Why We Need to Raise Free Range Kids

Turns out we need our kids to be free-range along with our beef.

That’s what journalist and author Lenore Skenazy touts in her book, Free Range Kids – Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

I’ve read a number of “parenting” books recently. Not really because I’m looking for tips, but because I’m looking for insight to why it seems so complex today to raise a family, compared with my memories of childhood and what older adults say. The constant vigilance over watching kids, helicopter parenting, worries over everything from food to education quality. It’s exhausting.

So I’ve read Bringing Up Bebe, which I’d tell anyone hit the mark in many ways by exploring how the French see children as small people who need independence to grow, who must fit into family norms, and who must have high quality food and care from the start – and that parents need time to be adults in their own lives, away from kids. I finished the book wanting to flee America for socialist policies that would give me free time and more self-sufficient kids. But that’s likely not a long-term solution, so it left an unsatisfied taste in my mouth. And I began reading NurtureShock, but stopped at page 50 after the tirade of anxiety-producing research had me worried over things like kindergarten testing, how to talk to kids about race, or why my kid would eventually lie to me.

But Free Range Kids is a book for parents who see that it’s crazy that kids aren’t outside playing in neighborhoods, aren’t biking themselves to school or the park, aren’t allowed to talk to strangers (talking to strangers is OK, going somewhere with strangers is not – a clear distinction in the book). Skenazy  addresses how we got to this mindset and uses data to show that we’re actually living in the safest time ever for kids, despite our need to keep constant watch over them. And what she imparts is that we don’t have to worry all the time and do everything for our kids – we need to teach them to be self-empowered with survival skills so they can live their lives without mom and dad at every turn. And, she writes with humor and sass that make it fun to read.

Kids Aren’t Dumb – Just Like Women Aren’t Dumb

She challenges us to defy that it’s a “kids-are-considered-dumb-as-dirt world”. I love that phrase, because it’s sadly true. We often treat kids as if they aren’t smart enough to do things for themselves – like go to a bathroom alone while mom waits outside the door or ask a clerk for help in a store.

IMG_0632Case in point: I took my Ladybug for hot cocoa at a local coffee shop. She’s just about three, so her speech isn’t perfect, but she can talk pretty clearly. She wanted a straw, so I asked her to go to counter without me to get a straw (hey, I’m also 8 months pregnant, so I’m all for empowering her to do for herself). She returned with a fork. I asked her to go back and get what she really wanted. Finally, the clerk came over to me to ask what she wanted. I wasn’t annoyed at that – I get it, he can’t understand her, so he was trying to help. But what irritated me was when I said, “She’d like a straw”, he handed me the straw instead of acknowledging this little person next to him and giving her the straw. Little things like that happen all the time. A lack of respect for children as people with desires. A lack of acknowledgment that they matter and can do for themselves.

Skenazy writes, “Free range parents are not hands off. We give our children the tools to be safe and independent, and we listen to them too.”

She likens our treatment of children to the treatment of women at the start of the women’s movement in the 1960s – particularly poignant given the treatment of women today. Whereas the “problem that has no name” was coined by Betty Friedan, this book reclaims it for how we treat our kids today. Check this out:

“Women were told … ‘It’s a man’s world out here. Too dangerous for you. Too difficult. You’ve got everything you could possibly want right there at home. So stay there. Inside. Safe.’ … Same things we are telling kids now. Yes, of course, there is a difference between grown women and young children, but there is also something strangely familiar about the idea of suddenly deciding that the outside world is way too dangerous for a certain segment of the population. A segment that had been doing just fine in the outside world until that point. A segment abruptly informed that it could no longer do anything on its own – and that all this restriction was for its own good.”

