Free-Range Parenting – Is it a Good Idea?

There has been a growing trend in parenting. It’s raising what’s called ‘free-range’ kids. The idea is similar to chickens. Chickens are often cooped up in a… coop. These coops are where most of us get our eggs from. However, there has, over the last few decades, appeared on the shelves of our grocery stores expensive eggs with these words printed on the carton: ‘Free-Range.’ These chickens are not cooped up. Oh, no, they are free to run wild, and live life, and spread their wings, and eat whatever they may find. (Actually, ‘free-range’ chickens are most often left in big overcrowded barns where they are forced to fight for their lives…but that’s taking the analogy too far, I suppose).

Many parents have adopted a style of parenting that seeks to free their children from the cooped up world of over-watchful parents. They want their children to be free to go play without the stifling eye of a parent upon them. They want their kids to go out and make their own decisions and their own mistakes. They fear that an over-watchful parent is a hinderance to the growth of their child, that if a child is over-coddled, he or she will enter into adult life unprepared.

And with much of this, I would agree. We’ve all seen parents that are always there to catch their children when they fall. We have also seen that those same children can grow up entirely too dependent upon their parents and struggle to enter into adult life. And in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information about the latest kidnapping, freak accident, or drowning, there is a real concern that parents go to a protective extreme that, in the end, is not protection at all. It’s like the sign at the state park that says, “Do not feed the animals!” It’s not that the park ranger hates animals and wants them all to starve to death. He wants to make sure the animals can learn how to fend for themselves. An important part of parenting is teaching your child to fend for himself. 

However, I do have many concerns about ‘free-range’ parenting. There’s a good reason that chickens are kept in coups and in barns. There are many dangers that lurk outside of those walls. I know that many advocates of ‘free-range’ parenting would say that the dangers of kidnapping and such are very small. I don’t disagree. Nor do I think kidnapping is the main thing that we should be concerned about. I believe that there are several other smaller, more subtle dangers that are of great concern.

Range of Free-Range

One of my concerns about ‘free-range’ parenting is that it is hard to define. One parent may mean one thing and another parent another thing. I remember several ‘free-range’ kids that had tremendous freedom when I was a child. But it wasn’t because they had thoughtful parents that wanted their child to grow into a beautiful and successful adult. It was because their parents didn’t care. These children often had parents that were highly dysfunctional. I suspect that some adults will use the idea of ‘free-range’ parenting to further free themselves from the ‘burden’ of their children. I know this is not the intention of the proponents of ‘free-range’ parents, but it certainly will be a result. 

Besides that, the limits of ‘free-range’ parenting is different for different people. If your idea of ‘free-range’ parenting is to allow your older children to go ride their bikes around a relatively safe neighborhood by themselves, I’m all for it. I let my kids do that. But some people define ‘free-range’ parenting as basically letting their kids do whatever they want, in and outside of the house. This I am totally against. 

In researching this subject, I’ve come across some really scary parenting philosophies. Some parents believe in basically letting the child do whatever he wants. In one video I watched, the child (age 4) was allowed to play with knives and fire, say the ‘F-word,’ go to bed whenever he wanted (which was after midnight), sleep with his parents, and run wild around the grocery store. The child quite literally does whatever he wants with little to no restraints. Their reasoning for this? The mother says this: “As a mammal, when you are born, you are equipped with everything you need to have to survive. A child is able to know what is safe and unsafe.”

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that this is the stupidest thing that any parent could say. We are born with everything we need to survive? Really? First of all, this is not true concerning animals, and secondly, this is especially not true concerning human-beings. Every mammal is dependent upon its mother to feed them and protect them. Baby mammals are most at risk from predators. However, animals reach full maturity very quickly. But humans, as far as I know, take the longest out of any creature to mature. Humans are dependent much longer than animals. So if this idea is wrong for animals, it is especially wrong concerning humans. 

