Wanted: A Sense of Community for Free-Range Parents

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CC BY 2.0. Tom Woodward

It's tough to embrace an unusual parenting philosophy when nobody else understands it.

America’s children are prisoners of their parents’ fears. The outside world is seen as so threatening and dangerous that kids are kept within reach, always supervised, protected from potential dangers. This comes at the cost of the children’s own independence. Natural, instinctive, age-appropriate development is stunted by parents’ insistence that they must always be present.

A backlash against hyper-parenting has led to a slew of high-profile criticisms, such as Mike Lanza’s recent piece for TIME, “The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea,” Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog, and former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims’ bestselling book, “How to Raise an Adult.” The experts are now telling parents to lay off, step back, take a breath. “It’s the best thing you can do for your kid,” they say.

In theory, yes, it is. It makes perfect sense that an independent child will do better at navigating an unpredictable, unforgiving world than one whose lawnmower parents have smoothed their path and cleared every obstacle from their way.

There is a problem, however. The real world is a very different place from the safe online forums where writers (including myself) argue the importance of letting kids be kids.

It is difficult to create community alone, to feel like you’re a lone voice in the struggle to free kids from parental confines. When nobody else is sending their kids across the street to the park to play or allowing them to walk to school alone, it can be a lonely road to travel.

Alexandra Lange addressed this in an interesting piece for the New Yorker, titled “What it would take to set American kids free.” She writes:

“Do I wish that my kids—who are five and nine—could roll on their own from school to the park, meet friends, and appear on the doorstep at 5 p.m., muddy, damp, and full of play? I do, but then I think of the Saturdays dominated by sports schedules, the windswept winter playgrounds, the kids hit by cars in crosswalks, with the light. It isn’t the idea of my kids holding a hammer or saw that scares me but the idea of trying to make community alone.”

Lange argues that we need public spaces to change before free-range parenting can become a realistic goal for all families, as well as a cultural norm. It’s one thing to have a free-range approach at home, but it’s entirely another when kids leave the house and are out in a world that does not share their parents’ philosophy, or even respect or understand it in the least.

“Without broader community support, such back-yard attempts at free play like [Mike Lanza’s “playborhood”] are doomed to become exercises in vanity. Look at them on the roof! My kids are more resilient than yours!”

Lange is absolutely right. When parents look back nostalgically at their own unconsciously free-range childhoods, kids were never alone. Groups of friends were a given. Kids roamed in groups, protected and entertained by numbers. Adults knew that kids would be on the loose, that other parents were looking out for those kids, that cars drove more slowly and would watch out for little wanderers.

“It is the public realm... that needs to change for American children to have unstructured afternoons and weekends, for them to bike and walk between school and the playground, to see packs of kids get together without endless chains of parental texts.”

What is the solution?

Creating infrastructure to accommodate free-range play may sound like an oxymoron, but it is absolutely necessary and should be taken into consideration by city and town planners. It is by delineating spaces within neighborhoods where children are allowed to play freely, wildly, and imaginatively, and where parents can relax knowing their kids are fine, that they will actually do it.

The culture surrounding play needs to change, too, with parents becoming more trusting of other parents to keep an eye out, less fearful of worst-case scenarios, and more confident in their own kid’s ability to take care of him- or herself.

Finally, cars need to slow down. Cars are far, far scarier than potential kidnappers because they themselves are giant, moving killers. A small child doesn’t stand a chance against a car whipping down a residential street at 30 miles per hour (50 km/hour). That alone could be the biggest deterrent for allowing kids out on their own.

These changes will not happen overnight, but the more parents embrace them, join forces, and pressure planners into taking children's right to play into consideration, the sooner they will happen.