The Strange Thing About ‘Free-Range Parenting’ Is That The Phrase Exists

After two children walking home from school were picked up by police and their parents were investigated by Child Protective Services under suspicion of neglect, I had no idea at the time that there was anything special about the case. It seemed ludicrous, but also like a fluke. It was a strange story that would create divided opinions and would then fade away.

When it turned into the catalyst for a national debate, I soon learned that at least part of it was over something called “free-range parenting.” This initially confused me — I thought it had just been called “parenting.”

But “free-range parenting” isn’t a term given by observers of this phenomenon. It’s an actual ideology, one that many parents have latched onto as part of their child-raising strategy. The idea is to foster independence in children as they grow by gradually letting them do more and more things on their own, like walk a mile home from school by themselves instead of needing a guardian or waiting for a ride.

The fact that such a phrase exists is a source of contention for different reasons. Those in support of letting their children go out unsupervised tend to lament the fact that what was once a common thing is now considered a “movement,” while those who aren’t as fond of it will argue that teaching responsibility is fine, but that “free-range parenting” is putting the politics of an ideology over children’s safety.

“How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?” asked Danielle Meitiv, the mother of the two children.

“We are more scared of another person calling the police on us than we are that anything bad will happen,” said another parent, Russell Max Simon.

If indeed letting your children walk around unsupervised is the reason the term exists, I’d have a little bit of an easier time understanding it. Letting a child walk a short distance home from school or go to a nearby park is not something that I would call radical or out of the ordinary — if that were so, I’d probably feel that my own childhood were a little more exciting. Walking home without a parent is something that I and most other kids at my elementary and middle schools did. Sometimes it was out of necessity, and in other cases because some parents felt their children were old enough to do so.

Perhaps unintentionally, the debate has sometimes taken a very black-and-white approach to the subject. It often doesn’t take into account that parents might make different decisions based on how they feel their children are able to cope or the safety of their neighborhood. What has often resulted is one side attacking the other for either being too strict or too dangerous, too much of a helicopter parent or too politically focused.

While I lived in a safe neighborhood, I’ve also lived in a country where crime has been steadily falling. It’s true that the safety of children is paramount — and there will always be the type of person who will call the police on a child for laughing — but it’s also true that being overprotective can be harmful. Letting your child learn independence and keeping them safe don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it’s fair to admit that finding that balance can be difficult.

With that said, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that while our country may be getting safer, people are becoming more afraid. The fact that there is such an intense debate over this, or the fact that the parents of the two children could still be in legal trouble, strikes me as overzealous. What I’m used to as a normal part of my childhood is now being labeled by some as neglect and abuse, which is difficult to take in. It’s strange to think that what I did during my time growing up is worthy of a name, of a “movement,” especially given that my childhood wasn’t all that long ago.

Bringing these issues to light has, at the very least, caused many parents to think about their choices, and has fueled a large debate about safety for children and what’s best for them. In the end, that isn’t too terrible.

[Photo by Elizabeth Edwards/Flickr]