The truth is that children are woefully unequipped for survival. If you dropped off a 4 year old in the forest, 100 miles away from civilization, the chances of survival are close to zero. But for a normal adult, chances are at least decent. Why? Because the adult has matured to a point of greater strength and mental capacity. This is common sense. It’s sad that I have to try to prove my point with this, but common sense isn’t so common with some people.

The point of parenting is so that we can help our children to learn to survive. And when they are ready to do that, off they go.

Dangers of Free-Range Parenting

I want to talk about why I think the idea of ‘free-range’ parenting is generally a bad idea. Like I said earlier, there are some aspects of ‘free-range’ parenting that can be good. I’m not arguing against that. And because ‘free-rangers’ vary in practice, not all of these concerns will apply. But here are my general concerns and explanations thereof.

1 – Location.

Some parents are concerned about sending their children out into the neighborhood, and they should be. In many neighborhoods, bad things happen all the time. I don’t necessarily mean kidnappings and rape, but fights, drugs, sexual things, mischief, and the like. If you find yourself in a bad neighborhood, keeping your children close is practical. It seems that many proponents of ‘free-range’ parenting do not consider this. 

2 – Other Kids.

I grew up a pretty safe area and was generally allow to roam free throughout the neighborhood. And while my childhood was generally fine, I did have some encounters that were quite impactful in a negative way. The more freedom I received as a child, the more I met other children that were raised differently than I was. Other kids used words I wasn’t allow to use, other kids watched movies that I wasn’t supposed to be watching, and other kids had magazines and videos that I sure had never seen at my own house. On several occasions, other boys that I would meet showed me their dad’s pornography stash. This led to an addiction that only Jesus was able to set me free from. 

3 – Traumatic Experiences.

Like I mentioned before, I’m not a scientist, but I do know that traumatic events stick in the brain of a child much differently than they do for an adult. A traumatic event as a child can be impressed upon that child’s mind is such a way that he or she has to wrestle with it for the rest of their lives. One traumatic episode can cause years and years of pain and dysfunction. Many of you reading this can probably think back into your childhood to an event like this. And it is likely that this event either happened to you by the hand of an older child or adult at a time when you were away from your parents. 

Things like kidnappings may be rare, but experiences like this are extremely common. 20% of girls have reported being sexually assaulted during childhood. 40% of those were assaulted by another child. And one study suggested that the numbers of child to child assaults are rising because of the prevalence of pornography.* Those are large numbers that I am not willing to gamble with. 

4 – Rules and Boundaries Make Life Fun and Free.

Some people think that having no rules is what makes life fun. But the opposite is true. Stealing is great fun for many thieves; but try stealing from a thief. Having no rules is fun as long as other people keep the rules. As soon as other people stop having rules, all the fun goes away. 

Think about a soccer game. Rules are what make the game fun to play. As soon as one person breaks the rules, it may be fun for them, but nobody else is having fun anymore. If one person decides to grab the ball with his hands and run around, it either has to be penalized, or it ceases to be soccer. 

Now don’t get me wrong, rules are sometimes bad. I get that. But the idea of rules is good. We shouldn’t be rejecting the idea of rules entirely, like some ‘free-range’ parents are doing. We should be seeking to have good rules. And don’t think that there can be rules without punishment. Rules without sanctions cease to be rules. If there were no penalties in soccer, would the rules matter? No. Raising children without punishments, and thus, without rules, is extremely detrimental and will deprive the child of the joy that rules bring.

It must be understood that boundaries bring freedom. When a child has been trained to operate within the boundaries that have been set, freedom increases. As soon as my child learns to obey the rule that she must look both ways before she crosses the street, I can allow her to cross the street by herself. Freedom. When she’s old enough and learns to obey the rules of the road, she can drive all over town. Freedom. When she’s an adult and keeps the law of the land, she can pursue all the adventures her heart could desire. Freedom.

Those who break rules or have not rules, ironically enough, are the least free of all. 

