Free-range parenting is the hotly debated concept of raising children with limited parental supervision, in order to encourage them to function independently. It’s considered by some to be a sort of knee-jerk response to the surge of helicopter parenting that occurred in the 1990’s.
Parentology spoke with Dr. Fran Walfish, who offered her take on whether or not free-range parenting is a healthy alternative. Now, we turn to her for guidelines that can assist parents who have an interest in adding free-range parenting elements to their child’s upbringing.
Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, is also a regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors (CBS), and a co-star on WE tv. She’s appeared, too, on NBC Nightly News, ABC News, CNN, The Today Show, and myriad other television shows.
At what age do you think it’s ok to leave a child on their own?
Dr. Fran Walfish: I wouldn’t leave a child under the age of 12 alone. If you have a child who’s 12 years old, who’s demonstrated consistent good judgment and responsible behavior, then [you can leave him alone]. That means [the child] follows directions and commands consistently without arguing and negotiating.
Being able to get up, get themselves organized, dressed, fed, and off to school – that’s responsible behavior. There are still 12-year-olds fighting [with their parents] about brushing their teeth. If you have a kid who’s demonstrated consistent good judgment, then you can leave that 12-year-old home for an hour while you go to the grocery store or dry cleaners.
Be sure you’ve gone over the what-ifs with [your child], where you have a list of emergency numbers and where you’ve role-played and already talked. [I don’t mean] just before you’re leaving [the house]. [I mean] you’ve had practice conversations about, for example, what to do if a stranger knocks on the door. You need to role play and make sure you’ve dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s before you leave your child in a high-risk situation.
What advice would you give parents considering free-range parenting?
Dr. Fran Walfish: I’d first ask the parents to define what free-range parenting means to them — what they’re planning to do and what they want to do. Step-by-step. I’d help them achieve their goals in a safe, age-appropriate, supportive — to both the child and parents — manner. We’re going to tackle each behavior individually and talk about the meaning underneath to the parent, and the best objective for their child, based on [the child’s] age and developmental stage.
What if a 10-year-old child wants to sleep overnight at a friend’s house whose parents are free-rangers with a different level of supervision?
Dr. Fran Walfish: I’d advise not giving your 10-year-old permission to sleep in a house that functions so differently from your own. Say to your child, “Invite your friend to sleep at our house, but I’m not comfortable with you sleeping at someone else’s house where they supervise so differently than I do.” You cannot put your child in a situation for 24 hours where you’re anxious. I’d rather mom and dad be calm and help their child deal with the disappointment.
Do the downsides of free-range parenting outweigh its benefits?
Dr. Fran Walfish: Yes. There are positive aspects to most of these different theories, and I think there are ways to pluck out the positive aspects and inject them into your own parenting style without categorizing and calling yourself an attachment theory parent, a free-range parent, or this or that.
When I was a kid, we only had Dr. Spock. Today there are so many theories, I think parents get confused about who to listen to and start doubting their judgment. Parents need to amp up the volume of their own “uh oh” voice, listen to their own intuition and use what works for their own comfort zone.
Any final words of advice?
Dr. Fran Walfish: Be self-aware. Keep your eyes open, be curious about self-examining and ask yourself, “Is this best for my child or for me? Am I doing this by default, pressured by my partner, or because I believe it’s right?” It’s a constant balancing act. We want to focus on what’s best to help the child grow, which includes supporting incremental steps toward moving out into the world at his or her pace, with lots of support and praise.