The one thing about free-range parenting nobody talks about

I was the most committed free-range parent around. But having a teenager would tempt me to give it up for good.

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In 2011, I read a book that changed my approach to parenting.

Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy is about giving kids the opportunity to develop self-reliance, confidence, and independence, which only happens when we let them out of our sight. Removing all risk from our kids’ lives might seem like a good thing, but in doing so we also remove their ability to problem solve and discover the world.

My husband and I went all in on the free-range parenting philosophy. I looked for ways to develop confidence and independence in our two young kids, ages 6 and 3, pushing aside my fears and instinct to keep them close at all times.

My daughter started walking home from school by herself in early 2012, halfway through grade one. The journey was less than a kilometre, but at the time, we were on the free-range parent vanguard. As far as I could tell, my daughter was the only elementary school-age kid in the neighborhood walking home on her own. I found out later this decision caused concern among other parents, and every now and then a worried mother would offer my daughter a ride.

My daughter, however, loved the freedom. She could make her way home at a leisurely pace, stopping to pet a dog or swing on the tire swing at the halfway point. In 2013 my son started kindergarten, and after a few months my daughter began walking him home.

I did worry about them, and was always relieved to see them come through the door every afternoon, but I often comforted myself with a statistic I’d memorized from Skenazy’s book: “If you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About 750,000 years.”

All throughout elementary school and into middle school, I stayed the free-range course, letting my children walk to friend’s houses, leaving them home alone, and sending them to the local office supply store to buy glue sticks and markers. A young girl walks to school along a busy street wearing her backpack. How did good parenting become a crime?

The teen transition

In 2018, my daughter turned 13—and everything changed.

When she was a schoolager, I could easily dismiss the worst-case scenarios. I knew it was incredibly unlikely that she’s be abducted or the victim of violent crime.

But now that she’s a teen, the dangers that will be begin to face her—drinking and drugs, boys and sex, drunk driving accidents, online bullying and harassment—are no longer a once-in-seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-year likelihood.

I was a well-behaved, play-by-the-rules teenager and even so I drove home on dark Southern California freeways at 85 miles an hour, desperate to make my 11:30 pm curfew. I drank, I went to house parties with no adults around, and I got involved with boys who did not have my best interests at heart.

I know my daughter will behave like most teenagers. She’ll break the rules, she’ll find herself in dangerous situations, and she’ll make bad choices. Knowing all this, I’m finding myself tempted to ditch the free-range parenting philosophy and start monitoring her every movement, keep in her inside until she goes to college, and crack down harder and now that she’s older and the stakes seem so much higher.

Years ago, when I heard people say they’d never let their six-year-old walk home from school alone, I was comforted by the statistics and felt confident in my choice. Now I’m beset by doubt. I’m aware there’s a lot going on in eighth grade that I know nothing about. Much of it is harmless and probably even boring, but that will change, if it hasn’t already. Should I be checking her phone every night? Is my belief in independence and autonomy actually bad parenting?

I feel like the ground is shifting underneath me.

When I play the tape of what could happen to a free-range teen the scenarios are terrifying—and not at all far-fetched.

I naively thought once I’d gotten used to having a free-range kid, it would be a seamless transition to a free-range teen. Nobody told me that that having a teenager would tempt me to renounce all my free-range parenting beliefs.

Independence…within limits

I was wrestling with all these questions when a friend told me about an article she’d read about how teenagers need to have a sense of control. “Even teens who don’t have a rebellious streak and who won’t lie or hide their behaviour suffer when parents micromanage them,” the article said. “Those kids tend to expend emotional energy resisting advice from their parents that is clearly in their best interest,” the article continued, “simply to regain a sense of control.”

My daughter shows no warning signs. She has excellent grades, she doesn’t want social media, her friends are bookworms and athletes, and her main interests are musicals, dancing, and reading. The reason most parents give for monitoring their teens’ phones is to find out what they’re doing, who they’re talking to, and what they’re talking about. However, true independence calls for trust on both sides.

My daughter has shown no reason for us to monitor her phone, so for now we won’t.

This doesn’t mean she’s free to do whatever she wants.

As she gains greater independence—and encounters more dangerous situations—my husband and I will establish clear limits and rules, letting her make decisions within these parameters. Even as it becomes more difficult and the stakes rise, we plan to stay the course with free-range parenting as she enters high school. While I believe this is the right thing to do for our daughter, it’s also terrifying.

When the kids were little I thought letting them go would be easier as they got older.

I had no idea just how hard it would get.

Read more:
Why helicopter parenting can be a sign of privilege
What we can learn from the German approach to parenting

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