Free-Range Parenting Style: Exploring the Pros and Cons

Playful girl with family in garden

There are as many parenting styles as there are parents. Moms and dads who choose free-range parenting as their philosophy want their children to take charge of their own problem-solving skills, creativity and ability to think for themselves to learn to make smart choices. This parenting practice is often considered controversial, yet some sing the praises of the more hands-off approach to child-rearing.

What is Free-Range Parenting?

Free-range parenting is largely misunderstood. Many write this parenting style off as neglectful, thinking parents choose to let their kids run amok at too young of an age. Free-range parenting and neglect are very different concepts. In free-range parenting, children's basic needs are met, their being is nurtured, and their parents believe in guiding them to make their own life choices and decisions without much interference. In this manner, children are taught to utilize their inherent skill set to care for themselves, sans parents.

The Philosophy Behind the Practice

Free-range parenting functions on the basic premise that children do not need as much explicit direction and hand-holding as was once believed. In fact, making all decisions for a child can do more harm than good. Free-range parenting teaches children how to function, survive, and be safe, but once the lessons are taught, kids head out into the world to put them into practice without heavy adult hands interfering.

Many parents believe that through free-range parenting, kids learn to authentically experience the world around them and learn to make better choices for themselves at a young age. Parents use free-range parenting to start their kids' process toward independence at a much earlier age, which allows more time to develop skills and autonomy before adulthood.

Characteristics of Free-Range Parenting

Characteristics of free-range parenting largely depend on the family that is putting the practice into play. Every family using principles of free-range parenting decides where to draw the line and what independent activities are age appropriate. One family might allow independent neighborhood play, telling kids to roam and explore, while abiding by certain parameters and being home at a certain time. In contrast, other families have few boundary expectations or time constraints.

Common characteristics of free-range parenting include:

  • Kids find their own means of enjoyment and entertainment, doing mostly unscheduled activities.
  • Parents put an emphasis on outdoor exploration.
  • Parents encourage kids to try new things, learn new skills, and seek out adventure.
  • Parents don't create boundaries based on their fears. They understand and accept that children sometimes get hurt in the learning and exploration process.
  • Parents take a team approach to decision-making. They make many family decisions in the home, but children make decisions regarding their own activities.
Girl rock climbing

Examples of Free-Range Parenting

Examples of free-range parenting vary from parent to parent and household to household. Examples include nearly everything that involves children exploring the world, unsupervised by adults.

Common activities for kids that are deemed appropriate by free-range parents are:

  • Walking to school or the park unsupervised
  • Playing pick up sports at a park instead of a structured, organized team sport
  • Engaging in activities that don't include electronics
  • Climbing trees, skateboarding, or trying new things, with an understanding of safety, but no parental safety net
Children running in a field

Pros of Free-Range Parenting

Many parents argue that there are several crucial benefits to free-range parenting. Some firmly believe that allowing children the time and space to learn the consequences of their actions and to develop independent decision-making skills helps them become more well-rounded adults. Other possible benefits include:

  • Enhanced creativity
  • Increased independence
  • Resilience
  • Greater confidence
  • Healthier lifestyles
  • Increased social skills

Cons of Free-Range Parenting

Just as there are pros to this unique parenting style, there are also some notable cons. This is particularly true when components of free-range parenting are not adhered to. In free-range parenting, kids are taught the skills to be safe and independent before practicing those skills out in the world unsupervised. When parents don't first teach kids the basics of taking care of themselves, free-range parenting looks more like general neglect. Other common cons might include:

  • Children being put in dangerous or compromising situations
  • Leaving kids unsupervised may be problematic, depending on state laws
  • Less community support to aid children in the absence of parents

When the Law Gets Involved

Sending your child out into the big, wide world can do them some serious good, but some laws make free-range parenting difficult, and in some cases, even illegal.

Free-Range Parenting Gone Wrong

One of the basic foundations of free-range parenting is allowing children to explore the world outside of their home independent of their parents' watchful eyes. The high-profile case of Lenore Skenazy, who allowed her then nine year-old son to ride the subway alone, has highlighted free-range parenting in a negative and even neglectful light. There's also the case of Maryland parents who landed in hot water for letting their ten and six year-old children walk home a mile from a local park. Social services showed up on this family's doorstep, enforcing rules onto the guardians, essentially thwarting what they believed to be free-range parenting practices.

Kids waiting in the railway station

Laws Hindering This Parenting Method

In some states, free-range parenting becomes more challenging to put into practice due to laws regarding child supervision. Many states do not have a set age that children can be left unsupervised, but a handful of states do. Maryland law says that children under the age of eight must have adult supervision. Oregon has a similar law, with the no adult supervision requirement starting at age ten. In Illinois, it's against the law to leave a child under age fourteen unsupervised. Check to make sure you're abiding by state law with your parenting choices.

Parenting Practice: A Particularly Personal Choice

Free-range parenting, helicopter parenting, snowplow parenting: they are all vastly different approaches to raising children, and no single approach is considered the best. They all have their pros and cons. Parenting is a very personal choice; so choose the style you gravitate toward the most, and feel free to combine components from several styles. Your parenting experience is completely and uniquely yours, so make no excuses about the path you choose, and be sure to enjoy the wild ride that is parenthood.

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Free-Range Parenting Style: Exploring the Pros and Cons