How Free-Range Parenting Works

By: Dave Roos
black girls standing on street smiling
Free-range parenting is a philosophy that says kids should be allowed to explore without parents always hovering over them. Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

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 [source: St. George].

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.


What Free-Range Parenting Is (and Is Not)

Asian boy on subway
Free-range parenting is not the same as neglect. Parents give their kids small opportunities to fend for themselves. NI QIN/Getty Images

Dana Blumberg is a school counselor and mother of two living in suburban Chicago. A few years ago, she read an article about Skenazy and free-range parenting and the message struck home. Her kids were still quite young at the time, but she was worried about how they might be stunted emotionally and psychologically by the culture of fear that Blumberg saw in her school.

So when her oldest was starting second grade, Blumberg decided to let her walk the few blocks to school on her own. Buoyed by this taste of freedom, her 7-year-old daughter began riding bikes with another kid in the neighborhood, just around the block. She fell off the curb and scraped her knee once, but she picked herself up and came home.


More recently, Blumberg's daughter and a neighbor friend went on a little "tour" of the neighborhood, wandering from block to block, knocking on the doors of friends' houses to say hi and maybe mooch a snack.

"I got texts from five different moms," says Blumberg, "saying things like, 'How fun, the first-grader pack is walking around the neighborhood!' And when my daughter came back, she said it was 'the best adventure ever.' She couldn't wait to do it again."

The friend's mom was even more enthused. She said that single experience — a 30-minute jaunt around a suburban neighborhood — was "life-changing" for her daughter, giving her a new sense of confidence. "That's been the best part of it," says Blumberg. "That feeling you get as a parent that says this is the right thing."

For most parents, this is what the free-range parenting movement looks like. Children aren't being left alone to fend for themselves, but given small opportunities to exist outside of direct adult supervision, to take some modest risks and to see how it feels. And parents are being given permission, by a community of like-minded families, to see their children's growing independence not as a threat, but as a path to becoming healthy, confident adults.

In a way, it's harder to define free-range parenting than to explain what it is not. Free-range parenting, as a movement, is about freeing parents and children from the unrealistic fears that prevent us from allowing kids to be kids. Skenazy sees unsupervised, unstructured free time as an "endangered natural resource" that needs to be protected and promoted. Without it, she says, kids will fail to develop 21st-century skills like creative problem-solving, negotiating group dynamics, leadership and more.

Free-range parenting recognizes that the symptoms of helicopter parenting — the need many parents feel to hover over their child's every move and constantly safeguard them from pain and failure — are grounded in fear. This fear, Skenazy says, has many sources.

The media is a potent source of parental fear. Although cases of stranger abductions are vanishingly rare, the media has replayed the details of a few truly tragic stories so many times that we all believe predators are waiting behind park benches to swipe our children.

Second, we live in an "expert society," Skenazy says, where there is always a new article or book or Facebook video telling parents what they are doing wrong and how it will damage their child. We are convinced not to trust our own parenting instincts, but to rely on outside experts, coaches, and after-school courses that promise to prepare our kids for successful futures.

We also live in a litigious society where the first reaction to an unfortunate accident is to file a lawsuit, which forces parents to think like lawyers. If my kid invites another kid to ride bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised and the other kid falls and breaks her arm, could her parents sue me? Even worse is the criminalization of parenting, stoking fear among parents that they'll be arrested if they let their kids walk to the 7-Eleven.

This fear has convinced parents that they have to be both "omniscient and omnipotent," says Skenazy, monitoring their child's every move and providing the solution to every problem. Since this is impossible, parents are stressed, kids are overprotected and everybody is miserable.

So how does free-range parenting propose to alleviate these deep-seating parental fears and promote the idea that adult-free time is one of the best gifts parents can bestow on their kids? It starts with knowing the real facts about crime and accidental deaths in America.


Fact Check: Are Kids Really in Danger?

girl on playground
The odds of a child being abducted by a stranger are far lower than the media would have you believe. Ippei Naoi/Getty Images

Before families can begin to experiment with free-range parenting, they need to experience a change of perspective. First, they need to see the world around them differently, as safer and less threatening than the media portrays it. That's why free-range parenting advocates like Skenazy encourage parents to learn the real facts about crime in America, particularly crimes committed against children.

When parents are asked why they restrict their children's outdoor play, the top answer is a fear of kidnappers and sexual predators, according to a survey from the early 2000s [source: Gray]. While the nightly news and social media posts would have us believe that young children are stolen and harmed every day by strangers, it's simply not backed up by crime statistics.