Renormalize Childhood

Skenazy’s ideas hit the mark about letting kids experience their world, on their terms, to make them strong adults:

“Childhood is supposed to be about discovering the world, not being held captive. It’s not about having that world pointed out to you by a DVD or a video game or by your mom as you drive by … We want our children to have a childhood that’s magical and enriched, but I’ll bet your best childhood memories involve something you were thrilled to do by yourself … It’s time we gave that back to kids. Childhood independence has become taboo, even though our world is no less safe than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

As my daughter becomes older and is able to do more for herself, I think I’m becoming more and more of a Free Range Mom. I agree with the Free Range advice to remind other parents who think I’m “being careless when loosening my grip, that I’m actually trying to teach my children how to get along in the world, and that I believe that is my job.”

I’ve been aligning my professional work to this philosophy, talking about the need for outdoor education and play, and biologically respectful lifestyles. Giving children reasonable freedom to learn, fail and grow at home, at school, and in nature is part of the platform upon which I want to support strong kids. I’m glad Skenazy is a champion forging the rallying cry.

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6 thoughts on “Why We Need to Raise Free Range Kids

    • A reader sent me an email, and I want to share her thoughts related to raising her two young children near Vienna:

      I’m a reader of your blog and just want to thank you and tell you I enjoy reading! We’re trying to raise them consciously (thinking about community, environment, etc), and are slightly free-range, at least compared to the other parents we meet around here. I’ve enjoyed seeing you touch on some of these topics. So, again thank you. I look forward to reading more!

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  1. This is a beautiful essay and so well-written! I am happy to meet like-minded people in the community. I did enjoy the book too – very funny and persuasive, though I strongly disagree with the writer on sun lotion issue. I have to say that raising a child somewhat free-range (I haven`t known before reading the book that this is what I was doing) is a challenge but some rewards are immediate and tangible. I like how my 4-year-old can interact with adults – a lady with bugs at the Natural History Museum was in awe of him and they had almost a scientific discussion about stick insects. When we were at the dentist (his first visit), after I told him that I need to use a bathroom, he approached a receptionist and asked her if his Mommy can use the bathroom? It was so cute. But the major thing, I believe, for a child is to learn to assess the danger and know when risk is worth taken. I can see that my son is already beginning to make right conclusions, deeming some of his ideas as “too dangerous”. Actually, before reading this book I was slightly going mad seeing all these kids strapped to the strollers even at the safest places like a Farm. Don`t other parents understand that?!! Now I know that some do …and feel better.

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    • Wow, thanks, Tatiana for this lovely comment. And I have to thank you also for suggesting this book to me! It is comforting to know that other parents are trying to challenge the notion that our world is a scary place where kids must be protected at all times. Glad we’re in it together!

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  2. I must disagree –in my experience and in the experience of other mothers and colleagues I know, a lot of parents are taking ‘free-range’ way too far and end up alienating themselves from social groups as a result.
    What this author may be forgetting is that when you let kids roam free, the other adults who are engaged with their children end of with the responsibility of parenting their children for them.
    Examples – a neighbor who is overwhelmed at home with babies let’s her school age child roam around in the pouring rain and to our neighborhood playground without any parental supervision. When the child acts inappropriately, there’s no parent there to correct their behavior and we – the ‘responsible’ parents – end up with the tiresome burden of disciplining their ill-mannered child, over and over again.
    When another parent was alarmed that this vulnerable child was out at the playground without any parent, she escorted her home, just to be reprimanded by the parents that with their ‘free-range’ philosophy they were completely comfortable (neglecting) – letting their child make her own decisions about where to spend her time. As a result, the community doesn’t trust their parenting choices and don’t want their children associating with their family.
    My colleague complains regularly of the ‘free-range’ kids on her street – 3 and 4 year olds who can easily run into the street – while Very Important Professionals in Luxury vehicles distracted on cell phones whizz by at alarming speeds. And the ‘free-range’ kids who seem to find their way over to her house regularly as their parents are off engaged in work and feed them, clean up after them – These free-range kid’s parents wouldn’t even know to thank this generous mom for her efforts because they are just never around!
    I think free-range can run a dangerous line and give many overburdened parents an excuse to neglect their children!

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