Until very recently, the only idea the term “free range” conjured up in my head was of chickens. Happy, liberated chickens whose eggs cost a little more at the grocery. But a growing contingent of parents are using the term to describe a type of child rearing which allows more independence to children at earlier ages.
The problem? Modern fears and sensibilities push back against the idea in a real way. Take the case of a Maryland couple who were recently charged with child neglect for allowing their children, ages 10 and 6, to walk home from a neighborhood park without adult supervision. Something that would have been completely acceptable 30-40 years ago is now a crime. Who’s right here?
At iMOM, we believe the right choices depend on factors like the maturity of your child and knowing your surroundings. Learn the Pros and Cons of Free Range Parenting.
- Allowing children to work and play independently builds confidence and skill. Child psychologist and experts agree: Some degree of risk-taking is beneficial, and perhaps even essential, to proper child development. Children take risks naturally (using a knife to cut an apple, climbing to the top of the monkey bars) despite the potential for failure because they want to grasp new skills. The vast majority of the time, they win, in that they conquer the new task with minimal negative consequences. For this reason, some experts are calling for a paradigm shift in modern parenting where we strive to keep children as safe as necessary, rather than as safe as possible.
- Experiencing a few negative outcomes with risk is a wonderful teacher. Having your parents keep you away from all fire and warn you that fire is dangerous is one thing. Having the physical sensation and lingering pain of a burn on your finger is another. The child who never lights the fire at the campsite never learns the proper way to handle and respect the flame. The kid who does and gets singed once or twice does. Consequences are a great teacher, but your children must have a chance to encounter them.
- Modern, disconnected communities make free-range parenting more difficult. A generation ago, families knew their neighbors well, and kids roaming the neighborhood had the benefit of multiple sets of quasi-parents scattered about, keeping some level of watch over their independent play. Those same parents had no qualms about correcting other peoples’ kids when they saw misbehavior or a problem. Modern neighborhoods with high fences (and garage doors that shut behind us before we even get out of the car) discourage that type of community, and hamper communal parenting efforts. You—and your kids—are often on your own.
- Laws designed to protect children from true neglect may cause an issue. There are intended and unintended consequences to every law on the books. In some states, laws created with the best intentions may cause a legal problem for parents who believe more childhood independence is acceptable or necessary. If in doubt, find out what the law in your area requires. Sometimes, things you would deem an acceptable risk for your child might cause concern for law enforcement or well-meaning bystanders as happened in the Maryland case.
- It requires that you really, really know your child. Making informed calls on which types of responsibility your child can handle will require you to be completely in tune with his level of maturity and decision making skills. Granting more independence to your kid will require that you be very intentional about talking out potential trouble spots and assessing how he could handle the unexpected.
Bottom line: This is not a question with an easy, black-and-white answer. But the current trends and cultural observations do suggest that it’s possible to go too far in either direction: We can be too permissive as parents, but we can be too protective as well. Both extremes have negative outcomes for kids. Pray for wisdom as you make day-to-day decisions about the independence you allow for each of your children.
Let’s Talk: Do you try to be more “free range” in your parenting to promote independence, or do you find the risk too great?
Dana Hall McCain writes about marriage, parenting, faith and wellness. She is a mom of two, and has been married to a wonderful guy for over 18 years.