Utah Passes The Nation’s First Free Range Parenting Law

A Psychologist-Mom’s Perspective on Raising Her Own Chickadees

Utah just passed the nation’s first free-range parenting law — permitting kids to play unsupervised or stay home alone, and protecting parents from legal repercussions of giving more freedom. It is the polar opposite of helicopter parenting. As a mother of three, a clinical psychologist with a specialization in anxiety management, and a child advocate — I am thrilled! It is a first step in the right direction and hope the rest of the country follows suit! This gives parents permission to connect with what they believe is best for their children, and parent accordingly. This will help bring pleasure back to parenting while raising more durable and self-reliant kids.

The other night my husband (Mark) and I had dinner with great friends, one happens to be a colleague and a seasoned psychologist, and the other is her amazing husband. I too am a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety and stress management.

On some generic cultural rating system, the four of us would be deemed relatively successful adults although we all bore the well-earned bumps and bruises from growing up in times when we were allowed to fumble our way through childhood. We had loving, well-intentioned parents and were given the opportunity to explore the world without intense parental restriction. I spent many a day frantically biking around on my baby-blue banana seat, trolling the neighborhood, and having ink berry fights with the boys down the street. My dinner guests’ experiences were not dissimilar. The interesting part is that we all came of age in different decades. We spanned the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. We laughed and connected over the crazy things we did, and not only survived, but were better off because of it.

Our stories were pretty similar although the times and culture in which we lived were different. We talked a lot about how parenting today is different. Dare I say — worse. More restrictive and anxiety provoking. In our business, my colleague and I often see the result of anxious parents and anxious family systems, which is understandably anxious kids. I think most parents would not define themselves as anxious but the way we currently parent as a society is anxious and avoidant of distress or discomfort — also known as helicopter parenting. As Mark and I work to raise our own three children, we wrestle over the ‘right’ way to parent. Mark errs on the interventionist side and I on the free-range, but we somehow have come to agree about what works best for our family.

Being a psychologist and a lover of mommy blogs, our style is a blend of psychological theory and pop-cultural research. We are not perfect. Our kids are not perfect. We all are flawed, human, and works in progress. I write this piece to open the discussion about modern day parenting and whether or not it is actually working for our children and our families and share some ideas that guide our parental approach.

A snapshot of a few things we prioritize as parents include: 1) Promoting a healthy sense of self (also known as helping our kids develop solid self esteem), 2) Letting go. Allowing our children the freedom to learn from their own experiences, and, 3) The Frame — a balance between hard, basic structure with loads of freedom in between.

Source: Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

Promoting a healthy sense of self is of utmost importance to Mark and me as parents, allowing our children to develop a strong ego, stoking a solid self-esteem. Obviously, every parent wants this for their child but in my clinical work, I often see parents getting in their own way. So, the question is- how do kids develop a strong sense of self? I often refer to Heinz Kohut who is the founder of the field of Self Psychology. He believes that if parental figures are attuned to their children’s needs for nurturance and soothing, and are responsive to these needs, they ultimately promote a healthy development of the child’s ego. In very basic terms, the goal is for parents to have a deep understanding of their children, love them, and reflect this back to them; the child then internalizes self-worth. It is like holding a mirror up to your child so they can see their own wonder and greatness. You can also think about your child as a bottle that will get filled up with feelings and thoughts about them self. Parents can help their children genuinely see their strengths and goodness or fill them with judgment and criticism. Be empathically attuned to your children and help them see their beauty. This is fundamental and has long-lasting effects.

Source: Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

Moving on to a less complicated idea — The Frame. This idea is that our kids have a general structure of what is right and wrong. They absolutely know they cannot leave the property without telling us and that hitting will get them sent to their room, but everything within the framework is generally fair game. In my home, there is a lot of rambunctious wrestling, jostling, potty-talk, teasing of each other…all things I am not thrilled with, but those are the battles I am willing to give up in the name of letting kids be kids. Imagine my yard. My children know they cannot leave the yard without asking, and don’t generally try, but are free to run ruckus within the parameters of it. With that said, we are okay with the controlled chaos but they are often asked to take it to the playroom or outside as it is just too loud for me. This style grants us space to back off our kids, enjoy our own time, and let them be developmentally-appropriately active, while removing the nagging element from the dynamic. Nagging does not work. Now, when I say something with certainty, the kids listen because they know I mean business and will follow through with a consequence. I have earned their respect by respecting their individuality and need for space.

Source: Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Lastly, we focus on independence in the name of self-efficacy. We believe in giving our kids space to discover what works and what doesn’t on their own. This helps them learn in a deeper way than just being told what to do and it also allows for optimal frustration (another Kohutian idea), which states children learn self-soothing skills by experiencing tolerable disappointments. These experiences help build their internal psychological makeup and prepare them for a world where there are normal and expected disappointments. I picture these little guys in high school and really want them to be independent and self-efficacious so they can navigate their worlds with success and without needing to check in with us about every decision. The reality is, we are not going to be there when they are offered alcohol, drugs or a ride with a drunk friend. They need to be able to think about it and respond. Obviously, my hope would be that they could talk to us about these difficult decisions but realistically, when push comes to shove, it is going to be outside of my control at a time and place when I am not there. I need to do the front end work now (while I have a captive audience), allowing them space to learn what is right and wrong for them. In American culture, some might say it is early, but we have begun directly talking about drugs and alcohol with the kids and I am consciously laying the groundwork for these conversations later. We also very consciously let our kids go out and play without us. Cam (9), Ty (7) and Eve (4) can often be seen running between neighbor’s houses, often with a walkie talkie hanging from their bike. I have learned to trust them and hopefully in turn they are trusting themselves and the world around them.

I learn as I go by blending personal experience with professional research, but some parenting tenets have emerged very clearly. Kids need space to explore, fumble, fail, and succeed ON THEIR OWN. They need us to empathize and validate their experience as developing people in this sometimes harsh world. They also need clear and distinct boundaries to guide their path. Some things are off limits and they need to know parents are in charge. This actually makes them feel safe, cared for, and loved.

I encourage parents and caregivers to step back and honestly ask themselves if how they are parenting feels right. How would you parent if you trusted nobody would judge, or call the police? What are the qualities you want your child to develop? How do you help build those qualities now? All parents want to raise happy, independent kids. Unfortunately, our overly interventionist parenting model is not getting us there. We must do something different. We must shift the current parenting paradigm. Way to go, Utah!! I hope this is the beginning in a much bigger shift.

Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.