Free Range Parenting: The Complete Guide

Free range kidsLet us first begin by stating a fact: Parenting is a hard job. It is one that we take on lovingly and courageously (especially those who become parents later in their lives), but it is a job. There will be highs and lows during this journey which doesn’t end at age 18, but continues into adulthood.

As a caretaker of children, you are no doubt always on the lookout for new ways to increase your skills. Today that has brought you here, to the realm of “free range parenting.” It is a fairly new concept that had a somewhat dubious beginning but has now caught on with many moms and dads who only want the best for their children. That is not to say that you do not. But the more that you know, the better the decision-making process becomes.

In this post you will learn several things, not the least of which is how the movement towards this style of parenting came about. You’ll become familiar with the name Lenore Skenazy, “helicopter parenting,” empowering your children and also a bit about the way the world has changed or not changed as the case may be. You are in for a little history lesson, a bit of introspection, a new outlook on the world and hopefully more tools for your parenting kit.

What Free Range Parenting is Not 

Most articles or reports begin with an explanation of what the subject matter is. Unfortunately, that can leave a lot of gaps open to subjective interpretation. We’re taking a different approach in that we will first let you in on what free range parenting is not all about.

Let’s set the scene: It’s the 11 o’clock news report coming from your television. A shooting has occurred at the local mall. The gunman or men are being sought and several people are injured, superficially or mortally. You may have frequented that mall with your kids.

Let’s set another scene: A news break in your favorite television program announces that a child is missing from their home or a nearby playground. Local law enforcement is doing a sweep of the neighborhoods and asking for assistance from anyone who may have seen the child around the time of the incident.

As a parent, both scenarios bring a pang of fear to your heart. The immediate response is to pull your children closer and barricade them inside the house. It seems that all the news that’s fit to report these days is full of horror, fear and death. Some question whether starting a family in such circumstances is wise.

Each generation has had their crosses to bear as far back as the beginning of time. Danger is not a stranger to anyone. It is an unwelcomed neighbor that we are keenly aware of but try to keep our distance. And, life goes on from year to year and generation to generation.

As parents we always want better for our children than we experienced. Today, however, society seems to be taking a step backward in that regard. Think about the years when you grew up. Most parents today grew up in the 70s and 80s – a fine time if ever there was one. World Wars had ended and Vietnam would soon be a memory. People were discovering a new era of freedom. Children walked to and from school every day, even letting themselves into the house. The term for this case scenario is “latch-key kids.” Some parents did it out of necessity (both had to work) or the belief that kids of a certain age needed more responsibility. Youngsters were free to roam the neighborhood, exploring their surroundings and hanging out with friends or in their own back yard.

Ever wonder why you can walk through many neighborhoods today and see nary a child at play? They are safely tucked away inside out of harm’s way, as we have been taught to perceive it from news stories like the two scenes above. This type of sheltering can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, poor social skills, fear, anxiety and a dependence on parents that could become a hindrance in later years. What is the alternative for parents these days who don’t want to see their babies hurt?

One option is free range parenting. To hear the opponents describe this style of raising kids, you are setting them adrift in the proverbial river in a basket like baby Moses. Kids are being left to their own devices when it comes to doing just about everything. They are set loose in the outside world without a tether or a safety net. In this way, young lives are constantly put in danger from child predators, accidents, environmental hazards, bullies and the like. What type of irresponsible parent would expose their own flesh and blood to that?

Put in that context, many moms and dads would recommend jail time for those people. Their kids would be safer with someone else than in their care. Would you come to the same conclusion?

This view couldn’t be further from the reality of what free range parenting entails. Children, we repeat, children are not left to their own devices at any time. Neglect is not the order of the day but increased responsibility. Kids are not left to cook their dinner. They aren’t given a map (or in this age of technology, a Smartphone with GPS), and sent out to navigate their way to the bus stop, school, the mall or anywhere else. Also, parents do not leave their babies home alone. With the horrors being reported on the news almost hourly, anyone who doesn’t keep their children at their hip is considered cruel and thoughtless.

When you were a child, how often did you stay at your mother or father’s side? How many of us were told not to come home until the street lights came on? We could find our way along many well-traveled routes blindfolded. It would seem that the next course of action would be towards more responsibility for our kids. The parents of today grew up without incident didn’t they? Didn’t you? So, what has fueled the fear that has us informing on parents who want better for their kids and choose this method to do it?

The Story Going ‘round

The idea of free range parenting has probably been around for a long time, since we were kids. The shift in society and its ideals brought about heightened alerts that we all just sort of accepted. Things began to change in 2008 when a New York City columnist by the name of Lenore Skenazy wrote a piece in the New York Sun detailing how she let her then 9-year old son ride the New York subway system alone.

