Free-Range Parenting: The Alternative To Helicopter Parenting, Explained

Free-Range Parenting
Free-range parenting is not so much a movement but a style of raising children that is about "fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger." Photo courtesy of shutterstock

Is it a case of neglect when parents allow young children to walk alone? Last Tuesday, authorities answered "no" to that question, at least as it concerned Danielle and Alexander Meitiv. In December, the Meitivs had permitted their children, a boy aged 10 and a girl aged 6, to walk home from a playground about a mile from their house in Silver Spring, Md. After receiving a report, police picked up the brother and sister, and Child Protective Services soon began an investigation.

Though cleared of child neglect charges in this instance, the Meitivs remain under investigation for a similar episode occurring last month, as reported in The Washington Post. With the media still focused on this case, free-range parenting has become part of a national discussion about what constitutes neglect. Those in favor of a less fear-based parenting style suggest it’s time we look at the question from another angle: Is too much parental supervision detrimental to children’s health?  

The "World’s Worst Mom," for one, has definite opinions about this.

Speaking with Lenore Skenazy, you immediately recognize her intelligence, her good sense, yet you also find yourself laughing. Skenazy is, above all else, a hoot. How can this woman, you might ask yourself, be the "Worst Mom?"

In 2008, she did what some (some) parents believe is the unimaginable: she let her then 9-year-old son ride the subway home by himself — a brief adventure he’d been begging Skenazy and her husband to allow him to do. Strategically, she decided her son’s brief journey would begin at the Bloomingdale’s subway station, which is not only on her local line but continuously crowded with shoppers. She’d also given him a map, a MetroCard, and extra money.

“He got home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence,” she wrote, describing the moment. “I wrote a little column about his adventure and two days later I was on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC, and Fox News defending myself as NOT 'America’s Worst Mom.'"

That same weekend she launched her blog to explain her nurturing philosophy.

“I don’t think of free-range as a parenting movement,” she explains. Instead, it is a different way of looking at the culture. It is about “fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger,” she says. To defend this stance, she argues four main points.

Availability Heuristic

“First and foremost” she says, it is the media that constantly encourages the idea of an unsafe world. At almost any time of day, you can stumble upon either a news report — or a Law and Order episode — showing a child being abused or kidnapped.

Such terrible things rarely happen, as various reports indicate. Still we are inclined to believe they happen more than they do as a result of a mental shortcut known in psychology as an availability heuristic. What this means is we base our judgements on the information and examples that most immediately spring to mind. As Skenazy explains it, “our minds work like Google.”

For instance, when you ask yourself, Is my kid safe standing alone at a bus stop? The top results, so to speak, that come to mind will be sensational — the terrifying news report you heard years ago of some hapless child standing alone at a bus stop in Pittsburgh or Bismarck or Santa Fe being lured away by some creep. With the media devoting a significant amount of time and attention to crime, Skenazy believes we too readily remember the far-fetched (and far away) scenarios that mostly never happen.

“The idea that it is prudent to consult the worst case scenario before making a decision is false even though it feels like you’re being smart and courageous,” says Skenazy.

Lawyers and Experts

Next, Skenazy blasts our “litigious society,” which encourages us to “see everything through a lens of risk.” As she sees it, if you look at anything to see if it’s dangerous, it will look dangerous. and you will always see the one in a million bad things that might happen.

Just as to a hammer, everything is a nail, she says in a litigious society, everything’s a lawsuit and “nothing is safe enough in a litigious society.” So despite the fact that children need exercise and want to learn their neighborhoods, parents keep them trapped indoors, protected and safe from the harms and risks of the world.

Thirdly, Skenazy says the “expert culture” we live in "means there’s always somebody (and generally they’re on the cover of Parent Magazine) making you feel like you’ve done something very very wrong.” After all, the experts would not have a job, she says, if they didn’t make you think you’re doing something wrong so they can tell you how to do it right.

Last but not least, Skenazy directs her ire at the marketplace, which naturally exists to make money but too often relies on spreading fear to get that job done.

“If you can make a parent afraid that their child will suffer grievous injury or fall behind their peers, you can get mucho money from them,” she says before giving the example of Owlet, which she describes as a “sock-like device with some kind of sensor in it that you put on your baby’s foot.”  The sensor sends a readout, which includes your baby's blood oxygen level, to your smartphone.

Noting the similarity to monitoring performed in neonatal intensive care units, Skenazy says, “Asleep at home, in a crib, in your house. The safest place your baby could be, even that has been dangerized.”

Though Skenazy speaks passionately, others disagree just as vociferously.

Protecting Children

"One in four girls will be sexually assaulted by the time she reaches 18.  One in five boys will be," writes Alicia Bayer in her article for the Examiner, favoring a more protective nurturing style. "Our environment is full of very real toxins that cause very real damage... We are witnessing an explosion of illnesses and behavior problems that are quite possibly linked to these poisons." Though she admits to finding free-range parenting appealing, Bayer believes in practicing caution and sheltering, to a certain extent, her vulnerable children.

As a new mother, Skenazy felt much the same.

“I had a baby monitor and I dutifully put it in the room — we were living in a one bedroom apartment at the time — and so we would hear our baby crying in stereo,” she told Medical Daily. Once, riding in a car with her mother-in-law, Skenazy didn't give her crying baby a bottle because she had read somewhere about the possibility of choking during a car crash. Though the woman who successfully raised her husband sat beside her saying, "Give him the bottle," a fearful Skenazy listened instead to the voice of some remote "expert" whose book she had read.

The "worst mom," in other words, was once a helicopter mom.

Because Skenazy herself traveled the road from fear-based parenting to free-range parenting, she understands the misgivings of many mothers and fathers who may want to give their children greater freedom — the freedom they enjoyed — but fear doing so. In fact, she now gives advice (like an expert?) to parents too terrified to let their kids go. She describes herself as "a safety geek," but, as she writes on her blog, “I also believe our kids do not need a security detail every time they leave the house.” Children are safer than we think, she maintains, and also more competent.

Free-range parenting, then, is not about following a set of guidelines or banishing all safety concerns. Mostly, Skenazy says, it is an attempt to counter a culture that’s “trying to shove fear down our throats.”  Dramatic words, but for many parents, including, most likely, the Meitivs who await another decision from Child Protective Services, they ring true.

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