Why Raising “Free-Range” Kids Isn’t An Option For Everyone

Helicopter parenting sparked an alternative movement to give children more independence—but not everyone can share that privilege.


Published:

One Sunday in 2008, Lenore Skenazy and her then-9-year-old son, Izzy, the younger of two, visited Bloomingdale’s in bustling Manhattan, New York City. And then she left him there.

She helped launch a movement seen as a response to ubiquitous “helicopter parenting,” in which overprotective parents tightly control every one of their children’s activities.

Skenazy, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, says it took nerves to foster what she calls a “free-range” childhood for her two boys. Skenazy always wanted to hear other people’s stories. “Regarding all strangers as potential threats is a dystopian view of the world,” she says.

She felt worried at times when she was out of communication with the boys and didn’t know where they were: “I don’t think you can be a parent and not expect to worry.” But in this instance, she says, “we knew our son could read a map, loved public transit, had been on the subway with us a million times, and felt ready.”

Plus, this was at Izzy’s request, and because the subways are always crowded, she and her husband relied on safety in numbers and agreed to let him make the trip home to Queens.

“On the big day, I gave him a subway map, some quarters for the phone, a MetroCard, and $20 for emergencies,” she says.

Since then, the notion has caught on. Skenazy wrote the book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) and in 2018 cofounded nonprofit organization Let Grow, which is dedicated to replacing the idea of delicate children with the belief that they are “anti-fragile” and resilient, able to be challenged in ways that build confidence and skill. The group promotes policies in communities of all sizes that allows kids to have more autonomy from the constant supervision that society often expects, and teaches kids and parents that the world is not an inherently dangerous place, that having opportunity to explore it independently promotes healthier growth.

“Think of all the things you learned as a kid when given some free time and responsibility,” Skenazy says. “You learned to make things happen, solve problems, make friends, find something that interested you a lot. It’s harder to succeed as a person if you don’t get a chance to learn to handle those.”

Some communities are taking notice.

Mica Hauley was one of eight kids, born “back in the day when seat belts were optional,” she says. She’s now a stay-at-home mom in Lehi, Utah, and enjoys life with five kids of her own, ages 1 to 10.

“I had very loving, good parents who raised me well,” she says. She and her siblings all had a certain amount of freedom, “but [we] were educated to play it safe and smart. We had to learn responsibility, too,” she says. She hopes to raise her kids with the same common sense.

Utah’s free-range parenting law, signed into law in 2018 and the first in the nation, redefined child neglect—for example, by saying that such activities as “traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling” or “engaging in outdoor play” do not constitute neglect.

“Thanks to the free-range parenting law in Utah, I can do things like let them walk home from school, or a park, or around my neighborhood without being put in jail,” Hauley says. The law doesn’t encourage parents to neglect their children, but it allows parents freedom to follow their guts on parenting “without the threat of imprisonment by some judgmental bystander,” she said. And they’re grateful for it.

The city of Ithaca, New York, enacted a “free-range kids” ordinance of its own later that year.

But “this might not be a safe choice for all parents,” Hauley says. “Parents have to decide for themselves, based on their own communities and the needs of their children, whether or not it’s a time to be a helicopter parent or a free-range parent.” Kids need balance and they need to be kids, but they also need to guard against “the sometimes crazy that happens out there, without limiting their opportunities to enjoy this great world we have been blessed to live in,” she says. “It’s all about balance and trusting your gut and God to guide you.”

This is especially true for those living in communities with higher rates of crime, or even in communities of color that are treated with suspicion by White authorities.

Pat Omo, an Edmonton, Alberta, mother of seven children ranging from 8 months to 19 years old, admits it: “I’m totally a helicopter mom. I just want to be there all the time.”

Omo’s own mother “still wants to know every detail about everything all the time,” she says. “It’s at the point where I just call her and tell her every time I make a move. So, I’m calling her about six or seven times a day.”

Omo’s oldest “has five minutes to reply to a text, or I disable his phone,” she says.

