Your Complete Guide to the Free-Range Parenting Debate
You've likely heard about free-range parenting and the debate surrounding it. While the term is almost a decade old, it’s gained notoriety among parents recently — mainly because of its stark contrast to the “helicopter parenting” concept.
Helicopter parents tend to stay over-involved in their children’s lives, by assessing all the risks they could face in school, at home and in social situations. By doing this, however, parents often hinder their kids from learning how to assess risk. Helicopter parents often extend their hovering well into adulthood, which critics say makes sons and daughters less prepared for college, jobs and marriage, not to mention the most stressful challenges life can offer like cancer, miscarriage or the death of a loved one.
In contrast, free-range parenting prioritizes creating age-appropriate experiences that involve a little bit of freedom to help develop independence and self-reliance in kids. For example, letting your daughter walk the dog around the neighborhood by herself or letting your kids walk to school together without you. Free-range parenting is a throwback to when parents weren’t hyper-focused on safety.
While some parents have been celebrated for giving their children more freedom, others have had the cops called on them for their “irresponsible” actions. The question remains, why exactly? Here’s a complete guide to better understand free-range parenting and the debate surrounding it.
How It All Started
Back in 2008, Lenore Skenazy’s nine-year-old son wanted to ride the subway alone. Having grown up in New York City, he felt more than comfortable navigating the public transportation system. Finally, after much pleading, he convinced his mom to give it a shot, and she left him in the handbag section of Bloomingdale’s with a map, a MetroCard, $20 in cash plus some change for a payphone.
“I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home,” she wrote in her column for the New York Sun. “If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, ‘Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.’”
Launching a Movement
Not only did their experiment pay off for them as a family unit, but it launched the free-range parenting movement after Skenazy coined the term in her piece. “Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence,” Skenazy wrote.
Since then, Skenazy has written a book and done countless speeches and presentations on free-range parenting. She launched and is the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that helps parents, educators and elected officials adopt free-range parenting practices to raise independent children.
Crime Rates Are Dropping
While crime rates have been dropping for 30 years, parents, police, educators and the government have also been doing a better job at keeping kids (and adults) safe. A few great examples of this include seatbelts and car seats. But sometimes parents focus too much on kids’ safety — even when the child is not theirs and is also not in danger.
For example, Corey Widen wrote for USA Today about how surprised she was to have the cops called on her in August simply because she let her eight-year-old daughter walk the family dog around the block they live on in Wilmette, Ill. A recent study by Brennan Center for Justice showed that “the average person in a large urban area is safer walking down the street today than he or she would have been at almost any time in the past 30 years.”
But Parents’ Concerns Are Increasing
But, still, some people can’t help themselves. Case in point: When the Widen family had the cops called on them, they also had to deal with an investigation despite police proving that they were not wrong or neglectful and that their actions didn’t put their daughter at risk.
“Apparently wanting to see me hauled away in handcuffs in front of my kid, the same neighbor decided to call the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which launched a weeks-long investigation for neglect,” Widen wrote. “Aside from completely traumatizing my daughter — nightmares, paranoia, anger — the whole situation was particularly ironic. I home-school my kids year-round, which means I am with them practically 24/7. I am actually that annoying mom you secretly think really needs to get a life. I cut off crusts, cut grapes in half and carry Band-Aids, hand wipes, rain ponchos, tissues and snacks wherever I go.”
The Free-Range Parenting Law
In an effort to reduce situations in which the cops are called on good parents, Utah approved the nation’s first law in support of free-range parenting in March. The “free-range parenting” bill aims to support families giving their children more independence while avoiding claims of neglect.
The new law lets “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,” according to the bill. It also outlines what some of those activities are, such as walking, running or biking to and from school and traveling to commercial or recreational facilities like movie theaters and community centers. More importantly, it says kids can play outside and stay at home alone.
While the law doesn’t specify a certain age, parenting experts say that’s ideal, since kids mature differently. As long as children are cared for properly — fed, clothed and loved — then child protection service organizations can’t take kids away from their parents for merely existing in public spaces.
It's About Freedom
"At the heart of it, free-range parenting is about letting children have freedom that is appropriate for their age and to accept that there are personal risks involved," says Sandy Fowler, host of the "Mighty Parenting" podcast.
Of course, different parents have different definitions of what is okay and what is too risky for kids based on their age. Fowler advises, "You will need to define these for yourself and be careful of groups as they may not be made up of like-minded parents.”
There Could Be Pushback
Even though crime rates have dropped in the last decade, critics of free-range parenting feel that the style puts kids at risk. So, be prepared for some judgments.
"Look at yourself and determine whether you are willing to let your child be independent and make mistakes," Fowler says. "Also, decide whether you are willing to deal with any fallout from your choices and pushback from the community."
Start When Your Family Is Ready
There isn't a specific age that kids need to be for free-range parenting. Instead, you'll need to decide what the parenting style means to your family, and that will help you choose the right age to introduce it to your kids.
"If your concept of free-range parenting is simply to give your child age-appropriate freedom and responsibility with age- and ability-appropriate supervision, then you can start from birth," Fowler says. "That means your baby will have the freedom to move around within a safe space you have them, with appropriate supervision."
Your Parenting Style Will Grow
Plus, every kid is different, so you'll want to consider that when determining how much you'll incorporate the free-range concept into your specific parenting style.
"It’s best to take baby steps with the child to determine how well they handle their independence and increase as they demonstrate responsibility," says Dr. Richard Horowitz, who runs the website, Growing Great Relationships, and is a parenting and family coach. "It really depends on the maturity and temperament of the child.
