Understanding the freedom of free-range parenting

Apparently, I was raised by free range parents. Yes, it’s a thing. “Free-range parenting.” It’s not a new concept or even a new term, but it is the latest and greatest controversy in child-rearing. The controversy was sparked by child neglect charges against a mother in Maryland, who allowed her children, ages 6 and 10, to walk home alone from a local park (Google the name “Meitiv” to learn more).

Free-range parenting is the opposite of helicopter parenting. It’s the practice of making well-informed, careful choices to let go; to trust; to bite back the worries that CNN and FOX and reality have planted deep within every parent”s soul about kidnapping and pedophiles and rape and murder (and terrorism and school shootings and drugs and bullies); to let your kids learn to cope on their own, a little bit at a time, as each child’s maturity and needs and strengths allow.

Helicopter parenting is, of course, entirely the opposite. Helicopter parents never let go. Anxiety or over-protectiveness or the adult’s selfish needs (or all three) motivate the helicopter parent to watch every breath the child takes. To wrap sons and daughters in cotton and lock them in the basement where they’re warm and safe and can never be harmed (except by radon and cotton allergies and black mold and vitamin D deficiencies), but where they never have the opportunity to fall down and skin a knee.

Yes, I wrote “opportunity.” Skinned knees are opportunities. So are: most bullies, failed math tests, the experience of not making the team, getting rejected by your best friend, black eyes, poison ivy, paper cuts, daily chores, detentions, missed deadlines and forgotten homework. Walking home from the local park in daylight on a sunny spring day with your 10-year-old big brother, along a familiar route with a cellphone in hand is probably an opportunity, as well. But not according to Maryland Child Protective Services.

Maryland CPS calls this neglect. In response, in May the state of Utah will enact the country’s first free-range parenting law, making it legal to give your kids reasonable, unsupervised freedoms. These are opportunities to learn to cope. They’re practice managing upset and modulating anxiety and making careful choices. But more than all that, these are opportunities to develop self-reliance and self-esteem – the “I can do that” sureness. Where the free-range parent’s child reaches adulthood scarred and soiled, but capable and confident, the helicopter parent’s child is fresh-out-of-the-box mint-condition, but completely dependent and terrified.

To be clear: pedophiles and school shootings are very, very real and are never opportunities. Free-range parenting does not mean reckless abandonment or selfish ignorance or ignorant neglect. The mom who opens the door at dawn and tells the kids to get lost until dusk might have been mainstream in the days of Huckleberry Finn, but today she’s simply shirking her parenting responsibilities. On the other hand, the mom who makes an informed decision to allow her kids to practice independence, one shaky step at a time, always available in case of crisis, is communicating trust and building autonomy.

I know, I know. The truth is that the world we live in is very, very scary. Even a familiar daylight walk home from the park could end in tragedy. If you’re like me, you can’t even bear the thought of what could happen. But if we agree that the goal of healthy parenting is to launch your kids toward healthy adulthood, then they need practice along the way.

You let the baby go when she was ready to crawl. You helped her to learn to stand and toddle, even though you knew she’d fall. You took the training wheels off the two-wheeler and ran along side, breathless, until you didn’t. And each time you were there to pick her up, wipe her off, kiss the boo-boos and send her out again. If that’s free-range parenting, I’m all for it.

Parenting Pointer

When I sat down to write this article, I had something humorous in mind. “Free-range parenting” brings up so many grocery store poultry analogies. For better or worse (and so often the case), the words that magically appeared across my laptop screen were a bit more serious. Still, one should never neglect a chance for humor, so here’s a glossary of grocery store parenting:

Boneless parenting: Setting limits, but never following through as in ‘lacking backbone.’ This parent is too chicken to mean what he says.

Skinless parenting: A caregiver who is deeply emotionally hurt by the child”s every angry word and gesture. For example, a parent who mistakes the child’s screams of “”I hate you,” for genuine rejection, rather than for inevitable and manageable rage.

Grade A parenting: Moms and dads who focus on academic achievement above all else. The child’s effort is unimportant. From conception on, this parent’s singular focus is Harvard-Yale, Harvard-Yale, Harvard-Yale.

Certified organic parenting: Raising children free of pesticides, steroids, synthetics, antibiotics, non-elemental nutrients, carcinogens, PVC, BPA, NHA, BFOA, PS3, MSG, YMCA and PTA.

Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. Garber welcomes your comments at papaben@healthyparent.com.