At what age would you let your child play outside in front of your house without adult supervision? Three? Five? Seven? Nine? This was part of a discussion I had recently when I gave a presentation at a parenting conference on the topic of “free range” parenting. I did not do this as any kind of expert, but as a parent who is passionate about trying to give my children room to learn and develop like my husband and I were able to do when we were young. I am not even sure I am a mom who totally practices “free range parenting,” but the beauty of this idea is it should be modified to suit each family’s comfort level.
What is “free range parenting,” you ask? It is the idea of encouraging your children to do things independently, taking in to consideration their developmental level and a realistic assessment of the risks. It is based on experiences and research of columnist and mom Lenore Skenazy. She shot into the spotlight when she let her child take the subway home in New York City by himself in 2008 and then wrote an article about it. Due to the apparent “craziness” of her parenting choice, she appeared on several television and radio news. She was taken to task by all kinds of people as a bad mom. That weekend she launched a website called Free Range Kids. The movement took off from there. She has since written a book and speaks all over the world. She blogs and shares news about the exploits of other parents like her. If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to check it out.
I saw her on the news when she was first being interviewed about this crazy thing she let her child do and listened to the comments by outraged parents and professionals. I thought she was amazing. I began following her because I realized she was talking about giving kids the same type of childhood my husband and I had.
Skenazy asks us as parents to consider a few things—namely, that the world is not as dangerous as we think it is. We think it is worse because of the 24-hour availability of news from every corner of the world in today’s society. In fact, crime statistics are lower now than they have been in a long time. We also have a lot of self-proclaimed experts that have no actual professional credentials or training or research behind what they are telling us: parenting “experts” who know nothing about child development, safety “professionals” who incite fear without real statistics to back them up, etc. In addition, our society has become very litigious, making schools and other child-friendly zones ultra cautious in protections from lawsuits. We are also more afraid of being considered bad parents, or scarring our children for life, or letting our kids fail. Kids today have totally different and often more protected lives than children 50-75 years ago—and those children grew up to be our amazing great grandparents and grandparents. Our children are actually less healthy and more at risk for injury because we don’t let them do things like climb trees and run on the playground.
A big misconception is that free-range parenting is letting your kids do whatever they want, not paying attention to what they are doing. Actually, the basic idea of free ranging your kids is identifying their strengths and weakness and figuring out what they can do on their own—and afterwards, having a conversation about their experiences. What this looks like will be different from one child to the next. In addition, our parenting choices are based on many things—from our own experiences and fears to our current environment. One parent may be able to let their seven-year-old walk home from school by himself/herself and another parent may choose to let their eight-year-old child bake cookies or make dinner on his/her own. What will work for each family unit will vary from one to another. Skenazy knows not everyone can jump right in and encourages parent to take whatever size step they find comfortable.
You might ask why you would want to let your children go off on their own to do things. Letting young people experience independence builds self-confidence and teaches them to problem solve. A child that is allowed to be a little more independent is also probably more physically active, so in addition to mental health benefits it also improves physical health.
What are activities to consider? Here are some now “free range-y” things I remember doing as a child in Chicago…
- Walking to the grocery store (maybe half a mile) to buy coffee or milk at age five or six
- Taking a 20-minute bus ride at age seven to my dad’s office
- Babysitting for neighborhood kids at the age of nine
- Going to a movie alone with my four-year-old brother at the age of eight
- Working as a receptionist in a neighbor’s office at 14
This was commonplace for many of today’s adults, but dare I say, few of us have let our kids do these things nor would we even remotely consider hiring a nine-year-old babysitter.
So what does free-range parenting look like in today’s world? I have let my kids:
- Walk to and from school by themselves as young as seven years old
- Take the subway home by themselves when my oldest was 12 (clearly not in San Antonio, but another very large city)
- Go to a local restaurant with my credit card to get food to go
- Fly internationally by themselves
- Walk to the gas station to get ice cream or a soda
- Go to the pool by themselves (there is a lifeguard, after all)
- Go into their doctors’ and dentist’s exam rooms by themselves
- Stay home by themselves as elementary school-age kids
- Make food that involves using our stove and/or oven whether I was home or not
- And more
Many of my mommy friends have commented on my choice to give my kids room to do things on their own. Some were supportive, and some expressed fears of letting their own kids do these things. I have received phone calls from other mothers to report on my kids’ activities, things like climbing retaining walls and jumping off high places. And one time—say it’s not so!—because they were throwing snowballs.
I have to say, though, I appreciate a phone call over a call to the police. During my presentation, the one fear almost everyone shared was being reported to CPS. They were not scared of something happening to their kids. They were afraid their neighbor would report them to the police for letting their child play in front of their house by themselves. There is a fine line to draw here. If a child is being abused or neglected, you would want the authorities involved. But many people have become so overly cautious and judgmental about what they deem as acceptable parenting that they do not contact they actual responsible adult first. The consensus of the parents in my presentation was that we would like a neighbor to approach us first before calling the authorities.
I asked some of my friends to give their thoughts on their ability to free range parent. Here were their responses:
“I think things make it both easier and more difficult to free range parent these days. For example, cell phones make me feel more comfortable with my kids being at a friend’s house or walking around exploring independently for longer periods of time because they can check in and call if they need help,” says Allison. “More awareness of child predators and their ability to lure kids through social media makes me leery.”
My friend Christine and her husband let their five-year-old, whom she calls the wild child, set many of his own boundaries: “If he wants to wander around the woods at the park, he can, as long as he stays within ear and eye range. We like to let him set the new boundaries but have it still be reasonable.”
Jennifer, whose son is autistic with what she says are “ horrible executive functioning abilities” would love to “free range” it a little more, but says, “I don’t know how to make it possible for him without him repeatedly failing because of a lack of follow-through. It wouldn’t be a one-time thing, but almost every time. I’d love to hear what other moms have to say.”
“So my kids are younger, but for us it has meant not ‘setting’ them on top of a climbing structure or something similar,” says Alissa. “We figure if they can get themselves up safely, they will be able to get down the same way. I ask that they stay within eyesight of me—instead of me being able to see them—when we are out and about, and basically take a step back when I feel the urge to intervene or ‘help.’ I try to differentiate between risks and hazards. A risk is an acceptable obstacle to overcome, and I try to allow my children opportunities to take what they feel to be acceptable risks from infancy while also being aware of potential hazards and removing the potential for a hazard to ruin our day. Basically, for me, it still means being vigilant and engaged, but also allowing them to do their own thing. “
Each of these families has found what is and is not working in giving their children a little independence to try life on their own. Not everyone has found a solution that works, but they are open to the idea.