Free-range parenting is a practice that allows children to learn from their own choices without parental intervention.
There was a time several decades ago when children left the house to play with friends, often to the sound of a parent’s voice saying, “be home in time for dinner.”
Increased access to media over time heightened parents’ awareness of potential danger, ushering in a more protective and structured parenting culture.
The lives of young people became filled with scheduled activities and planned play dates, all with one thing in common: adult supervision.
With questions arising about the developmental impact of having fewer opportunities to solve problems, some parents are revisiting an old custom with a new name — free-range parenting.
Parents who practice free-range parenting often teach their children essential skills but then allow them freedom based on their developmental level.
They expose them to the world without direct supervision, forcing them to make their own choices and solve their problems.
Examples of free-range parenting include letting your child take public transit or walk to school without you, often at an age when other parents might typically accompany their kids.
Origins and background
The term “free-range” in reference to parenting began with Lenore Skenazy, who wrote a New York Sun article in 2008 describing how she let her then 9-year-old son take public transit home from Bloomingdale’s.
She later became president of Let Grow, an organization for advocating childhood growth and development through independence.
Parenting is complex and involved, and no two approaches are exactly alike. Free-range parenting is only one of several different parenting styles, the most common of which are:
- uninvolved or neglectful
They’re each distinct from one another in the categories of responsiveness and demandingness.
|Low demandingness||High demandingness|
Authoritative parents have specific expectations, but they’re clear and collaborative. They help their children solve problems and allow natural consequences to impact them. Communication is a key feature of this parenting style.
A 2020 study examining the four most common parenting styles suggests that authoritative parenting is the most effective approach.
Authoritarian parenting places less emphasis on collaboration and a greater focus on parental-driven rules and consequences. The goal is for children to follow the rules that parents create without question or negotiation.
This parenting style is often confused with free-range parenting, but the permissive approach isn’t the same. Permissive parents try to be friends rather than mentors to their children and overindulge them to avoid conflict. Permissive parents rarely set or enforce rules.
Free-range parents train and supervise their children until they have the skills needed to handle the freedom given to them.
Uninvolved parents don’t provide guidance or nurturing and aren’t concerned with their children’s behavioral or social-emotional needs. Some also might neglect material needs, such as:
- medical care
There’s a long list of possible approaches to consider when deciding on the parenting style that works best for your family. Some other examples include:
- Mindful. Parenting mindfully means being in the present moment with your child and paying close attention to their experience.
- Attachment. This parenting style emphasizes close parent-child contact with practices such as babywearing and bed-sharing.
- Positive. This parenting style focuses on coaching children through their interests while providing continuous empathy and support.
- Unconditional. Parents who practice this style support their children regardless of their words or actions, so they feel accepted for themselves rather than for what they say or do.
- Slow. Spending time together as a family, limiting organized activities, and skipping electronics in favor of simple toys are some tenets of this parenting style.
Many parents incorporate strategies from more than one parenting style. For example, while you clear your schedule in favor of slow parenting family time, you may also find yourself mindfully savoring each moment.
Free-range parenting is more than just sending your kids out into the world with a bus pass and some emergency cash. There are some tangible, developmental benefits.
Children raised this way learn that failure is temporary and doesn’t apply to everything they do. When adults don’t immediately rescue them, they can exercise problem-solving abilities.
Proponents of free-range parents argue that less adult supervision and intervention supports building confidence and creativity in kids. But there isn’t research yet to support this.
It can also increase their social development, according to a 2021 study.
Negative consequences of overly protective parenting
Research from 2020 suggests that overly protective parenting, or the opposite of free-range parenting, can interfere with the independent spatial exploration of children.
It also may have mental health impacts. A 2018 study with 747 participants found that “helicopter parenting” resulted in decreased well-being in university students in the following areas:
- life dissatisfaction
- emotional dysregulation
Free-range parenting appears to reduce the developmental effects of growing up with too much adult intervention.
Like most parenting styles, free-range parenting isn’t without downsides.
The risk exposure that can be so beneficial for children’s learning may also increase the chance that they’ll encounter genuine harm.
Depending on where you live, free-range parenting may result in legal issues.
The state of Utah became the first to amend its laws so that parents can choose whether their children are ready to leave their homes without parents in tow.
Lawmakers have enabled this by changing the legal criteria of neglect.
Modern communities are not as compatible with free-range parenting as they were in the past.
Scheduled extra-curricular activities mean there generally aren’t as many children available to play. Multi-income households mean there typically aren’t as many stay-at-home adults behind doors that children can knock on for help if needed.
Free-range parenting is a parenting approach that lets children go out into the community without adult supervision. But first, parents teach the skills their children need and assess their developmental readiness before giving them this freedom.
There are risks to free-range parenting, such as legal issues. If you’re considering the free-range parenting approach, it’s important to know your local state laws that govern child supervision.
It’s also possible for your child to encounter harm that they’re not ready to handle.
But there are benefits to exposing children to situations where they can solve their problems. Plus, free-range parenting is linked to benefits, like:
- increased confidence
- social skills
If you’re not confident about your parenting style, speaking to a family therapist can help. Check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.