It seems like everyone is talking about “free-range parenting” these days. It started in 2008 when Lenore Skenazy wrote a piece in the New York Sun about letting her 9 year-old son ride the subway alone. Her essay made such an impact that Skenazy later wrote a book called Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). It’s become a popular parenting philosophy, but not without it’s own controversy. Now there are stories of parents being arrested because they let their kids play in the front yard or walk to the park unsupervised..
Personally, I love the idea of teaching kids to be self-reliant. I’ve written about trying to raise independent, confident kids. And I get that free-range parenting is a good way to do it. But it’s not my thing. Free-range parenting is not for us. Yes, I understand that crime statistics are lower than ever. I'm not a hovering mother . . . my concern isn’t coming from paranoia about stranger danger.
But I know my kids. I know myself. And that’s why, if my kids are playing outside, I usually have them in my line of sight. I know who they are with and what they are doing. No, watching them doesn’t automatically protect them from all the injuries that could happen outside. They are kids. Things happen.
And those things happen whether you’re watching your kids or letting them free-range all over the place. But parenting isn’t just about protecting your kids from random accidents or injuries. Kids need more than freedom for outside activities. Our parenting style is about helping our kids be productive now—and then building a foundation so they can become motivated teenagers and independent adults in the future. Giving them the specific structure to develop this way is my job as a parent.
I’m not sure how effectively I can do that job if I give in to the free-range parenting trend. Here's why:
1. Left to their own devices, my kids tend to be selfish and lazy.
If I got up this morning and said, “Hey, kids, do whatever you want today” they would choose to spend their day eating candy and playing video games. They need guidance from me to do good things with their time. I don't lord over them all day with chores and healthy food and planned activities every single minute, but I do provide structure. At home, they have limits. The limits keep them from becoming couch potatoes or video game addicts.
2. Kids need social supervision and guidance.
I’ve spent time around kids whose parents aren't super-involved. You know what those kids do? They fight with their siblings. A LOT. Don't get my wrong. My kids fight, too. I don't like to get in the middle of it and play referee unless it's absolutely necessary. But they are kids. They need help to learn how to fight fair. They need me to help them learn how to express their feelings in a healthy way rather than name-calling, or slamming doors, or reacting physically. At their age, they need reminds to “use their words” and to work things out in healthy ways. Conflict resolution is hard, even for adults.I want to be involved in helping them wade through social interactions with others. My kids need this.
3. I’m not comfortable with my kids going into other people's houses.
What free-range inclination I have expresses itself in the fact that my kids are allowed to ride their bikes around the block. They can play in our front yard and in our neighbors’ front yards. But we have strict rules about actually going inside other people's houses. I don't know what could be on the television in those homes. I don’t know what our neighbors’ older kids could be looking at on the internet. When I don’t know or trust the parents, I feel like it's unsafe to let my kids enter into that potentially dangerous environment. So while our neighborhood has many kids who roam and wander and go in and out of each other’s houses, it’s not for us.
4. I want my kids to have self-discipline.
Sure, they’re kids. This isn’t the military and I’m not a drill sergeant. But self-discipline does not come naturally for most of my kids. If I’m going to encourage it, then they need me to provide structure and an appropriate environment. We have set times for doing homework or practicing music. In fact, we schedule times for any of the things they really don't feel like doing on their own. Providing that kind of structure now gives them a foundation they can build upon. Hopefully, it’ll help them become self-disciplined adults.
5. We teach respect for adults and authority.
I feel very strongly that kids need to know we expect this from them—not just toward Mark and me, but toward adults in general. Learning this at an early age will follow them throughout their life. But they’re not going to learn respect on their own, or from other kids. By supervising them and teaching how to show respect and earn respect, we drive home the lesson that they do not rule the roost.
There’s an element of free-range parenting that puts kids and their decision-making in the center of everything. With certain personalities, it can breed self-absorption. But I don’t want to raise selfish kids. I want my kids to know life is not all about them. It’s not all about whatever they want to do at any particular moment.
Can I raise my kids to be independent, self-reliant, and confident while still providing them boundaries? I think so. Instead of giving my kids a blank canvas to paint, we’re giving them some instructions. They can choose their colors. They can paint in a way that reflects who they are. But they’ve got to stay within the margins we’ve set.
If free-range parenting requires removing those margins, then it’s not for us.
(photo: Kristen Howerton)