When and how to give kids free range

Growing up in a Denver suburban home with a single mom, my younger sister and I were home alone a lot. We had chores, rules and the freedom to play outside on our own. On summer days when mom had to work (which was most days), we’d finish our chores as quickly as possible so we could get on our bikes and ride around the neighborhood or walk a few blocks to a friend’s house or the A&W for ice cream. We’d call and check in with mom often, but for the most part, our days were our own.

I raised my three sons much the same way. As they progressively grew older, their responsibilities increased—everything from the chores they were expected to do to the distance they could wander from home without supervision. Our south Fort Collins neighborhood is surrounded on two sides by natural areas and I know many adventures were had in those wide-open spaces. The other two sides are bordered by very busy streets; they presented more of a concern for me, but with safety rules discussed and practiced, I allowed my sons to solo navigate them, too. 

As the boys got older, the leash got longer; I allowed them to go farther away from home as they demonstrated good judgement and responsibility. Of course, I instructed them along the way about how to keep themselves safe—everything from discussing “stranger danger” to adamantly insisting they wear helmets when riding on wheeled equipment, like bikes and skate boards. Beyond that, my guys had to travel in a pack or at least a pair. They had to look out for one another and exercise “strength in numbers.” 

Since my boys grew up right on the cusp of the time when everyone from kindergartners on up have cell phones, they used more primitive modes of communication for checking in. Either they had to call from wherever they were or keep an ear open for the “come home now” alarm. Very often, when I wanted the boys to come home for lunch or dinner, I’d stand on the front porch and whistle—loudly! They would come running.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a “free-range” kid and parent. I was allowed the freedom to roam and play and explore the world on my own, and I afforded my sons the same freedom. 

Freedom from fear
Now, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous when they went off on their own. I read the news and was aware that kids get abducted, but I tempered that news with the belief that society has access to much more of it than in previous decades, so our perception of crime against kids has increased more than the crimes themselves. 

According to a Gallup survey, violent crime has been declining for the past two decades; people are safer now than “back in the day.” Data from a the 2014 Larimer County Child Health Survey conducted by the Health District of Northern Larimer County shows that 94 percent of survey respondents (Larimer County residents) feel they live in a supportive neighborhood where there is mutual trust and respect. 

In a WebMD.com story, Lenore Skenazy, A.K.A. “America’s Worst Mom” turned author, keynote speaker and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement, says, “As it turns out, we’re living in about the safest time in history. But if you pay attention to 24-hour cable news, which brings us the worst stories from around the world, you’ll likely believe otherwise.”

On her blog, Skenazy says, “Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don’t have to be quite so terrified! The movement is 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. We all feel a little nervous when we first send our kids walking off to school or send them on overnight camp or whatever. But actually those things are not dangerous.”

Skenazy began writing about free-range parenting after she was chastised for allowing her then 9-year-old son to ride a New York subway alone. Living in New York City, the boy was accustomed to using public transportation, and Skenazy equipped him with maps, money and confidence. She and her husband felt he was prepared.

Free-range firestorm
As this article is being written, two parents in Maryland are under fire—for the second time—for allowing their two children—ages 10 and 6—to walk home alone from a neighborhood park. In that state, it’s illegal to leave children younger than 8 years old home alone or unattended in a car, but the law doesn’t specify outdoor play. According to the news story, “Their actions have sparked a debate about what now has been dubbed free-range parenting and what 50 years ago was considered letting children play.”

And what a debate it is. Criticism of free-range parents varies from saying they’re too lazy to keep track of their kids to they’re negligent. Supporters of free-range parenting say it’s how kids learn coping and independent thinking skills, and that they won’t let fear rule their lives. They also point out the damaging effects of their cautious counterparts who fall on the other end of the spectrum, the helicopter parents. The parents who hover over their children and swoop in to save them whenever they get in a tight spot—even when they’re in college.

Wendee Brungardt, a Fort Collins mom with three sons, feels the relationship parents build with their kids is part of the free-range equation, too. “You have to have open communication and be able to talk to your kids about everything. The younger the better,” she says. “My husband and I trust our sons. By the 2nd or 3rd grade, we were okay with them going to the park on their own or riding their bike to a friend’s house. They know they have to check in with us and be responsible, but we trust them. We’re not worrisome parents.” 

However, there are times when it may make sense for parents to exercise elevated caution and concern. Ashley Sprouse, a Fort Collins mother of two boys says, “I keep a pretty close eye on my kids. My oldest is 7 and I don’t let him go anywhere without me, because we live on a busy street, but also because I know there’s a sex offender living about a block away from us.” Yet she admits that is totally different from how she grew up. “We lived on five acres and could run all over. We lived in the mountains so it was different.” 

When to turn ‘em loose
Richard Gallagher, PhD, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center, suggests parents ask themselves the following questions when deciding how much freedom to give their kids:

  • Does my child have the disposition to handle the activity?
  • Can he or she follow rules?
  • Does my child know what to do in case there is a problem?
  • Does my child know from whom it is safe to ask for help?
  • Does my child have a sense of how to reach out to parents, use a phone, distinguish between police officers and other people?

Finally, Gallagher says, it’s about balance. “Let kids face some consequences of their own actions that won’t harm them, but will teach them some lessons.”