Free range parenting definition

How Free-Range Parenting Works

Free-range parenting is a philosophy that says kids should be allowed to explore without parents always hovering over them. Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

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Take a moment and think about your favorite childhood memories. What are the stories that you and your siblings and friends retell over and over again? What were the experiences that defined your childhood and made you into who you are today?

Maybe it was the time you and your friends improvised a parachute and jumped off a 40-foot cliff into the river. Or the time you and your sister rode your bikes to your cousin’s house — 17 miles away. Or simply those long summer days in the park, where neighborhood kids of all ages would gather every afternoon to run around like wild dogs, make up weird new games (and fight over the rules), and wander home every evening at sundown, exhausted and exhilarated.

Now, in how many of those cherished childhood memories is there a parent standing next to you, or an adult of any kind supervising or guiding your activities? Not a one.

Unfortunately, the freedom that most of us enjoyed as kids — freedom to explore, improvise, scuffle and scrape our knees — no longer exists. For myriad reasons, today’s parents are too worried to let children have the kinds of experiences that most of us took for granted. Parents are afraid of child predators at the park, of bullies not playing fair, or of sacrificing their child’s future by letting them “waste” an afternoon playing in the backyard instead of taking cello lessons or taekwondo or conversational Mandarin.

The free-range parenting movement is a direct response to that fear. It tells parents that one of the best things they can do for their child is to get out of the way every once in a while. Free-range parenting argues that children grow up happier, healthier and more resilient when they are given the freedom to play, create, fight, compromise, fail and figure things out for themselves.

The seeds of the free-range parenting movement were planted in 2008, when journalist Lenore Skenazy wrote a column for the New York Sun titled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone,” in which she cheerfully describes ditching her son in a Manhattan department store. OK, she didn’t exactly “ditch” him. Her son had been begging for the chance to ride the subway and bus back home alone, so Skenazy gave him a subway map, $20, a prepaid subway card and change for a phone call. Then she ditched him.

The kid made it home just fine. Better than fine, even. He was “ecstatic with independence,” wrote Skenazy. Yet the column was controversial, sparking a national conversation about parental obligations, child safety and where parents and the law should draw the line between childhood freedom and neglect.

Skenazy parlayed the media spotlight into a personal cause. She launched a blog called Free-Range Kids and published a book by the same name subtitled, “How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” More parents joined the movement, letting their kids walk to school or local park alone, make meals on their own, or explore the woods with friends unsupervised.

But there have also been some high-profile setbacks. Officers with Child Protective Services in Maryland held a pair of siblings (10 and 6 years old) for more than five hours after neighbors reported that the kids were walking around unsupervised. The parents, free-range advocates who let their children walk to nearby parks and the library, were initially charged with neglect, but the charges were eventually dropped .

Is free-range parenting really a safe and smart way to raise kids in the 21st century, or is it an extreme response to the rise of “helicopter” parents. Are we ready to let our children run free in the streets or have we lost too much trust in our communities? And even if we want to give our kids more independence, will the law allow it?

Let’s start with a closer look at what free-range parenting means and the types of societal trends to which it is reacting.

From Tiger To Free-Range Parents – What Research Says About Pros And Cons Of Popular Parenting Styles

Parents who follow Chua may do so because they want their child to be successful. It may be these parents hold deep insecurities about the future. These parents are most likely authoritarian.

Pros: Raising a child in this way can lead to them being more productive, motivated and responsible.

Cons: Children can struggle to function in daily life or in new settings, which may lead to depression, anxiety and poor social skills. But again it’s culturally dependent.

Helicopter Parents

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Type of parent: You step in to prevent your toddler’s every struggle; you are over-involved in your child’s education and frequently call their teacher; you can’t stop watching over your teenager.

Who coined it? Psychologist Foster Cline and education consultant Jim Fay coined the phrase in 1990 in their book: Parenting with Love and Logic. They described helicopter parents as being confused about the difference between love and saving children from themselves. Another name for helicopter parenting is “overparenting”.

Why parents choose this style: These parents are likely to be scared for their child’s future, perhaps like tiger parents. They may not trust their child’s ability to navigate the world. By hovering around they may think children will be inoculated against failing.

These parents are probably a mix or authoritarian and permissive typologies, but there is scant research on the style.

Pros: Parents can be overprotective, which may save their child or adolescent from problems they would not foresee.

Cons: Children can lack emotional resilience and independence, which can affect them into adulthood. Being a child of a helicopter parent may lead to an inability to control behaviour.

There’s even an AskReddit devoted to the worst aspects of growing up with helicopter parents. Stories include a contributor, 21 at the time, whose father followed them to jury duty, because he didn’t trust they could do it properly. It’s claimed dad had a tantrum when he was kicked out by the security guard.

Snowplough Or Bulldozer Parents

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Type of parent: You push all obstacles out of your child’s way. Perhaps you’ve nagged the principal for a different teacher or bribed the coach to get your child a place on the team.

Who coined it? It appears the term was coined by former high school teacher David McCullough. In 2015, he published a book, You Are Not Special, in which he implores parents to back off and let their children fail. It was based on a 2012 commencement speech he gave to high school students.

Why parents choose this style: Maybe you think your child is exceptional, or they’re too great to fail, and that’s why you’ve identified with this parenting style. In terms of typology, there are aspects of authoritarianism in the mix as they demand success (after all, they’ve bulldozed all obstacles from their children’s path). However, they also score highly for permissiveness.

What the research says: There’s no empirical evidence either way for the snowplough approach. However, there’s a lot of blog posts and media articles devoted to the topic.

That being said, the pros and cons are probably similar to helicopter parents. These parents can help children feel safe and secure. But it may also foster a sense of entitlement or narcissism in your child.

Free-Range Parents

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Type of parent: You believe your role is to trust your child. You equip them with the skills to stay safe, and then back off.

