You’ve heard of helicopter parenting but what is free-range parenting? Every day there seems to be another horror story on the news or social media with a new risk to our children. Is there any downfall to keeping them in the safety of their home and under 24/7 adult supervision? When we are told the world is a dangerous place but also told kids need freedom and independence to become competent adults what are we to do?
So what is free-range parenting? And why is it so important?
When I first moved to the U.S., I made a friend who told me she was looking for a babysitter for her 12-year old daughter. I misheard her and thought she was offering for her daughter to babysit my children. “Yes, thank you, I would love to have her babysit my children” I said. She looked at me totally puzzled and quickly corrected me. “No no no, I’m not looking for her to babysit someone, I’m looking for a babysitter for her.”
Has this happened to you? Where I come from 12-year olds are the babysitters, not the ones being babysat. But, I get it, you turn on the news and it’s yet another kidnapping or something similar telling us that our kids are in constant danger.
Are you worried about letting other people watch your kids? Are you fearful of letting them out of your sight even more a moment? There are so many scary stories in our collective subconscious, that teach us to be afraid of what might happen to our children, everywhere we turn.
It can feel like childhood is on lockdown. Let my kids walk to school? Never. Child going to the neighborhood playground alone? Arrest that parent. We can be left feeling like we can never trust parents who trust themselves, trust the odds, and trust their children.
The risk we fail to bring up is the risk of raising children who feel stifled, coddled, and like they can’t trust themselves out in the world. Studies suggest that children who have grown up with helicopter parents, grow up to have a disbelief in their own ability to accomplish goals. These children also don’t develop critical soft skills such as taking responsibility.
We’re finding more and more parents helping their children not only with homework through elementary and high school but now in college too. Stating the reason being that they don’t want their children to struggle as they had. The downside is that the opposite actually happens. These children end up suffering higher rates of anxiety and helplessness. They end up feeling powerless in the face of any struggle, risk or challenge.
In our culture we seem to think that you’re a child until you hit 18, then boom, you’re an adult. Suddenly you have all these responsibilities and all these privileges. But 18 is an arbitrary age set by the government to define adulthood. It’s actually not consistent with brain development which continues up until we’re 25 and beyond. Stifling our children and keeping them sheltered throughout their childhood and then suddenly at the age of 18, expecting them to handle college and the world beyond, on their own, isn’t realistic and frankly it’s not working. We need to take a different approach to this, where we actually introduce children into their freedom from early ages.
I want you to think back to your own childhood and how much freedom you likely had. I’m guessing you had quite a lot of freedom to roam around your neighborhoods. Perhaps you walked to your friends’ houses or school. Maybe you even took public transportation to get to places you wanted to go instead of your parents driving you everywhere. You were expected to be capable. To seek help from strangers when you needed it and to use money and maps to get to where you needed to go. Compare that to today where children are hardly allowed out on their front lawns alone.
Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote a beautiful book titled How to Raise an Adult. In it, she writes that she has met parents who would not allow their 17-year-old daughter to take the subway alone. “And I said to them, what’s your long-term strategy for her. I see it all around me, I see kids afraid to be alone on the sidewalk, they don’t like walking places alone, they don’t like biking places alone. And it’s probably because they’ve been basically made to feel that they can be abducted at any moment.”
Now, you might be thinking, but there’s no real downside to keeping my kids in plain eyesight right? Wrong. The downside is that kids grow up feeling scared, timid, and incapable in the world. They feel like the world is dangerous and they feel fully dependent on the services and charity of others to care for them.
While the fear mongering would have you believe otherwise, the truth is that our kids are currently growing up in the safest possible time in history. War, hunger, street violence, and plagues, whilst they still exist, they’re at an all-time low.
So what can you do? What steps can you take to become more free range with your own children?
- Limit your exposure to fear mongering and sensationalist news.
The truth is, our subconscious brain cannot tell the difference between what we’re seeing on a screen and what is in our reality. So if we see one sensationalist story about an abduction then our brain registers that as a likely risk in our real lives, and we get put on high alert. Our brain chemistry and hormones literally course through our body and put it into fight, flight or freeze mode where everything seems like a danger.
Did you know that the risk of abduction is actually low. It’s so low that it’s almost non-existent. I’m not saying that abduction in and of itself is non-existent, but statistically it is, at least in the U.S.A. So if the real statistic is so low, why are we so afraid?
In her book, Skenazy outlines the reason for this was the milk-carton children. Remember those children back in the 80’s? There were a couple of kidnapping cases and they decided that because milk cartons are on everybody’s morning table, they should have pictures of abducted children on them in case you happen to see them walking down the street. And this led to American’s feeling like abductions were happening all the time. When in fact it was just a handful of cases.
