By Dr. Stacey Maslow
Department of Pediatrics
If you are a parent, chances are you’ve heard of “free-range parenting.” Advocates of free-range parenting believe that independence is fostered in children when they are given greater autonomy and less adult supervision. This concept seems to evoke strong opinions. The term was first coined by Lenore Skenazy, a parent who let her then 9-year-old son find his way home on the New York City subway and then wrote a much talked-about newspaper article about it.
In many ways, free-range parenting is seen as the opposite of “helicopter” parenting. It allows children enough freedom and room for exploration so that they are able to reach their own limits naturally. Free-range parenting can involve anything from allowing young children to play alone outside to permitting teenagers to travel outside the country all by themselves. It’s important to note that free-range parenting is not rule-less, it does involve guidelines for children. Parents who advocate for this type of parenting make a point to teach their children important life skills and then guide them when they make mistakes. In essence, free-range parents aren’t afraid to let their kids fail safely at times, in the hope that they will learn from the experience and grow as individuals.
Keep in mind that if you want to explore free-range parenting you need to know the laws for the state you live in. Some states have specific laws that govern how old a child can be before they are left home alone. (In Massachusetts, there is no specific age, child neglect is decided on a case-by-case basis.)
Before making a decision on how much freedom to give your children, it’s important to consider how you think they will handle such freedom. What’s right for one child may not be right for another. As every parent knows, all children are different. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Key Child Factors
- How responsible is your child?
- Is your child comfortable being alone or going somewhere by themselves?
- Do you think your child is level-headed enough not to panic in an emergency?
- Do you feel confident in their physical skills? For instance, could your child run away from danger if they had to? Or escape from a fire?
- Is your child known to be truthful and trustworthy?
Important Situational Factors
- How long do you expect to leave your child alone?
- Do you have confidence that the area your child will be in is safe?
- Are there neighbors or older children you trust who can look out for your child?
- How reachable will you be in case of an emergency?
- Does your child have a cell phone?
- Has your eldest child demonstrated the ability to care for younger siblings?
- Are you concerned that your children may get into fights and squabbles if left on their own?
Advocates of free-range parenting often speak of wanting to give to their children the freedom and opportunity to “act like kids” in ways similar to what they enjoyed when they were growing up. Some other important aspects of free-range parenting include:
Allowing for Plenty of Unscheduled Activities
Free-range parents tend to encourage unstructured play. This might include a pick-up game of baseball or capture the flag with kids in the neighborhood.
Instead of depending on TV and electronics to entertain their children, parents encourage playing outside as much as possible.
Kids are taught to earn their independence.
Free-range parenting encourages children to earn more freedom and responsibility gradually, not all at once. The more independence children are capable of, the more parents may give them.
Free-range parents have a more relaxed attitude toward risk and fear.
For instance, instead of saying “no” if their child wanted to ride their bike to a friend’s house across town, a free-range parent would allow their child to go but take steps to ensure their safety before going such as to make sure they wore a bike helmet for protection and review rules of the road.
Most parents today strike a balance between hovering over their children’s every move and giving their children a lot of freedom. Every parent has to decide the best way to raise their children – no one way is right for everybody.
About Stacey Maslow, MD
Dr. Maslow has been practicing medicine for 17 years. When asked why she became a doctor, Dr. Maslow explains, “As a small child I frequented urban areas while accompanying my grandmother on various immigration and health projects that were her passion. These experiences sparked my fascination with how city life effects people and their physical and emotional health. I decided at the age of 11 that I wanted to be a doctor because I...View profile View posts by this doctor