"Your toddler may be free to navigate the family room or the main floor of the house or the yard, your elementary-age child may be free to go to their friend’s house or the neighborhood park and your teen may be free to roam the city until the street lights come on or to drive across state to visit Grandma,” he adds. "You know your child, and you will gauge their ability to manage situations, then let them try."
Determine Your Values
By determining what kind of values a family wants to focus on, they can avoid some of the vagueness that comes with an open concept like free-range parenting.
"Parents should carefully consider their own values and priorities and embark on the parenting journey grounded in those values," says Horowitz. "What do you expect of your kids, and how do you want them to grow and become productive adults? Instead of just following a label, look at specific practices and put those in place that are most in sync with your parenting goals."
My mom hated baby talk and would lecture my aunt for using it when she spoke to the kids in the family. "You're raising future adults," she says.
Free-range parenting takes the same approach and can help kids develop critical skills for adulthood while also increasing their confidence and self-esteem.
"As you decide what type of parent you want to be, remember that you don’t have to choose a style outlined by someone else. You can select bits and pieces and blend them along with your own common sense to create your own parenting style," Fowler says. "Along the way, remember that we have children, but our goal is to raise adults."
There Could Be Bruises
Since free-range parenting is a hot topic in the United States right now, your kid could also feel some fallout from your decision — not just you and your partner.
"Bullying can happen or be condoned under the guise of letting kids work it out," Fowler says. "You may also find yourself at odds with other adults in the community who don’t understand what you are doing."
Outside of bullying, kids can also get hurt, do things that their parents don't approve of or find themselves in situations they're not capable of handling, but childcare experts say that determining what works for your kid, family and community is the best way to avoid putting your child in a situation before they are prepared to handle it.
It Builds Resilience
Resilience, or one's capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, can be a happy side effect of free-range parenting.
"Children develop resiliency by exercising their independence and resolving setbacks without parental supervision," Horowitz says. "There is ample evidence that children do benefit from more opportunities to navigate their world with independence taking small risks and learning how to recover from setbacks on their own."
Of course, keeping the kiddos safe is always the No. 1 priority for parents, and that's no different when it comes to free-range parenting.
"The challenge for parents is to weigh independence versus safety. If parents adopt a so-called free-range approach, it should still have defined boundaries that the children understand and follow," Horowitz says.
He explained how families can strike the right balance saying, "If a child decides they want to be latchkey after school instead of going to an after-school program while waiting for their parents to get home from work, the rules and expectations for homework, snacks and outdoor play should be negotiated with the child and parents before they are allowed to be latchkey kids."
It Won't Work Everywhere
While determining if free-range parenting is a concept that might work for your family, moms and dads should consider where they live as it will dictate the kinds of risks your kids could face in their daily lives.
"Free-range parenting can be suitable for certain locations where crime is low and the town is safe. If you are an upper-middle-class family, living in a small town, with very low crime, letting your children, ages eight and 10, walk five minutes to the park at 3 p.m. may be fine," says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. "However, if you live in a dangerous area, there are more safety concerns."
It Could Reduce Anxiety
Sometimes, free-range parenting is more about what you aren't doing.
"Sometimes, parents who are too protective are helicopter parents, who actually limit their child's development and cause anxiety in their child," Ziskind says. "If you are considering free-range parenting, start small. Have your children play in the backyard, then a little further away. Then, a 12-year-old might walk with a buddy to buy something at a gas station two blocks away and come back home 45 minutes later. Free-range parenting could look like kids biking around your neighborhood alone and adolescents walking down the street together and going to the mall."
You Still Have to Parent
A common misconception about free-range parenting is that moms and dads who love it are just avoiding the act of parenting. But experts agreed that when done correctly, that's not the case.
"Parents should not use free-range parenting as a way to get their child out of the house and to avoid parenting," Ziskind says. "If free-range parenting is used too much, you risk having a child who is 'parentified.' This means this child, unfortunately, was forced to parent themselves and never got the nurturing and love needed as a child."
It is a delicate balance between giving your child more freedom and independence while remaining the one who does the parenting.
"Parentified children are asked to do more than is age appropriate and it has a negative impact on their emotional development causing them to grow up too fast and miss important milestones," Ziskind says. "If you do free-range parenting, also spend special, individual time with your child too to balance it out with their free time."
Consider the Unknown
An excellent way to determine what level of free-range parenting your kid is ready for is by considering the possible situations they could find themselves in when they're not with you.
"Your adolescent needs to be able to emotionally get themselves through situations without your guidance," Ziskind says. "Think: How would my adolescent react to a stranger talking to them? A drunk person? If they fall and skin their knee, could they pick themselves up and get home? Seeing a dead bird on the side of the road? If their bike had a flat tire, would they be able to contact you? If it started raining? If they had to buy something?"
Responsibility Is Key
While a lot of the conversations about free-range parenting focus on the added freedoms kids can be given, they often fail to mention that new responsibilities are also a big part of the parenting style.
"It's a parenting philosophy calling for more independence and responsibility for our kids," says Sharon Somekh, MD, who runs the parent mentoring business, Raiseology. "At the end of the day, you still need to feel confident in your decisions as a parent, but if you prepare your children well and start small, you can increase the level of responsibility you give your kids."
A free-range parenting lifestyle can work out so well that, before you know it, your kid is feeling ready for even more challenges and responsibilities. "When children feel you trust them they become empowered to make their own decisions," Somekh says. "They want to earn more trust by behaving in the way you expected them to."