Is Free-Range Parenting For You? Experts Assess the Relaxed Approach

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Finding the right parenting style is a delicate matter. Helicopter parenting, for example, can stunt a child’s emotional growth, leading many parents to look for a different solution. Enter: free-range parenting, a style that’s been around for years, but is now seeing a resurgence.

Free-range parenting has been jokingly compared to a more laidback approach child-rearing common in the ’80s and early ’90s. But what does free-range parenting entail exactly, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of raising kids in a more relaxed manner? Here’s what experts want you to know before diving in.

What Is Free-Range Parenting?

At its core, free-range parenting is a style where parents give kids a little more freedom to live and explore on their own terms. “It’s raising children in a way that promotes their ability to explore the world without necessarily having the parent always there, watching and guiding,” says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and the Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA. “It goes back to the old days where kids could go outside and play, and not have to have so much protection and guidance.”

“The old term was laissez-faire parenting,” says Robert Keder, MD, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental behavior at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. The term “free-range parenting” was coined by blogger Lenore Skenazy, who was criticized for letting her 9-year-old son take the subway in New York City alone at his request. Skenazy later wrote a book called “Free-Range Kids,” which was published in 2010.

Keder says free-range parenting popped back up again over the last decade. “It is much more flexible and child-directed than helicopter or tiger parenting, which is very rigid.”

Mendez says that free-range parenting focuses on finding opportunities for kids to test the skills that they’ve been taught, like looking both ways before crossing the street, being smart with money, and steering clear of strangers. “They can problem solve and have an open range to be able to experiment, try things out, and explore stuff on their own in the process,” she says.

Mendez stresses that this lack of constant supervision isn’t used on babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. “We’re looking at 8, 9, 10-year-olds that can better fend for themselves,” she says.

What Does Free-Range Parenting Look Like?

Kids whose parents practice free-range parenting may be allowed to roam their neighborhood alone or with friends, with the understanding that they will be home by dinnertime, Mendez says. Parents also may be more comfortable letting kids walk to the store alone or play in another area of the home unsupervised.

For younger children, free-range parenting may mean allowing toddlers to figure out how to solve a puzzle or use a toy on their own. “It doesn’t promote jumping in and solving everything right away,” Mendez says.

Free-range parenting can also include letting infants and babies demonstrate to their parents when they’re ready to stop nursing, and allowing older children to pick what they do and don’t eat, Dr. Keder says.

The Benefits of Free-Range Parenting

Free-range parenting encourages creative play, Mendez says, which is beneficial for developing minds. “You don’t have to tell the kid how to be creative. You let them know that this is the toy and how you play with it, but they can go on and do their own cognitive processing of what they’ll do with the toy.” Creativity is how kids learn, Keder says. “It helps develop problem solving skills on both the thinking level and emotional level.”

This style “gives kids permission to experiment and explore,” Mendez says. Free-range parenting also helps kids understand cause and effect, she says. Meaning, if they don’t remember to put on sunscreen before playing outside, they may get a sunburn, or if they’re not careful when riding their bike, they could run into the sidewalk and get hurt.

The Challenges and Drawbacks of Free-Range Parenting

Free-range parenting has its challenges, however. While kids are often happy with this parenting style because they get a sense of responsibility and call the shots for themselves, they can also struggle with being told “no” because they’re so used to making their own decisions, Keder says.

As free-range kids get older, they may have more trouble than other children with dealing with peer pressure or substances, Keder says. Kids raised in a free-range household can struggle with rules, too, Mendez says. “If the kid never has structure and foundation, that will bode poorly for them,” she says. “It’s important to understand why rules exist and why we can do this and that.”

It’s also difficult to be a free-range parent now. “Kids playing outside by themselves these days can present a problem,” Mendez says. “Your neighbors may report you.” There are, however, degrees of free-range parenting and not everyone allows their children this high a level of freedom, Mendez says. The challenge of free-range parenting is, according to Mendez, striking the right balance and “figuring out how to prompt that freedom in children and how to keep them safe.”

Related: Parenting Without Diapers: Elimination Communication, Explained

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