Who coined it? The term was made famous by a case of “neglect” against Lenore Skenazy, a former columnist who wrote about letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. The experience led to her being labelled “America’s worst mother” and prompted her to write a book. The book was about fighting the perception the world was getting more dangerous.

Skemazy’s blog attempts to connect parents with like-minded others who agree that children need safety jackets and helmets in order to safely experience their independence. The approach is about giving children the childhoods their parents experienced in the 1970s/1980s.

Why parents choose this style: Psychologists and experts suggest this style is a backlash against anxiety-driven, risk-averse child rearing. It may be that Skenazy is right, we are worrying too much about everything from germs to other people. While Skenazy cites responses from parents (and lawmakers) who think the approach is neglectful, it is probably more aligned with the authoritative typology, where parents believe in teaching children to look after themselves.

Pros: Children learn to use their freedom, be autonomous and manage themselves. They may also be better able to handle mistakes, be more resilient and take responsibility for their actions. It’s also said to lead to happier adults.

Cons: Problems with this style centre on the legal aspects of the approach. In Queensland, it is illegal to leave your child alone for an “unreasonable” time while, in other states, parents must reasonably ensure their child is properly looked after. Queensland’s law does not define “unreasonable” time, but the parent will receive a misdemeanour (up to three years in jail) if they breach the code.

Attachment Or Gentle Parents

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Type of parent: You believe that a child’s earliest attachment to caregivers informs all subsequent attachments a person experiences. The argument suggests strong emotional and safe physical attachments to at least one primary caregiver are essential to the child’s personal development.

Who coined it? The philosophy is based on the work of psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth on attachment theory. The work began with Bowlby in the 1950s. Bowlby also worked with Ainsworth and Ainsworth did some famous experiments with young children.

Attachment theory suggests that children who develop strong bonds with parents/caregivers in the early years will have happier, healthier relationships as they age. The term was then popularised by a book dubbed the “baby bible” written by the Sears family in 1993.

Why parents choose this style: Parents may choose this style because they want their children to be positive about themselves and their relationships with others as they mature. Attachment parenting is associated with the authoritative typology. These parents try to balance high expectations with empathy and this is associated with the best outcomes.

Pros: It provides a safe haven of love and respect in which to build the child’s relationships and from which the child can safely experience the world.

Cons: It can be conflated with permisive parenting. It is also associated, somewhat contrarily, with over-parenting, as some suggest it is a name for mothers who can’t let their child go. Some have accused this style of being anti-women or anti-feminist. These authors say the style conflates women’s role with motherhood, undoing the work of feminism. However, others disagree.

Rebecca English, Lecturer in Education, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

COMMENTARY: Here’s to more ‘free-range parenting’ in 2019

How young is too young for a child to walk to a bakery down the street from his or her house? There really is no cookie-cutter answer (no pun intended) and there is a tendency these days to err on the side of — what appears to be — caution.

The pendulum has swung too far in that direction and the end result is the phenomenon known as “helicopter parenting,” whereby parents are constantly hovering over their children, denying them the opportunity for some independence and the chance to experience the world around them.

It’s easier for parents to imagine an immediate and present threat (such as falling off a bicycle or playground equipment, being hit by a car, or even being attacked or abducted) than to focus on this approach’s longer term impacts on their children. The former, however, is often exaggerated whereas the latter is misunderstood and unappreciated.

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A study released earlier this year by the American Psychological Association found that “helicopter parenting” can be detrimental to a child’s well-being. They argue that children “need space to learn and grow on their own” and that “over-controlling parenting can negatively affect a child’s ability to manage his or her emotions and behaviour.”

We may look back at 2018 as a turning point in this debate. Sparked by the work of activist Lenore Skenazy, the state of Utah this year became the first jurisdiction to enact “free-range parenting” legislation. Essentially the law gives parents more benefit of the doubt by changing the definition of “neglect” and clarifying that it would not apply in situations where kids are playing in the park or walking to school unsupervised.

Other states are looking at introducing similar laws, and if Winnipeg mom Katharina Nuss has her way, Manitoba would join that list. Nuss has started a petition to bring such a law after her attempts to allow her children some freedom were stymied by a nosy neighbor and an overzealous bureaucrat.

Nuss has three children, aged 9, 7, and 3. They are fortunate enough to live in a neighbourhood where there are many young families and it is commonplace for kids to be outside playing. There’s even a bakery down the street from their house. A few months ago, she let her two younger kids walk down to the bakery to pick up some cheese sticks. She says that from her own lawn she can see the kids almost right until they enter the store and then can watch them walk back home, which is exactly what happened that day.

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However, a disapproving neighbour took notice of all of this and placed a call to Child and Family Services (CFS). Several weeks later, a CFS worker showed up at her home to let her know that her kids should not go anywhere alone until they are 12 years old, as stated in Manitoba law.

And indeed, Manitoba’s Child and Family Services Act stipulates that “a child is in need of protection where the child … being under the age of 12 years, is left unattended and without reasonable provision being made for the supervision and safety of the child.” But what is a “reasonable provision?” The law isn’t at all clear about that. Can an 11-year-old not walk to school or a friend’s house alone?

READ MORE: Edmonton daycare asks parents to bring helmets for the playground

Nuss believes that if Manitoba is interpreting the law to mean that there are no circumstances under which a child under the age of 12 can be left unsupervised, then Manitoba needs to change its law. She has started a petition calling for the province to enact a “free-range parenting” law and as of this writing nearly 9,000 people have signed it.

Ideally, we’d see all Canadian provinces adopt such an approach. We see far too many examples of this sort of thing and it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction — in the direction of common sense. We all want what’s best for kids, and “helicopter parenting” isn’t it.

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What exactly is this whole ‘free-range kid’ thing?


