The outcry was deafening.
It was April 2008, and Lenore Skenazy had just written a column for the New York Sun, in which she admitted to allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the subway alone. Boy, did people go
But Skenazy was not without support. Quite the opposite. Her blog’s popularity soared, she wrote a wildly successful book, and she is credited with coining the term “free-range parenting” to describe what is, today, a worldwide movement to allow kids to learn by experience with minimal supervision. On her website, Skenazy says she’s “fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger” from a litany of perils, including terrible people, bugs, germs and failure.
Free-range parenting is viewed by some as a response to the surge of helicopter parenting in the 1990s. But do experts think free-ranging is a better alternative? We asked Dr. Fran Walfish for her thoughts. Walfish is a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, a regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors (CBS), and a co-star on WE tv. She has also appeared on NBC Nightly News, ABC News, CNN, The Today Show, and many more.
How do you define free-range parenting?
Dr. Walfish: The optimal way of looking at free-range parenting is [that it’s] the concept of raising children in the spirit of encouraging them to function independently and with limited parental supervision. The problem is the word supervision. I think we’re now sadly living in a society where the bad people look just like the good ones. You cannot tell the difference. And I think children do need supervision [depending on whether they have] demonstrated consistent responsible behavior, their age, their temperament, the world around us and what’s happening in our society. The environment has to be factored in as well — [the child’s] neighborhood and what’s going on in the neighborhood.
Do you believe free-range parenting is a better alternative to helicopter parenting?
Dr. Walfish: No, I don’t. It’s like if you have a super strict, harshly disciplining parent, the answer to that isn’t to swing to the other end of the pendulum and be a submissive parent who gives in to everything. Somewhere in the middle, where balance is created, is where the answer lies.
There are plenty of free-range parents that will sing the gospel and say, “Well, it worked for my kid.” And I say that’s great. But it won’t work for most kids. I treat a lot of parents where there’s a mom and a dad in the family, and the mom will be very coddling, whereas the father wants to toughen up the son. So, the way the father approaches toughening up the son is to push him out into the world before the child is ready to go, and the child clings harder to the mom. The result is the child becomes more dependent and even stuck in dependency.
It sounds like you have serious concerns about free-range parenting.
Dr. Walfish: My biggest concern with free-range parenting is the safety factor. The
I am an advocate of encouraging children to function independently and with limited parental dependency. [But] I worry free-range parents are shoving their children out into the world before the kids are equipped with coping skills to deal with true autonomy before they’re really ready. And the parents are celebrating, [saying] look what I did, I’ve got independent kids.
NEXT UP: Free-Range Parenting Guidelines