What to Say if Someone Challenges Your Free-Range Parenting

CC BY 2.0. Andrew Newill

You could tell them to scram, but you could try explaining why their irrational phobias don't apply to you.

Every parent who has ever let their child enjoy some outdoor independence in an urban setting fears getting a phone call from local police or Child Protective Services. Even if it doesn't get to that point, a parent could receive a judgmental comment from a nosy neighbor who disagrees with their relaxed parenting style. This is the sad reality of our times -- that kids are no longer allowed the same freedoms that previous generations did, despite the fact that, statistically, there has never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

If you are a parent, have you ever thought about how you would respond if confronted with an accusation of negligence? This is something that's been in the back of my head for years, wondering how I'd defend my decision to allow my kids more freedom than most of their peers. Of course I would dig for statistics, but sometimes you just need some really great similes to put things into perspective.

A recent interview between free-range parenting expert Lenore Skenazy and Barbara Sarnecka, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California-Irvine, who co-authored a fascinating study in 2016 on how moral judgements shape perceptions of risk for children, provides some excellent perspective on how ridiculous it is to get worked up over things like leaving kids unattended in cars (for short periods of time) and allowing them to walk alone. Sarnecka compares the "don't leave kids in cars" argument to other "de minimis" (trivial) risks:

"When you drove here today and you parked your car, did you choose your parking space based on the possibility that there could be snipers on the roofs of the buildings around you? Did you say, 'Well if I park here, snipers on that building could get me... but if I park here, the awning will shield me from snipers over there...' Probably not, right? Now, could you really be 100% sure that there weren’t snipers on the buildings? No, because it’s not impossible. But it’s SO unlikely that you just don’t worry about it. You would be nuts to plan your parking around it."

She gives another example, pointing out that in Southern California earthquakes are frequent and have potential to cause serious damage; however, people do not plan their lives around them.

"Imagine a parent who says, 'I never let my child go indoors, because I don’t want them to be killed if there is an earthquake and the building collapses. So we live in a tent, and I homeschool the child at a picnic table in a field, and I never let them go into a store. I make them wait outside where they will be safe, because you just never know when a major earthquake will strike!' We’d all think that parent was crazy, right? We don’t worry about it because the risk is SO small that it just doesn’t make sense to plan our lives around it."

So, too, is the likelihood of something terrible happening to a child left alone in a car or walking alone to school. Maclean's reported in its most recent issue that only about 100 kids are kidnapped each year in the U.S. in the stereotypical 'scary stranger' scenario, which is "a small fraction of one percent of missing kids each year." Meanwhile, vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. kids between 1 and 18, killing around 1,600 kids annually. So, when parents drive a kid from point A to point B to avoid the risk of kidnapping, they're actually putting their child in greater danger.

While everyone is entitled to their own personal phobias and has the right to choose how to act on those fears, what is entirely unacceptable is requiring other parents to raise their kids according to those beliefs.

As Sarnecka puts it, "I shouldn’t be legally required to act irrationally just because a lot of other people have a particular phobia."

This, however, is the frightening direction in which our society is headed and it needs to be counterbalanced by more public discussion about the benefits of promoting independence in kids. Sarnecka recommends that parents talk positively about their own childhood memories and avoid fear-mongering conversations. Most of all, walk the talk! Fight the busybodies by setting your kids free. The more kids are out and about unsupervised (within reason), the more normal it will become.

In the meantime, I plan to read up on more of Sarnecka's work and memorize her brilliant similes, should the unpleasant scenario arise in which I need to defend my free-range parenting techniques. I recommend you do so, too.