What is Free Range Parenting Anyway?
The free range parenting style made headlines in 2008 when Lenore Skenanzy, a New York columnist, wrote an article titled, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think I would have let my 9-year-old ride a subway in New York alone. But Ms Skenanzy did, and she advocates this style of parenting as an antidote to an epidemic of helicopter parenting.
So, what is free range parenting anyways? It always gives me the mental image of parents letting their children loose in a pasture, and watching from a distance. In a way, this is not too far off. Free range parenting is giving kids the freedom to experience the natural consequences of their actions - within boundaries. It's giving kids age-appropriate independence while keeping an eye on their well-being, and its intention is to raise independent, confident, responsible humans.
A free-range parent might let their six-year-old walk home from school or cook breakfast for themselves, for example. But what separates this from neglect? What's the difference between giving a child independence and ignoring their needs?
It all comes down to support and communication. Neglect happens when a child's needs are not being met. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychologist specializing in developmental trauma, says that the most detrimental form of neglect a parent can inflict is emotional neglect. Children need to feel seen and understood to develop into functioning adults. At the root of good free range parenting, then, is the idea that every decision is made for the well-being of the child. If a free range six-year-old is walking home from school by themselves, it's not for the convenience of the parent; it's because the child welcomes the sense of freedom and independence, and because the parents have thoughtfully considered if the child can handle the responsibility. The choice comes from family discussions on the matter, and an ability on the parents' part to understand their child's ability and comfort level. Ultimately, the parents allow this freedom because they want their child to develop a sense of independence and confidence within the confines of a warm and loving home. It's important to note that a good free range parent would not force the issue if the child was uncomfortable with the arrangement.
Free range parenting takes constant communication in order to understand which kinds of freedoms a child can handle and which ones they're open to. As the child gets older, you might allow more and more freedoms and responsibilities.
Free range parenting advocates tout this method as a much-needed antidote to helicopter parenting. These days, helicopter parents might micromanage their children into a state of complete dependence. Micromanagement is not only bad for a child's development into a self-sufficient human, but it'll be bad for your health too when that micromanaged child turns into a rebellious teen! Part of growing up is establishing a sense of self and a sense of control. If the parent assumes all control, a teen might do anything in order to gain some sense of independence.
So, you might say that free range parenting is a middle ground between neglect and micromanagement. Which might also lead you to say, "Well, isn't that just good parenting?" Yes, and that's kind of the point.
Since every family and every child is unique, free range parenting is not one-size-fits-all. However, there are a few main characteristics to free range parenting.
Free range parents don't parent out of fear
Sometimes it can be easy to understand what drives a helicopter parent. It can often feel like there's so much to be afraid of… will my child get hurt if they're on their own? Will they make bad decisions? Will they not have a good leg up in life if I don't push them in school or insist that they take violin lessons? But parenting out of fear will only instill a sense of fear and anxiety in your own child, and will prevent them from becoming humans that actually are capable of making good decisions. Free range parents offer support and a listening ear, and they enforce the rules when necessary. For example, making a child wear a helmet if they want to ride a bike. They know that life is a crazy thing and the best thing we can ever do is give our children the confidence to be successful and to choose what success looks like for them.
Independence is earned
This is something we've already touched on briefly. Independence is not given out arbitrarily, and it's not forced upon children for the convenience of the parent. Independence is something that the child earns by showing interest and responsibility. It's something that is constantly reviewed and discussed so that all parties are safe and comfortable, and most importantly, loved and seen.
Emphasis on nature
Free range kids are encouraged to get off their screens and into nature. The goal here is that kids expand their imaginations and learn how to entertain themselves so they become well-rounded, curious adults.
Emphasis on unscheduled activities
Instead of booking a child's schedule solid with pre-planned play dates and violin lessons and math tutoring, free range parents advocate unstructured play and free time. Kids need opportunities to let their minds wander so they build a robust imagination and a sense of awe at the world around them. Unstructured play also helps develop problem-solving skills and critical thinking. If everything is always thought out and planned for children, their ability to think for themselves might well be stunted.
In writing this, I also can't help thinking of my own childhood. I was born in 1953, and a lot of what's being advocated for in the free range parenting philosophy sounds like a return to older parenting methods. Walking home from school by yourself was normal. Spending entire summers wandering the parks without parental supervision was par for the course. Everything we did was outside (of course we didn't have the same kind of technology we do today). But I suppose the main difference was that back then, we were kids who lived in an adult's world, and the rules were mostly established for the convenience of the adults. If we didn't want to walk home, too bad. These parenting methods seem harsh today, when oftentimes it seems like adults live in a child's world, not the other way around. Although I probably wouldn't let my nine-year-old ride the subway in New York by themselves, I still like the overall philosophy of free range parenting because it allows for the kind of freedom I had and cherished when I was young, but still provides the kind of support system it takes to raise happy humans. It might well be the best of both worlds.