Free-range parenting is a parenting style in which caregivers give children more independence and less supervision, with the goal of allowing them to face some natural consequences and build confidence. However, like any parenting style, there are pros and cons to this approach. While it can prove beneficial for some, this parenting style may result in legal consequences, if neglect is suspected.
What Is Free-Range Parenting?
Free-range parenting is a term that describes a parenting method that encourages individuality and independence in children. The parenting style was first introduced by Lenore Skenazy in her New York Sun article titled, Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone. In her piece, Skenazy described how she left her 9-year-old son–who had been begging for the chance to commute home on his own–at Bloomingdale’s in New York City with a subway map, MetroCard, $20, and some quarters to make a phone call if needed.1 She reports that her son arrived home beaming and proud. However, the article sparked debate about what constitutes independence instead of neglect.
Skenazy has since started the free range parenting movement because, “children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage”.2 Rather than seeing the world as an inevitably dangerous place, followers of this parenting method believe that children are less fragile and more capable than what we may have been told, and that they become happier and more confident when given the chance to handle challenges and consequences on their own.3
Free Range Parenting vs Neglect
Free-range parenting involves more autonomy and unsupervised time for children. But, this can result in legal action against parents for neglect depending on the state. What constitutes “neglect” varies, because laws regarding a parent’s attention to their children vary from state to state. These factors include the legal age for staying home or being left in the car alone, and for walking to school or other locations alone. It is important to know the laws in your area, as well as what is best and safest for your child and situation.
Key Characteristics of Free-Range Parenting
A key characteristic of free-range parenting is giving your child unsupervised time. This is reminiscent of an earlier era, when kids would ride bikes around the neighborhood alone without cell phones.2 As a part of free-range parenting, parents are encouraged to let go of constant worry, ignore so-called experts, and reduce consumption of sensational news stories.4
Key elements of free-range parenting include:
- Unsupervised time for children: Children have time to be on their own without adults, whether walking to school or playing outside.
- Allowing children to explore their environment openly: Children have opportunities to explore and be creative without a parent rushing to supervise their every move.
- Teach children essential life skills: Free-range parenting still promotes safety, like educating children on how to ride the subway, or using bike helmets and life jackets. The goal is to help children learn to be safe on their own, rather than controlling everything for them.
- Encourage a sense of independence in children: Free-range parenting aims to raise competent, independent adults by giving them more responsibilities as children.
- Unscheduled time to play: Many children engage in so many scheduled activities that there is no time to be alone or unstructured. Thus, unscheduled playtime is when independent thought can flourish.
- Playing outside: Rising child obesity numbers is one of many reasons why children need more time to play outside in nature and be active.2
- Letting children make some of the decisions: If a child has to ask a parent for every single thing, they may become too dependent on the parent’s decision-making.2
- Allowing children to make mistakes: Learning through failure can only happen if children are allowed the freedom to make their own mistakes.2
Free Range Parenting Pros & Cons
As any caregiver knows, anxiety is a common part of parenting. When you start to catastrophize, and the worst stories on the news are adding fuel to the fire, caregivers can end up in a paralyzed state of parental anxiety. On the other side of the spectrum, when caregivers let go completely and ignore potential dangers to children, they can put their child in harm’s way–even to the extent of neglect. Parenting is often about finding a middle ground between styles and philosophies that best suits your children and your family.
According to Skenazy, free-range parenting is about separating the “real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell.”2 There are both pros and cons to consider before practicing this style. The potential pros of free-range parenting center on increased independence and confidence for your child.
Possible benefits of free-range parenting include:
- Encourages problem solving skills: When you are always jumping in to solve your child’s problems for them, you take away opportunities for them to build mastery in facing and solving problems on their own.
- Builds confidence: Having opportunities to navigate the world without a parent at every step gives children a chance to gain confidence in their own abilities.
- Encourages individuality: When a child’s life is over-controlled, they do not have room to express their unique point of view. Giving them some space to make choices and think freely encourages them to develop into the unique people they are.
- Promotes mutual trust: By letting your child take on some challenges alone, you are sending a message that you trust their abilities to handle obstacles. In turn, this may result in your child having more trust in themselves and in you as a parent.
