The other day, my son went on a mission. Each of his siblings had a CD player for listening to music or audiobooks, but he did not. So he counted his money, convinced his sister to come along, and headed off to the local flea market to look for one. A couple of hours later, I saw a bobbing white speck approaching the house from a distance. As I watched, it gradually grew larger until my worst fears were confirmed: in the arms of my staggering son was a giant, white karaoke machine.

This happened because my children are what author Lenore Skenazy calls “free-range kids,” children who are given more space for active independence and risky play than is our contemporary cultural norm. My husband and I allow our older kids to act independently in ways that are a bit unusual these days, but were very common until only a couple of decades ago; things such as walking a few blocks to visit a friend or a local coffee shop, or in this case, buying a CD player that also, alas, has a microphone.

Freedom within Limits

This freedom within relatively wide limits is something that my husband and I both experienced growing up, and that you may have, too, depending on your generation. But it is a hard thing for parents today to give to children. Indeed, author and journalist Tim Carney recently argued that parenting in general is harder for parents today than it was only a few decades ago. Part of this, Carney argues, is due to the common feeling that children should be constantly supervised and their activities highly controlled, that they should be the opposite of “free-range.”

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Carney is not alone in making this argument: Jonathan Haidt, who co-founded the Free-Range Kids/Let Grow organization with Skenazy, psychologist Peter Gray, and Daniel Schuchman, goes even further in his new book, The Anxious Generation. Haidt argues that the core of the problem is that in trying to keep our children safe, we are actually supervising the wrong parts of their lives. We dramatically oversupervise children’s real-world activities and undersupervise their online ones, especially their smartphone, social media, and gaming use, where the greater dangers to children’s health lie. Citing the work of play and mental health researchers, Haidt further notes that unsupervised or lightly supervised, risky, real-world play is actually safer than highly supervised, non-risky play.

In fact, there is also ample research (see summaries here and here) to suggest that children are safer when unsupervised today than they were in previous generations. And people like Gray and Skenazy make convincing arguments that free-range activities are actively beneficial, reducing childhood anxiety and building important life skills such as resourcefulness, self-confidence, critical thinking, and conflict resolution. But what about the need for children to stay close to their caregivers in order to grow well emotionally? Doesn’t attachment theorythe idea that our children need close presence and connection to caregivers in order to be emotionally healthycontradict this idea? Aren’t good parents the ones who are constantly available to their kids?

Not exactly. Although the two may seem contradictory at first glance, free-range parenting and attachment work best when they go hand in hand: the more attached the child and the more attentive (in a certain sense) the parent, the better free-ranging will work for them both. Free-range parenting is not anti-attachment and it is not neglect; it is not dropping Hansel and Gretel off in the middle of the Black Forest without a map. Instead, a good free-range parent takes care to give her child a (figurative) compass before letting him out of her sight. 

The Parental Compass

In my experience, an effective free-range parent equips her children with the skill set and literal sense of direction that children need in order to take care of themselvesand each otherwhile unsupervised. It is a parent’s responsibility to judge if and when her children are ready for a particular project or adventure, and it is her job to make sure that her kids know how to get to the grocery store safely and how to handle money well before sending them there independently, for example. If a child wants to prepare a meal on his own, the parent needs to first make sure he can use the oven and a chef’s knife safely. And of course, all kids benefit from being taught how to speak clearly and politely to storekeepers and other adults, and how to make a great big loud scene if anyone tries to hurt them or they ever feel unsafe. 

It’s tempting to overdo it on the guidance, though, and kids are often capable of far more than we think. A preteen who wants to build something should not be handed an electric saw and told to “have at it,” for example; but once she has made a birdhouse with Dad’s guidance, she can then try making a picture frame on her own using hand tools.

In addition to this practical sort of guidance, free-range kids also need a second kind of compass from their parents, this time a more figurative one: that of a secure attachment to a parent, even when that parent is not in sight. As psychologist Gordon Neufeld and physician Gabor Maté argue in their book Hold On to Your Kids, attachment is not only a bond but an orientation. As a well-attached child grows beyond the preschool years into middle childhood and beyond, he can begin to safely engage with the wider world because he continues to orient himself based on his connection with his parents. A parent-oriented child can bear a great deal of independence without feeling lost or becoming unsafe because the needle of his internal compass dependably points to his family as North. In other words, if something is happening that feels too unfamiliar or challenges a child’s judgment, he is likely to respond in a way that is aligned with his family’s values and his formation at home. The parent-oriented child cares more about what his mother says than what his friends think; the parent-oriented teen is likely to choose to call home for a ride instead of getting in the car with a drunken friend. The peer-oriented child, on the other hand, is more vulnerable when outside of his parents’ direct supervision; he will put his friends’ view of him above his parents’, and may well get in the car with the drunk driver.

