How Free-Range Parenting Works

Fact Check: Are Kids Really in Danger?

girl on playground 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.