- Less anxiety: When children learn the skills needed to stay safe, they may be less anxious overall and less fearful about the world being an untrustworthy place. Still, on the flip side of that, some anxiety about the world and its dangers is necessary to keep children out of harm’s way.
Cons of Free-Range Parenting
The potential drawbacks to free-range parenting center mainly around increased risk of harm to children without supervision and possible government involvement.
Possible drawbacks of free-range parenting include:
- Increased risk of harm without supervision: More unsupervised time may lead to more instances of a child getting hurt or lost. While free-range parents hope that children will learn from these mistakes, the valid increased risk of harm is hard for many to face.
- Government involvement: There have been instances of parents being accused of neglect when letting their children walk home or do other activities unsupervised. Knowing the laws in your state is important.
- Judgment from others: Skenazy herself was called “America’s Worst Mom” for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway, and plenty of parents who let their children do things unsupervised face similar judgment from others.
Free-Range Parenting vs. Other Parenting Styles
Free-range parenting differs from other parenting styles, including authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved in many ways. While some characteristics may be evident throughout other methods, free-range parenting’s characteristics can lead to different outcomes for both children and their parents.
Free Range Parenting vs Authoritative Parenting
Authoritative parents are nurturing and responsive, but set and uphold firm limits. Their children tend to be happy and well-adjusted.4 Free-range parenting focuses on giving children unsupervised time, which an authoritative parent may not necessarily agree with. For example, an authoritative parent would listen to a child who asked to take the subway home alone and validate their desire for independence, but the parent may not necessarily let the child do so if limits had been set against such. This parent might explain why and potentially suggest an alternative experience.
Free Range Parenting vs Authoritarian Parenting
Authoritarian parenting is a strict parenting style characterized by strong demands and low responsiveness. Children typically have low self-esteem and high anxiety.6 These parents are not likely to consider a child’s point of view, and frequently have strict rules and harsh punishments.6 They are sometimes labeled as helicopter parents because of their highly-controlled and over-monitored style of parenting. These parents often do things for their children because it is faster, and it simplifies their own lives as parents. Authoritarian parenting differs from a free-range approach, which focuses more on giving the child an autonomous experience, focusing less on a parent’s predetermined standards.
Free Range Parenting vs Permissive Parenting
In permissive parenting styles, parents are kind, but take a hands-off approach and do not set firm limits. Children of permissive parents often struggle with impulsivity, aggression, or rebelliousness.5 On the other hand, free-range parenting is about giving children more autonomy–this does not mean that there are no limits or rules in place, but that the parent has likely done research about any true dangers that could be present, and has specific learning goals for giving their child more liberties.
Free Range Parenting vs Uninvolved Parenting
In uninvolved parenting, parents are unavailable and often rejective. Children are likely to have low self-esteem and may seek inappropriate role models to fill in for their absent parents.5 However, in free-range parenting, parents are still involved in teaching safety precautions, life skills, and listening to their children. They balance this with giving children unsupervised time.
Is Free-Range Parenting Right for My Family?
Free-range parenting might be implemented in healthy ways, but is not the best choice for every family. Factors to take into account are the laws in your state, the needs of your particular child, and your reasons for wanting to implement aspects of this parenting style. For instance, if you are looking for a way to help your child grow up faster so that your job as a caregiver is simpler, you may be ignoring key developmental needs of your child, valid dangers in the world, or your child’s specific personality traits.
If you decide that certain elements of this parenting style are safe and a good fit for your children, make sure to orient your children to this approach before implementing it. Don’t just leave them alone without explaining to them how, why, and what you are doing and making sure they are comfortable and that the situation is legal and safe.
Caregiving is not the same for everyone, and families should find tactics that are suitable for their own needs. Rather than trying to fit your family perfectly into one parenting style, it may work best for you to find a middle ground, adopting elements from various parenting styles. Caregivers are faced with hundreds of choices each day about how to raise children, and the unique needs of your child and specific situation should always be considered first. If you need support with the challenges of parenting, therapy–especially with a therapist who works specifically with parents–can be a great resource.