Free-range parenting: A comprehensive guide for parents

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Free-range parenting is about giving children independence, but not letting them run around uninformed.

Unlike most other parenting styles , free-range parenting delves into giving children something that they lack compared to adults: freedom independence, and knowledge. This article provides a comprehensive overview of free range parenting, including how and when it started, what is free range parenting, and its pros and cons. 

“What is free range parenting?”

Free-range parenting is a parenting style that only became popular in 2008. At the time, the term was coined by Lenore Skenanzy, a New York columnist.

In attempting to answer the question, “what is free range parenting?”, Skenanzy wrote an article about how she gave her 9-year-old child the freedom to take the underground subway… on their own. She describes the skills she equipped her child with to do so, and the philosophy that drives her.   

Free-range parents, in a sense, are the complete opposite of helicopter parents, allowing their children to explore independence while they’re still young. The phrase “free-range” itself is literally used to mean livestock farmed in natural conditions “free” from restrictions like cages and pens. 

These type of parents advocate that childhood is an innately free and independent time during a child’s life. In this view, a parent’s role, instead of guiding a child continuously, is to aid the growth of a child’s confidence and self-sufficiency.

According to Lyla Wolfenstein, a parenting educator working in the US, the whole process aims to slowly let go of the parent’s responsibility of the child. 

Lyla explains that “the skills to make good decisions only come from practice”, notwithstanding the fact that children make riskier decisions as they enter adolescence and adulthood. “So, if they don’t practice while they can rely on your advice, wisdom, and support, they will make many more — and more serious — mistakes as they get older,” she continues.

Personally, Wolfenstein feels that free-range parenting gives children a chance to find solutions to realistic problems, while also learning how to apply strong skills before puberty. Overall, these kids eventually have an “innate sense of how to navigate tricky situations.”

Is Free-range parenting feasible?

The world isn’t as dangerous as it seems

Most parents will be cautious and wary of the hidden dangers of the outside world. However, they have  overlooked one simple fact. The dangers of the outside world are usually exaggerated in the media. The world is, in fact, the safest it has been in human history.

In 2015, an article highlighted that fears of common of dangers towards young children – including kidnapping and fatal accidents – were, statistically speaking, “historically low and infinitesimally small”.

It’s even been argued that a young child on their own has a higher risk of death by being struck by lightning, compared to a fatal accident or kidnapping. 

what is free range parenting

What is free range parenting? It’s about being realistic about the world, say free-range parents. Image Source: Stock Photos

In addition, as Wolfenstein puts it, nowadays it’s not hard at all to stay in contact with your child. After all, mobile phones are so common and accessible, making it easy to monitor your kids while they take the liberty to explore their surroundings.

Are parents just too paranoid?

To a certain extent in developed countries, yes. According to Cynthia Connolly, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in the US, our society’s massive advancements in technology can be a double-edged sword. While mobile phones allow us to track our child’s safety, but, as she explains below:

“We have greater access to so much more information about everything, especially about violent acts, as they are more likely to get ‘clicks’ than other news. It sometimes makes it seem like the world is more dangerous despite the opposite being true.”

Unsurprisingly, evolution has a part to play, as we have become tuned to have extra surveillance for danger. Thus, it makes sense that parents always verify their anxieties towards available data – particularly before they decide on something important.

What is free range parenting? Pros of Free Range parenting

For the kids…

  • Kids gain confidence in becoming independent. Free-range parenting gives children the chance to be worthy of independence. They’re slowly given more and more freedom and additional responsibilities. The aim of free-range parenting, chiefly, is:
    • to let kids prove to themselves that they have the ability to attempt new activities
    • and achieve success in resolving difficult tasks independently.
  • Exposure to fresh air. Free-range parenting encourages children to explore the great outdoors – exposing them to clean, natural air. If you’re really worried, mums, you can always watch afar as your children play while you finish the laundry.
  • More adventures! Kids have a rich and active imagination. Letting them play about with their own stories and scenarios – without an adult overseeing everything – allows them to become their own hero in their own story. 
  • Opportunities to problem-solve. When children play, they may get into arguments and fights. However, leaving kids to resolve these issues on their own – by negotiating, cooperating with others and even compromising – are important social skills that will help them as they grow up.
what is free range parenting

