfied with the quality of meat for the restaurant they owned and operated, they bought a ranch believing they could do it themselves. This led to a big lifestyle change and the beginning of Five Mary’s Farms.