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The Rise of Free-range Parenting

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The Rise of Free-range Parenting

A more hands-off parenting trend has emerged in response to years of society favoring a micromanaging “helicopter” approach. Here’s what fathers and mothers need to know to strike a healthy balance.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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A mother left her 4-year-old child in the car for about five minutes on a cool day in March while running an errand. Another woman dropped off her 9-year-old in a park to play with other kids on a summer day while she was at work.

Having no childcare, a different mom left her two children unsupervised while she went on a job interview. In yet another instance, a parent left her three daughters watching a movie in the family minivan while she went to buy a coffee.

In each case, reported by The New York Times, these parents were chastised by authorities. They were scolded by police called to the scene, required to do hours of community service, charged with felony child abuse, or saw their children placed in temporary foster care.

So are these all delinquent parents who should feel ashamed of their actions? While you would need to know the full details of each event, it usually depends on your perspective.

For increasing numbers, these encounters are viewed as matters of convenience or, as the offending parents may put it, opportunities to foster independence in their children. However, the prevailing view is to see these as incidents of neglect.

Much of the discord is due to a clash in parenting philosophies and perceived dangers lurking in society.

The hovering, helicopter parenting approach, which is characterized by heavy parental involvement and close monitoring of a child’s whereabouts, experiences and problems, is at odds with the emerging style—free-range parenting.

“Free range parenting is allowing your child to fall down and allowing them experiences where they can learn firsthand not hovering and telling them. Children don’t learn by telling.” This is what a New Jersey mother of a 7-year-old told Vice News. She wants her child to walk home after being dropped off at a bus stop that is about 900 feet away.

Her decision is being opposed by the local school district that claims child safety, not legal liability, is the driving force behind their decision. When asked if she thinks other parents agree with her approach, she told the news outlet, “I don’t think [other parents are] on my side, I do think that I am a little bit rogue…but I think that that’s my choice, that’s my call.”

If helicopter parenting is one end of the spectrum, free-range is the other. As with the livestock the term was originally coined for, children under this philosophy are raised in what parents deem to be natural conditions with freedom of movement. Their goal is for their children to be raised in an environment that is unencumbered, with minimal interference.

For proponents of free-range parenting, this method is seen as the best way to teach independence and help build the skills necessary to function in society.

Worth the Risk?

Factors such as child abduction and abuse, the ability to track a child’s activities and whereabouts through social media, and overall more dangerous times are being blamed for some parents’ cautious approach when it comes to their children.

The data, however, suggests that these concerns may be overblown.

Of the roughly 75 million children in the U.S., only 105 were abducted by a stranger or slight acquaintance in 2011, the Department of Justice reported. According to author Warwick Cairns, a child must be left alone in a public place for 750,000 years before being abducted by a stranger. Other numbers suggest a child is more likely to be killed in a car accident on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked.

But for many parents, who obviously love their children, the numbers do not matter.

As of now, many in society lean more toward the hovering approach. Yet this is changing. Parents across the country, who also obviously love their children, have grown weary of extreme hands-on tactics in raising their kids.

In March 2018, Utah became the first state in the U.S. to pass a free-range parenting law. Under the new legislation, parents have the choice to allow their kids to do things others may deem neglectful such as playing in a park or walking to school alone.

The Push for Free-range

After Utah passed its law, groups in states from New York to Texas are pushing for similar steps to be taken in their states.

Free-range parenting promotes the idea that giving kids the freedom to do things alone makes them healthier, happier and more resilient. It is seen as a perfect antidote for anxiety-plagued parents and stressed, overscheduled kids.

In its current form, free-range parenting emerged nearly a decade ago. It started when Lenore Skenazy penned a column about letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. The article started a firestorm. Since then, she has become a vocal advocate for free-range parenting.

Critics say letting kids strike out on their own can expose them to serious dangers, from criminals to cars. As demonstrated, parents have been investigated by child-welfare authorities in several high-profile cases, including a Maryland couple who allowed their 10- and 6-year-old children to walk home alone from a park in 2015.