Free-range parenting is thus actually the fulfillment of attachment theory. It is how we, after creating a secure attachment, let go of our children as they get olderor, in Skenazy’s words, how we “let grow.” Constant supervision thwarts a child’s ability to develop important qualities such as resourcefulness, self-awareness, and perseverance. But independence with a strong inner compass, a compass that is oriented toward the safety and trustworthiness of healthy family relationships, helps children eventually carry that attached compass away from home and eventually calibrate it for themselves.

Free-range parenting and attachment work best when they go hand in hand: the more attached the child and the more attentive the parent, the better free-ranging will work for them both.


Practical Considerations 

This is not easy to put into practice, of course. There will always be an element of parental fear when a child is unsupervised or doing something a bit risky, especially in a car-dependent, anxious society that has forgotten how good (and how safe) it is for children to have a little reasonable independence. I am convinced that even when my children are well into adulthood, I still will feel anxiety on their behalf, just as I did when they were sleeping babies and I would check on their breathing at night. But how can we overcome such an elemental force as fear? How can we balance the intense drive to protect our children with our desire to help them grow toward directing and protecting themselves?

I would observe here that this particular kind of fear often comes from a sense of isolation. I am the only one that can protect my child; I and I alone stand between my family and the wolf. In other words, many parents who would like to experiment with giving their kids more independence are hesitant because their wider local culture and even infrastructures offer no support. Road and sidewalk designs seem to maximize the danger of cars to kids, and since walking is uncommon except in urban settings, motorists are not accustomed to watching out for pedestrians. Meanwhile, we hear stories of bystanders calling the police on unsupervised children instead of asking questions or giving kids a hand. What if letting your kids walk to the corner store for a Slurpee leads to a police investigation, or worse, a terrible car accident?

The solution to these fearful problems is not to hide children away, however. I suggest, instead, that parents consider three concrete steps to move beyond their fears and concerns.

First, parents can look for ways to make walking safer for their children. Part of the parental compass is teaching children safe walking skills, including using crosswalks and always presuming that motorists are not watching out for pedestrians. But there are other ways to make walking routes safer for your kids. For my family to walk to town by the most direct route, for example, we would have to walk along a long stretch of narrow shoulder on a busy highway. So we explored our neighborhood a bit until we found not one, not two, but three different shortcuts across friendly neighbors’ yards that allow us to bypass the most dangerous part of that road on our walks. You’d be surprised how open many people are to letting you walk across their yards if you just ask first; many are delighted to see a family out walking together instead of hidden away at home behind screens. Are you missing evidence of walkability in your own neighborhood? 

Second, parents can consider how they might influence local infrastructure and laws with free-range kids in mind. Resources such as Strong Towns, for example, offer many ideas for simple (and less simple) ways to slow traffic and develop more human-friendly spaces in neighborhoods of all types. Planting trees along your road may slow traffic considerably, for example, as might adding a few painted lines to the road. If you can find an inexpensive, easy solution to make roads safer for motorists and pedestrians alike, your town government might just go for it. Alternatively, you might be able to get your neighbors to band together to support the creation of speed bumps or sidewalks in particularly dangerous areas. And on the legal side, many states are passing what are often called “reasonable independence laws” that make it clear that letting a twelve-year-old buy ice cream with his buddies does not amount to neglect. Knowing your own state’s laws can help you understand how family-friendly your community is (or isn’t).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, parents can find ways to expand their children’s network of support in the community. Many of us were conditioned as children to see strangers as always dangerous, but in fact, many shopkeepers, restaurant staff, librarians, and other adults who may encounter your children in public are potential allies. You can build a network of friendly adults around town for your kids (and other kids!) by beginning by sending your children into shops where your family’s faces are already familiar; you can even speak to the shopkeeper afterward and let them know they can always call you if they have any concerns. Use good judgment about which places are friendly to kids and which are not, and soon you will find that your children have a range of public places where they have several adult friends whom they could seek out for help in an emergency.

When we parents begin to see our fears as conquerable through prudent solutions, we may also find it easier to let our children experience reasonable levels of independence. As Neufeld and Maté note in their book, if children are oriented securely toward their parents, those parents can help kids extend that attachment toward other worthy adults (such as teachers and shopkeepers) and safe places (such as the pizza parlor or a friend’s home). In this way, children can step out from the safety of the family, not into a world full of dangers, but into a wider social network in which they can learn the resilience and sound judgment they need to grow into flourishing adults. 

Image by EvgeniiAnd and licensed via Adobe Stock.