Stories of “free-range” parenting have sparked intense debates over the past decade, but the concept is nothing new. Back in 1946, the influential American pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock promoted tenets similar to those of the free-range parenting movement in his “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child,” one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century. Spock urged parents to do the following:
Trust their instincts
Let kids be kids
Allow kids to fail, brush themselves off and try again
These are the same ideas that free-range parenting advocates hold in high regard when it comes to raising children from the age of three through the teen years.
Free-range parenting vs. fearful parenting
According to advocates of the free-range approach, parents need to “chill out” and refrain from micromanaging their children’s behavior and activities. In her bestselling book “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry),” American journalist Lenore Skenazy discusses the damaging effect of mainstream parenting, schooling and organized activities on youth today. Children are ill-served by the pervasive fear that danger lurks around every corner and that future success depends on kids being constantly involved in structured activities from a young age. Such parental fears promote excessive and unnecessary protection from risk, and they limit the ability of children to mature properly.
Training kids for independence
The free-range philosophy is often confused with permissive parenting – allowing children to do whatever they want without supervision. That is not the case. Responsible parents who adopt the free-range approach are careful to ensure that their children are well-prepared to handle the situations life throws at them. The first step is training, with close parental supervision gradually diminishing to allow for greater independence. For example, a parent who allows a tween to take public transportation to visit her grandmother will first help the child learn to wait safely at the bus terminal, how to pay for transit service, how to read the transportation map and what to do in the case of emergency. Only after practice has developed her competence will the child be encouraged to try it on her own. When she returns home, she feels confident and capable. She handled the situation by herself … and she got to spend quality one-on-one time with Nana!
Give kids permission to fail
In contrast to “helicopter parents,” who overprotect and shield their children from life’s disappointments, Skenazy encourages failure. On her website she writes, “If children don’t fail, they can’t learn that they can get back up, dust themselves off and go on with their lives.” She illustrates the point with a bike-riding analogy. No one wants their child to fall off his or her bike, especially at the risk of a serious injury. But if we want our children to learn how to ride a bike, we can’t hold onto the back of the bike forever. When kids fall off (and they will!), they learn two important lessons: 1) failure isn’t permanent, and 2) there is joy in learning new things.
Giving children the freedom to fail instills in them the courage to try – and it is only by trying that they will gain the basic skills needed to thrive in the adult world. Based on numerous surveys, American kids are falling behind in this respect. Nearly one out of every four freshmen arriving on U.S. college campuses today cannot boil an egg. Until a child boils an egg and sees the yolk turn green from overcooking, he’ll never know how to cook an egg properly!
Consider these similar statistics:
35 percent of millennials don’t know how to make their bed
23 percent of millennials don’t know how to use a washing machine
35 percent of millennials don’t feel competent folding laundry
77 percent of millennials don’t know how to fix a punctured bicycle tire
We do our children a disservice by sending them into the world so inadequately prepared.
Strike a balance
With so many different parenting theories available by simply Googling the word, “parent,” which one should you follow? As Dr. Spock said, “Trust your instincts.” Keep your child’s strengths and challenges in mind when considering what to allow him to do without supervision. While one 10-year-old might be prepared, willing and able to stay home alone in the house while you run errands in the afternoon, another child might find that experience overwhelming. Allow children to stretch their comfort level over time by leaving them for short periods while you are nearby and then gradually extending the periods of time and going farther away.
When the situation seems too dangerous or risky, step in and provide a higher level of supervision. But if your child is well prepared for the challenge, go ahead and step back. The best way to learn is by making a mistake and trying again. And – for parents as well as kids – the best way to build confidence and competence is by taking on a new and challenging task, finding the courage to overcome doubts and practicing the skills needed to complete the task successfully.
Is free-range parenting for you?
Are you ready to put your worry aside and allow some risk?
Can you give up control and allow your children to make his or her own decisions?
Can you watch your child fail miserably or struggle with a task you could make easier?
Do you want your child to be autonomous and self-sufficient?
Do you want your child to be resilient and take responsibility for his or her own choices?
Does your child want to do more adventurous things than you currently allow?
Do you have the time to teach your child basic life skills that will prepare her for independence?
The more questions you answered with a “yes,” the more willing and able you will be to try out various degrees of free-range parenting.
Lynne Ticknor, M.A., is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Md. For more information about parenting classes, visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824.