How to Become a Caring Yet “Free Range” Parent
A bit of a firestorm was ignited four years ago, when parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv allowed their two children (ages 6 and 10) to play in a nearby park without their parents watching. A by-stander called 911, and police grabbed the kids and returned them to their home. Alexander and Danielle were later released after questioning about child neglect. Later, the kids were allowed to play at another park (where they had played dozens of times), and they didn’t come home at the designated time. Why? They’d been detained by police. Soon after they were visited and interrogated by Child Protection Services to ensure they were fit parents. Eventually, CPS determined they were a decent mom and dad.
All of this caused Danielle to run for local office to change the laws in their Maryland town. In her campaign messages, she described herself as a “free range mom.” Do you remember this term? It became popular some years ago when Lenore Skenazy let her son ride the New York subway without her supervision. She got lots of flack from other parents, but she contends allowing kids to be unsupervised at times will help them become more effective adults.
Now, some lawmakers have joined the chorus.
Last month, Utah became the first state to pass legislation for “free range parenting.” It changes the state’s definition of neglect to allow children of “sufficient age and maturity” to engage in independent activities like walking to and from school. The bills’ sponsor, State Senator Lincoln Fillmore, said he hopes the law will enable kids to grow up “learning to take responsibility for themselves.”
So, why is this such a big deal?
Why Are We Not Free Range Parents Today?
When I talk to parents, almost all of them acknowledge they got to do lots of “free range” things when they were children, such as walk to school, go skateboarding in a park and play with friends in another neighborhood. Those same parents, however, also admit those are things they don’t let their kids do today.
Why is this?
In a word, the answer is fear. Adults tend to have a narrative of fear in their minds about the safety of kids today. Lenore Skenazy says, “We’re being hypocrites because we’re coming to the erroneous conclusion that any time a child is unsupervised they’re automatically in danger and it’s not true.”
“Parents’ perception of how dangerous the world is has changed over the years,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a professor of psychology at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“Parental anxiety,” Saltz says, “is inflamed by a global, always-on news cycle, as well as increased connectivity on social media platforms, which recycles ‘over and over again’ kidnappings, rape and other threatening incidents.” In fact, while violent crime has dropped sharply in the U.S. over the past 25 years, Americans generally perceive crime rates are continuing to climb, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center. And perception is reality, at least for many parents today.
On top of this, I believe parenting has gone from a “community” thing where we all look out for each other’s kids to a competition. We are all trying to be the best mom, and we often judge others for their lack of engagement or provision.
Steps We Can Take to Be Both Engaged Yet Empowering
1. Ask someone to hold you accountable to resist the “fear narrative.”
We all do better when we know someone is going to ask us about the commitments we’ve made. Ask a respected, trusted friend to weekly ask you if you’re rejecting the “fear narrative” our culture feeds us. Believe the best.
2. Take “baby steps” forward to allow your kids to increase their level of risk.
If your kids are young, they obviously need to be watched and directed more closely than when they reach middle school. As they mature, they need more autonomy and responsibility. Let them take slightly bigger risks each month.
3. Invite a community of moms and dads to create a village to watch the kids.
I believe it truly does “take a village” to raise good kids. Reject the competitive parenting model we see so often and create a community of parents in your neighborhood or town who will help keep watch over your kids’ play time.
4. Talk about “trust” with your children and teach them to build it over time.
From the beginning, my wife and I talked to our kids about trust. They got increasing levels of freedom as they proved they could be trusted with it. Let them earn the right to be a “free range kid” by their mature conduct.
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