How Free-Range Parenting Works

What Free-Range Parenting Is (and Is Not)

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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.