Trending: Free-Range Parenting

Jun 25, 2015

There was a time when letting young children walk to and from school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, many parents may remember growing up in a time where it was customary to return home when the street lights switched on. However, as more families experienced both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary.

Today, a new parenting trend referred to as “Free-Range Parenting” is raising red flags for parents across the country. Proponents and opponents argue about where the line between nurture and neglect should be drawn.

Columnist and mom, Lenore Skenazy, created a firestorm in the media when she wrote an article in The New York Sun about letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. Amidst the mix of praise and accusation from parents everywhere that transpired from Skenazy’s bold account, a new parenting movement formed.

In a recent interview with WebMD, Skenazy clarified her parenting style and gave the full story behind what it really entails.

Opposite of the “helicopter” parent, Skenazy explained that 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.” She added, “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.”

Revisiting her New York Sun article, titled, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone,” Skenazy explained her son had been begging for her to leave him somewhere and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. Giving in to her son’s pleas, Skenazy left him at the subway with only a subway map, MetroCard, $20 bill and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

“No, I did not give him a cell phone. I didn't want him to lose it. And no, I didn't trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn't do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, ‘Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I'll abduct this adorable child instead,’" she said.

While her son made it home, “ecstatic with independence,” Skenazy soon faced critics, full of questions like, "How would you have felt if he didn't come home?" In response, Skenazy said, “Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It's not. It's debilitating — for us and for them.”

Though she admitted she would have been devastated if her son had not returned home from that subway venture, Skenazy said it would still not prove that no mom should ever let her child ride the subway alone. “It would just be one more awful but extremely rare example of random violence, the kind that hyper parents cite as proof that every day in every way our children are more and more vulnerable.”

Outraged that “parents are always the first ones blamed” when a child faces an unforeseen tragic ending, Skenazy said being overbearing is no safer than being neglectful. “The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't. Meantime, my son wants his next trip to be from Queens. In my day, I doubt that would have struck anyone as particularly brave. Now it seems like hitchhiking through Yemen.”

The same weekend her piece in the New York Sun dropped, Skenazy created a blog, entitled “Free-Range Kids,” with hopes of defending and better explaining her philosophy. She even has her own book called “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” And Skenazy has no intentions of changing her views on parenting, even offering some advice to her critics: “Instead of imagining the worst, send your kids out to do something you did at their age. You can even have them wait in the car a few minutes. Reality will break through the terror. And maybe we’ll stop criminalizing the parents who love their kids and also let them go.”

In reality, kidnapping and other crimes against children are escalating. As a matter of fact, statistics say an average of 2,185 children under the age of 18 are reported missing each day. That means that more than 797,500 children go missing annually. reported that while some of those cases are runaways, each year, there are about 3,000 to 5,000 non-family abductions reported to police, most of which are short-term, sexually-motivated cases. And about 200 to 300 of these cases, or six percent, make up the most serious cases where the child was murdered, ransomed or taken with the intent to keep.

While the statistics don’t lie, Richard Gallagher, PhD, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center, said the bottom line is that any extreme with regard to parenting is inappropriate. “The key to promoting independence in a child is all about making sure that the activities they engage in on their own are appropriate, given their age and skill level.”

Lesa Semaya, a New York City mother of three, who also engaged in the WebMD interview on free-range parenting, agreed with Gallagher and even saw Skenazy’s angle to this approach. But, that does not mean you’ll catch her sending her 10-year-old son to ride the subway alone. “I think it is one thing to give your kid freedom. It’s another to let him take the subway. There are crazy people in this world,” Semaya said. “It’s not that I don’t trust my kids, but I don’t trust everyone else.”

For parents debating the right approach on how to introduce freedom to their young children, Gallagher suggests they ask themselves the following questions before allowing their children to venture off on their own:

Does my child have the disposition to handle the activity?

Can he or she follow rules?

Does my child know what to do in case there is a problem?

Does my child know from whom it is safe to ask for help?

Does my child have a sense of how to reach out to parents, use a phone and distinguish between police officers and other people?

In conclusion, Gallagher added that parenting is really a question of balance; balancing the amount of supervision kids have and giving them some freedom to try new things. “Let them face some consequences of their own actions that won’t harm them, but will teach them some lessons.”

Is free-range parenting neglect or nurture? We’d like to know what you think. Post your comments to our Facebook page.

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