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Free range parenting

Posted by on Jul. 21, 2013 at 1:19 PM
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This is the FAQ from a website called Free Range Kids. It's long, but worth reading. What are your thoughts on this style of parenting? Do you feel like there are cultural differences between the US and other countries when it comes to the level of parental vigilance that's deemed appropriate? It seems like most of us had a lot more freedom to explore and play on our own as kids than our kids have now. What do you think accounts for the huge cultural changes with regards to parenting in the span of the last generation?

What is “Free-Range Kids”?

Free-Range Kids is a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times.

You have been dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” by the media. How did you earn this title?

About a year ago, I let my 9-year-old ride the subway by himself. He’d been asking us — my husband and me — to please take him someplace and let him find his way home by himself. So my husband and I discussed this. Our boy knows how to read a map, he speaks the language and we’re New Yorkers. We’re on the subway all the time.

That’s how it came to be that one sunny Sunday, after lunch at McDonald’s, I took him to Bloomingdales and left him in the handbag department.

I didn’t leave him unprepared, of course! I gave him a map, a MetroCard, quarters for the phone and $20 for emergencies. Bloomingdale’s sits on top of a subway station on our local line, and it’s always crowded with shoppers. I believed he’d be safe. I believed he could figure out his way. And if he needed to ask someone for directions — which it turns out he did — I even believed the person would not think, “Gee, I was about to go home with my nice, new Bloomingdale’s shirt. But now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: He got home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence. I wrote a little column about his adventure and two days later I was on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News defending myself as NOT “America’s Worst Mom.”

The notion was that I had deliberately put my son in harm’s way (possibly to “prove” something) and I was just incredibly lucky that he made it home. One NPR caller asked why I had given my son “one day of fun” even though he would probably end up dead by nightfall.

I launched my blog that weekend ( to explain my parenting philosophy: I believe in safety. I LOVE safety — helmets, car seats, safety belts. I believe in teaching children how to cross the street and even wave their arms to be noticed. I’m a safety geek! But I also believe our kids do not need a security detail every time they leave the house. Our kids are safer than we think, and more competent, too. They deserve a chance to stretch and grow and do what we did — stay out till the street lights come on.

Were you a Free Range kid? How can you tell if a kid IS “Free-Range”?

A Free-Range Kid is a kid who gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help.

For instance, in the suburbs, many school PTAs have figured out a new way to raise money (God bless ‘em): They auction off the prime drop-off spot right in front of the school — the shortest distance between car and door.

But at the mall, or movie theater or dentist’s office, that would be considered the handicapped parking spot — the one you need if you are really disabled. So somehow, in our understandable desire to do the very best for our kids, we have started treating them as if they’re handicapped! As if they couldn’t possibly walk a couple of blocks, or make their own lunch or climb a tree without hurting themselves, or struggling too much.

Free-Range Kids are sort of old-fashioned. They’re kids who are expected to WANT to grow up and do things on their own. And then, when they show us they’re ready, we allow ‘em to.

I was a Free-Range Kid because we all were back when I was growing up, before cable TV started showing abductions 24/7 and finding the weirdest, saddest stories from around the world to make parents think that no child is safe doing anything on his own anymore. And it’s not just cable TV to blame: It’s most of the media we parents encounter. I read a four-page article in a parenting magazine the other day on “How to Have a Fun and Totally Safe Day in the Sun” — as if it is so hard to have a safe day outside with your kid that you need four pages of instructions! We are bombarded by warnings that make us feel our kids need constant supervision and help or they will die.

That’s true if your child is gravely ill, but otherwise it is not true — as the presence of all us former Free-Range Kids proves.

What prompted you to found the Free Range Kids movement?

I think it was the cameramen and make-up ladies at The Today Show.

While everyone was bustling around preparing me and my son Izzy for our interview, they asked what we were there to talk about. I said, “I let him ride the subway.” 

“I did that at his age!” said a couple of the cameramen. “It was fun!” The make-up ladies remembered walking to school. Everyone started reminiscing about their childhoods — the freedom, the joy, the simple fun of walking down the block to knock on a friend’s door to come out and play. And then they’d shake their heads and say, “But I would never let my kids do that today.”

