'Free-range parenting' in the land of the free

Move over, 'helicopter parenting'. A new movement now encourages parents to let go and allow children to walk and play in the neighbourhood without adult supervision.

WASHINGTON • When parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv allowed their children, aged 10 and six, to walk home from the park alone, they never thought it would lead to investigations of child neglect.

But the Meitivs are not the only ones who have been investigated for letting their children roam free, with at least four cases in the United States over the last year.

To some in the US, this is negligent parenting, which needs to be stopped, but to others, giving their children the independence to play and walk home unaccompanied is part of a movement called "free-range" parenting.

The movement is largely regarded as the counter-balance to "helicopter parenting" - where parents hover over their children at all times, caring for their every need.

One advocate for free-range parenting is Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free-Range Kids: How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry), said that the free-range movement "rejects the notion that children are in constant danger".

Children in Newtok, Alaska, playing on June 30. In June, Maryland's Child Protection Services (CPS) clarified that ''children playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response''. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The mother of two boys, 17 and 19, started the movement after writing about her experience of allowing one of her sons - then nine years old - to navigate the New York subway on his own and find his way home.

Ms Skenazy said he had asked for the chance to do this, so she designated a day, gave him a metro card, a map and US$20 (S$27) for emergencies and allowed him to head home from a shopping mall.

She said she did not worry about him because she felt he was ready for the experience. "If I thought it was dangerous, I would not have let him do it," she said.

Psychology professor Louis Lichtman from Alfred University in New York points out that "what we call free-range parenting today, is what was considered typical parenting up until about the 1970s".

Over the last few decades, the trend has been for parents to fuss over their children, with many articles and books detailing how parents shadow their children on college campuses and even play a significant role in their college admissions process.

Prof Lichtman, who wrote the book A Practical Guide For Raising A Self-Directed And Caring Child, said the rise of the helicopter parenting trend could be due to a number of things, including a theory put forth by University of Georgia professor Richard Mullendore, who blames the cellphone.

Said Prof Lichtman: "It makes it very easy for parents to check up on their kids and for kids to ask their parents for guidance, rather than figure things out for themselves."

He added: "Another factor is that in recent decades, the media is much more focused on child abductions, which leads to parents worrying about their children, and hence tending to check up on them more frequently."

But Ms Skenazy, who has delivered talks on the topic of free-range kids in countries such as Australia, Austria and Spain, believes the media should not whip parents into a frenzy.

"Fear is being advertised all the time," she said, but points out that for every story that makes the news, "hundreds of thousands of kids don't get kidnapped".

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Centre show that there were 643,744 entries for missing children under the age of 18 in 2007 and that the number dropped to 466,949 last year.

But that doesn't mean children are not harmed.

For example, in 2009, 10-year-old Lindsey Baum from McCleary, Washington, disappeared as she walked home at 10pm from a friend's house which was just 10 minutes away. The case remains unsolved.

Psychotherapist and family therapist Karen Ruskin does not think it is sensible to leave children aged under 10 unattended for long periods. They shouldn't be allowed to find their own way home either.

At this age, she said, a child "does not have the same risk-assessment skills as a teen or an adult to navigate danger".

She said parents should not "abdicate their responsibilities" and assume that a child who comes into problems will work them out on his own or that there are other adults around to help him.

Whether the authorities should get involved if a child is left to walk home alone, is yet another matter of contention.

Mrs Meitiv, 46, a climate science consultant, was investigated twice by Child Protection Services (CPS) for neglect but has since been cleared of both charges. She believes the authorities should not have intervened when she allowed her children to walk home from parks which were about 1.6km away from their family home.

In June, a policy directive issued by officials of Maryland state clarified that "children playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response" unless there is information that the child is harmed or is at substantial risk of harm.

Responding to this, Mrs Meitiv, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, said: "I think this is a good thing, we are moving in the right direction."

She continues to allow her children to go to the park on their own and believes that allowing them to play on their own makes them more independent.

"They learn social skills through play, they learn to negotiate, compromise... They get to have their world where grown-ups are not included in their imaginary games," she said.

Parents like Mrs Meitiv also believe strongly in allowing their children to fail on their own and grow in the process.

For example, a child should be able to climb a tree without having his parents present to stop him, said Ms Skenazy.

"Our way of growing is we give ourselves scary tests," she said.

"If parents tell children something is too dangerous, they are telling their children who they are and who they can be, before they have even tried it."

Prof Lichtman said his general parenting philosophy would be to "guide and then step aside".

"Parents should, of course, take into consideration how responsible their child is and be knowledgeable about risks associated with the area in which they are considering allowing the child free rein," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Free-range parenting' in the land of the free. Subscribe