Free-range parenting? Tough choices for the modern parent

Can our desire to protect our children wind up stifling their growth?


Oh, the sweet memories and moments. Riding bikes on the street until the street lights came on. Walking to and from school, stopping at a nearby park with a best friend to play on the swings, or explore the beaver dams. Exploring our neighbourhood and its backyard trails, playing on the “big rock” and picking dandelions.

I was probably eight, nine, maybe even 10 years old, when I would ride my bike through our neighbourhood streets. I was aware of road safety, I knew my hand signals and was cognizant of vehicles driving by. And I loved—yes, loved—exploring my neighbourhood by myself.

Were my parents nervous or worried about me? Did they wonder when I might be home? Would I be safe? Would I be ok? Probably, yes. But I was taught safety and was trusted to use my knowledge to build my skills. Did any neighbours call my parents to complain, or call police or social workers, concerned about my safety?


Tough choices

Why not?

Perhaps because, when I was growing up, these simple childhood scenes were the norm — teaching children about the world and giving them the opportunity to experience it, enabling them with the skills to experience the world safely, with trust and respect.

Do we still do this?

I am mother to a toddler. I have looked after children as a private child care giver for much of my adult life. I question endlessly the choices I make in regards to my children, and in regards to other people’s children. Am I too watchful? Am I too cautious? If I give them my hand to help them and keep them safe—if I help them climb that ladder to the top of the slide—am I really helping them, or am I holding them back?

An example is a wonderfully funny, adventurous, risk-taking child that I once had care of. He had an amazing awareness of his physicality and of his body, but as a toddler was especially prone to taking risks, climbing up ladders to the top of a playground slide that was taller than I am. I stood back, letting that tiny person climb up by himself, realizing that his need to be independent was greater and more important than my desire to help him.

I watched, standing back just enough so that I was in easy reach if he should stumble, and with my heart racing I let him climb high. He would be so happy, and so confident in his skills at reaching the top. My concern was that if I helped—if I talked about how ‘risky’ it was to climb, or how he might fall—this might influence his adventures. I wanted to keep him safe while encouraging his skills, confidence, and adventurous spirit. It’s this balance that is incredibly difficult to achieve when caring for children.

I’d like to think we all do this. And yet, we don’t let our children ride their bikes in our neighbourhoods, or walk to the corner store. They may be Internet-and-cell-phone savvy, but are they familiar with the world at large? Are they part of our communities? Do they have these carefree experiences? How are we policing our children—and other people’s children—in our desire to keep them safe?

Free-range parenting

Recent cases in the media have brought to light the issue of “free-range parenting” — raising children with a free hand, allowing them to experience the world at large. The most recent case is a couple in Maryland who allowed their two children, aged 10 and six, to walk home together from a nearby park — approximately a mile from their home. The route was a familiar one to the children, and the parents believed the benefits of allowing them freedom to walk this route solo outweighed the risks. The children, however, were remanded into child protective services and the parents cited as neglectful.

Now, I can’t say that in a similar situation I would be comfortable with this. My own personal fears around road safety are such that I wouldn’t be comfortable with a six-year-old child walking to or from a park on their own. That being said, I respect wholly the right of the parents to make this decision in regards to their children.

Parenting is no easy task.

 How can I know that when I drive my child to a park, as opposed to letting them walk, they’ll be safer in the car instead of on the sidewalk?

We are charged each day with making numerous decisions about how to raise our children, with no guarantees as to any of the consequences. We each do our best. But policing other people’s children without any background knowledge about their situation is something that brings our children into a sort of police state — one that risks our children’s own freedom for the sake of security.

How can one say what is safe? Certainly, there are some basics — abuse and violence. The direct safety of the child. But how can I know that when I drive my child to a park, as opposed to letting them walk, they’ll be safer in the car instead of on the sidewalk? Should I let them climb the monkey bars, or might they fall and break a bone? Should I not let them eat a specific food for fear they might choke? Should I not allow them to play with a group of children for fear of being bullied?

The world is full of dangers and risks, and to bar our children from every experience would be detrimental. What child doesn’t want fresh air, play, exercise? What child doesn’t want their brain stimulated? What child doesn’t want to be independent? To learn new skills? How can we help them to do these things if they are constantly monitored and watched?

I don’t know that I would call myself a free-range parent, but I certainly want my child to have every experience possible. I want him to be stimulated and to grow, and I want him to grow up to be independent and respectful. I won’t be sending him into the woods by himself to chop firewood any time in the near future, but small tasks and small freedoms, as warranted by his age and development, will hopefully lead to big things in the future.

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