As a result, she was featured on many news shows. Her column and the chatter spread like wildfire, garnering the distinction of being named “The World’s Worst Mother.” Skenazy was and still is an advocate of the notion of “slow parenting” which became free range parenting method. Though she was branded and the mobs of concerned parents called for her head (like Frankenstein’s monster), the idea gained ground with her subsequent books, blog and continued defense of her actions.

If that were truly all to the story then the naysayers might have a point. From what could be seen on the surface, her actions were indefensible. There is more to this story and it will be revisited in a later section of this report. For now, you can see what this style of child rearing has been up against since the beginning.

What Free Range Parenting Is 

Think of a set of scales or even a seesaw on the playground. It is hard to reach a perfect balance between the two sides even though that is often the goal. Why do we keep trying? In our minds, balance is possible. Even our cells know that. “Homeostasis” is the term that describes the goal of the internal environment of the human body. The entire organism is attempting to return to equilibrium or a neutral state where all is working as it should be. Parents want the same for their children albeit harder to accomplish. That however doesn’t make it a less than worthwhile goal.

The purpose of free range parenting is not, as we mentioned in the previous section, to let kids run amok to their own devices. Instead, as our parents sought to do, children are given more and more responsibility based on their age, maturity and needs. Look at it this way, in a society where a child has everything they need at their fingertips (remote control, video game controller, cell phone, microwave meals and etc.) there is no want – and no ambition. Will this be the first generation that doesn’t surpass the one before?

It is not all due to parenting but that has a lot to do with it. Teaching responsibility and interaction with the world around us fosters new ideas, ways of thinking, communication and most importantly, confidence. Where there is a confident air and self-esteem, fear recedes. New leaders in everything from science, technology, politics, agriculture and philanthropy need to know how to handle difficult situations. Children without experience are hard pressed to do that.

The idea is not to let kids parent themselves, but for the adults to prepare their children for more tasks and accountability. A person who sees a 20-something adult living at home with their parents might say that something is wrong with him or her. They are maladjusted to the world in some way. They are not making the connection that this same adult might have been sequestered in their home at age 4, 5 or 6 to keep them from potential danger. They may have been driven to and from school every day. Instead of playing in the front yard, they sat in front of the television or a video game monitor. They weren’t allowed to choose their own dinner or to help make it. Even washing their clothes or cleaning their room was completed by mother. Dad handled the heavy lifting.

You’re gasping. Does this sound like you or someone you know? Your children will become what you think of them today. Treating them as if they will break like fine China won’t save them from the world. On the contrary, they will simply be ill-equipped to deal with it.

The previous example is as much a horror story as what opponents think of free range parenting. This is what is thought of as “helicopter parenting.” Mom and dad hover over young Tim or Sue, making sure they don’t so much as stub a toe. They teach about the boogeyman, stranger danger, environmental concerns and general world unrest. To add a more rounded component to their existence, kids are scheduled with endless tasks – soccer practice, ballet, piano lessons, acting, foreign language classes and the like. All are monitored of course.

Free range parenting seeks to be that balance between neglectfulness and overbearing extremes. For the record, any extreme one way or the other is detrimental to the development of a child. Each day, we learn new skills that help us to become more in tune with our child or children and then steer them accordingly. Young people are what the Ancients may have termed, “tabula rasa” or “blank slate.” If you don’t want them to grow up fearful, without confidence or highly anxious, you too must let go of these attributes or they will transfer to your young person.

The Parent in You

From the day they are born, we are anxious. Baby must not fall, slip, cry or otherwise come to harm. Guess what? They do and they live through it. Baby crawls and often gets a mouthful of carpet lint as they struggle to stay on their knees. At least they are falling on carpet. Baby bangs their arm or even their noggin on the coffee table. It happens but at least the edges were shielded so the points weren’t exposed.

This is the philosophy of slow parenting. We begin with it but somewhere along the line lose our way. As children get older and are presented with new tasks, we can help soften the potential blow without preventing exposure to the experience altogether. When a child is ready, allow them to play outside in the yard. As they discover bees, dirt, other bugs and grass, educate them on the facts of these experiences. Suspend your own prejudice and let their ideas form on their own.

It is believed that many parents make decisions not based solely on the child’s need but their own at the time. For instance, kids play indoors because mom is too tired to go outside with them. Mom picks up the toys because guests are coming over and it needs to be done now. How about this for a change: Teach your child to handle the responsibility of playing alone and picking up clutter so they can help you but also learn to become accountable for themselves with certain activities. That is all free range parenting is asking of you. Meet your children halfway when they are old enough and mature enough to become more than they are right now.