Bottom line, we need to stop looking at sensationalist stories. Do terrible things sometimes happen? Yes, but they’re very unlikely. Much less likely than any of the regular risks we take just having gas in our home or driving our cars.
- Switch the narrative from stranger danger to tricky people.
When we teach our kids not to talk to strangers, we’re actually not giving them very good tools to navigate which people could help them and which people could be tricky. The truth is that the majority of strangers are friendly, kind people who want to help. And teaching kids not to talk to them actually robs them of an important safety guideline which is seeking help from strangers when they need it.
- Find ways to allow freedom.
Can your kids ride down the street to a neighbor’s house without you? Can they play for a few minutes without you in the playground? Can you allow them to go to the next aisle in the supermarket and do a little shopping and help you? What is it that you can allow them to do where they can be a little bit out of sight?
One of the things that we love to do is to go to Governor’s Island where there’s something called play:groundNYC. It is basically a junk-yard playground where no adults are allowed. Kids are able to use saws, to climb, to build, and most importantly to be away from the supervision of adults. Now, there are adult facilitators around and it’s only for children aged five and up, but it allows them to exercise that freedom muscle.
So let’s assume you’re convinced and ready to allow your kids more freedom, but what about the laws, or the good Samaritans who may report you for allowing your child to walk to school alone? You’re in luck, Lenore Skenazy has tools for that. One of those tools is to give your child a card that they can keep in their pocket or wear around their neck This card should explain that you’re a free-range family, that they are allowed to be out, that you support them being out, and it should also have your contact information.
Back home in Israel my nephew at eight-years-old takes a 45-minute trek across the city to get to school. He uses public buses and walks, yes, he even crosses the roads and many friendly strangers help him along the way when he needs it. Are there risks involved? Maybe, but they pale in comparison to the huge gain to his ego, self-confidence, skills, and his sense of capabilities that he is developing.
Feeling like you want to allow this freedom but are still stuck on “stranger danger?” Here are things you can teach your children that will help them.
Patty Fitzgerald is the founder of Safely Ever After. She says that it’s crucial that we parents talk to our kids about potentially harmful people and what they might look like, do or say. Here are three things to teach your kids that tricky people do.
- Tricky people ask kids for help My kids know that when adults need help they will ask other adults for help. If an adult is asking them for help then they might be a tricky person, especially if my kids don’t know this person. So, if someone comes and asks them for help they know to say “No, go ask my Mom.” And in order to do this we also need to teach them it’s ok to say NO to anyone, strangers, adults, even to people of authority. When they know what to say they feel empowered and will be safer.
- Tricky people offer awesome things like a puppy or bike or candy for no apparent reason. My kids know that if someone comes up to them and says “hey, would you like a bike, would you like candy, do you wanna play Minecraft with me,” they need to say “no, I’ll go and ask my mom.” In this situation they are again empowered to say NO. And, as tempting as the offer may seem I remind them that it might be someone trying to take them to a bad place.
- Tricky people try to get you to keep secrets or break the family rules. My kids and I have discussed that if someone says something to them like “lets not tell mommy about this” or “it will be our little secret” that they may be a tricky person. My kids then feel empowered to respond and say “no, we don’t keep secrets in my family, I’m going to tell my mom.”
Empowering your children to learn about the difference between tricky people and strangers who are just normal, friendly people we simply haven’t met yet, is going to help them on their free-range journey and help you feel calmer about their interactions with others as they go about their community life.
One other way to empower children is to teach them what to do if they really do get lost. Even if you aren’t going to choose free-range parenting, your child might still get lost. One of the things I teach my kids is to look for another mom to ask for help. I also teach them how to reach out to strangers by knowing their name, where they live, and their telephone number. For more tips on teaching your how to be safe checkout Pattie Fitzgerald’s book Super Duper Safety School: Safety Rules for Kids & Grown-Ups
Feeling free, feeling safe in the world, feeling capable and feeling strong are huge benefits that are often worth a little risk. If we are able to extend just a little more freedom to our children, a little more time away from supervised eyes, I know that it will lead to some of the most profound growth spurts emotionally, socially, and even physically that we could ever hope for as parents.
Looking for more support to be a free-range parent? Checkout Lenore Skenazy’s site Let Grow which is an incredible support system for parents trying to adopt this free-range lifestyle for their children.
I’d love to hear from you! Are you a free-range parent? Were you allowed to roam free as a kid? Did you ever take a bus? Did you walk by yourself? Did you ride your bike by yourself or in a gang of other children? Were you told to come home when the street lights come on? Please leave your comments below or over in our (free & awesome) FB community Love Parenting with Avital
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