The Meitiv family came to national attention in January as they faced a Child Protective Services neglect investigation for letting their two children, Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, walk home together unsupervised from a park about a mile away. In April, their children were detained by police for again walking home alone. The first charge of neglect was invalidated. The second charge is ongoing. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) By Amy JoyceAmy Joyce Writer and editor for On Parenting May 26, 2015

So Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, the Silver Spring, Md., “free-range” parents who let their 10- and 6-year-olds walk unaccompanied by a parent, were cleared of neglect in one case.

The whole “free-range parents” and “free-range kids” terminology has been tossed around for quite some time now. What exactly does it all mean? It was started by Lenore Skenazy, who, in 2008, let her 9-year-old ride the New York subway solo. She wrote a column about it that received a lot of attention. She started FreeRangeKids.com soon after. That was the beginnings of a movement that many people still don’t agree with, while others seek it out.

I spoke with Skenazy about what it is, how it’s changed and what’s next.

What is free-range parenting, exactly? What I’ve been fighting against for the last seven years is a culture that believes children are in constant danger. When I started the blog and put my little mission statement up there, it was that I believed in car seats , but that we don’t need a security detail every moment when leave the house.

I’ve come to realize that we’re afraid for our children every single second of every single day. There are twin fears stalking American parents: that their children will be kidnapped and murdered, or that they won’t get into Harvard.

Okay, so I knew about the first fear as part of the movement, but that Harvard thing is interesting. Explain: Once you recognize those two fears, you see the culture in a whole new way. Because every moment we don’t spend with our children is one where we think they are in danger one way or another. Predators or falling behind. Either they can’t have any time on their own because we think they’ll be in literal danger, or because we’re wasting valuable teachable moments. Even if it looks like you’re wasting time as a kid, playing is the opposite of wasting time.

I learned it gradually as people enlightened me. I realized I could let quit their music lessons because they weren’t getting anything out of them and also it struck me that they should spend their time figuring out what they love.

What changed in our lives where we all pretty much went from being free-range kids ourselves to being the opposite of that as parents? First is that we live in a hyper media culture. The one story that always reliably sells is child danger. It’s like a carnival ride. It’s both terrifying and entertaining at the same time. That’s not to say we’re horrible people. Just that we’re human and those stories hit every button. Turn on the TV, and if you’re seeing this 24/7, it feels like it’s happening 24/7. So if you ask your brain ‘Is my kid safe walking outside or to the bus?’ you think of tragedies that happened. But the fact is they are also the least common, least likely thing to happen.

We’re scared because we live in a litigious culture. You start thinking like a lawyer. Which means looking at every activity or product through the lens of risk and you lose the perspective of what is a real danger and what isn’t.

We’re scared because we live in an “expert” culture and tell us what we’re doing wrong. It causes regret and makes us always think ‘Is this going to hurt them?’ and ‘Am I doing it right or wrong?’

And there’s the marketplace, which knows there is no easier dollar to extract from humanity than the dollar from a new parent.

So what is your goal? People are worried if they let their kids outside, they will be harassed like the Meitivs are. Just like Nancy Grace dwells on predators, I dwell on government interfering. But only because I want to change the laws. If we think this is bad, and I think the public is pretty fed up with the idea that someone from loves your children more than you do, we can make change.

How has this all changed since you first sent your 9-year-old on the subway? There’s a lot more discussion about childhood freedom. Where it went and how we can get it back. I think the thing that I brought to public attention is this government angle. The idea that helicopter parenting was becoming law of the land, rather than just a choice. And that’s changed. There’s constant attention to this now in public and it’s a more fevered pitch. I just think that everybody gets now what I’m saying. For two years in a row after I started this site, I was voted as the most controversial mommy blogger by Babble. I’m not that controversial anymore. I read a lot of articles and everyone sounds like me.

Are there parameters for free-rangers? I think parents are the best judge of that. Certainly there are entire continents who send their children at age 7 to school alone. The idea is we do know what’s best for our kids. My parameter is that unless a child is in obvious immediate and grave danger, we’re allowed to teach our kids the same lessons our parents taught us: Cross the street safely. You can talk to strangers, but don’t go off with strangers.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter or check out On Parenting at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

You might also be interested in:

Would you call 911 on another parent?

How helicopter parents are ruining college students

Why I’m somewhere between free range and helicopter

To Raise Confident, Independent Kids, Some Parents Are Trying To ‘Let Grow’

Laura Randall, pictured at Mill Pond Park in Portland, gives her son, Matthew Randall, 7, a lot of freedom to explore on his own. Beth Nakamura for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Beth Nakamura for NPR

Laura Randall, pictured at Mill Pond Park in Portland, gives her son, Matthew Randall, 7, a lot of freedom to explore on his own.

Beth Nakamura for NPR

Walking through the woods alone can be a scary prospect for a kid, but not for 7-year-old Matthew of Portland, Oregon. He doesn’t have much of a backyard at his condo, so the woods behind his house essentially serve the same purpose. He spends hours out there: swinging on a tire swing, tromping across the ravine to a friend’s house, and using garden shears to cut a path. He lays down sticks to form a bridge across the small stream that flows in the winter.

And he does all of this without any adult supervision.

Matthew’s mom, Laura Randall, wants her son to gain the sort of skills and confidence that only come with doing things yourself. But she didn’t just toss her 7-year-old out the door with some hiking boots and garden shears one day. They worked up to it gradually with what Randall calls “experiments in independence.”

“Just those moments, incrementally bigger moments, where he can choose to be on his own,” Randall explains. Randall knows this isn’t the norm for today’s parenting style, where kids are shuttled from one supervised, structured activity to another. Gone are the days where kids ride their bikes alone until the streetlights come on.