According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), just 1 percent of the 27,000 missing children cases that the non-profit group assisted with in 2017 involved "nonfamily abductions." And note that the category of "nonfamily abductions" include abductions by friends and acquaintances, not just strangers. The overwhelming majority of missing children cases, some 91 percent in 2017, were classified as "endangered runaways." Another 5 percent were taken by family members.

While most parents believe that younger children are the most likely victim of abductions, a study from the U.S. Department of Justice found that 81 percent of nonfamily abductees were over 12 years old and 59 percent were between 15 and 17 years old and mostly girls. Sadly, that's because many of those abductions of older kids were perpetrated in order to commit sexual assault [source: Finkelhor].

While we're discussing awful topics, what about child murders? According to statistics dating from 1980 through 2008 relating to the murders of children under 5 years old, parents are by far the most likely perpetrators (63 percent) followed by male acquaintances (23 percent) and then other relatives (7 percent). Only 3 percent of all murders of young children were committed by strangers [source: Cooper].

And what about bicycle accidents? Many parents worry that children riding bikes in the neighborhood will almost certainly be struck and killed by cars. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation, 70 percent of all fatal bike accidents in 2009 occurred in urban areas. So if your child is riding in the suburbs or the country, the odds are already greatly in your favor. And for every million children ages 5 to 15 in America, 1.8 died in a bicycle accident.

While each and every crime against a child is unthinkable and every fatal accident is tragic, free-range parenting advocates argue that numbers like these prove that the fear of a young child being plucked from a playground or street corner by a stranger is statistically unfounded. So why do we let that fear prevent us from letting our kids do reasonable activities by themselves?

Getting over our fear of kidnappers is one thing. But for parents to embrace free-range parenting, we also need to be convinced that the kind of free play and independent exploration advocated by people like Skenazy is not only "not bad" for our kids, but truly beneficial for their long-term psychological development. More on that next.


The Psychological Benefits of Independence and Free Play

girls jumping on bed
Childhood free play has a lot of emotional and intellectual benefits. Plus, it's fun! Lisa5201/Getty Images

As parents, we will do anything to safeguard our children's health and well-being and help them grow into successful and happy adults. To that end, most of us believe that the two best preparations for success in later life are a) school, and b) organized after-school activities like sports teams, music lessons and academic enrichment.

There is mounting evidence, however, that in our well-intentioned efforts to give our children a leg up in life, we may have overlooked a fundamental element of healthy child development: free play.


None other than the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a report concluding that childhood play promotes "the social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain," and that "play is fundamentally important for learning 21st-century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success" [source: Yogman et al].

Peter Gray is a developmental psychologist and strong advocate of free and unsupervised childhood play. Author of the book "Free to Learn," Gray is also a co-founder along with Skenazy of Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to "future-proofing" our children by promoting the principles of free-range parenting in homes, schools and communities.

Gray explains that over the course of human evolution, children grew up largely in a culture of other children. Loving parents have always had their place, but a child's "education" in a broad sense was always self-directed and happened among peers through the process of free play. When today's anthropologists observe cultures unchanged from those "primitive" times, they note that children still play and explore freely all day long, even into their teen years [source: Gray].

Free play is defined as "intrinsically motivated," meaning that it exists for its own benefit, not to satisfy some outside expectations. It's also completely unsupervised and unfettered by adults, another key component. Researchers have observed that kids play very differently when an adult is around. They're less physically active and creative and look to the adult to solve problems [source: Gray]. For free play to impart its greatest benefits, the adults need to stay home.

Gray argues that self-directed group play is an excellent way for kids to learn how to regulate their emotions and practice self-control, to take deliberate risks and find their limits, to make and follow rules that are fair to everyone, and to treat fellow kids as equals.

The reason free social play works is that everyone wants the game to continue. If you refuse to take some risks, or throw a tantrum when things don't go your way, you won't be invited back. And if you make rules that are unfair, some kids will go home. Keeping the game fun and exciting requires creative problem-solving, compromise, risk-taking and social skills.

Gray believes that the psychological fruits of free play include a sense of control over one's life. He cites a dramatic shift since the 1960s in a psychological indicator called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. Today's teens report very little internal control over their lives and Gray believes that explains the alarmingly high levels of anxiety and depression among younger generations. Gray argues that these pathological conditions are directly related to a steep decline in free play over the last 50 years [source: Gray].

Gray and the American Academy of Pediatrics make a convincing case for the importance of free play in healthy childhood development. But even if you're a true believer in free-range parenting and want to let your kid bike to the local park alone, play freely with a pack of kids and come home for dinner, will your community let you? What's stopping concerned neighbors from quizzing your kid about his absent parents and then calling the cops when they realize he's alone?