Only Child versus Multiple Siblings

This style of child rearing works no matter what number of little ones are in the home. It might be argued that single children require more interaction with others for social skills because they are always alone. As a loving mom or dad, seeing your child walk to school alone is even more frightening because they are your only. This doesn’t mean they can’t walk with friends (it’s a good idea), but it is still your baby gaining independence without you. Instill in them the fact that you are always there for them for guidance and that you approve of their growing self-reliance.

When there is more than one sibling in the house, you have help towards a more independent style of raising your kids. Siblings can learn to depend on each other as the first non-parent friend and influence. Both can walk to school together, play together, reason together and foster each other’s self-confidence. It’s a win-win situation for you.

Every child will one day leave the nest (even if they return later, but that’s another subject). As a parent, the question is in what manner would you like them to leave you – prepared to face the world or frightened to go?

What’s in a Name?

It’s often the names we give to particular things that make them appealing or distasteful. As with “free range parenting,” we are not farmers and are children are not feathery birds clucking around the yard, left to their own mindless toiling until it’s time to be shut up in the coop at nightfall. With “helicopter parenting,” we are not pilots flying low over our children forcing them to move this way and that, like herding livestock. The terms describe two diametrically opposed philosophies in extremis.

To answer the question in the subheading, the meaning in a name is based on the motive behind it in this case. There is nothing wrong with giving kids more responsibility and consequences when trust is broken. Denying them can lead to rebellion in later years or even a less reputable teacher (peers) guiding their learning. On the flip side, if you do everything for your child, they will not be able to take care of themselves even as adults. You may create a helpless person who is more vulnerable to the ills of the world than ever a child was.

Getting Started

The first step with any change that you make in your life begins with mindset. Free range parenting is a different mindset that leads you towards actions to satisfy that way of thinking towards the rearing of your kids. The mindset here is not to worry. Parents are general worrywarts, especially moms. We worry if you don’t come when we call. We worry if you come too fast. It doesn’t matter what the scenario. Television and the news media have seen to that.

Free range child rearing is a bit easier once you accept a few facts. One, children get hurt. Scraped knees, bumps, bruises and even more serious injuries can happen in life. It doesn’t mean you were a bad parent. Two, kids will grow into adults. The manner of their growth is up to you. Experience is a good teacher and you can have a hand in guiding that to give your child the best start possible. Too much of anything is not a good thing.

Three, there is no substitute for being prepared. When you fail to plan, you plan to fail. In order for your child to cross the street alone, they must be shown the correct way to do it first before handling the task on their own. A loving parent would do no less. Finally, there is four, start slow. Rome wasn’t built in a day and if you are used to hovering, over scheduling or even sheltering your young one, each day will be a struggle to let them go but it will get easier. You’ll know you are on the correct path corroborated by your child’s increased enthusiasm and confidence.

So, what do you do first? Talk to your child. Have they been asking to do something that is met with an unequivocal “No” by you and your spouse? What does your child think about their life and what they would like to do? Even a 5-year old has opinions and desires in life. Meet their curiosity with changes to your parenting method and not negativity or fear.

Back to Our Story

It’s time we were getting back to the story of Lenore Skenazy and her 9-year old. What most parents and others missed because they were mooing and booing was that she and her child practiced for this trip. She made sure that her child knew how to get on and off of the subway train. He practiced reading a map so that he knew which train to take to get home. He was not left to his own devises or shoved onto the train as many like to paint the picture.

Many parents still wouldn’t believe a 9-year old was safe on a New York subway but the setting can be anywhere. Your child could be walking home from school on an inner-city street. They could be walking to the store in a rural area where the closest market was half a mile away. A child could fly on an airplane alone to meet a relative. In every case your child is out of your sight. The mind runs rampant with all kinds of fiendish thoughts of negative outcomes. Nine times out of ten, nothing will happen.

According to Skenazy, the idea is to build a community through your child. Instead of them seeing the boogeyman around every corner, they learn to get to know different types of people and what they are like. The big problem with the teaching of “Stranger Danger” to keep our children safe from predators is that none of them resemble a stranger. Many children are abducted by family members. Child abuse occurs in families where the assailant is known and trusted by the child. A perpetrator gains no ground if a child is scared of them. The profile was and is all wrong.

Take Small Steps

All kids love to play. It’s in their DNA. Sit with them when they go outdoors. Walk or ride next to them when they ride their bike down the street or through the neighborhood. Point out landmarks that they can use to remember their way home again.