And Randall has encountered people who think she’s a bad parent — like the man who identified himself as an off-duty police officer, and started yelling at her when she left Matthew alone in the car for a few minutes while she ran into the pharmacy to pick up a prescription.

Matthew makes a transaction at the counter of a local market in his neighborhood. Beth Nakamura for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Beth Nakamura for NPR

Randall knows that parents in several states have been arrested for leaving kids unattended, for letting them walk to the park on their own, or even allowing them walk to school. And so she was worried about what this man might do.

“e … says, ‘Do you know how many kids go missing a year?’ And I said ‘By coincidence, I think I do know, and it’s very small!’ “

They talked it out, and the man eventually threw up his hands and walked away. Randall’s heart was pounding, but she felt confident defending her parenting — partly because she had connected with a group called Free Range Kids, which promotes childhood independence, and gives families the information they need to push back against a culture of overprotection. Its founder is Lenore Skenazy.

“This very pessimistic, fearful way of looking at childhood isn’t based in reality,” Skenazy explains. “It is something that we have been taught.”

For years, Skenazy sought to correct the misconception of childhood dangers — telling parents that childhood abductions and murders are at record lows, even as perceptions of danger have risen.

Laura Randall and her son, Matthew, 7, toast each other with pizza on a recent weeknight in their neighborhood. Beth Nakamura for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Beth Nakamura for NPR

Laura Randall and her son, Matthew, 7, toast each other with pizza on a recent weeknight in their neighborhood.

Beth Nakamura for NPR

But even as she talked about the benefits of giving kids independence, of free time, and of self-directed play, she realized that addressing the individual parents was only half the battle. Because even if they have the facts, parents could still feel uncomfortable if they’re the only ones affording their kids these freedoms. Also, it could get lonely being the only kid riding your bike down the street.

“You send your kid outside and there’s nobody out there for them to play with — they’re gonna come right back in,” Skenazy laughs. “Because there is somebody to play with if they’re online.”

Skenazy set out not just to change parents’ minds, but the culture at large. And founded a project called Let Grow.

While its goal is a cultural shift, its methods are almost laughably simple. Let Grow is reaching out to elementary schools across the country to assign kids the Let Grow project as homework. Participating kids decide to do something on their own that they haven’t done before — whether it’s walking the dog around the block, or making dinner, or walking a few aisles over in the supermarket to get some eggs. The schools also set up “Let Grow play clubs” — mixed ages, no structure, and no adult direction. Just free, child-led play.

Lori Koerner is the principal at Tremont Elementary in Long Island, one of a dozen New York schools piloting the project. She said that they saw a direct effect in the classroom. “The children were just more self-assured, and confident.”

At the park, Matthew went off on his own, and encountered two men and their dogs. He asked the men if he could play with them and they said yes. Beth Nakamura for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Beth Nakamura for NPR

At the park, Matthew went off on his own, and encountered two men and their dogs. He asked the men if he could play with them and they said yes.

Beth Nakamura for NPR

Koerner says with Let Grow, kids discover skills and abilities they didn’t know they had. And they also discover what it’s like to fail. While on the surface might not sound all that appealing, failure is how kids learn how to overcome obstacles, try out new ideas, and become resilient. It’s also how adults learn as well — ask any CEO.)

“If we don’t offer them these opportunities to communicate, to collaborate, to problem-solve, then how can they be successful in a global society?” Koerner asks.

According to psychologists, that’s an important question. Dr. Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College who focuses on child play, says that erring on the side of caution isn’t helping children. By trying to give kids a leg up, scheduling every free minute with karate or Little League or music lessons, parents are in fact doing them enormous harm.

Gray says that over the past 50 years, as we’ve seen a decline in children’s freedom, we’ve seen an increase in responses on standardized questionnaires that indicate both depression and anxiety disorders. Specifically, an eight-fold increase on depression, and five-to-ten-fold increase on generalized anxiety disorder. Gray notes that this is just a correlation, and he’s looked at many possible explanations.

“It doesn’t correlate with economic cycles, wars, or divorce rates. But it correlates very well with the decline of children’s freedom to play.”

Matthew plays on the playground structure at Mill Pond Park in Portland. Beth Nakamura for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Beth Nakamura for NPR

Matthew plays on the playground structure at Mill Pond Park in Portland.

Beth Nakamura for NPR

To Gray, this makes perfect sense. Especially when you consider that not having control of their decisions and life creates an external rather than internal locus of control.

Internal locus of control is “the degree to which you feel that you’re in control of your own life, versus the degree you feel you’re a victim of fate and circumstance and powerful other people,” he says. “Every decade, young people report less internal locus of control, more external locus of control.”

Putting kids in control helps them learn to solve problems, and cope better in new environments. Gray says animal studies even indicate that free play can promote pathways in the prefrontal cortex, strengthening control over the emotion-eliciting areas of the limbic system.

For parents, like Laura Randall, it’s all part of the goal of parenting.

“There’s the short game, where you’re sort of doing the best you can in the moment,” Randall explains. “But there’s the long game. And there’s paying attention to allowing a little risk, because it will pay off in the long run.”

Randall understands that life has real risks. But so does getting in a car. And most of us still do it every day, because that’s how to get where we want to go. For her son Matthew to become a confident, competent adult, Randall wants him to go outside, make his own mistakes, and figure things out. And she hopes he won’t be the only kid out there doing it.

Matthew Randall, 7, and his mother, Laura, look at a beaver in the water at Mill Pond Park in Portland, Oregon. Beth Nakamura for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Beth Nakamura for NPR

Matthew Randall, 7, and his mother, Laura, look at a beaver in the water at Mill Pond Park in Portland, Oregon.

