Parenting Style

4 Myths About Free-Range Parents And The Kids They Raise

Myth #3: Free-range kids are essentially neglected by their parents.

Originally Published: 
A group of children running through a field with a model airplane.
Alistair Berg/Getty

Despite its questionable reputation, free-range parenting isn’t neglect. It is a simply a rejection of helicopter parenting forceful enough that it makes some people uncomfortable. The core idea of free-range parenting is that children should be given a certain measure of autonomy to explore their world and discover their own boundaries. But free-range kids often trigger concerned citizens unaccustomed to seeing a child walk alone in our modern age. Police get called. Social service workers perform wellness checks. Why? Because it feels weird. Also, there are misconceptions.

The inevitable controversy that erupts when a free-range kid is discovered on the subway or between park and home makes for great local news coverage. However, hotly debated topics are rarely the stomping ground of facts.

Here are four alarming myths about free-range kids that should be considered the next time a kid is discovered playing without parents around.

Myth #1: Free-Range Kids Are In Danger Of Abduction

If a person wanted to take an extreme view, then keeping a kid indoors at all times would be the best way to ensure they’re never abducted. But parents know this is a ridiculous proposition. Equally ridiculous? The idea that a moment unattended outdoors puts kids in the crosshairs of child-snatchers.

National crime statistics tell another story altogether. Consider the fact that in 2011, child abductions affected 0.0000000001417% of kids in the United States. Yes, that percentage represents a very real and horrifying reality that 105 kids were abducted in 2011. That should not be glossed over. But the odds of a child being snatched off the street after being allowed to walk to a friend’s house alone are incredibly small. Reuters reports that between 2010 and 2019, fewer than 350 children on average were abducted per year.

For those who watch the nightly local news, it would seem that there is a pedophile behind every tree, just waiting to truss up local children. However, it’s important to remember that news thrives on crisis. If the bad guys weren’t publicized, regional broadcasters would have to rely on water-skiing squirrels. And there just aren’t enough of those around.

Myth #2: Free-Range Kids Are At Greater Risk Physical Injury

Many parents and non-parent busy-bodies worry that a kid left to their own devices will engage in risky play that will ultimately find them in the back of an ambulance speeding to the nearest trauma center. But the truth is, exposing a child to relatively risky environments can actually improve their physical and psychological outcomes.

It turns out that most kids have a pretty healthy sense of self-preservation. So, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll fling themselves from a great height for the thrill of it.

That said, some cautious tree-climbing without a worried parent around can help a kid discover the boundaries of both their mental and physical abilities. The fact is that children are actually safer when they learn how to manage risk on their own because then they’re better at understanding their limits.

On the other hand, children who test their limits and are nagged by hovering parents at risk of taking up parental phobias. That can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and an indoor kid who is unsure of themselves out in the world.

Myth #3: Free-Range Kids Are Basically Neglected By Their Parents

Just because a child is away from their parent does not mean that the parent has shrugged off responsibility for their kid. Parents who espouse a free-range parenting style, in fact, are often very aware of where their kid is in the world at any given time. The parenting ethos is not one built on the idea that kids are let loose with zero oversight.

That’s why, in cases where free-range parents are investigated after being reported by concerned citizens, the authorities usually do not find parents have neglected their child or placed them in harm’s way. Free-range parents are generally very cognizant of their children’s abilities and take a great deal of care in knowing where their child is going and when they will be back.

This is at least one reason the state of Utah recently changed their definition of neglect. The state became the first in the U.S. to exempt activities like letting kids play alone in the park from being unlawful and neglectful.

Myth #4: There’s Nothing Wrong With Leaving Children Totally Unsupervised

It’s important to note that free-range kids are not simply left to fend for themselves. The operative word in free-range parenting is “parenting.” That specific verb indicates that parents are engaging in actively rearing their kids.

Free-range parents are there when kids leave and are the anchor point that the children return too. And free-range kids are not simply left at home to scrounge their own food, provide for their own hygiene, and waste away in front of the television. That is indeed neglect.

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