Instruct them in simple things. This includes learning their house number and address, telephone number, parents’ full names, birth date and any other relevant information. In case of an emergency, your child can direct law enforcement, a friend’s parents or even use a payphone to call you. Establish communication so that they always let you know where they are going and if they plan to leave that area for another. This practice alone can keep them safe. They can even teach it to their friends. There are 5-year olds who can recognize and tell others what they can’t eat because of food allergies. Your child is never too young to gain even a little independence.

Cell Phones – Use Them

Parents think that kids are too young for cellular phones. Why? Will they talk all the time? One plus is that they can be taught how to operate them to call mom, dad or another trusted adult when they need to or just to check in. Most kids these days are so techno-savvy that they understand how such devices work better than their parents.

It doesn’t have to be a Smartphone. A simple phone that will talk and text is sufficient to give you peace of mind when they are out of your sight. It is a safeguard, like wearing a helmet or looking both ways to cross the street.

Set the Rules

Consequences are important. They reinforce the results of poor choices, even for children. A child who doesn’t come when called or who fails to follow the plan is subject to it. Discuss the consequences with your child ahead of time so that everyone is on the same page. For instance, if your child sneaks out of their yard to play with a neighbor friend two houses down without asking, they are then confined to the house at playtime until the lesson is learned. Avoid using such a situation as a way of returning to previous ways of thinking about their safety. The idea is to create accountability and responsibility not fear and oppression into their lives.

Communicate with your Children

There are so many good reasons why communication is a plus with kids and this is one. Bask in their accomplishments as they foray into the world and gain confidence. Discuss consequences and why breaking the rules is wrong and how they plan to rectify the situation. Just like any other parenting method, it works best when both parties are thoroughly involved.

We’d like to stress the fact that age-appropriate activities are important. Don’t fear that you are holding your child back if they are not ready or mature enough even for their age to handle a task. Encourage them in that way and then set a plan when the time is right. If a child asks for the responsibility, it can be a sign that they have at least begun to acquire the skills needed to confidently try to perform such tasks as crossing the road alone, walking to the store, mailing a letter, visiting a friend or going to the park with friends.

Benefits of Free Range Parenting 

Why is one parenting method better than another? The answer is that it is not. Child rearing is a mixture of styles, methods and philosophies that can differ from child to child in a family based on their personality, attributes and potential. Parents, like you, use intuition, experience and the knowledge of the child in question to determine what works. Adding this mindset of parenting to your toolkit has the benefits below.

Worry-free parenting…almost – Watching television news and reading the newspaper will make you fearful for your child every time they step through the door. Instead, place what you read and hear in context. According to crime statistics, crime is down by at least 50 percent since its spike in the 90s. That would place it at or near the levels that existed when you were a kid in the 70s and 80s. Use the information you read and hear to spur you on to preparing your kids to deal with the world through experience and knowledge not fear.

Independence – Just like Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, your child can find their independence through increased self-esteem and determination. When they try something and don’t quite succeed or when they make a mistake, encourage them to continue through more “dry runs” and practices. Their assuredness will rise when you believe in their abilities.

Adaptation – A child who can bounce back from negative experiences can better compartmentalize their feelings and put situations into appropriate perspective than those who are sheltered. A child, who burns their finger on the stove, learns how to avoid the element when hot instead of deciding never to try cooking again.

Intuition – This definitely comes through observation and experience. It’s like individuals who can “read” people. A child who has more chance to experience the world can discern certain feelings and intentions in others that might go unnoticed by another. It is a trait that can be quite helpful in life.

Using fear instead of being used by it – Fear can be a useful tool. A child who fails in one attempt at say, climbing a hill will perhaps use better tools the next time to reach his or her goal instead of forgoing the pursuit altogether. Having no fear is foolish but a having a little bit is effective for evaluating your own skillset for a project and if that alone will be enough to safely reach the goal. It can make the difference between perseverance and quitting.

Thinking outside the box – Children can learn to turn negatives into positives when given a chance to make mistakes on their own and learn from them. Also, look at all of the kid entrepreneurs today. They saw a need and endeavored to fill it with products or services spawned from their ideas. They had the confidence in self and from their parents to give it a try.


Has something you have read today inspired you to take a look at your current parenting methods? We are not encouraging knee-jerk reactions here. Everything doesn’t work for everyone and if you are seriously not ready, keep this information for a future date. But, if something here resonates with you and the parent that you’ve always wanted to be (and the children you always wanted to raise), use it in some way. Begin with baby steps. Every day of parenting is different from the day before and the day to come. Learn to roll with it and relax the reins just a little to see what possibilities are there for your family.

To all the naysayers who will view you as parenting rebels, show them that you have a cause – well-adapted and intuitive children who can give back to a community and reshape the world to hopefully be a safer place to live and grow.

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