Are You a Free Range Parent ?

I never thought I’d use a new-age term for happy chickens to address a parenting-related issue, but I suppose over-cautious parents are as oppressive to children as cages are to chickens.

The organization known as Free Range Kids is “fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”

I’m right there with them.

When I was a kid, free-range parenting was called… parenting. My folks came to about half of my little league games. I rode my bike to the park a couple of miles from home, and I rode it back as the sun was setting. My mom didn’t drive in front of me to light the way. My dad didn’t pick me up from practice on his way home from work. The whole event was a solo effort, and I was happy to be able to accomplish it on a regular basis.  I was nine years old.

When my wife, JoAnn, and I were raising our toddlers, my mother told JoAnn that it had been hard for her to let me, as a second-grader, walk the two blocks to school.  She explained, in that loving Mother-in-Law kind of way, that she made a conscious decision to overcome her own feelings because she knew that the lesson of independence was a valuable one – for both of us!

People say “but the world has changed.” That’s true. Here are some facts:

  • “Crime is back to the level it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon” – Christian Science Monitor.
  • “Crime is back to the level it was before color television.” – The Week Magazine.
  • “2014 violent crime rate down another 4.4%” – USA Today.

So why do we seem so focused on the negative these days? We are soaked in so much bad news that some of us believe it’s unsafe to allow our children to venture out into the world without immediate and constant supervision. What a drag…for everybody!

As parents, it’s our long-term mission to teach our children how to navigate the world without us. In the short term we need to allow them various learning experiences that can both teach them problem-solving methods and build their confidence. This can’t happen when we’re always paving their way. Life involves interacting with the world, and, in most cases, the world isn’t in our backyards, or under our ever-watchful eyes. So, what are the basic skills your child should have in order to be granted their independence?

From a common sense point of view I think all children should know the following:

  • Their name, address, and phone number.
  • YOUR cell phone number
  • Rules regarding communication with strangers
  • To call the police or ask a kind stranger for help if they feel lost or afraid.

I would prefer to teach my child that world is not a terrible place. At the same time, I’d like my child to be aware of his/her surroundings and believe in his or her ability to navigate safely. I can do this by observing things when I’m with my children. I can say things like “I wonder what that guy is doing over there.” Statements like that encourage children to be aware of the people around them, even they’re watching someone feed a parking meter or paint a sign.

It is sometimes difficult for parents to let go, but it is inevitable that our children will grow up, so the sooner we can teach them how to handle responsibility the better it will be for all of us. I like to avoid complicating my life. I have learned that the more I can trust my children, the easier it makes my days. By allowing our children to roam the neighborhood, learn about their surroundings, and achieve a sense of independence, we are teaching them a bigger lesson about themselves.

In my book I wrote, “It’s easier to lighten up than to tighten up.” This applies to giving our children responsibility. Start firm. Allow them to play in the yard. As they get older, allow them to go to a friend’s house, on foot perhaps. When they ride their bikes, give them a perimeter I was allowed to go three blocks in any direction. When they want to go farther, you can allow it based on their behavior.

No one says that Free Range Parenting means dropping your child at the park and making them fight their way home. Like all everything in parenting, it’s a process that begins with baby steps and ends with your child walking a path that he or she will blaze for him or herself.

If the free-range lifestyle makes better chickens… imagine what it can do for our children!

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  1. Richard, your articles just keep getting better. You are just so on point. There is a case going on in Maryland about this very thing. Some parents let their children walk to the playground by themselves and is being blamed for child neglect.