Why Raising “Free-Range” Kids Isn’t an Option for Everyone
Helicopter parenting sparked an alternative movement to give children more independence — but not everyone can share that privilege.
One Sunday in 2008, Lenore Skenazy and her then-9-year-old son, Izzy, the younger of two, visited Bloomingdale’s in bustling Manhattan, New York City. And then she left him there.
She helped launch a movement seen as a response to ubiquitous “helicopter parenting,” in which overprotective parents tightly control every one of their children’s activities.
Skenazy, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, says it took nerves to foster what she calls a “free-range” childhood for her two boys. Skenazy always wanted to hear other people’s stories. “Regarding all strangers as potential threats is a dystopian view of the world,” she says.
She felt worried at times when she was out of communication with the boys and didn’t know where they were: “I don’t think you can be a parent and not expect to worry.” But in this instance, she says, “we knew our son could read a map, loved public transit, had been on the subway with us a million times, and felt ready.”
Plus, this was at Izzy’s request, and because the subways are always crowded, she and her husband relied on safety in numbers and agreed to let him make the trip home to Queens.
“On the big day, I gave him a subway map, some quarters for the phone, a MetroCard, and $20 for emergencies,” she says.
Since then, the notion has caught on. Skenazy wrote the book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) and in 2018 cofounded nonprofit organization Let Grow, which is dedicated to replacing the idea of delicate children with the fact that they are “anti-fragile” and resilient, able to be challenged in ways that build confidence and skill. The group promotes policies in communities of all sizes that allows kids to have more autonomy from the constant supervision that society often expects, and teaches kids and parents that the world is not an inherently dangerous place, that having opportunity to explore it independently promotes healthier growth.
“Think of all the things you learned as a kid when given some free time and responsibility,” Skenazy says. “You learned to make things happen, solve problems, make friends, find something that interested you a lot. It’s harder to succeed as a person if you don’t get a chance to learn to handle those.”
Some communities are taking notice.
Mica Hauley was one of eight kids, born “back in the day when seat belts were optional,” she says. She’s now a stay-at-home mom in Lehi, Utah, and enjoys life with five kids of her own, ages 1 to 10.
“I had very loving, good parents who raised me well,” she says. She and her siblings all had a certain amount of freedom, “but [we] were educated to play it safe and smart. We had to learn responsibility, too,” she says. She hopes to raise her kids with the same common sense.
Utah’s free-range parenting law, signed into law in 2018 and the first in the nation, redefined child neglect — for example, by saying that such activities as “traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling” or “engaging in outdoor play” do not constitute neglect.
“Thanks to the free-range parenting law in Utah, I can do things like let them walk home from school, or a park, or around my neighborhood without being put in jail,” Hauley says. The law doesn’t encourage parents to neglect their children, but it allows parents freedom to follow their guts on parenting “without the threat of imprisonment by some judgmental bystander,” she said. And they’re grateful for it.
“Parents have to decide for themselves whether or not it’s a time to be a helicopter parent, or a free-range parent.”
The city of Ithaca, New York, enacted a “free-range kids” ordinance of its own later that year.
But “this might not be a safe choice for all parents,” Hauley says. “Parents have to decide for themselves, based on their own communities and the needs of their children, whether or not it’s a time to be a helicopter parent or a free-range parent.” Kids need balance and they need to be kids, but they also need to guard against “the sometimes crazy that happens out there, without limiting their opportunities to enjoy this great world we have been blessed to live in,” she says. “It’s all about balance and trusting your gut and God to guide you.”
This is especially true for those living in communities with higher rates of crime, or even in communities of color that are treated with suspicion by White authorities.
Pat Omo, an Edmonton, Alberta, mother of seven children ranging from 8 months to 19 years old, admits it: “I’m totally a helicopter mom. I just want to be there all the time.”
Omo’s own mother “still wants to know every detail about everything all the time,” she says. “It’s at the point where I just call her and tell her every time I make a move. So, I’m calling her about six or seven times a day.”
Omo’s oldest “has five minutes to reply to a text, or I disable his phone,” she says.
Omo, who is Black, is aware of her elevated and constant sense of fear and responsibility to safeguard her oldest son, who as a young Black man has additional societal obstacles to navigate in the largely White community.
It’s different with her younger children, who are all under her watchful eye. “They [can’t] go anywhere without me” other than the backyard, she says. “I need to know what they’re doing at all times. It only takes a second for something to happen.”
Her husband tries to help her give the kids space, but her oldest son has told her, even from his own apartment, she’s annoying and over the top. Omo says she’s “afraid [he’ll get] hurt or stuck in a bad situation, so I need to make sure he’s always OK.”
“Black boys are seen as older and less innocent.”
The way that society views Black boys and men is a significant factor in many Black parents’ decisions that sometimes pit their wisdom in caregiving against fostering independence and maturity.
One 2014 study found what Omo and Black parents everywhere have always known to be true: “Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers.”
While Omo is certain the day will come when her children will want more freedom, the free-range method seems unlikely for this family, and for good reason. Another study published in 2018 that focused on race and gender differences among missing children showed that “Black children remain missing longer and are more likely to still be missing by the end of [the] observation period than non-black children.”
Omo says her kids will eventually understand why she’s overprotective at times. “I’m [this way] because I love them so much and want them to always be safe.”
Sometimes the free-range ethos contradicts cultural norms.
Karlynn Moller, a single mother of two, lives in Seattle with her daughter, 14, and son, 6. “They have a relationship with [their father], but he works so much, he very rarely has the kids [for] more than a few hours at a time. I’m the main parent, doing the day-to-day,” she says.
Their father is from North Africa, and they’re all Muslim, but Moller was raised Christian. Coparenting the kids is sometimes a challenge for her because of their differing cultural and religious beliefs and views on gender. “I don’t have the same sense of conservatism and religious modesty that he does,” she says. “He’s very strict. But in a Muslim dad way, not in a helicopter way.”
Sometimes the free-range ethos contradicts cultural norms.
“[The kids’] dad tends to carry a lot of these sexist ideals,” which are more cultural than faith-based, Moller says, and he parents the kids differently.
Their son has no fear at all. He enjoys jumping off of things, climbing things, and he gets hurt. “It’s how he learns,” she says. Moller says she holds the same expectations for both kids but their father is stricter on their daughter than on their son, so she tries to compensate by being a bit softer on their daughter.
Moller says she just tries to maintain balance in their lives.
Skenazy doesn’t remember feeling intensely fearful on that day in 2008 “because I knew what my son was doing, where he was coming from and the route he’d be taking,” she says.
When he made it home safely, she believed what she’d thought all along — that “most people are good” and that “‘stranger danger’ is a corrosive and incorrect view of the world,” she says.
Afterward, Skenazy says, her son frequently managed his own whereabouts after school. Today he’s 21 years old. His older brother, Morry, refers to himself as “the control group,” she says.
Skenazy acknowledges that parents may be hesitant about this approach. “Even if a parent doesn’t want to hover, our whole society is pushing them to do [it],” she says. A free-range kid’s unsupervised, unstructured activity means “a chance to grow wise, resilient, and self-directed — comfortable with a bit of discomfort, conflict, ambiguity, and risk.”
Carla Bell a Seattle area freelance writer with many local bylines, and nationally at The North Star, Ebony, and Essence magazines.