Beth Nakamura for NPR

Other examples point to a far-reaching double standard. A study published last month by the sociologists Sinikka Elliott and Sarah Bowen found that poor mothers, and especially poor black mothers, are judged harshly on their children’s health and well-being. Many of those mothers had been reported to child-welfare agencies by doctors or teachers, especially when their children were smaller than average or seemed hungry at school. And even when investigators’ questioning of a parent produced no evidence of abuse or neglect, it left poor mothers and children in a lingering state of fear.

As a relatively well-off white parent, I have personally benefited from the opposite dynamic. My 9-month-old son recently came down with a nasty case of dermatitis. His face, arms, legs, and torso were covered with red, itchy blotches. It took weeks of doctor visits and steroid creams to get the rash under control. In the intervening time, my son got plenty of sideways glances from neighbors, child-care providers, even strangers at the grocery store. But no one called child-welfare authorities. No one questioned my judgment or assumed I was doing something wrong.

And even if they had, I, like many well-off parents, probably would have been able to talk my way out of trouble. My own research finds that middle- and upper-middle-class parents are particularly good at exempting their children from many rules and punishments—partly because of savvy negotiating skills, but partly because their class or race affords them the benefit of the doubt. In the schools I observed, many well-off parents made unreasonable requests. They would ask teachers to excuse their children from having to do homework or to put their children in advanced classes, even if their children’s test scores were too low to qualify. In those cases, well-meaning teachers often wanted to say no. But the teachers were afraid of the parents, worrying that the parents would flood their inbox with emails, complain to the principal, or even threaten to get lawyers involved. So the teachers found it easier to say yes instead.

Utah’s new law—and the free-range-parenting movement more generally—doesn’t seem to account for all this. The law doesn’t specify when free-range parenting becomes neglectful parenting, and that gives authorities an uncomfortable amount of discretion. Utah’s law protects parents from having their children taken away, but only if those children are of “sufficient” age and if those children’s “basic needs are met.” But what counts as sufficient? Is a 9-year-old old enough to stay home alone? And what about children whose parents need to work more to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads? Will those children be just as free to play at the park alone?

The better-educated, better-paid parents who embrace free-range parenting aren’t preoccupied with questions like these. A major shortcoming of their otherwise well-intentioned movement is that the people who have the most to gain from it—poor and working-class parents—will find themselves held to a different set of expectations.

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Jessica McCrory Calarco is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University. She is the author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. Connect Twitter

You’ve heard of helicopter parenting but what is free-range parenting? Every day there seems to be another horror story on the news or social media with a new risk to our children. Is there any downfall to keeping them in the safety of their home and under 24/7 adult supervision? When we are told the world is a dangerous place but also told kids need freedom and independence to become competent adults what are we to do?

So what is free-range parenting? And why is it so important?

FREE: 3 Steps to Solve Any Parenting Problem

When I first moved to the U.S., I made a friend who told me she was looking for a babysitter for her 12-year old daughter. I misheard her and thought she was offering for her daughter to babysit my children. “Yes, thank you, I would love to have her babysit my children” I said. She looked at me totally puzzled and quickly corrected me. “No no no, I’m not looking for her to babysit someone, I’m looking for a babysitter for her.”

Has this happened to you? Where I come from 12-year olds are the babysitters, not the ones being babysat. But, I get it, you turn on the news and it’s yet another kidnapping or something similar telling us that our kids are in constant danger.

Are you worried about letting other people watch your kids? Are you fearful of letting them out of your sight even more a moment? There are so many scary stories in our collective subconscious, that teach us to be afraid of what might happen to our children, everywhere we turn.

It can feel like childhood is on lockdown. Let my kids walk to school? Never. Child going to the neighborhood playground alone? Arrest that parent. We can be left feeling like we can never trust parents who trust themselves, trust the odds, and trust their children.

The risk we fail to bring up is the risk of raising children who feel stifled, coddled, and like they can’t trust themselves out in the world. Studies suggest that children who have grown up with helicopter parents, grow up to have a disbelief in their own ability to accomplish goals. These children also don’t develop critical soft skills such as taking responsibility.

We’re finding more and more parents helping their children not only with homework through elementary and high school but now in college too. Stating the reason being that they don’t want their children to struggle as they had. The downside is that the opposite actually happens. These children end up suffering higher rates of anxiety and helplessness. They end up feeling powerless in the face of any struggle, risk or challenge.

In our culture we seem to think that you’re a child until you hit 18, then boom, you’re an adult. Suddenly you have all these responsibilities and all these privileges. But 18 is an arbitrary age set by the government to define adulthood. It’s actually not consistent with brain development which continues up until we’re 25 and beyond. Stifling our children and keeping them sheltered throughout their childhood and then suddenly at the age of 18, expecting them to handle college and the world beyond, on their own, isn’t realistic and frankly it’s not working. We need to take a different approach to this, where we actually introduce children into their freedom from early ages.

I want you to think back to your own childhood and how much freedom you likely had. I’m guessing you had quite a lot of freedom to roam around your neighborhoods. Perhaps you walked to your friends’ houses or school. Maybe you even took public transportation to get to places you wanted to go instead of your parents driving you everywhere. You were expected to be capable. To seek help from strangers when you needed it and to use money and maps to get to where you needed to go. Compare that to today where children are hardly allowed out on their front lawns alone.

Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote a beautiful book titled How to Raise an Adult. In it, she writes that she has met parents who would not allow their 17-year-old daughter to take the subway alone. “And I said to them, what’s your long-term strategy for her. I see it all around me, I see kids afraid to be alone on the sidewalk, they don’t like walking places alone, they don’t like biking places alone. And it’s probably because they’ve been basically made to feel that they can be abducted at any moment.”

Now, you might be thinking, but there’s no real downside to keeping my kids in plain eyesight right? Wrong. The downside is that kids grow up feeling scared, timid, and incapable in the world. They feel like the world is dangerous and they feel fully dependent on the services and charity of others to care for them.