But lawmakers and policy groups in several states say the protective pendulum has swung too far, and it is time to send a message that parents who raise their children in a healthy environment can grant them more freedom.

Utah’s law specifies that it is not neglectful to let well-cared-for children travel to school, explore a playground or stay in a car alone if they are mature enough to handle it.

Free-range parenting differs from the concept of latchkey kids, or those who take care of themselves after school, in that free-range generally emphasizes getting kids outside in the neighborhood as a way to develop independence, Boston-based clinical psychologist Bobbi Wegner said.

Fears about letting kids make their own way partly date back to cases like Etan Patz, who was among the first missing children pictured on milk cartons after disappearing while he walked to his New York City bus stop alone in 1979. Today, missing children are pictured on billboards along interstate expressways or shown on daily news broadcasts, continuing to foster these fears.

A recent poll taken by Parents Magazine found that almost 75 percent of parents believed their children were at risk of being abducted, despite statistics to the contrary. With those fears at the forefront of their thinking, who could blame them for being overly involved?

Helicopter Parenting Today

Helicopter parenting appears to be most prevalent in the United States. Internationally, parents seem much more willing to give their children space. Recently, The New York Times published reactions from many foreigners surprised by the levels of supervision prevalent in America.

“My daughters, ages 10, 8, and 5 walk (together) from our apartment to the nearby park, play there, and come back, all by themselves, and have been doing that for at least a year. No one seems to mind, and I like this initiation to freedom and responsibility that it brings them,” a French father told the news outlet.

Describing the difference in approaches in supervision between American and Swiss parents, another person noted: “What really struck me was when I started to notice groups of mothers having coffees together: The [American] mothers sat next to each other facing outward, watching their children the whole time. The Swiss mothers sat facing each other around a table having a nice chat, with their backs to the children playing around them.”

A woman living in Tokyo said: “Here in Japan, kids are required to be at least 6-years-old before they are allowed to ride the trains alone. They often travel in groups, and they socialize and play quietly and appropriately.”

Allowing a 6-year-old to ride a train alone in a city of 9 million people would likely test the limits even of those on board with the free-range approach. It would no doubt be considered outrageous, even criminal, by those prone to helicopter parenting.

Those who choose this latter approach would likely tell you that it is not just for safety reasons. Closely monitoring their children is also done to help increase the child’s likelihood of success in life. With education and the need to separate oneself from the pack becoming more essential in the workforce, parents are increasingly eager to give their kids a leg up with lessons in everything from coding to cello.

But those at the forefront of the free-range movement point to concerns with this aspect of helicopter parenting as well.

“We sign our kids up for all these activities—tutoring, different things—to create this perfect resume from a very young age, but it’s really at a detriment to the kid’s mental health,” Dr. Wegner said.

Studies have shown that parents who fuss over their child’s every activity can detrimentally affect their self-confidence and ability to succeed on their own later in life. Additionally, a parent who schedules each moment of his or her child’s life often does not take the time to sit down and simply talk or play.

In the book Train Your Children God’s Way, David C. Pack sheds further light on the subject in relation to the millennial generation: “Parents, teachers—even children’s television shows—repeatedly taught millennials the importance of having self-esteem, to have a can-do attitude, to be confident in themselves. Time and again they were told, ‘You are special.’ The intentions were good, but the effects were terrible: a generation that expects to be praised for the least bit of effort, yet falls apart at the sound of a raised voice telling young workers where they went wrong and how they can do better.”

Children subjected to such coddling are ill-prepared to function in the real world without their parents’ constant intervention. Each may look like an adult, but have little clue how to behave as one.

Parents Letting Go

As a direct reaction to helicopter parenting, supporters of the free-range approach are calling for a transition back to allowing children more freedom. It is an idea that cuts across the ideological spectrum.

“When I was a child, you let your dogs and your children out after breakfast and…they had to be home for dinner,” said a liberal New York state assemblyman. “I felt I gained a lot more from just playing on the street than my children did from being in organized sports activities.”

Brandon Logan with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation is working with lawmakers for a bill next year.