In the next section, we'll look at the legal challenges facing free-range parents and one state that's rewritten its negligence laws to allow more freedom for parents and kids.


Is Free-Range Parenting Against the Law?

kids riding bikes
Utah was the first to pass a "free-range parenting" law, but other states may follow. Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz/Getty Images

In 2018, Utah became the very first state to pass a so-called "free-range parenting" law [source: Whitehurst]. The law amounts to an amendment of the state's current law defining child neglect. Under the new definition, a parent cannot be accused of neglect simply because their minor child engages in certain activities alone, including:

  • walking or biking to school
  • traveling to a store
  • playing outside
  • waiting in a car under safe conditions
  • staying home unattended

As long as the child's "basic needs are met" and he "is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm," this type of independent behavior no longer falls under Utah's definition of neglect, according to the Utah State Legislature.


The Utah law was a big victory for the free-range parenting movement, and other states, including New York and Texas, are considering similar bills [source: Whitehurst]. But until more state legislatures amend their definitions of child neglect, parents who let their kids walk to school or the park alone, or who leave their children unattended even briefly at home or in a vehicle, could be charged with a crime.

One of the difficulties with child neglect cases is that neglect is notoriously difficult to define, and the decision to charge parents with neglect is largely up to the discretion of each state's Child Protective Services (CPS) agency [source: DePanfilis].

In Tennessee, for example, there is no set minimum age at which a child can legally stay home alone. But the Tennessee Juvenile & Family Courts website advises, "Younger children have a greater need for supervision and care than older children. Obviously, young children under age 10 should not be left without supervision at any time. In most cases, older teenage children may be left alone for short periods of time."

Is it "obvious" that children under 10 should never be left alone? Are there not circumstances in which a mature 9-year-old could stay home while a parent works, if there are no other child care options available? In these cases, CPS has the law on its side if it feels like a child was endangered by a lack of adult supervision.

In one high-profile case, Debra Harrell was arrested in 2014 in South Carolina for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play in a nearby park while she finished her shift at McDonald's. Harrell was tossed in jail for a night and the daughter was placed in foster care for more than two weeks [source: McCrory Calarco].

Cases like this highlight the racial and economic disparities in the enforcement of child neglect laws. Harrell is black and poor, precisely the two groups of people who are most likely to be charged with neglect, according to a Brookings Institute study [source: McCrory Calarco]. Harrell isn't a "free-range" parent, per se, but a mom who believed her child would be safe alone at the park while she worked. (Skenazy recognizes the racial disparities in neglect cases and argues that laws like that in Utah will free all parents, free-range or not, to decide for themselves what's best for their children.)

If the free-range parenting movement is going to take off in America, then it will need buy-in from state legislatures, child welfare agencies and regular community members. But as the Utah law shows, the slow process of acceptance may already have begun.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Free-Range Parenting Works

Spend a few minutes on the phone with Lenore Skenazy and Peter Gray and they'll have you convinced that the best thing you can do for your child is give them directions to the park and tell them to be back home in two hours. As a parent of three young children, I struggle with affording my kids the type of independence and freedom that Skenazy and Gray promote. But even if I can't work up the nerve to let my kid walk 15 minutes home from school (no sidewalks, busy road) or let my 13-year-old ride the public buses alone (first, you'd have to convince her), I'm committed to giving them more chances to do small things by themselves without me hovering or butting in.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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  • Brooks, Kim. "The day I left my son in the car." Salon. June 3, 2014 (Aug. 27, 2018)
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  • DePanfilis, Diane. "Child Neglect: A Guide for Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2006 (Aug. 27, 2018)
  • Finkelhor, David; Hammer, Heather; and Sedlak, Andrea. "Nonfamily Abducted Children: National Estimates and Characteristics." NISMART. Oct. 2002 (Aug. 27, 2018)
  • Gray, Peter. "The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents." American Journal of Play. Volume 3, Number 4. 2011 (Aug. 27, 2018)
  • Gray, Peter. Phone interview (Aug. 6, 2018)
  • National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "Key Facts" (Aug. 27, 2018)
  • St. George, Donna. "'Free range' parents cleared in second neglect case after kids walked alone." The Washington Post. June 22, 2015 (Aug. 27, 2018)
  • Skenazy, Lenore. Phone interview (Aug. 20, 2018)
  • Tennessee State Courts. "FAQs" (Aug. 27, 2018)
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  • U.S. Department of Transportation. "Traffic Safety Facts 2009: Bicyclists and Other Cyclists." (Aug. 27, 2018)
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  • Yogman, Michael et al. "The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children." American Academy of Pediatrics. August 2018 (Aug. 27, 2018)