While the fear mongering would have you believe otherwise, the truth is that our kids are currently growing up in the safest possible time in history. War, hunger, street violence, and plagues, whilst they still exist, they’re at an all-time low.

So what can you do? What steps can you take to become more free range with your own children?

  1. Limit your exposure to fear mongering and sensationalist news.

    The truth is, our subconscious brain cannot tell the difference between what we’re seeing on a screen and what is in our reality. So if we see one sensationalist story about an abduction then our brain registers that as a likely risk in our real lives, and we get put on high alert. Our brain chemistry and hormones literally course through our body and put it into fight, flight or freeze mode where everything seems like a danger.

    Did you know that the risk of abduction is actually low. It’s so low that it’s almost non-existent. I’m not saying that abduction in and of itself is non-existent, but statistically it is, at least in the U.S.A. So if the real statistic is so low, why are we so afraid?

    In her book, Skenazy outlines the reason for this was the milk-carton children. Remember those children back in the 80’s? There were a couple of kidnapping cases and they decided that because milk cartons are on everybody’s morning table, they should have pictures of abducted children on them in case you happen to see them walking down the street. And this led to American’s feeling like abductions were happening all the time. When in fact it was just a handful of cases.

    Bottom line, we need to stop looking at sensationalist stories. Do terrible things sometimes happen? Yes, but they’re very unlikely. Much less likely than any of the regular risks we take just having gas in our home or driving our cars.

  2. Switch the narrative from stranger danger to tricky people.

    When we teach our kids not to talk to strangers, we’re actually not giving them very good tools to navigate which people could help them and which people could be tricky. The truth is that the majority of strangers are friendly, kind people who want to help. And teaching kids not to talk to them actually robs them of an important safety guideline which is seeking help from strangers when they need it.

  3. Find ways to allow freedom.

    Can your kids ride down the street to a neighbor’s house without you? Can they play for a few minutes without you in the playground? Can you allow them to go to the next aisle in the supermarket and do a little shopping and help you? What is it that you can allow them to do where they can be a little bit out of sight?

    One of the things that we love to do is to go to Governor’s Island where there’s something called play:groundNYC. It is basically a junk-yard playground where no adults are allowed. Kids are able to use saws, to climb, to build, and most importantly to be away from the supervision of adults. Now, there are adult facilitators around and it’s only for children aged five and up, but it allows them to exercise that freedom muscle.

So let’s assume you’re convinced and ready to allow your kids more freedom, but what about the laws, or the good Samaritans who may report you for allowing your child to walk to school alone? You’re in luck, Lenore Skenazy has tools for that. One of those tools is to give your child a card that they can keep in their pocket or wear around their neck This card should explain that you’re a free-range family, that they are allowed to be out, that you support them being out, and it should also have your contact information.

Back home in Israel my nephew at eight-years-old takes a 45-minute trek across the city to get to school. He uses public buses and walks, yes, he even crosses the roads and many friendly strangers help him along the way when he needs it. Are there risks involved? Maybe, but they pale in comparison to the huge gain to his ego, self-confidence, skills, and his sense of capabilities that he is developing.

Feeling like you want to allow this freedom but are still stuck on “stranger danger?” Here are things you can teach your children that will help them.

Patty Fitzgerald is the founder of Safely Ever After. She says that it’s crucial that we parents talk to our kids about potentially harmful people and what they might look like, do or say. Here are three things to teach your kids that tricky people do.

  1. Tricky people ask kids for help My kids know that when adults need help they will ask other adults for help. If an adult is asking them for help then they might be a tricky person, especially if my kids don’t know this person. So, if someone comes and asks them for help they know to say “No, go ask my Mom.” And in order to do this we also need to teach them it’s ok to say NO to anyone, strangers, adults, even to people of authority. When they know what to say they feel empowered and will be safer.
  2. Tricky people offer awesome things like a puppy or bike or candy for no apparent reason. My kids know that if someone comes up to them and says “hey, would you like a bike, would you like candy, do you wanna play Minecraft with me,” they need to say “no, I’ll go and ask my mom.” In this situation they are again empowered to say NO. And, as tempting as the offer may seem I remind them that it might be someone trying to take them to a bad place.
  3. Tricky people try to get you to keep secrets or break the family rules. My kids and I have discussed that if someone says something to them like “lets not tell mommy about this” or “it will be our little secret” that they may be a tricky person. My kids then feel empowered to respond and say “no, we don’t keep secrets in my family, I’m going to tell my mom.”

Empowering your children to learn about the difference between tricky people and strangers who are just normal, friendly people we simply haven’t met yet, is going to help them on their free-range journey and help you feel calmer about their interactions with others as they go about their community life.

One other way to empower children is to teach them what to do if they really do get lost. Even if you aren’t going to choose free-range parenting, your child might still get lost. One of the things I teach my kids is to look for another mom to ask for help. I also teach them how to reach out to strangers by knowing their name, where they live, and their telephone number. For more tips on teaching your how to be safe checkout Pattie Fitzgerald’s book Super Duper Safety School: Safety Rules for Kids & Grown-Ups

Feeling free, feeling safe in the world, feeling capable and feeling strong are huge benefits that are often worth a little risk. If we are able to extend just a little more freedom to our children, a little more time away from supervised eyes, I know that it will lead to some of the most profound growth spurts emotionally, socially, and even physically that we could ever hope for as parents.

Looking for more support to be a free-range parent? Checkout Lenore Skenazy’s site Let Grow which is an incredible support system for parents trying to adopt this free-range lifestyle for their children.

