When you think back to your own childhood, what are some of your fondest memories? Did you ride bikes around your neighborhood or play outside until the streetlights came on? How many of these activities were unstructured and unsupervised?
Like many parents of young children, I remember being left (happily) to my own devices for long stretches of time as a kid. I took pride in earning more snippets of independence as I got older, whether it was walking with siblings to the park or heading to the grocery store with friends.
So why is it so hard to give our own kids that same kind of age-appropriate freedom? In short, it can be scary.
Parenting in Fearful Times
Even though violent crime has decreased significantly over the last 25 years, parents today think of the world as a more dangerous place than when they were growing up. We’re bombarded by a 24-hour news cycle describing all the terrible things that could happen to our children if we let them out of our sight. In response, overprotective “helicopter parenting” has become the norm.
But that mentality is starting to change, too, as more parents embrace the idea of free-range parenting.
What is Free-Range Parenting?
If you grew up in the 1980s or earlier, free-range parenting may sound similar to your own upbringing. The writer Lenore Skanzy coined the phrase in 2008 when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone and received fierce public criticism.
Skanzy started the Free-Range Kids blog and defines free-range parenting as “a common-sense approach to parenting in these overprotective times,” treating a child as “a smart, young, capable individual” and not someone who is helpless.
In March, Utah became the first state to pass a law permitting free-range parenting. The law changes the state’s definition of “neglect” so that it doesn’t include kids engaging in independent activities, like playing outside, going to nearby stores, or walking to and from school. Other states may soon follow Utah’s lead and pass similar legislation.
I’m happy to see these changes because I believe the benefits of free-range parenting outweigh the risks. Of course I still worry, but I have learned to distinguish between legitimate dangers and unfounded fears. If you’re interested in becoming more of a free-range parent, here are a few strategies to help ease your anxious feelings.
Tips for Free-Range Parenting Without Fear
#1: Think Big
As much as we would like to protect our kids from all dangers for the rest of their lives, we simply can’t. Look at the big picture, identifying the qualities and abilities you want your children to possess before they leave home. What attributes will serve them well in the future? How can you build their confidence in these areas now?
I want my children to be responsible, confident, and self-reliant, capable of making smart decisions and learning from their mistakes. I also don’t want them calling me from college because they can’t figure out how to make a sandwich or find their classes without my help. Focusing on these long-term objectives helps me give them more freedom in the present.
#2: Start Small
Raising free-range kids doesn’t mean pushing them out of the nest without any preparation. Take a cue from parents in other countries, and start with small, manageable steps to gradually bolster your children’s confidence and your comfort. Work your way up to letting them do activities on their own.
For example, go to the neighborhood park together, but sit on a bench and give them a wide radius as they play. Don’t hover or mediate arguments; trust that they can manage fine by themselves. Go over your family rules for playing at the park safely, from crossing the street to talking to strangers. Over time, practice letting them walk a few blocks ahead of you, slowly building up to the day when they can go without you.
#3: Research Your Area
When you allow your imagination to run wild, you can see unknown dangers lurking around every corner. But in reality, national crime rates are much lower than when you were growing up.
Soothe your fears by doing a little research on the area where you live. What are the actual crime rates? How walkable or bikeable is your neighborhood? What kid-friendly features does it have, like public playgrounds, recreation areas, and bike paths? Your city might even make the list of the safest places in the country to raise a free-range child. Get more information before jumping to the worst-case scenario.
#4: Embrace Failure
You can’t shield your children from discomfort and failure forever (as much as you may want to). They will have to face challenges and tough calls as they grow up, and you want them to be equipped to handle anything that comes their way.
Recognize that it’s much better for kids to try new things and experience setbacks while they’re still young. Step back and let them take the lead sometimes, even if they stumble. Be there to offer support and guidance, but don’t solve every problem for them. They’ll learn to dust themselves off and try again, developing resilience and perseverance that will last a lifetime.
Are you ready to test out free-range parenting? It’s natural to be apprehensive as you start giving your children more independence, but trust your instincts. Follow these baby steps, and you’ll calm your fears and instill strength and self-sufficiency in your kids.