Omo, who is Black, is aware of her elevated and constant sense of fear and responsibility to safeguard her oldest son, who as a young Black man has additional societal obstacles to navigate in the largely White community.

It’s different with her younger children, who are all under her watchful eye. “They [can’t] go anywhere without me” other than the backyard, she says. “I need to know what they’re doing at all times. It only takes a second for something to happen.”

Her husband tries to help her give the kids space, but her oldest son has told her, even from his own apartment, she’s annoying and over the top. Omo says she’s “afraid [he’ll get] hurt or stuck in a bad situation, so I need to make sure he’s always OK.”

The way that society views Black boys and men is a significant factor in many Black parents’ decisions that sometimes pit their wisdom in caregiving against fostering independence and maturity.

One 2014 study found what Omo and Black parents everywhere have always known to be true: “Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers.”

While Omo is certain the day will come when her children will want more freedom, the free-range method seems unlikely for this family, and for good reason. Another study published in 2018 that focused on race and gender differences among missing children showed that “Black children remain missing longer and are more likely to still be missing by the end of [the] observation period than non-black children.”

Omo says her kids will eventually understand why she’s overprotective at times. “I’m [this way] because I love them so much and want them to always be safe.”

Sometimes the free-range ethos contradicts cultural norms.

Karlynn Moller, a single mother of two, lives in Seattle with her daughter, 14, and son, 6. “They have a relationship with [their father], but he works so much, he very rarely has the kids [for] more than a few hours at a time. I’m the main parent, doing the day-to-day,” she says.

Their father is from North Africa, and they’re all Muslim, but Moller was raised Christian. Coparenting the kids is sometimes a challenge for her because of their differing cultural and religious beliefs and views on gender. “I don’t have the same sense of conservatism and religious modesty that he does,” she says. “He’s very strict. But in a Muslim dad way, not in a helicopter way.”

“[The kids’] dad tends to carry a lot of these sexist ideals,” which are more cultural than faith-based, Moller says, and he parents the kids differently.

Their son has no fear at all. He enjoys jumping off of things, climbing things, and he gets hurt. “It’s how he learns,” she says. Moller says she holds the same expectations for both kids but their father is stricter on their daughter than on their son, so she tries to compensate by being a bit softer on their daughter.

Moller says she just tries to maintain balance in their lives.

Skenazy doesn’t remember feeling intensely fearful on that day in 2008 “because I knew what my son was doing, where he was coming from and the route he’d be taking,” she says.

When he made it home safely, she believed what she’d thought all along—that “most people are good” and that “‘stranger danger’ is a corrosive and incorrect view of the world,” she says.

Afterward, Skenazy says, her son frequently managed his own whereabouts after school. Today he’s 21 years old. His older brother, Morry, refers to himself as “the control group,” she says.

Skenazy acknowledges that parents may be hesitant about this approach. “Even if a parent doesn’t want to hover, our whole society is pushing them to do [it],” she says. A free-range kid’s unsupervised, unstructured activity means “a chance to grow wise, resilient, and self-directed—comfortable with a bit of discomfort, conflict, ambiguity, and risk.”

Carla Bell is a solutions reporting intern for YES! Magazine. Her freelance work has focused on civil and human rights, social justice, culture, and arts, and has appeared in The North Star, Essence,  Ebony, and Crosscut.

This article was republished from YES! Magazine.

See also:
Kindergartners Get Little Time To Play. Why Does It Matter?
The Talk

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

January 26, 2020

The recently new Moon in Aquarius chugs along void of course until evening. The laid back atmosphere is perfect for a restful, relaxing day. Dreams of the future as well as actual events can appear to play out in languid slow motion. Restive cabin fever…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

January 2020

What is an animal totem/power animal? Does everyone have them? Do animals communicate with us? Join us! Get these questions answered and more. We will explore the world of animals, learn how...