“We expect adults to be independent, and we expect parents to raise their children to be independent, and you can’t do that whenever children are being micromanaged,” Mr. Logan said.

A conservative group is also pushing for a bill in Idaho, and an Arkansas lawmaker whose effort failed plans to bring it back again.

Proponents are all taking a close look at Utah’s law, which sailed through the legislature and was signed by the governor of the majority-Mormon state known for big families and wide-open spaces. It does not specify how old kids should be to do things alone, which lawmakers say will allow authorities to weigh each case separately.

Discretion like that is important, said Stephen Hinshaw, a University of California, Berkeley, psychology professor. Not every child is ready to ride his bike alongside busy roads, and participating in activities such as music lessons can teach children important skills.

“Parents have to be smart about what is helping foster self-reliance and what is putting kids in a dangerous spot,” he said.

Amy Coulter, a stay-at-home mom of four girls and a boy in Utah, said she does not call herself a free-range parent. But she does avoid intervening with teachers on her older kids’ grades and encourages her kids to use their own money to buy things at the grocery store. “I want them to know that they’re capable,” she said of her children, who range in age from 5 to 14.

Krista Whipple, who recently moved to Utah, said she has liked the concept of free-range parenting for years, but it was tough to practice it in her old Los Angeles neighborhood when most kids stayed behind fences. “I didn’t want to raise my kids all cooped up, but it always made me think twice,” said Ms. Whipple, a program manager at a St. George youth homeless shelter who has two boys and a girl who are 6, 4 and 3.

“Kids are not in constant danger, and it’s OK to let them outside, and it’s OK…to let them get lost,” she said. “They’ll find their way home.”

What Approach Is Best?

Does wanting to be more involved with your child to the point of hovering automatically make you a bad parent? Are those promoting free-range parenting saying parents should not care for their kids? In both cases the answer is almost certainly no.

The blowback against helicopter parenting may simply be the result of society observing the shortcomings in the kids, now adults, who grew up in this environment.

In the final analysis, the question is: Does the latest free-range movement comprise the secret to successful parenting?

Yes and no.

It is easy to see how smothering a child by being obsessed with his every movement and every detail of his lives can be taxing for both the child and parent. Seeing this approach in action and the results it brings, it is natural to think that loosening the reins on a child—letting him “fall down” and learn from his mistakes, venture out on his own, and plan his own future—would be a viable option.

Yet this extreme is equally problematic. It can ignore the real dangers in allowing children to roam free in a dangerous world, and, just as harmful, assumes children have the wherewithal and judgment to make life decisions.

What both sides, helicopter and free-range, clearly demonstrate is that elements of both philosophies are necessary. In other words, a balanced approach is best. Parental involvement and oversight are necessary while still allowing a child the room to fail.

In the pursuit of parental success and honing the best way to raise their children, many parents have lost sight of the five keys to effective parenting: teach, teach, teach, teach and teach!!”

Teaching has elements present in both helicopter and free-range parenting. It involves providing instruction and structure. It also involves providing the environment or “classroom” for students, in this case children, to implement what they have learned. If children fail in this environment, the consequences are not life-threatening or overly detrimental. And when children are ready to make their own decisions, it is with the close guidance and supervision from wise and experienced parents.

Parents can feel comfortable leaving their children on their own more often, when children have been taught and have proven to be responsible in more independent situations.

The saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” applies to children. Teaching a child is key to their success later in life.

Knowing children must be taught is one thing, but parents also wonder what to teach them. Train Your Children God’s Way has the answers. The comprehensive book provides an overview of the difficulties in raising children in the modern age as well as detailed instruction on childrearing.

Here is another quote from the book that speaks directly to the notion of teaching and thus preparing a child for adulthood: “Your children are not machines—they are not robots. They cannot be programmed to do exactly what you want, when you want. They are free moral agents. In the end, after all your efforts are complete, they will make the final decision of whether to walk in the path you lay out for them or not, whether they will obey God or not. Your job is to best prepare them to make the right decision!”

For this and similar helpful information, order your free copy of this helpful book today at rcg.org/tuyc.


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