(Now this isn’t to say that there is no place for challenging unjust rules and boundaries. We should when they arise. However, we should always do it within the bounds that are set, except in extreme circumstances.)

5 – Discipline is Very Rewarding

In some of the ‘free-range’ parenting that I observed, children were hardly disciplined in any way. They were generally allowed to do whatever they wanted. This is concerning because discipline is one of the most rewarding things in life. A disciplined person is a happy person.

Discipline is like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. Those who lack self-discipline can exercise their discipline muscle by enlisting the help of others. This is commonly seen through the popularity of personal trainers. In the popular TV program, ‘The Biggest Loser’, contestants who had no self-discipline suffered under the hands of demanding personal trainers. It was torture. But the ones who endured it until the end saw a great payoff. Not only that, but many of them gained the confidence and experience to discipline themselves after they got home. One lady in particular, who, even though she was cut from the show early, used her new found discipline to continue the weight-loss at home. She ended up coming back to win the whole thing. And as far I as could tell from a google search, she’s been able to keep the weight off ever since.

Now consider this when it comes to children. The vast majority of children don’t even have the self-discipline to brush their teeth without being told to. How evil is it of us to deny them the joys of learning discipline by not correcting them and challenging them. 

For example, sometimes I’ll come across someone who plays the piano well. Often times, the person relates how they hated piano lessons as a kid, but are now glad that their parents made them do it. This is true in so many areas. There are many things we hated doing as kids that we are thankful for when we are adults (school, anyone?). Have you met someone whose parents didn’t make them brush their teeth? Aren’t you glad your parents made you do that? 

When we discipline our children, the better the chance we give them at being self-disciplined as adults. When our children do something that they don’t want to do because they don’t want to be punished, they are exercising that discipline muscle. And as that muscle grows, they’ll be able to practice that discipline on their own: self-discipline. It’s a beautiful quality that far too people lack. Those that have it are among the healthiest, wealthiest, and happiest in the world. 

6 – Childhood is about Training and Release

Proponents of ‘free-range’ children talk a lot about releasing their children from the bondage of overbearing parents. And I understand this. But we must not forget that training should be given before releasing. This is the whole point of parenting. 

To the credit of some ‘free-range’ parents, I have heard them talk about this. I have heard some of them talk about teaching their children how to deal with strangers and what to do in emergency situations. This is good. If a child is properly trained and mature enough, and they live in a relatively safe neighborhood, I don’t have a problem with their parents allowing them to roam free. But I fear that this is not the extent of ‘free-range’ parenting for many people. Instead, it seems, that many ‘free-range’ kids are sent out to learn for themselves. This is just disaster waiting to happen.

Before any child is sent off to do something on their own, they should receive proper instruction and guidance. When they do, and when they demonstrate maturity in that area, they should be allowed and encouraged to spread their wings a bit. 

Several years ago, a women was chastised by the general public for allowing her nine year old to ride a New York City subway train all the way home. Some people have a problem with this. I don’t. From what I can gather, the child did it many times with his parents. He knew what to do and knew the way home. And it was the child that asked to be able to do this. Also, busy areas of a city are relatively safe places to be. It’s the dark alleys and lonely roads that are the most dangerous. So I have no problem with this. Of course, every child is different and that should be taken into consideration. 

Conclusion

My concern with ‘free-range’ parenting is that it is too often taken to an extreme. With the taboos against spankings and children who are excessively difficult to handle, many parents are going to be tempted to embrace ‘free-range’ parenting to make things easier on themselves. 

However, there are also some parents that need to loosen up a bit. Squeezing too tight will kill a dog just as well as letting it run wild in the street. We need to have balance and use wisdom. Many ‘free-range’ parents seem to want to drive the car into the other ditch. I appreciate those who desire to make small corrective maneuvers, but we need to steer clear of sweeping changes that over-correct.

*https://www.huffpost.com/entry/12-confronting-statistics-on-child-sexual-abuse_b_587dab01e4b0740488c3de49