‘Free Range Parenting’ is a Privilege Not Everyone Has

Utah made headlines this year by becoming the first state to explicitly legalize "free range parenting." Utah made headlines this year by becoming the first state to explicitly legalize “free range parenting,” a philosophy that believes children should be given freedom to navigate the world on their own without parental supervision.

Like many people in my generation, I have fond memories of heading out on a summer day right after breakfast and having grand adventures with other kids, no adults allowed, until we all dragged ourselves home at dusk, exhausted and red-cheeked and a healthy sort of dirty.

It was actually the iconic Dr. Spock who first introduced the concept of free range parenting — that is, raising children with a spirit of independence and little adult supervision — in 1946.

For a long time, that sense of independence early on seemed to be the parenting norm. Or at least it was from my own perspective and experiences. But with a world increasingly at our fingertips and 24-hour news cycles bringing the worst of humanity into our living rooms in real time, we’ve all become a little more wary, perhaps keeping our children on shorter and tighter leases.

Related: Utah Becomes 1st State to Legalize ‘Free Range Parenting’

I like the idea of free range parenting. I agree that children need space to figure out what they are capable of, to have experiences that belong only to them, and that children are far more capable than we often think. I also agree that the world is not scarier or inherently more dangerous than it used to be, and that it’s mostly our perspective that makes it seem that way.

I’ve even been personally affected by the paranoia surrounding children left alone, in a small way when I lived in an apartment complex that didn’t allow kids to play unsupervised at all, not even outside of their own front doors. I have a friend who had the police called on her because her son was playing in the street alone… at the end of his own driveway.

And yet, free range parenting remains a philosophy I can’t quite get behind. I like it in theory, but like many theories, it doesn’t quite work in reality because free range parenting’s biggest issue is that allowing a child to roam free is a privilege that many parents do not have.

Giving kids more responsibilities and leaving them unsupervised has been a necessity for poor families for a long time. Having the choice to let your kids walk home alone from school or letting them cook their own dinners or giving them the option of spending chunks of time unsupervised is a privilege in itself.

For many parents, these things have long been a necessity due to long or unusual work hours, multiple jobs, or single parenthood. Low-income parents, and in particular low-income families of color, are more likely to face arrest and risk having their children removed by child services. (Utah, by the way, is 91.1% white.)

A recent study found that poor mothers are judged more harshly on their parenting, leading to more referrals to child welfare agencies. This is scrutiny that wealthy and middle class white families are less likely to find themselves dealing with.

There are other barriers to free range parenting too. I have a child with special needs, who doesn’t necessarily ping as such right away. To an outside observer, it may look as though I’m hovering and not trusting my child or hampering his confidence in himself, but it is in fact a life-long tightrope walk of encouraging him to be as independent as he can while being aware of his actual abilities to do so.

If you haven’t lived it, it’s difficult to understand just how complicated this balancing act can be. Independence for a special-needs child can look very different but is just as valid.

Related: Should Summer Vacation be Structured, or Wild and Free?

Finally, not all neighborhoods are created equal. It’s easy to give your child the freedom to explore on their own when it means going from one cul-de-sac to the next in a quiet suburban neighborhood, or in a larger town with ample sidewalks, and even in a big city with good public transportation and plenty of other kids who ride the subway to school.

But not so easy when crossing the street means an isolated neighborhood near a rural state highway, or a navigating larger town with crumbling infrastructure and few opportunities, or in a big city congested with cars and an unreliable bus system.

All of these things could make the case for free-range parenting, I suppose. What if the answer is to normalize it, pass more laws in favor of it, taking more steps to ensure that all kids, no matter their color or economic status or disability will be given more freedom and independence? But if the Utah law is anything to go by, these issues are going unaddressed completely, with only arbitrary language that gives the state guidelines using “discretion” over whether or not a child is being neglected or is just “free-range,” discretion that has historically not been applied fairly across the board.

This isn’t to say that free range parenting doesn’t work or can’t, or that we haven’t gone too far in the direction of paranoia and increasing restrictions when it comes to our kids’ safety.