What is free range parenting? One key aspect is letting kids play on their own in nature, without adults. | Image Source: Stock Photos

For the parents…

  • It takes fear out of parenting. Can my child get hurt when riding a bike? Of course! But it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t bike. Rather, free-range parents will strictly ensure that safety measures are followed (e.g. using a helmet while cycling), but they acknowledge accidents can occur anytime. For free-range parents, the benefits of running in the playground and attempting new activities outweigh the risks of getting injuries once in a while.
  • Additional free time for parents. Parents can get some much needed ‘me-time’ once they’ve overcome the initial anxiety of missing children. You can even set up a routine schedule. Turn on their location and call them or ensure that they’re back home by a specific time.

Cons of free range parenting 

Of course, there are some cons that parents should be aware of, such as:

  • hidden dangers in a safe world. Giving children unattended freedom risks them encountering sinister kidnappers or fatal incidents. 
  • potential injuries, since children are inexperienced. They can do something that can result in serious consequences. For instance, children can hang off a tree branch and fall… and gain serious injuries in the process.
  • learning things that could be taboo from older kids, such as bad words or inappropriate material. 
  • overprotective neighbours or kind strangers. Realistically speaking, the worst possible risk is that well-intentioned members of the community could report their actions to the police as neglect, even though free-range parents have prepared their kids for independence. Even a police report could lead to numerous issues, and some parents have been known to enter prison for neglect. And what’s worse is that past “offenders” may still be singled out as beforeThis is particularly true for kids from underprivileged families, parents of a different race, parents who face sexual identities and even single parents.

The world isn’t as dangerous as we assume it to be

Still too worried about applying free-range parenting to your own parenting philosophy? Isaiah Jackson, a behavioural specialist from the US, has some wise words that provides another perspective:

“Feeling as though the world is generally unsafe limits one’s capacity for creativity and growth, as safety forms the basis of healthy human development.”

In essence, free-range parenting also aims to teach kids that the world the opposite of what we assume. The world isn’t that dangerous – it’s safe, most strangers around you won’t have sinister intentions, and that you can still achieve things – even as kid. 

 

Tips to apply free range parenting

Here are some ways that parents can imbue free-range parenting while their kids are still growing up:

  • give space for free-play or unplanned activities. Instead of hurrying from one extracurricular lesson to another, promote free-play among children. For instance, rather than assigning an adult to fix rules for soccer, free-range parents let their kids interact with other children in the neighbourhood, letting them kick balls on their own. 
  • go outdoors into open nature. Instead of dabbling with gadgets and electronics, free-range kids are urged to interact outdoors instead. That way, they can entertain themselves without relying on technology. A good example would be playing in the garden, making a fort, or building a sandcastle. 
  • by teaching kids the necessary skills on doing something alone before they can be given permission to exercise independence. Parents still need to accompany their kids and practice things activities like cycling or walking alone. In addition, you will also still need to explain, and repeat as necessary, the safety measures children must adhere to, and the appropriate response to different emergency situations. That way, they will be ready for the real challenges when doing things alone. 
what is free range parenting

What is free range parenting? It’s not just about letting children free. Free-range parenting also aims to enlighten children on how to manage their independence. | Image source: File photo

Conclusion

Different parenting styles embody varying levels of freedom for kids. Certain parents still feel that children acting out alone can lead to dire consequences. Some, on the other hand, feel that too much guidance can hinder a child’s independence.

But remember, parents. Free-range parenting isn’t just about letting kids roam the outdoors, nor is it about being permissive or uninvolved.

Rather, it’s about fixing expectations, role-modeling so kids can act appropriately. Doing so eventually gives children responsibility for themselves as per the criteria taught.

In addition, it lets them experience the results of their behaviour on their own – given that it’s safe, of course.  In time, this form of parenting will ensure that free-range kids can acquire the skills they should have to grow up into accountable adults.

Parents, we hope that this article answers your questions, especially “what is free range parenting?” Read on more about parenting styles in our other articles below:

Permissive parenting pros and cons

5 mindful parenting tips to strengthen your bond with your child

The difference between an Asian parent and a Western one

References:

HealthlineVerywell family, active kids

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