I’d love to hear from you! Are you a free-range parent? Were you allowed to roam free as a kid? Did you ever take a bus? Did you walk by yourself? Did you ride your bike by yourself or in a gang of other children? Were you told to come home when the street lights come on? Please leave your comments below or over in our (free & awesome) FB community Love Parenting with Avital

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  • Free-range parenting aims to foster independence in children by giving them greater autonomy and less adult supervision. It is not a total abdication of rules, the way permissive parenting is.
  • The term “free-range parenting” was coined by Lenore Skenazy, who famously let her 9-year-old son find his way home on the New York City subway system alone.
  • Parents interested in raising free-range kids may run up against laws in their states that dictate the ages at which kids are allowed to be left unattended in a car or at home.

Parents today are always talking about the increasing level of involvement they have in their kids’ lives, whether it’s to bemoan the increasing number of hours they dedicate to parenting tasks, or to chide each other for hovering or “helicopter” parenting. For those looking to take a step back, there’s free-range parenting.

Free-range parenting means giving kids more freedom and less supervision.

The idea of the “free-range kids” movement started with Lenore Skenazy, who, as a columnist for the New York Sun, wrote a story about letting her 9-year-old son find his way home alone on the New York City subway. That decision caused such an uproar — she was called “America’s Worst Mom” — that she was invited on a slew of talk shows to discuss how involved parents are in their kids’ lives in this day and age. She writes on her website that she founded the free-range kids movement, “to separate the real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell.”

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Now, free-range parenting is generally seen as the opposite of helicopter parenting. “Free-range parenting emphasizes the child’s functioning independently with judicious parental supervision,” says says Dr. Kyle Pruett, M.D., Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and member of the Educational Advisory Board at the Goddard School. “It permits enough exploration for kids to come up against limits naturally.” So free-range parents might allow things like playing outside alone or going to and from school without a chaperone, and let kids solve their own problems as they arise.

According to followers, the benefits are many: “Free-range parenting supporters say that it encourages problem-solving skills, promotes creativity, strengthens personality formation, and builds confidence,” Dr. Pruett says. “They also say that it makes children more resourceful.”

It does not mean anything goes.

Free-range parenting is not a ruleless world where the kids are left to figure everything out for themselves. That’s called permissive parenting, and experts say that parenting style does not lead to good outcomes for kids. “Permissive parenting trades that ‘judicious supervision’ for the absence of structure or rule enforcement,” Dr. Pruett says. “Permissive parenting appeals those who want to befriend rather than raise their children.”

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“Free-range parenting involves teaching a child skills and acting as a guide if a child makes a mistake,” says Amy Morin, LCSW, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do. “Free-range parents tend to be loving and nurturing, even though they aren’t afraid to let their kids fall down. Permissive parenting, on the other hand, allow kids to do whatever they want without any oversight or guidance. Free-range parents are also more likely to instill consequences if the natural consequences aren’t going to be a good enough lesson.”

But you have to watch out for the law.

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Each state has its own patchwork of laws about the ages kids are allowed to be left unattended. The Free-Range Kid website tracks them — and you can see a huge variation in the ages that kids can be legally left alone. “Witness the confusion among state statutes: North Carolina and Maryland under age 8, Oregon under 10, Delaware and Colorado under 12, and Illinois under 14,” Dr. Pruett says. “Red Cross babysitting courses aim at 11- to 15-year-olds. What’s a parent to do? Pay attention to what you feel is right for your child and your relationship with your child — but get informed about the law.” Be warned that some states even have different laws governing when you can leave your kids home alone and when you can leave them unattended in their car. Running afoul of one of these laws can lead to a huge legal nightmare that takes years to untangle.

So far, only Utah has passed a free-range parenting law, which protects the right of parents to let their kids go for periods of time unsupervised. The law states that Utah will allow “a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.”

How to get started free-range parenting.

  1. Learn about the laws that govern your state.
  2. “Here is a baby step for a preschooler,” says Dr. Pruett. “Let go of her hand at a public play space and keep eye contact. Let her wander as you take deep breaths.”
  3. For an older kid, depending on age and maturity, you can decide as a family on what first “mission” you’d like to accomplish, like walking to and from school. Talk about what to do if problems pop up, like what to do if your child gets lost or needs to ask for directions.

Go Deeper Into Free-Range Parenting

Free-Range Kids amazon.com $7.00 How to Raise an Adult amazon.com $9.98 Simplicity Parenting amazon.com $12.46 The Idle Parent amazon.com $12.61 Marisa LaScala Parenting & Relationships Editor Marisa LaScala covers all things parenting, from the postpartum period through empty nests, for GoodHousekeeping.com; she previously wrote about motherhood for Parents and Working Mother.

Helicopter parenting sparked an alternative movement to give children more independence—but not everyone can share that privilege. By Carla Bell 6 MIN READ Aug 13, 2019

One Sunday in 2008, Lenore Skenazy and her then-9-year-old son, Izzy, the younger of two, visited Bloomingdale’s in bustling Manhattan, New York City. And then she left him there.

She helped launch a movement seen as a response to ubiquitous “helicopter parenting,” in which overprotective parents tightly control every one of their children’s activities.

Skenazy, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, says it took nerves to foster what she calls a “free-range” childhood for her two boys. Skenazy always wanted to hear other people’s stories. “Regarding all strangers as potential threats is a dystopian view of the world,” she says.

She felt worried at times when she was out of communication with the boys and didn’t know where they were: “I don’t think you can be a parent and not expect to worry.” But in this instance, she says, “we knew our son could read a map, loved public transit, had been on the subway with us a million times, and felt ready.”

Plus, this was at Izzy’s request, and because the subways are always crowded, she and her husband relied on safety in numbers and agreed to let him make the trip home to Queens.

“On the big day, I gave him a subway map, some quarters for the phone, a MetroCard, and $20 for emergencies,” she says.

