There have always been many different ways to raise children. When you become a parent, everyone likes to have their say on how they think you should do things. Your grandma tells you how breastfeeding won’t fill the baby up, and how formula will keep them fuller for longer (there is no proof of this!) Your mom might disagree with your decision to co-sleep, saying it’s dangerous and can lead to cot death (it doesn’t if you follow the correct guidelines!) Chances are you will hear the phrase ‘You’re making a rod for your own back’ more than once, whether it is referring to your decision not to follow the ‘cry it out’ method of sleep training, or allowing your child to stop eating when he or she is full. So deciding on the way you want to bring up your kids can be tricky. There are so many styles and ideas. One of the newest parenting styles is called “free-range parenting”.
So What Exactly is Free Range Parenting?
Free-range parenting is the idea of raising children to be independent without the need for overbearing parental supervision. Parents raise their children, allowing them to make decisions, as long as there is no risk of personal harm. This concept was coined by Benjamin Spock in 1946. He’d written a book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which became a bestseller, selling 500,000 copies in six months. He’d noticed that common childcare and rearing practices were cruel and didn’t meet the emotional needs of the child. He wanted to introduce psychoanalysis into paediatrics, by exploring how the choices we make as parents can affect our children. The first line of the book reads “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” This was written to encourage mothers to listen to their own instincts and not follow the strict regiments of their mothers or grandmothers.
Lenore Skenazy is a modern day supporter of this movement. She is an American blogger, journalist and author. In 2008, she wrote an article for The New York Sun titled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone”. This earned her the title of “America’s Worst Mom” and many people had something to say about her choices as a parent. Skenazy didn’t let this phase her. On the back of this hate and backlash to her article, she founded Free Range Kids, a website dedicated to the free-range parenting movement. The by-line of this website is “How to raise safe, self-reliant children (without going nuts with worry!)”, referring to the “helicopter parenting” that is the norm today. This website is designed to show that letting your children make their own choices, and giving them a little more freedom than society would deem safe, isn’t going to do your children any harm. In fact, it’s going to help them grow up into self-sufficient adults, with the ability to get by in the world without relying on others. There’s even a section on there where you can meet other like-minded parents. It’s hard enough making “mom friends” at the best of times, but it’s even harder when they have different parenting ideals!
It’s All About Choices
This way of raising children teaches them to make decisions for themselves. For example, in giving them a choice of what they’d like for their dinner, they’re taking responsibility for what they’re eating. If they don’t like it, they’ll ask for something else and most likely, not ask for it again. As a parent, the most frustrating thing is serving up something to your child and having them turn their nose up at it. You might think that in giving a child the choice of what to eat is ridiculous, that they’re always going to choose “bad” food. However, by letting a child choose, you’re taking away the mystery of the “forbidden” foods. For example, It’s been shown that children who are allowed a small glass of wine with a meal from about the age of 13, are less likely to go out and binge drink when they hit legal drinking age. It’s the same with food. Once the taboo has gone, it’s not attractive to them.
To Bed or Not to Bed…That is the Question
Another example of how to give your children choice is to let them choose their own bedtimes. Climbing the stairs for what feels like the millionth time to put your child back into bed gets tedious. In letting them decide when they want to go to bed, they’ll go when they’re tired. Of course, to begin with, there’s the appeal of staying up late. That will soon wear off though when they’re exhausted the next day. Again, it’s the novelty factor. Children love pushing the boundaries, trying to figure out that point where their parents will snap. If there’s no boundary, they can’t push it, can they? They will eventually set their own boundaries.
Helicopter vs Free Range Parenting
As mentioned above, helicopter parenting is the opposite of free-range and has become the norm in today’s society. This phrase refers to the parents who constantly hover over their children, doing everything for them and never taking an eye off them. If you deviate from this type of parenting, you’re seen as a bad parent. God forbid that your child climbs over the sofa arm, they might hurt themselves. Or why would you glance at your cell phone while your kid is at the park trying to climb up the slide? They might need your help. Cocooning our children in bubble-wrap doesn’t do anyone any favours. They become too dependent and we’re left with needy children who can’t or won’t do anything for themselves. But for whatever reason, over protection has become normal and that is why “free-range parenting” is so frowned upon.
Catch Them When They Fall But Don’t Prop Them Up
Several psychologists have pointed out some flaws with this style of child-rearing. For example, some children might not be able to handle that level of responsibility. It has been shown that there are some differences between how boys and girls learn, and girls are also known to mature quicker. If children are given too much responsibility before they feel ready, their self-esteem could suffer, so children need to know that there is a parent there, to back them up and pick them up when they fail. If they don’t feel like they have that security there, they might retreat within themselves and never have the confidence to make decisions for themselves. It all depends on the individual child. You make that decision based on your child. As Spock said, “Trust yourself.”
Trust Your Own Judgement
There are obvious risks associated with this approach. While older generations used to let their children play out all day, giving them the responsibility to walk home alone, and trusting them not to get into danger, things have changed quite dramatically. Because of the rise of social media, child predators appear to be much more prevalent. Whether the actual numbers of crimes like child abductions have risen or not isn’t clear, but because the news is more accessible, it appears to be more common. These things are every parent’s worst nightmare, so naturally, we want to minimize the risks of harm to our children, but we have to strike a balance. Teaching them the dos and don’ts of being out alone, and making sure they have strategies in place to deal with different situations, will make you both feel safer.
In summary, there are pros and cons to this style of parenting. Here are a few:
- Children can learn to trust their own judgements
- It can help to bring out the personality of a child
- They learn to take responsibility for their actions
- Children will watch less TV and want to go outside for adventures
- There are more dangers around
- It can affect a child’s confidence and self-esteem
- Society may judge you for not “bubble wrapping” your child
- Some children may not be able to handle that level of responsibility
So there we have it. A guide to free-range parenting. It might be for you, it might not. As with all parenting choices, you have to do whatever works best for you, and as a family. Every decision you make as parents could have either a positive or negative impact on your children but you won’t know that until that choice has been made. Make a decision on how you want to raise your children – you, not society and not the media. There is nothing wrong with taking an eclectic approach and making up your own parenting style, taking bits and pieces from many different ways to parent!
All we really want as parents is to raise confident children, and nobody knows our children better than us.
Remember – “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”