Good movement, bad name: Does 'free range' make kids sound like chickens?

girl with chicken
CC BY 2.0 vicki watkins

A professor argues that the popular phrase feeds into neoliberal ideology that treats children as resources to be managed.

Sophia McClennan doesn't like the term 'free-range kids.' In an article for Salon, the professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University argues that Lenore Skenazy (founder of the Free Range Kids movement) should have come up with a better name for children whose parents let them play freely outdoors -- not one that compares them to chickens.

Sure, there's logic to the analogy: "Free-range kids, as the comparison goes, used to be cooped up by helicopter parents who are only now realizing that their kids will grow up healthier if allowed to get some fresh air on their own." But McClennan argues that using the term 'free-range' reflects dangerous neoliberal ideology that treats children as resources to be managed, rather than the humans that they are. The idea of kids being put out to graze like hens does an injustice to their inherent right to experience the world independent of adult supervision.

"The fact that a movement designed to help kids have the right to roam free and develop their own sense of self is modeled after a marketing campaign meant to promote a type of farming is not just offensive; it is a perfect sign of the way that even parents with the best intentions can fall under the spell of neoliberal logic. Kids are not chickens or eggs or assets or objects to manage. Parents don’t let them be outside so they can get Vitamin D and graze on grass."

Furthermore, free-range chicken meat and eggs are the domain of the wealthy, which are the same families that use the phrase 'free-range' to describe their parenting. Therefore, "Even though the parents in this movement imagine themselves in solidarity with working class parents, the high-brow reference to 'free-range' food only serves to highlight the privilege gap."

I found McClennan's critique to be intriguing, but certain aspects of it did not sit well with me. First, I doubt Skenazy spent months brainstorming a perfect name, nor does she have to be accountable to anyone for the name she chose; it fit the bill as a catchy title to a movement that she likely never expected to get so big. So, really, who cares about the chicken comparison? Let's not overthink it.

Second, I think McClennan is a bit off in her assessment of free-range farming. The animals are not put outside specifically to "get Vitamin D and graze on grass"; rather, they're left alone, unattended, and unprotected. The basics, like food, water, and shelter, are always available at home, but otherwise they do their own thing all day long, risking predators and getting lost, but otherwise having a whale of a time enjoying independence.

I'd argue that it's actually the helicopter parents who view their kids more as the aforementioned 'resources to be managed.' They are the ones measuring and tracking every requirement and accomplishment, meting out daily minutes of sunshine and exercise, 'grazing' their kids in the form of playdates before whisking them away to yet another extracurricular activity.

While I may not agree with her attack on the free-range name, I do appreciate McClennan's critique of how neoliberalism reduces kids to statistics, data sets, and a market in need of control. We absolutely must fight back against this, allowing our kids the freedom to enjoy a world that is rightfully theirs.

"They should be treated as young citizens who have agency in a democratic society, not as trespassers in a police state... When children are not allowed to develop their own place in their world and when their movement in public spaces is criminalized, they lose their identity as young citizens who are active participants in society."

McClennan views the phrase 'free-range' as feeding into that neoliberal rhetoric, but I worry that nitpicking over such details could weaken the free-range movement. (Hopefully I'm underestimating its strength.) We've finally gotten to the point where it has become more acceptable for parents to let their kids go; we've given them a label with which they can identify and that allows them to sum up their parenting philosophy in two words; there's even been a law passed in Utah to redefine child neglect and allow parents to identify as free-range. But I worry that articles like this could plant seeds of doubt in the minds of those who use the phrase, which is the last thing we want. Parenting is plagued with enough doubt as it is; let's not heap on even more.

As for what descriptor McClennan would like parents to use, she does not say. Organic parenting? Plein-air parenting? Detached parenting? What do you think?

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