When Danielle and Alexander Metiv of Silver Spring, MD, allowed their two children—ages 6 and 10—to walk home from a neighborhood park alone, they likely had no idea how controversial their decision would be. They were, in their opinions, operating within the constraints of what was once considered “normal childhood” behavior and teaching their children to be self-reliant. Nevertheless, mayhem ensued as parents across the country questioned the Metivs’ radical, free-range parenting approach.
There are certainly legitimate reasons to be concerned about children navigating our often-dangerous society sans supervision—a point that many dissenting parents were all too willing to mention. But what if there is some truth to the Metivs’ perspective? What if all of our helicoptering is turning out overly dependent kids who won’t be able to function away from our watchful gaze?
We spoke with experts who say that teaching children independence while keeping them safe and childlike is absolutely possible, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s what’s best for kids anyway. Here’s how to practice “free-range parenting” so that it achieves parental goals while keeping everyone safe and sound.
Know the laws.
Despite best-intentioned attempts to teach your child independence, all can go awry if your decision to leave your 10-year-old home alone with the family dog is actually illegal. “Some states have laws about what age a child can stay home alone or do other tasks that you might feel your child is ready for,” says Mercedes Samudio, a licensed clinical social worker and parent coach. “Be sure to be aware of these laws before you begin to teach your child a task.”
Lay the ground rules.
Once you know the legal guidelines for parenting in your state, it’s time to set the rules and expectations that will govern behavior in your individual household. And you need to understand that while you may legitimately want to give your child more responsibility, he may not be mature enough to function within the boundaries you set.
“You have to negotiate the ground rules for allowing a free-range experience,” says Dr. Richard Horowitz, parenting coach and author of Family Centered Parenting. “For example, your 8-year-old may want to play in the backyard with a friend on the next street. Discuss with your child how he will safely get to and return from his friend’s house; tell him he has to call home when he arrives; and ask how he will know what time to return. If your child can answer questions to your satisfaction, then he is ready to have the freedom.”
Give them space and support.
Child and adolescent family therapist Darby Fox likens responsible free-range parenting to sheep-herding. You have to let children roam, she says, but you need to be there in case they stray or struggle.
“Parents can glean benefits from the concept of free-range by acknowledging that it is important to give their children practice in becoming independent,” Fox explains. “Let your children make choices about activities; expect them to entertain themselves at the park while you read a book; then, walk home with them allowing them to choose the way. Encourage them to address their own battles first with friends, teachers or coaches. When they call with questions, ask what they think first. If it’s appropriate, go with their choice even though it is not yours. Redirect if need be, but use it as a moment to encourage decisions and self-processing. If parenting is practiced this way there is no need to be fearful.”
Educate and inform your children.
There is something to be said for youthful innocence and the ability for kids to look at the world through un-jaded and fearless eyes. But when it comes to teaching independence, it is still critical the parents prepare their children for the realities of life.
“Invite someone from the crime department in your local police department to visit your neighborhood and educate your kids about the best self-protection and self-defense strategies,” suggests Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “For example, teach them that if a suspicious stranger driving a car asks them for help finding their lost pet, they are to never get near or inside the car. They should run—but in the opposite direction that the car is facing. In the time it will take for the driver to turn his car around and follow your child, he might a block ahead and able to scream for help.”
Trust your gut.
As always, the best parenting advice anyone can receive—whether you subscribe to free-range ideologies or not—is to forget what the blogs, and the news reports, and the moms in your neighborhood, and simply trust your own intuition. “Parents must do what they believe in their gut is right and best for their children,” says Walfish. “It is up to each of us to decide our family values. Also, we cannot predict life’s twists and turns, ups and downs, letdowns and disappointments. It is individually up to each of us to make decisions based on our belief system and conscience. The worst scenario would be to make a choice and then live with regret later in life.”
Want to learn more about free-range parenting? Check out freerangekids.com.