All About Free Range Parenting

When Shannon Hilton was a child, she rode her bike around Woodbine by herself and played outside with friends until it got dark. She was given the freedom to explore the world on her own, along with the knowledge that a warm and loving home awaited her in her southwest Calgary community when the day was done.

“My mom always said, ‘Roots and wings — these are the things to give your kids,’ ” Hilton recalls. Her mother provided a safe haven, but she encouraged Hilton to venture beyond its boundaries. Now a mom herself, raising three children in the southeast neighbourhood of Chaparral, Hilton is trying to give her kids, ages nine, seven and three, a childhood similar to the one she enjoyed.

These days, though, the kind of unsupervised outdoor play many of us took for granted in the 1970s and ’80s has become endangered. It has also earned a rather controversial moniker: “free- range parenting.”

Loosely defined, free-range parenting means letting children direct themselves outside the house, on their own, without parental intervention. Proponents believe it builds independence, fosters creativity in play and encourages children to make decisions on their own — crucial skills that prepare them to, one day, leave the nest. Detractors see practising the free-range philosophy as tantamount to neglect, a sort of “hands-off” parenting style that could put kids in harm’s way.

“Free-range is not free-wheeling,” points out Free-Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy, the American mom who caused a stir, and then started a movement, by letting her son ride the New York City subway by himself at age nine.

“To me, free-range is very responsible parenting because you’re teaching a child to have the street smarts and wherewithal to handle situations on their own.”

Helicopter parenting

Free-range parenting is often described as the antidote to “helicopter parenting,” the relatively new phenomenon that sees parents hover over and “baby” a child, ready to swoop to the rescue if a scraped knee or the slightest disappointment should threaten. As the first generation of coddled kids enters university and the work force, the ill effects of this parenting style are coming to light. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, titled “Heli-copter Parents and Landing Pad Kids: Intense Parental Support of Grown Children,” assesses the negative impacts of such intense “helicoptering.” The gist: children who aren’t allowed to take risks or do things by themselves grow into adults who still rely on Mommy and Daddy.

“I want to teach my kids independence,” says Hilton, a self-declared free-ranger. “I don’t want to label myself, but I get strange looks from other moms with the things I let my children do.”

Her daughters, who are in grades 3 and 1, walk to school alone. The girls and their three-year-old brother jump on an “old-school” trampoline (no net, exposed springs) at the family’s Sylvan Lake cabin. And all three play outside in their yard, unsupervised, in a city of more than 1 million people.

“My kids love it. It’s their normal. We don’t have to be out there pointing out the dangers to them; they can figure it out,” Hilton says.

If that sounds radical, you should stop reading right now and put on a helmet before some common sense hits you over the head. But, if it sounds liberating, if you want your kids to have the freedom you experienced (and regain your sanity in the process), it is possible to swim against the tide of overprotectiveness threatening to drown childhood fun. You can go back to 1970s parenting, without the key parties and other dangerous lifestyle practices, such as riding in cars without a seatbelt or biking with an exposed noggin. Hilton is proof it can happen in Calgary.

Even so, according to Safe Routes to School, an American partnership that advocates safe ways for kids to get to and from school on their own, only 13 per cent of children walk to school (down from 50 per cent in 1969). The Children & Nature Network, which is a Santa Fe, N.M.-based movement to connect children, families and communities to nature, cites that, in a typical week, only six per cent of kids ages nine to 13 play outside on their own.

“It’s not like all these [non-free-range] parents have gone crazy,” says Skenazy. “If 94 per cent aren’t letting their kids go outside, it’s a societal problem.” So, if “free-range” is a movement, it’s a long way off from becoming a groundswell.

Fear of free-range

Some people just aren’t ready for the free-range message. Fear is really powerful,” Skenazy says, adding many parents live in worry that any time their kids are not within sight they might get hurt, or worse.

The reality is the world is actually a safer place than it was 30 years ago. Skenazy says that, since the 1990s, child abductions have gone down and the number of children hit by cars has decreased. But parents are more terrified than ever, partly because of the 24-hour, bad news-saturated media environment we live in. Being inundated with Amber Alerts every time a teenager runs off with her boyfriend makes it harder to loosen the apron strings.

A scarier prospect, says Calgary parenting expert Julie Freedman Smith, is letting kids grow up paralyzed by parental fears and not able to cope on their own.

“Fear is valuable — it can save our lives,” says the Parenting Power principal. The problems begin when we let irrational fears rule our lives.

In her practice, Freedman Smith has worked with overprotective families. Instead of teaching their kids tools for independence, hovering parents stifle self-reliance in order to minimize perceived risks. Their children aren’t allowed to walk home alone from school or play hockey at the rink with their friends, for example. Parents justify this by saying it keeps kids safe from predators or injuries. Freedman Smith says trying to minimize risk in this way only does children a disservice, as there will come a day when parents aren’t there and their kids won’t know how to react.

“Parents have an opportunity — no, an obligation,” says Freedman Smith. “If kids don’t learn how to take risks, they miss out on life.”

Calgary mom Erin Chrusch phrases that sentiment in a slightly different way: “Nobody wants their kids to get hurt, but, if you don’t let go of the bike, they’re never going to learn to ride by themselves,” she says.

