6 Books That Have Influenced This Free-Range Parent

Less tech, more nature, and fewer rules make more resilient kids.

Girl walking on a tree trunk
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy / Getty Images

Being a parent is a hard job. Children come so differently, and we parents receive these children at different stages of our lives, which affects what we know and how we handle them. I've heard parents joke wishfully, “If only kids came with manuals!” but alas, it's up to us to figure it out as we go along.

I would point out, however, that there are manuals of a sort to go along with parenting, and those are parenting books. These can be enormously helpful for all those times when you feel overwhelmed and daunted by the task of raising a small human to adulthood in such a way that they turn out decently and you, the parent, do not lose your mind in the process. (This feeling happens a lot in the early years.)

As a mother to three little boys, books have always been a reliable and comforting source of knowledge for me. They offer the in-depth analysis I crave, the detailed answers to my endless questions, and solid strategies for dealing with whatever problems I face. I started out reading the usual baby books in order to learn how to feed and console my first infant, but as I had more children and they grew older, I began exploring the world of parenting philosophies. That's when I discovered free-range parenting and the movement to encourage greater independence in children – something that was once normal in Western society, but has since largely given way to a mentality of fear and paranoia, to the detriment of parents and children alike.

What follows is a list of the books that have shaped my parenting views most profoundly over the years. It's far from complete and there are always others being added to my mental library, but if you are at all interested in learning how to become more of a free-range parent (or less of a helicopter-ish one), then this is a good place to start your research.

1. “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” by Lenore Skenazy

Free Range Kids
Photo © Amazon.com

Published in 2009, this book is considered the original groundbreaker in the free-range parenting movement. It was inspired by Skenazy's own experience letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway – an act that horrified much of the United States and earned her the nickname of “America's worst mom.” This opened her eyes to how the media is influencing parents' perception of danger and making them think it's far scarier than it really is. The book uses statistics and analogies to make a strong case for why it's safer than ever to let your children play independently, and how it will make them stronger, more resilient adults in the long run. It's a must-read for everyone, in my opinion. Skenazy is still an outspoken advocate for the movement, now heading up an organization called Let Grow that gets frequent mention on Treehugger.

2. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Natural-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv

Last Child in the Woods

This seminal book explores the many problems associated with children spending too little time outdoors and, by extension, the innumerable benefits of time spent in nature. As children become alienated from the outdoors, problems ensue, Louv says. He notes that the human costs of alienation from nature include "diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” It's up to parents and educators to model a love for the outdoors and to ensure that children get not only high-quality time in nature, but high quantity as well. Louv also makes a point I remember frequently – that unless children develop a love for nature, they won't have what they need to protect it down the road. 

This book was published in 2008; the problem has only gotten worse since then. Louv has since published a follow-up book, “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community (and Combat Nature-Deficit Disorder,” that's a how-to guide for parents wanting to get their kids outside.

3. “The Idle Parent: Why Laid-back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids” by Tom Hodgkinson

The Idle Parent cover
Screen capture. Amazon

In a delightful departure from the usual child-centric approach that dominates parenting views today, author Tom Hodgkinson presents the view that “responsibly lazy” parenting is the way to go. Do what you need to do to keep the household running smoothly, but parents in general should kick back, relax, and have fun while their children do their own thing nearby. Have them help out with household chores, but then let them be. Stop overparenting and trying to “mold kids to a predetermined adult view of what they should be.” This does not mean a disconnect between parent and child; to the contrary, Hodgkinson tells parents to embrace the chaos of the times and have fun with their kids. These are fleeting years. Start by reading the Manifesto of the Idle Parent that first introduced me to this book.

4. “Goodbye, Phone. Hello, World: 60 Ways to Disconnect from Tech and Reconnect to Joy” by Paul Greenberg

Cover of goodbye phone book
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

This book is not explicitly a parenting book, but it came about when Greenberg found himself having conversations about technology and smartphone addiction with his 12-year-old son, who wanted a phone for himself. This led to an epiphany of sorts: Greenberg realized just how much of his son's early years he'd wasted on his own phone, so he swapped it for a flip phone and created a powerful graphic book to illustrate all the wild and wonderful things you can do with your life when you're not glued to a screen. I reviewed this book for Treehugger last fall, and I've thought of it often since then, always in relation to my kids. While I don't want to give up my smartphone, I've become more conscious in the way I use it around my children as a result of this book. 

5. “There's No Such Thing As Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom's Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge)” by Linda Akeson McGurk

No Such Thing as Bad Weather book cover
via BlendRadio

I love first-hand parenting accounts. Of course they're highly subjective, but I believe there's a lot to be learned by reading about other families' experiences. Åkeson McGurk is a blogger whose work I'd followed for a while before she published this book. A Swedish woman who married an American and moved to Indiana to raise two little girls, she struggled with the lack of outdoor playtime in U.S. culture. She worked hard to integrate daily outdoor play into her daughters' lives, and then took them back to Sweden for a six-month sabbatical to immerse them in a world where nature is part of everyday life. 

The book isn't all anecdote-based; McGurk delves into the fascinating science behind outdoor play and how it boosts kids' immune systems, develops gross motor skills, makes them better at assessing risk, and helps them to develop maturity. I related to the author's sense of urgency at wanting to instill a love of nature in her children from an early age, so that it would stay with them for life. I still believe that once it's there, you can never lose it.

6. “iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us)” by Jean Twenge, PhD

iGen book cover

Dr. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has become something of a household name after writing this book. Her name comes up frequently in discussions about the effects of technology use on children, so after reading numerous articles about her research, I decided to read her book. It was dense and academic, but it painted a profound picture of a generation growing up as unwitting victims in a huge social experiment. Young people are spending enormous amounts of time on devices, whether it's social media or texting or playing video games, but the biggest red flag Twenge raises is that this is time not spent doing other, more important things that, up until recently, were a normal part of growing up. The result is teens maturing more slowly than ever before and displaying an unprecedented reluctance to enter the world of adulthood. It was an alarming book that made me more determined than ever to minimize my children's screen time; there's time enough for that as they grow older.