Since then, the notion has caught on. Skenazy wrote the book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) and in 2018 cofounded nonprofit organization Let Grow, which is dedicated to replacing the idea of delicate children with the belief that they are “anti-fragile” and resilient, able to be challenged in ways that build confidence and skill. The group promotes policies in communities of all sizes that allows kids to have more autonomy from the constant supervision that society often expects, and teaches kids and parents that the world is not an inherently dangerous place, that having opportunity to explore it independently promotes healthier growth.

“Think of all the things you learned as a kid when given some free time and responsibility,” Skenazy says. “You learned to make things happen, solve problems, make friends, find something that interested you a lot. It’s harder to succeed as a person if you don’t get a chance to learn to handle those.”

Some communities are taking notice.

Mica Hauley was one of eight kids, born “back in the day when seat belts were optional,” she says. She’s now a stay-at-home mom in Lehi, Utah, and enjoys life with five kids of her own, ages 1 to 10.

“I had very loving, good parents who raised me well,” she says. She and her siblings all had a certain amount of freedom, “but were educated to play it safe and smart. We had to learn responsibility, too,” she says. She hopes to raise her kids with the same common sense.

Utah’s free-range parenting law, signed into law in 2018 and the first in the nation, redefined child neglect—for example, by saying that such activities as “traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling” or “engaging in outdoor play” do not constitute neglect.

“Thanks to the free-range parenting law in Utah, I can do things like let them walk home from school, or a park, or around my neighborhood without being put in jail,” Hauley says. The law doesn’t encourage parents to neglect their children, but it allows parents freedom to follow their guts on parenting “without the threat of imprisonment by some judgmental bystander,” she said. And they’re grateful for it.

“Parents have to decide for themselves whether or not it’s a time to be a helicopter parent, or a free-range parent.”

The city of Ithaca, New York, enacted a “free-range kids” ordinance of its own later that year.

But “this might not be a safe choice for all parents,” Hauley says. “Parents have to decide for themselves, based on their own communities and the needs of their children, whether or not it’s a time to be a helicopter parent or a free-range parent.” Kids need balance and they need to be kids, but they also need to guard against “the sometimes crazy that happens out there, without limiting their opportunities to enjoy this great world we have been blessed to live in,” she says. “It’s all about balance and trusting your gut and God to guide you.”

This is especially true for those living in communities with higher rates of crime, or even in communities of color that are treated with suspicion by White authorities.

Pat Omo, an Edmonton, Alberta, mother of seven children ranging from 8 months to 19 years old, admits it: “I’m totally a helicopter mom. I just want to be there all the time.”

Omo’s own mother “still wants to know every detail about everything all the time,” she says. “It’s at the point where I just call her and tell her every time I make a move. So, I’m calling her about six or seven times a day.”

Omo’s oldest “has five minutes to reply to a text, or I disable his phone,” she says.

Omo, who is Black, is aware of her elevated and constant sense of fear and responsibility to safeguard her oldest son, who as a young Black man has additional societal obstacles to navigate in the largely White community.

It’s different with her younger children, who are all under her watchful eye. “They go anywhere without me” other than the backyard, she says. “I need to know what they’re doing at all times. It only takes a second for something to happen.”

Her husband tries to help her give the kids space, but her oldest son has told her, even from his own apartment, she’s annoying and over the top. Omo says she’s “afraid hurt or stuck in a bad situation, so I need to make sure he’s always OK.”

“Black boys are seen as older and less innocent.”

The way that society views Black boys and men is a significant factor in many Black parents’ decisions that sometimes pit their wisdom in caregiving against fostering independence and maturity.

One 2014 study found what Omo and Black parents everywhere have always known to be true: “Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers.”

While Omo is certain the day will come when her children will want more freedom, the free-range method seems unlikely for this family, and for good reason. Another study published in 2018 that focused on race and gender differences among missing children showed that “Black children remain missing longer and are more likely to still be missing by the end of observation period than non-black children.”

Omo says her kids will eventually understand why she’s overprotective at times. “I’m because I love them so much and want them to always be safe.”

Sometimes the free-range ethos contradicts cultural norms.

Karlynn Moller, a single mother of two, lives in Seattle with her daughter, 14, and son, 6. “They have a relationship with , but he works so much, he very rarely has the kids more than a few hours at a time. I’m the main parent, doing the day-to-day,” she says.

Their father is from North Africa, and they’re all Muslim, but Moller was raised Christian. Coparenting the kids is sometimes a challenge for her because of their differing cultural and religious beliefs and views on gender. “I don’t have the same sense of conservatism and religious modesty that he does,” she says. “He’s very strict. But in a Muslim dad way, not in a helicopter way.”

Sometimes the free-range ethos contradicts cultural norms.

“ dad tends to carry a lot of these sexist ideals,” which are more cultural than faith-based, Moller says, and he parents the kids differently.

Their son has no fear at all. He enjoys jumping off of things, climbing things, and he gets hurt. “It’s how he learns,” she says. Moller says she holds the same expectations for both kids but their father is stricter on their daughter than on their son, so she tries to compensate by being a bit softer on their daughter.

Moller says she just tries to maintain balance in their lives.

Skenazy doesn’t remember feeling intensely fearful on that day in 2008 “because I knew what my son was doing, where he was coming from and the route he’d be taking,” she says.

When he made it home safely, she believed what she’d thought all along—that “most people are good” and that “‘stranger danger’ is a corrosive and incorrect view of the world,” she says.

Afterward, Skenazy says, her son frequently managed his own whereabouts after school. Today he’s 21 years old. His older brother, Morry, refers to himself as “the control group,” she says.

Skenazy acknowledges that parents may be hesitant about this approach. “Even if a parent doesn’t want to hover, our whole society is pushing them to do ,” she says. A free-range kid’s unsupervised, unstructured activity means “a chance to grow wise, resilient, and self-directed—comfortable with a bit of discomfort, conflict, ambiguity, and risk.”

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Carla Bell is a YES! solutions reporting intern. Connect: Twitter

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