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Free-Range Parenting

It’s a new, hands-off approach to raising kids. Should you give it a try?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Would you let your 9-year-old son ride the New York City Subway system alone? Columnist Lenore Skenazy did, and then she wrote about the experience in the New York Sun. What followed was a storm of media attention and a mix of accolades and accusations from parents everywhere. A new movement also grew from Skenazy’s bold move: It’s called free-range parenting.

Almost as a backlash to the overbearing, over-scheduling “helicopter” parent, free-range parenting is based on the notion “that we can give our children the same kind of freedom we had [as kids] without going nuts with worry,” Skenazy says. “When you let children out, all the good things happen - the self-confidence, happiness, and self-sufficiency that come from letting our kids do some things on their own,” she says.

Sounds great, but even non “hovering” moms wouldn’t dream of doing what Skenazy did.

Liz Jereski, a mother of two living in Los Angeles, says simple requests from her 5-year-old son bring into question how much autonomy she can safely allow him. Recently, Jereski’s son wanted to race her downstairs in their apartment building. “I would take the elevator and he would take the stairs,” she says of the game her son proposed. “And I’ll think it’s fine, but then I think, no it’s not fine, because he’ll be out of my sight and something could happen. There’s a little voice telling you, ‘You know better and you shouldn’t do that.’”  

There was a time when letting young children walk to school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, if you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and earlier, of course), you probably remember going out to play after school and being expected to return home only when the street lights turned on. But as more families had both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary. What resulted was a shift in our culture that requires kids to be under constant adult surveillance.

“Kids today in all settings are very scheduled and very supervised,” says Richard Gallagher, PhD, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center. “You rarely find kids today engaging in pick-up softball games or other kinds of activities where they plan things and work it out themselves.”

Gallagher says the heavy emphasis on scheduling and supervision has caused children to lose the ability to entertain themselves without TV, computers, or video games.

Aside from our work schedules, fear often dictates what we will and won’t allow our children to do. Most of us perceive these to be dangerous times, with the threat of child abduction, abuse, or worse on the rise. It would be flat-out unsafe, bordering on criminally negligent, is a common refrain, to allow our children the same freedoms we had to roam our neighborhoods unsupervised. But Skenazy learned while researching her book, Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, that’s just not so.

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