Why not?

“Times have changed.”

They’re right of course — nothing stays the same. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, crime was on the rise. It went up and up until it peaked around 1990. The strange thing, though, is that since then, it’s been going back down. Dramatically. Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to Dept. of Justice statistics. So — unbelievable as it seems — if you were playing outside as a kid in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!

It doesn’t feel that way (at ALL), because when our parents were raising us, there was no CSI.  Law & Order was something you believed in, not something on the air 8 nights a week, made to look depressingly real. The other day I got a letter from a guy in an old Brooklyn neighborhood where they shoot a lot of Law & Order scenes. On TV, it’s always the backdrop for a rape or murder. In real life, he said, it’s a safe, quiet safe neighborhood — and therein lies the tale: There’s a big disconnect between the horrors on TV and the reality we live in — the safest time for children (in America, that is) in the history of this disease-plagued, famine-prone, war-wracked world.

I founded the Free-Range Kids movement in part to be one small voice saying, “Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don’t have to be quite so terrified!” It’s an attempt to figure out how we got so much more worried for our kids in just one generation, and to separate the real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell (like baby safety product manufacturers who have to scare us about a remote danger like “traumatic head injury from toddling” before we’ll buy their products, like the “ThudGuard”  — a helmet for kids to wear all day when they’re learning to walk).

What is a helicopter parent?

It’s a sort of disparaging term for parents who believe their child is so vulnerable — to injury, to teasing, to disease and disappointment — that they have to sort of hover (like a helicopter) over the child, ready to swoop in if anything remotely “bad” happens.

I’ve heard of helicopter parents who call their children’s college professors to complain about a grade their kid got on a paper. A paper they might have even helped the kid write.

Why were our parents different from today’s parents?

Our parents were watching Dallas and Dynasty, where the biggest crime was big hair. Today’s parents are drowning in bad news that comes to us instantaneously from around the world. We hear about abductions in Portugal and Aruba. I can instantly name you five girls who met ghastly ends — Caylee, Maddie, Natalee, Jon Benet, Jaycee — but our parents could never do that.

When your brain is saturated with horrifying stories like those, it is hard to focus on the millions of children NOT murdered. We don’t know THEIR names. We know the ones who are GONE.  So when we try to decide, “Gee, is it safe for my child to walk to school?” we flash on the stories we have heard. Also — one interesting brain fact: The most memorable stories come to mind first. And whatever comes to mind first we usually think of as the most common. That’s just human nature, but it’s also wrong.

Anyway, in addition to all these gruesome images, we also live in crazy lawsuit time. That means that we have gotten used to schools and park districts banning things with even the tiniest chance of causing an accident that might cause a parent to sue. So our playgrounds are stripped of merry-go-rounds and slides that are higher than a worm. And we get so used to all these “safety” precautions (which are actually lawsuit precautions) that we start thinking of everyday childhood as inherently unsafe.

If you buy the DVD “Sesame Street: Old School” you’ll see kids having the world’s best time. It’s a collection of Sesame Street highlights from its first years, 1969 — 1974, and it shows kids playing Follow the Leader through a vacant lot, climbing through a giant pipe, balancing on a piece of wood, laughing as they wind their way through some sheets on the line to dry. Of course they’re happy: This was public television trying to model ideal childhood for pre-schoolers. It was put on the air after countless psychologists and child specialists signed off on it. But at the very beginning of the DVD, before you see any of this, there’s a warning:

“For adult viewing only.”

In just one generation, what was considered a normal, happy, HEALTHY childhood has become considered WILDLY dangerous. Litigiously dangerous. 

We’re swimming in fear soup — fear of lawsuits, fear of injury, fear of abductions, fear of blame. (People love to blame parents for not being “responsible” enough.) And Free-Range Kids is trying to paddle out.

Your new book has a section titled “The A-Z review of everything you might be worried about” in which you debunk many parental fears. Did you come across any particularly outrageous parental concerns?

