“Free-Range” is Not a Viable Parenting Style. We Need One.

Are we 'Free-Range Parents' any better prepared for success than the American government was when it sought to topple Saddam?  We need a coherent strategy for what we should do once we topple overparenting.

Dr. Phil recently ran a program entitled “New Parenting Styles.” The show sets up a dichotomy between the current dominant “overparenting” approach and “free-range parenting.”

Yikes – do folks out there really think that Free-Range is a parenting style?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m in huge agreement with the Free-Range movement. Parents have wayyy too much control over their children these days. Lack of autonomy is the root of my critique of childhood in America today.

I thoroughly applaud the Free-Range Kids movement, but it’s important to understand what it is and what it isn’t. It does an excellent job of telling parents what they shouldn’t do, but it doesn’t tell them what they should do instead. It is absolutely not a viable parenting style. As we rebels against overparenting gain the strength to swim against the tide, we need to start defining our parenting by what we do.I’ll give an analogy: Remember the Iraq War to remove Saddam Hussein from power a few years ago? Well, the US government was pretty darned good at accomplishing that objective, but it turned out to be a hollow objective. Our government had no clear vision for what it wanted after Saddam other than some vague notion of “democracy.” The successful invasion created a vacuum, and our not filling it well immediately invited al Qaeda to step in and reap all sorts of havoc. We’re still paying a huge price for our government’s failure to clearly articulate a new vision for Iraq’s government before we overthrew the old one.

Similarly, if we pro-Free-Range parents really do succeed in convincing lots of other parents that they should do less controlling, then we need to already have a very well-articulated new parenting style that tells us what we should be doing more of. After all, there is quite a range of possibilities. Should we spy on our kids to make sure they’re not getting into trouble? Should we think less about our kids and turn our attention to other things we’ve been neglecting?

Well, “no” and “no.” Regarding the former, we need to develop relationships of integrity and respect with our kids, so this is out of the question. Regarding the latter, this would, in a sense, be like turning the clock back to the way parents were decades ago. As I’ve written recently, parents spend more time with their kids than they did decades ago. I believe it’s a very good thing that parents are investing so much more time into their children, but I am disturbed that most of that time is allocated to controlling and guiding children’s lives to prepare their credentials for college. Meanwhile, children’s present emotional well-being, among other things, is suffering.

So, if we don’t spy on our kids and we don’t neglect them, what do we do with all that time that we’ve been spending driving them around and organizing/planning their lives?

This is what I spend all my time thinking about these days. To me, arguing against overcontrolling parents is sooo last decade, sooo 2000s. (I call the last decade the “nots”!) I’m over it. Even if that battle is far from over, I can see enough signs in the media (we have Dr. Phil on board at least!) and among parents that they get it.

Overparenting is bad for our kids. OK. Got it. What do we do now?

I’ve been writing a lot these days about a “facilitative” approach to parenting. Certainly, when kids are first born, we need to totally control their lives, but from the moment they start walking, we constantly have decisions to make about how to deal with their quests for independence. These quests, if they’re aimed properly, become outstanding opportunities for our children to mature and achieve competence in the world.

This facilitative approach I’ve been working on puts emphasis on setting up safe conditions in which children can develop on their own. If you think about it, your neighborhood is the only place where this could possibly happen. However, most neighborhoods are either unsafe or dead boring for kids. Making them safe and interesting is our job.

So, instead of taking my oldest son, Marco (5) to organized soccer and baseball and basketball, I spend a lot of time in our neighborhood with him and his younger brothers. We spend a lot of time talking to neighbors, we play a lot with them there, and I put lots of things in my yard (see this and this) to make it a fascinating place that will captivate my kids for years to come.

There’s an awful lot more to say on this, but I’ll leave that to future articles and maybe a book on all of this.

Stay tuned…

Bookmark the permalink of this post.

22 Responses to “Free-Range” is Not a Viable Parenting Style. We Need One.

  1. winecountrymom says:

    Have you not read the book? Because it is all about what to do instead of hovering, and giving viable options for what to do instead of hovering, and how to still be safe, etc. It seems like you’ve only seen the idea of free-range parenting on TV and don’t know too much more about it. . .

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    winecountrymom –

    I did go through the book almost a year ago right after it was published, and since then I’ve been reading many blog entries and watching some of Lenore’s appearances on TV. I do recall a few examples of what parents do rather than hover, but I don’t think they add up to a comprehensive parenting style.