Cost: $65

Where:
Private Office
Andover, MA


Sponsor: Diana Harris
Contact Name: Diana Harris
Website »

More information

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join the Initiating Inspiration Book Club, a partnership with the Waltham Public Library and the Agape Spiritual Community. We are reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Copies of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Waltham Public Library
735 Main Street
Waltham, MA  02451
View map »


Sponsor: Waltham Public Library
Telephone: 781-314-3429
Contact Name: Louise Goldstein
Website »

More information

Discover Beauty. Discover Goodness. Discover Yourself. Your soul’s gifts are waiting. Breathe. Find stillness. The spark you need to ignite your life is here, within. Max Meditation...

Cost: $15

Where:
Modern Mystery School Boston
132 Charles St
3rd Floor
Auburndale, MA  02466
View map »


Sponsor: Modern Mystery School Boston
Telephone: 617-694-0994
Contact Name: Jordan Bain
Website »

More information

2nd and 4th Monday of every month This psychic message circle is for anyone wishing to raise their connection using their psychic centers known as the “clairs.” Learn how to use...

Cost: $20

Where:
Messages From Heaven Healing and Learning Center
646 Central Street
Suite 3
Leominster, MA
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join us for this special evening with Magdalena of My Metaphysical Maven. The topic is fear and anxiety and how to tell what's anxiety versus what's a message from the universe. We'll...

Cost: Free

Where:
Waltham Public Library
735 Main Street
Waltham, MA  02451
View map »


Sponsor: Waltham Public Library
Telephone: 781-314-3441
Contact Name: Debora Hoffman
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Did you know that practicing energetic hygiene plays an important role in maintaining a healthy mind, body, spirit and even your home? Everything is made up of energy including us! Energy can...

Cost: $10

Where:
Center For Inner Wellness
26B Main Street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center For Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

January 29–March 25 With Jody Daniels, MBA and Natalia Cepeda, MA Why take Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)? To better manage your stress and enhance...

Cost: $600–$650

Where:
CHA Center for Mindfulness and Compassion
1035 Cambridge St
Suite 21A
Cambridge, MA  02141
View map »


Telephone: 617-591-6132
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join the Marion Institute for our Winter Film Series, a curated line-up of health documentaries that will change the way you think about food, medicine, and disease. Each film will be followed by...

Cost: Free

Where:
St. Luke’s Hospital McBratney Amphitheater
101 Page Street
New Bedford, MA  02740
View map »


Sponsor: Marion Institute
Telephone: 508-748-0816
Contact Name: Patti Rego
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

"Master your breath, let the self be in bliss, contemplate on the sublime within you.” —Krishnamacharya Join us for an evening of deep exploration and transformation using the...

Cost: $40

Where:
Friends Meeting House
5 Longfellow Park
Cambridge, MA  02138
View map »


Sponsor: Allen Howell, M.Ed. LMHC
Website »

More information

January 31–February 2, 2020 Enjoy heart-opening talks, music, spiritual discussion, connect with like-minded people. Free and open to the public. Attend any or all sessions.  Guest...

Where:
Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel
Springfield, MA


Telephone: (508) 754-9042
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Led by Chuck Raffoni ( E-RYT200) named a “person making postiive change in the world for the LGBTQ Community” by Pride Connections and featured on NBC's Today Show for...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Athlete's Yoga
Woburn, MA


Sponsor: www.yogawithchuck.com
Contact Name: Chuck
Website »

More information

Participate in the fourth annual Lincoln Holistic Wellness Fair!  Saturday, February 1, 2020 from 11:00am–5:00pm in Lincoln, Massachusetts The Lincoln Holistic Wellness Fair...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Pierce House
17 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur

More information

This free event showcases an impressive variety of wellness practitioners offering complimentary sample treatments, short classes, demos, presentations, and healthy treats. Mark your calendars...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Pierce House
17 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur

More information

Get a personal teaching for Brother Granite's new Visionary Shamanism Tarot. This class includes the new Visionary Shamanism Tarot deck as well a 90 minute one on one class with Brother Granite...

Cost: $80

Where:
407 Deans Plaza
407 Rte 44
The Enchanted Forest Taunton
Raynham, MA  02767
View map »


Sponsor: Brother Granite
Telephone: 774-208-6195
Contact Name: Granite
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags