Free-Range Parenting: Is it Child Neglect or a Recipe to success?
Without unnecessarily long introductions, let’s dive right into the concept of free-range parenting, get to the bottom of it and give our verdict: “yay” or “nay”.
It all started more than 10 years ago when back in 2008 Lenore Skenazy allowed her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone and wrote a column about it in New York Sun. Her story went viral with media calling her “the world’s worst mum”. Despite all the negativity, Lenore has successfully started Free-Range Kids movement as well as non-profit organization “Let Grow”, the goal of which is to encourage kids doing things on their own.
“Well, why do we still talk about it now?” you might ask. The thing is after Lenore became a sensation people discussed the issue for a while, some joined her movement, some didn’t, but things pretty much went back to normal. And then, in 2018 another big story came up: mom from the village in Illinois has found herself at the center of investigations by police because she let her 8-year-old daughter walk the dog around the neighborhood without supervision. Similar cases came to media attention and – long story short – In 2018 Utah became the first state to legalize “free-range” parenting style, meaning that from now on Utah parents will not face charges if they let their children spend some time outside without any supervision. The line between neglectful parenting and free-range parenting is still very vague though. Jessica Calarco has described it perfectly: “What counts as “free-range parenting” and what counts as “neglect” are in the eye of the beholder—and race and class often figure heavily into such distinctions”.
But let’s forget about USA for a second. In other parts of the world the term “Free-Range” Parenting cannot exist under any circumstances. And that is because they just call it normal parenting. Let’s take a look at Japan. The sight of little kids as young as 6 years old riding subway by themselves is no surprise to anyone (and don’t forget how crowded and complex Japanese train system is – I was a bit anxious to ride subway in Tokyo when I was 20). But this is where we come to the most important issue – safety. While Tokyo was named the safest city in the world by Economist Intelligence Unit, New York doesn’t have quite the same reputation. So, it’s not surprising that Americans would be a lot more appalled to the idea of letting kids walk around with no supervision unlike many Japanese who find it absolutely normal. But what about Polish parents – could they adapt a free-range parenting style (or maybe they already have)? Don’t worry, I have a perfect plan to figure it out.
Let’s take a look at some data from Crime Index 2020.
According to the data, Safety Index of Poland is significantly higher than that of the USA (71.5 against 52.8) but a bit lower than Japan’s Safety Index.
So, as you can probably guess, in my theory Polish people could be a lot more open to the idea of Free-range parenting than Americans but still not quite as open as Japanese.
Nonetheless, free-range parenting is not just about kids riding trains and playing with no supervision. Free-range parenting is a lifestyle, philosophy and a topic of many, many blog posts. Moreover, this somewhat controversial parenting style often goes hand in hand with anti-vaccine, pro-breastfeeding and other all-natural approaches that hipster parents might find interesting (no offense to hipsters, hipster parents, anti-vaccine people, pro-vaccine people and all others). But for today let’s just focus on the classic concept of free-range parenting with no extras that could come with it. And who could describe it better than the founder of free-range parenting movement, Lenore Skenazy herself?
So, according to her book “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)”, one of the main concepts of free-range parenting is letting go of worry and finding ways to encourage independence in children. In the book she also debunks many myths that keep parents unnecessarily worried. In reality, free-range parenting means that parents don’t dictate children’s schedule and make as little decisions as possible from child’s behalf (how far this could go is difficult to define, but I would imagine pretty far – some families even abandon any bedtime or studying routines). So, from reading a few chapters of Lenore’s book (as well as browsing the Internet for a little bit), here are some of the advantages of free-range parenting that I have found:
1) Creativity. Without a doubt, giving the children freedom helps little ones discover the world and as a result may boost their creativity.
2) Possibly good self-esteem (as opposed to bad self esteem and other psychological issues that could come from helicopter parenting such as low frustration tolerance).
3) Active play. While free-range parenting does not necessarily equal kids playing a lot outside (after all, kids may prefer to spend time at home playing Fortnite and as a free-range parent you probably should let them do what they want), still most “free-range” kids spend time outside a lot more often than kids who grow up in a more strict environment.
4) Learning how to take initiative and be proactive (after all, with classic free-range parenting children are responsible for their own timetable).
5) Having privacy. Strict parenting often comes together with way too big intrusion into kids’ lives that could again have negative effect on children’s mental and psychological state (especially during teenage years).
And, of course, let’s not forget about disadvantages:
1) Increased risk. This is the most obvious disadvantage that we have already discussed more than enough but I still feel like I needed to mention it.
2) “Parents should be parents”. Arguably, with free-range parenting style kids may lose respect for their parents and start treating them as just “pals” which many may see as a big disadvantage.
3) No success in the future. Research shows that there are in fact good reasons for parents switching to a more authoritative parenting styles during the past decades. Thus, data from National Longitudinal Survey of Youth suggests that kids who grow up in a stricter family are more likely to be successful in higher education and career.
4) Low variety of activities. Let’s be honest, if parents let their kids choose what to do in their free time, few of them would choose going to music school or learn German, right? Having somewhat “pushy” parents (and not necessarily strict ones) could help kids try new activities and discover hobbies.
5) Bad behavior. Really orthodox free-range parents don’t teach their kids what is right or wrong (except maybe some most important concepts, but that is just my guess) and, most likely, they will also not teach their kids good manners as well as other parents would.
So, now that we’ve looked at some of the advantages and disadvantages of free-range parenting, I think it’s time for me to give my personal and imperfect judgment of this whole concept.
And my verdict is…
NAY (kind of) ☹
I am sorry, Lenore Skenazy (Free-Range Kids movement founder), please don’t take it personally. And let me explain myself.
I know my opinion is uncalled-for and unoriginal but here it goes: Everything is good in moderation and going to an extreme is usually not a good idea. So, while some aspects of free-range parenting are amazing (and it is certainly a nice challenge to helicopter parenting) – still, going all the way and letting 5-year-old decide whether they should brush their teeth or not might not be a perfect parenting choice. Children shouldn’t be left to do everything on their own without guidance, but they should be given privacy and respect at the same time.
But yet again, I might be wrong. All parents can decide for themselves whether they want to say “yay” or “nay” to free-range parenting style. So, will it be a “yay” or “nay” for you?
1) Video that inspired me to write this article:
Free Range vs Strict Parents: Is Spanking Your Kids Ever Okay?
2) Another interesting video to watch (about free range kids):
3) And one more video: (Japanese kids)
4) Story about Wilmette mom
7) Crime Index by Country 2020
8) Lenore Skenazy, “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)”
Photo source: https://pixabay.com/pl/