One very huge concern is baby formula. So many of my friends couldn’t breastfeed and were consumed with guilt for “making” their kids drink formula. But 80% of moms are using some formula by the time their children are 6 months old. That’s a lot of guilt about something very common and not harmful. A lot of parents today (including me) were raised on formula. It’s not rat poison.

You’ve offered readers a number of “Free Range Commandments,” one of which is “Fail!” But we don’t want our kids to fail…do we?

We sure do!

It’s true, one of my Free-Range Commandments is, “Fail! It’s the New ‘Succeed!’”

We don’t want our kids to ONLY fail, of course. But if they don’t fail sometimes, they won’t learn that they can get back up and go on with their lives.

For instance, we don’t want our kids to fall off a bike. Who does? But we do want them to learn how to ride. So we have two choices: We can hold onto their handlebars€¦forever. That way they’ll never, ever fall. Or we can wish them luck and then — let go.

Chances are, if we do that, they will, at some point, fall. When they get up again, they’ll have two huge things going for them:

They’ll know they can fall and get back up again. If that’s not a life lesson, what is?

They’ll be learning how to actually ride a bike.

Most things in life take some tumbles before we get it right. As Thomas Edison said, when asked how it felt to fail 10,000 times before he figured out the light bulb, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

You are raising your kids in New York City, is it harder to be a Free Range parent in the city?

It’s not that hard anywhere. It just takes some time on the parents’ part. For us in the city, Free-Range means teaching our kids how to take public transportation. But in the ‘burbs it involves teaching them how to ride their bikes. And in either place, we also teach kids how to be safe in the very unlikely event they encounter someone creepy.

I interviewed Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. You know — the folks who put the kids’ pictures on the milk cartons (and failed to mention the vast majority were runaways or taken by the non-custodial parent in a divorce case. Oh well.) 

Anyway, when I said that I think “stranger danger” is way overblown, Allen — to my great surprise — totally agreed! “Our message is exactly the one you’re trying to convey,” said he. “We have been trying to debunk they myth of ‘stranger danger.’” 

What do we both suggest? Teach your kids TO talk to strangers. That way, if they’re ever creeped out by someone in the proverbial white van, they can run to the man across the street, raking his leaves, and say, “Help! I’m being followed!” Or they can run into a shop and say, “Call the police!” Or, “Can I please borrow your phone?”

Confident kids who feel at home in the world are SAFER than coddled kids who have been taught they are dainty prey without mom or dad by their side. When Allen interviewed children who had escaped potential abductions, here’s what they had in common: They stood up for themselves. They kicked, screamed, bit, and ran.

So teach your kids to do that. Same way you teach them to, “Stop, drop and roll” in the unlikely even they ever find themselves on fire. And then — send them out to build that muscle called confidence.

“Our message to parents is you don’t have to live in fear. You don’t have to feel you have to lock your children in a room.”

That’s not me talking. That’s the guy who put the pictures on the milk cartons.

You have experienced the media from all angles, as a newspaper columnist, a news consumer and most recently as the sensational subject of a media storm. Has your view of the media changed as a result of this?

Wow! That’s a question I never got before. I guess I hadn’t quite realized how much the media loves parenting controversies. It loves to pit me against a “helicopter” parent, as if we are two different species. But the fact is, helicopter parents and Free-Rangers are not that different. We BOTH want our kids to be safe, and happy, and responsible. It’s just a question of what we see as dangerous. Helicopters see disappointment as dangerous. I see it as bracing (even though I do hate watching my kids when they can’t get what they want, or are really mad at themselves). Helicopter parents also see the outside world as unspeakably dangerous. I see it as a place children have always explored and messed around in. I was talking to a representative from Tide last week and he told me kids are not getting as dirty as they used to! That’s sad.

Anyway, back to the media: Someone wrote to my blog with this great analogy: If a Martian came to earth and wanted to understand what life is like down here, you could give him this choice. Does he want to know how 99.9 percent of people live their lives? Or does he want to know about the .1%?

Chances are, he’d want to hear about the 99.9%. But when we turn on the TV, we see the .1% — the horrible stories that make the news, the horrible plots that keep us glued to CSI. And then we turn off the TV and say, “What a crazy world we live in.”