But if free-range parenting is to actually be possible on a large scale for all children, there is still some work to be done.

Photo Credit: Milosz_G / Shutterstock

3 thoughts on “‘Free Range Parenting’ is a Privilege Not Everyone Has”

  1. There needs to be more research on free-range parenting, as you noted it’s kind of a new concept. Hunter-gatherer babies weren’t roaming around unsupervised. Attached parent-child units were the norm until we made childrearing really stressful and forced parents to let the outdoors and back alleys do most of the work for them to give them a break. This is not an attack on you or Mothering, but here’s my little soapbox if someone would like to hear me out:

    I say this as a free-range child who grew up in rural western Washington in a nice neighborhood and went on to study family life/child development in college and I love gentle/natural parenting styles. All of the benefits people gush over with free-range are fabricated. And from a personal standpoint spending very little time with my parents growing up did not make me more responsible, skilled, or physically stronger than my helicoptered peers. It also wasn’t benign or risk-free, I had way too many close calls with people, animals, and having to have kids play nurse when I went into shock and had open wounds on several different occasions. I did so many things that would make my parents jaw drop–and no I’m not talking jumping over creeks or putting pennies on railroad tracks (although I did that too–and yes it was fun but it didn’t form my character). I find it’s the same for a lot of other people who were raised free-range, they shudder to think their parents were so trusting, and they rebel against it. There are definitely benefits to children whose parents gave them responsibilities and didn’t do everything for them, but the anti-helicopter stance and the free-range philosophy are NOT the same. There’s no studies backing up the benefits of borderline neglect. People use studies against helicoptering and then turn it into twisted evidence against attachment parenting, claiming that parents should just stop building relationships or having safety rules. I am also disappointed with the phrase “free-range”, which scares lots of people into thinking that either you turn your child out to fend for themselves or they’ll be just as unhealthy as caged chickens. Royal families are certainly not free-range, they aren’t suffering from all the alleged problems people claim they should have for not adopting free-range philosophy–their children have great manners and academics and health in general–all the things people would wish for their kids.

    As a side note, no I don’t micromanage how my child plays or call CPS whenever I see little kids playing in the street. I love fostering curiosity and building natural playscapes in my backyard, and no I’m not going to pick out college courses or forbid getting a license until 18. I don’t look down on those who do free-range, but I am disappointed that people use nostalgic imagery and supersitition about the benefits it will bring instead of hard facts to support this parenting choice.

  2. And yes, I did read the article. I live in Utah now. My state was also the first to make a law that is supposed to give parents the benefit of the doubt with CPS, but lo and behold a woman in my neighborhood who was falsely accused of abuse had her baby taken away. Not because she did anything wrong, but the judge thought it would be a good idea anyway because she had a disability. I agree that the law needs to be more clear, but even then as was the case with this woman, sometimes the problem is a bad judge or a bad social worker, even though the lawmakers tried to make things right. I am a firm believer in that it’s rare for a child to benefit by being taken away. My child gets plenty of opportunities for play and exploration on his terms–I don’t need to be absent for him to benefit, and I would hate to see the culture flip and suddenly parents that don’t practice free-range are seen as abusive.

  3. My mother read the Dr Spock Baby Book more than the Bible, and we even knew where it was kept. But what he was talking about is a goal, not simply a lack of supervision. Before people start calling some of us “Helicopter Parents” and patting themselves on the back for their radical “aha! moment, let’s remember that all children have different needs (which the author does point out) and that all COMMUNITIES do not have the same strengths / needs, as do all CULTURES. It is traditional for Black families to keep our children close. Not only does this come from traditional African culture, but the penalty for letting our children (usually out of necessity) walk to and from school alone in the South often ended in kidnappings, rapes and lynchings by White teens in pick-up trucks. It will take more than a few generations and books to erase the legacy of that, and of all the other ways that Black parents have felt the horror of having their children taken away from us without warning or provocation.

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