Wikipedia defines free-range parenting as, “The concept of raising children in the spirit of encouraging them to function independently and with little parental supervision, in accordance of their age of development and with a reasonable acceptance of realistic personal risks.”
Personally, I can’t think of a better philosophy behind raising well-rounded, self-reliant adults than that.
I count myself among the fortunate to have been born and raised in our beautiful state of Vermont. I was a latch-key kid and was lucky enough to live in the same town as the majority of my family, including a number of cousins. We’ve all seen the relatable “remember when” memes generated around drinking from garden hoses and being locked outside from dawn until dusk; while my childhood wasn’t necessarily that unstructured, some of my favorite memories are wrapped in the freedom of running through fields, setting up clubhouses in the forest, and just generally having the liberty to experience Vermont in the summer. We played tag – and later, truth or dare – in the darkness of the woods, we swam at the local swimming hole, we biked to the store in town to fill our pockets with five cent candies, and it was all more or less done without the supervision of a responsible adult. We got banged up and dirty and occasionally one of us got hurt. We looked out for each other and kept each other in line (most of the time). We had the advantage of what is now referred to as living free-range.
Free-range isn’t necessarily a term I prefer to use when talking about my parenting my children; my eggs and poultry, sure. No matter what you label it, or how we wax poetic about the “Good old days,” childhood will never be what it was in the 80s and before. Now there are more expectations, opportunities and a vast number of ways to live a bit differently, but we don’t need to let go of all of those old values and experiences.
My husband and I subscribe to the philosophy of encouraging our daughters, ages three, eleven and fourteen, to push themselves more often than not, to be courageous and try new things that might scare them, and to get up and try again if at first, they don’t succeed. Whether they’re skiing, hiking, cooking, mountain biking or engaging in any other activity, giving my daughters the platform to encourage their own independence, as bittersweet as that is, is my way of supporting them in becoming adults who are courageous, believe in themselves, and have the confidence in knowing that they can do anything they set their minds to, even if it scares them. Almost especially if it scares them, if it’s something that they want to do.
Utah recently became the first state to pass a free-range parenting law by changing the definition of neglect, outlined in S.B. 65 Child Neglect Amendments, which stipulates that children are, “Permitted to engage in independent activities, including: walking, running or bicycling; traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities; engaging in outdoor play.”
I have to admit that I’m a bit disheartened that we need laws to allow our kids to be kids. I believe that the ability to experience the first tastes of independence and learn one’s own limits is, essentially, the foundation of raising resilient adults.
Please don’t mistake my approach to raising my children with free-range parenting as an excuse to be a bit lazy or less responsible in my parenting. I’m deeply connected to and involved in my children’s lives; I simply choose to encourage them to make decisions and pursue activities on their own, but perhaps their ability to do so lies in knowing that I am, and will always be, waiting on the sidelines if they really need me.
It’s a balance, learning to both push and stand steady, waiting to watch them soar or embrace and then encourage them if they fall.
Last summer, my then thirteen year-old daughter enrolled in a mountain biking camp. This was her third summer in a mountain biking program, and it’s a sport that she has really taken to. She can be a bit accident prone, however, and I inevitably received the phone call that no mother likes to receive, “Hi Mrs. Smith, this is so-and-so…” In the end, she earned six stitches and a scar she bears proudly, but the proud moment for me was, upon returning from the Urgent Care Clinic with my husband, she would hear nothing about not attending camp the following day. Her counselors were impressed, and I was too. I wasn’t really surprised though; this camp was her idea, and one of the summer activities she looked forward to each year. She was determined to go back and continue building her riding.
Of course, my viewpoint is based on my own personal experience; I certainly don’t pass judgment on anyone who chooses a different approach. I don’t hold my position as right or wrong. I value the concept of my children being independent and able to figure things out, with my support if they need it, but without my constant need to assist. My role as a parent is to protect, but also to find ways to help my daughters develop their own boundaries, have faith in themselves and be confident in their abilities. I want them to experience the beauty in adventures of their own, not just those I provide for them. I think we should all try to live a little more free-range.