That’s why one of the “How to Start Going Free-Range” tips I give in my book is so simple: Next time you are going to watch one of those crime shows, turn off the TV and take a walk outside instead — maybe with your kids. Talk to some neighbors, look around, get a feel for the place again. THIS is the world you’re living in, not the one on TV.

What should we do to liberate our kids without going crazy with worry?

Besides read my book, you mean?

Well, I do give a lot of tips in it, and I’ll give a few of them here.

Warn your family beforehand, then turn off your cell phone for a day. Better still, leave it on the nightstand so you won’t be tempted to press, “On.” Why? Mostly because one morning my 10-year-old called to ask me, “Mom? Can I have another piece of banana bread?” And I realized: Our kids are getting used to us making ALL their decisions. Even the banana bread ones. Time to stop treating them like toddlers. (At least, once they actually AREN’T toddlers.)

When you’re standing around with a bunch of other parents all waiting for soccer to start, or school to open, or the bus to come pick them up, volunteer to watch all the kids yourself. Give the other parents a little break. This way you are creating community. It’s your way of saying we’re all in this together and we can help each other out. It’s also a way of saying, “Look, I don’t think anything so horrible is about to happen here at this bus stop that we need five adults to fight for the lives of five or six children.”

If the other parents are too nervous to accept your kind offer, flip it around. Ask them to watch your kid! This creates a sense of shared responsibility, too. And gives you time to go to Starbucks.

Get a little perspective on this strange, scared parenting era we are living in by visiting a baby superstore with your oldest living relative. (Yes, always best if they’re living.) Go around looking at all the things like baby knee pads and infra-red video baby monitors asking, “Which of these things did YOU need when you were raising us?” (Be prepared for a little scorn.)

Visit my website! You’ll find lts of stories of people gradually letting their kids go — and them coming back safe and sound.

Good luck to all us parents — and kids!

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

by on Jul. 21, 2013 at 1:19 PM
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by Ruby Member on Jul. 21, 2013 at 1:30 PM
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 There are some good posts here that date back through the years on Lenore's philosophy.

I am a big fan of hers and she is a very nice lady.

I am also a free range parent, but I struggle with it at times. I had a lot of awful things happen to me as a child, and I know it was due to a severe lack of supervision. It's a difficult balance in today's world.

by Thatwoman on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:15 PM
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I didn't find it a difficult balance at all.

My kids were supervised at all times. They got to play, explore, do experiments and have adventures of their own devising.

It's artificial, I believe, to suggest that supervision necessarily comes with interference or direction, or that freedom to explore requires a lack of supervision.

I agree with exactly 1/2 of Lenore's philsophy, and the other half is, in my opinion, stupid and dangerous.

Quoting Radarma:

 There are some good posts here that date back through the years on Lenore's philosophy.

I am a big fan of hers and she is a very nice lady.

I am also a free range parent, but I struggle with it at times. I had a lot of awful things happen to me as a child, and I know it was due to a severe lack of supervision. It's a difficult balance in today's world.

by Destiny on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:21 PM

There is a fine balance between helicopter and free range. No way I'd allow my 9 year old to find his way home alone on the subway. Nope. I leave my 9.5 yr old alone at home for different periods of time. Some agree with me, some do not, but she is fine. 

by on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:26 PM

I was a free range kid, like most of the kids I knew (1960s and 70s).  At 5 I was allowed to go buy myself candy at the corner store, walking a couple of blocks along a street with a 45 MPH speed limit.  By the time I was 10 I was bopping around in a moderate sized city by myself and staying outdoors when I wasn't at school or eating a meal.   We lived across the street from a seedy motel and next door to a halfway house for ex cons.  My best friend's parents, just down the street, were heroin addicts, and an extremely busy, commercial street was one block over.   I look back and wonder at all of us, running around unsupervised, but nothing bad happened to us kids--at least that I knew of.  