Her children, at ages five and three, are still too young to be kicked outside to play unsupervised. Still, Chrusch is planting the seeds of self-reliance early. Instead of hovering at the playground, she stands back. Rather than taking over in the kitchen, she lets her five-year-old son put peanut butter on his waffle. She taught him how to watch for traffic and lets him cross the street by himself to play at the neighbour’s house. He has also used a public washroom on his own.

“It’s age-appropriate independence,” says Chrusch.

But what if her son gets peanut butter all over the kitchen? What if a weirdo approaches him in the bathroom?

“There’s always going to be a what-if,” she says.

Empower your children

While you can’t predict which “what-if” scenario your children will encounter without you, you can prepare them to handle a variety of common situations, says parenting speaker and author Judy Arnall, founder of Professional Parenting Canada. Just as you wouldn’t throw your child into the deep end without a life jacket (or, at least, a swimming lesson), neither would you push him out the front door on the first day of school with a casual, “Laters, kiddo!”

Instead, in advance of the big day, you’d walk the route to school with him, discuss crossing busy streets safely and perhaps point out several neighbourhood homes he could go to in an emergency. Then, you could quiz him to gauge his readiness: “What if you’re walking along and a car pulls up and the driver asks you for directions? Offers you candy? Asks you to help him look for his puppy?”

When Arnall’s three eldest children were 10, nine and seven, they begged her to let them take the bus to Southcentre Mall to have lunch in the food court on their own. After laying down the rules and going over the bus route with them, she let them do it, and was blown away by how empowering the experience was for them. “They felt really, really good,” says Arnall, a self-declared attachment parent who is also pro-free-range. Still, she admits it’s difficult to watch them board a bus — or go off to university — without her.

“It’s hard to let go of control,” she says. This is why it’s important for parents to start empowering kids early, through age-appropriate “baby steps”.

And, just because you want to raise independent children doesn’t mean you have to call yourself a free-range parent — it’s about more than choosing one parenting philosophy over another, says Freedman Smith.

“There is a middle ground; we don’t have to swing to either side of this pendulum,” she says. Maybe you’re OK with letting your children go tobogganing on their own, but you won’t let them play hockey because of the hits and high incidence of concussions.

“Make a decision that makes sense for your family. Make a decision that fits with your values.”

A different solution for every family

That’s advice Matt Mosteller has taken to heart. The Calgary dad and his wife are huge advocates for outdoor activities and nature-based play. As a family, they downhill and cross-country ski, hike, canoe and camp with their children, ages 14 and 12. They also let the kids have unsupervised outdoor adventures, a practice that started when Mackenzie and Murphy were little.

“Setting them free in outdoor play happened early,” recalls Mosteller. At ages three and five, they would walk to friends’ houses to play, and, by ages six and eight, they had what Mosteller terms “free roam” on foot or on their bikes around Bragg Creek, so long as they checked in.

Mosteller is quick to point out his kids weren’t “tossed to the wolves.” Instead, he coached them about what to expect and the ways to handle various situations, mainly encounters with wildlife such as bears or mountain lions that were real possibilities in the woods.

Mosteller believes those early outdoor experiences helped develop his kids’ creative play and build their life skills. Hiking, for example, taught them to dress for the elements, make and prepare food on the trail and become more observant of their surroundings. Outdoor play also helped to shape the adventurous teenagers they have become — for fun, Mackenzie goes cross-country skiing by herself, instead of hanging out at the mall.

“Nature throws a lot at you and provides one of the best learning environments,” says Mosteller. “It’s provided them with the tools to deal with situations that come at them.”

He’s raised two confident, independent kids and Mosteller couldn’t be happier. Whether they buy into the free-range philosophy or not, most people would agree he’s succeeded in his job as a parent.

Tips for giving your children — and yourself — more freedom

1. Go to Babies ‘R’ Us with an older relative and get her take on what’s really necessary. Chances are she’ll pooh-pooh the video monitors and other gadgets deemed mandatory by an overvigilant society.

2. Start small, says Calgary parenting speaker and author Judy Arnall. Don’t just drop them off at a park for the afternoon — build up to it. Let them walk by themselves to a friend’s house or to school first.

3. Make the outings and chores age-appropriate. You probably wouldn’t let your eight-year-old go to the movies with a friend unsupervised, but perhaps they are ready to walk to the corner store together to purchase a Popsicle.

4. Leave your cellphone at home for a day so you are unreachable. That way, your children will be forced to make some decisions on their own, says Free-Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy.

5. Stop driving your kids everywhere. Walk, ride a bike or teach them to take public transit safely.

6. At the bus stop or school drop-off, offer to watch all the kids so the other parents can go on their way. “You’re creating community,” says Skenazy, as well as busting the myth that every child needs a bodyguard when they go out in public.

7. Let them open their own bank account and get a debit card around age 10. This will give them some “financial freedom” and make it easier to visit the local pool or ice cream shop with friends.

8. Stop being an advice ATM and become a multiple-choice machine. Instead of telling your children what to do, offer several different ways to deal with a situation, and let them act on what they decide.

—Tips courtesy Judy Arnall and Lenore Skenazy

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