I'm not a free range parent, but that's partly because I have a kid with a disability and I have to be more measured.  In my suburban neighborhood, there's no big bunch of neighborhood kids out all the time playing and socializing and going places together.  All the kids are at their summer programs or soccer camp or music camp, etc.   Mine, too.  The neighborhoods are just different nowadays.  

by Platinum Member on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:31 PM
I'm somewhere in the middle...more free range than some and less free range than others. My kids are generally outside with neighborhood friends. They know their boundaries and follow the rules. They are almost always in a group of 4-6 kids.
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by Bronze Member on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:35 PM
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I'm a full fledged believer in free range parenting and follow Lenore's blog closely. That doesn't mean it's always easy. I love and worry about my children as much as any other parent walking this Earth, but I believe fully that our overly cautious, paranoid ways of modern day parenting have caused a myriad of problems for our children--most of which don't become huge issues until our kids are adults.

People can parent any way they see fit. But the biggest thing that I'd love more parents to understand is that free range parenting is not a fancy synonym for laziness. If my child, for example, gets into a small altercation with another child at the park and I don't intervene, it's not because I don't feel like it. It's because at my core I truly believe he is better off handling it himself, provided it doesn't get totally out of hand. If I let my child walk to school, it's not because I'm too lazy to drive him. It's because I've researched the risks and weighed them vs the benefits and realize that him dying in my own car via accident is thousands of times more likely than him being abducted, etc.
by Platinum Member on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:57 PM
I thought I was free range until coming to Europe. Their play grounds are completely different. Yesterday, I saw a climbing tower combined with a merry go round because you want your kids to be able to climb 12 + feet in the air while being spun around.
by AllieCat on Jul. 21, 2013 at 2:59 PM
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Her premise that if one does not parent in the manner she does they lack common sense, they are not raising their children to be independent and otherwise, is nothing more than her own personal opinion.  It is most certainly not fact.

She has some good and valid points.  However, in my opinion, her overall way of parenting can be dangerous and lacking.  I am not interested in that.

There needs to be a balance.  I have no problem being the parent who allows their children freedom, leaves them to their own devices to deal with consequences of their actions, yet supervising and being the actual adult in the situation.  I can allow my child to fall but not push them to do so and I can help them pick themselves up without doing it for them.

I have not, nor will I, allow my child free range in the aspect of doing what they want, when they want, where they want and how they want.  One example.....going 'there' with no purpose other than to be 'there' isn't something I have ever subscribed to.

So far, so good.  I make mistakes, my children make mistakes.  I am not going to relinquish being a parent to the point of my children suffering the possible consequences.

by Roma on Jul. 21, 2013 at 3:18 PM
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In many ways I am a free range parent.

In many ways I am a helicopter parent.

When they were smaller and needed more supervision, I supervised more. 

As they got older, I let go.

Today I dropped my 17 year old off for a week of orchestra camp.  I won't see her again until Friday evening, when they do their performance.  She will likely text me very infrequently, and I will do my best to leave her alone and let her savor a week of no parenting.  I have let her do this once a week since she was 13.

When I was a kid, I was unsupervised most of the time.  I was allowed at 13 to take the train to the ferry to the subway and wander around Manhattan with a friend or two.  When I was 16 I was working and living on the boats at the South Street Seaport Museum, and there were no cell phones or any way for my mother to know if I was alive or dead lol.

I know parents who are complete helicopter parents.  I know one boy who has to be in constant contact with a parent, even if they know where he is and who he is with, even if they spoke to him two hours ago.  I think that can be debilitating.

I think 9 years old is too young to be on the subway by themselves to find their way home.

I think 13, maybe not so much.

by Gina on Jul. 21, 2013 at 3:42 PM
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We do age appropriate free-ranging.

In other words, my 12 year old has a LOT more freedom than my 4 year old, but, my 4 year old has a lot more freedom than the 4 year old across the street.

My kids' amount of freedom ebbs and flows based on how they handle it. If they begin making poor decisions, they get reeled in until they can do better.

For the most part, my kids are well-behaved (if very loud) and take to their freedom quite well. They know we're here if they need us or want us.

As to the subway, if my children had grown up in an environment where they took the subway pretty much daily with us, I'd trust them to do it alone at 9.5/10 or so.

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