    What I most remember when I think of Free Range Kids are the stories of outrageously overprotective parents on the one hand and of Free Range parents letting their kids go a bit on the other hand.

    This is all very important stuff. I get a lot of inspiration from it. I just think we need more guidance on what to do after we stop being overprotective.

  3. Daniel says:

    I tend to agree, Mike, especially with the categorisation of “Free Range” as perhaps one ideal of good parenting, but not an encompassing parenting approach or style.

    Giving your child the opportunity for ample, unconstrained free time and mobility can certainly be a sign of trust between a parent and child (a real necessity for viable parenting) – but given the wrong circumstances, this action can also, certainly, be as much a sign of disengaged or uncaring parenting.

    I think this has been what’s flummoxed and polarised so many people about the Free Range “movement”; nobody would look at Lenore and say that she really was a “Bad,” “Disengaged” or “Uncaring” Parent. At the same time, though, there’s a latent potential for very real psychological and emotional (if not also physical) neglect within those same “free range” parental actions advocated by Lenore, if they were done by very different person in different circumstances, and with less mindfulness on the adult’s part.

    I think the broader parenting approach we should be looking for is one based on (at least?) two things: 1) Trust and 2) Attuned Reflexivity.

    Considering the second, Attuned Reflexivity, parents need to inhabit a space fully “in the moment” with their kids, mindful of their development, feelings and thoughts. Observation is as much a key to parenting as any actual action. It’s only then, when a parent has observed and knows what’s going on, that he or she can base their choices on a mindful reflection of “What would be the best action (or, equally, inaction) that I can do for my child now?”

    Along with this comes Trust. Not only do parents need to extend trust to the child in this (recognising that what’s pulled out of a parenting book really might NOT be what a child needs this moment), but parents also need to trust in the process – knowing that they made absolutely the best choice they could have done at that time with what they knew. What happens after, happens.

    While I certainly haven’t done justice to these ideas with my feeble explanation, I have heard other labels that might align fairly well: for instance, Mindful or Attuned Parenting. Who knows, maybe the term Instinctual Parenting would also fit the bill. I just believe it’s all about parents being “fully present” with children, in their relationships and parenting – and making that what really matters.

  4. bequi says:

    Here’s what you do if you “Free-Range Parent”:
    Teach your kids how to act responsibly.
    Give them consequences for not acting responsibly.
    Teach them necessary skills for when they’re adults, i.e. how to clean, cook, do laundry, etc.
    Trust your instincts instead of waiting for people to tell you how to take care of your own children.

    The whole point of Free-Range is teaching your kids to be (SAFELY) self-sufficient. It’s not about letting them do whatever they want, or not teaching them right from wrong, or letting them ride bikes without a helmet.

  5. bequi says:

    One more thing, what makes you think “most neighborhoods are unsafe”? I agree lots are boring, but that’s because parents won’t let their kids go outside, because people are telling them it’s “unsafe”.

    Did you know America hasn’t been this safe since the 70’s? I think it’s marvelous you’re introducing your kids to the neighbors. The next step is to try and convince them to let their kids go outside.

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    bequi –

    First, to respond to your query about unsafe neighborhoods, what I wrote is, “most neighborhoods are unsafe or boring.” In other words, they’re one or the other. Between those two, most are boring, but some neighborhoods are unsafe for one of two reasons: 1) person-on-person crime, like shootings, which usually take place in low income neighborhoods, and 2) auto accidents on streets where cars drive fast, which can happen on low and middle income neighborhoods.

    Regarding your first comment on making your kids safely self-sufficient, I just don’t think that’s enough in most middle and upper middle income neighborhoods in the US precisely because of what you state elsewhere – i.e. that the problem isn’t safety, but rather boring neighborhoods. If most parents in this group said, “OK, go outside and play, but be careful!”, most kids would just blow that off and keep playing video games or chatting on Facebook.

    Precisely because neighborhoods are sooo boring is the primary reason why the Free Range approach is inadequate. As I wrote, I believe parents who stop controlling as they had need to take that time and allocate it toward activities that facilitate their kids’ lives in their neighborhoods. Otherwise, kids won’t be Free Range because nothing interesting is going on outside…

  7. Daniel says:

    In the interest of fairness: I think the operative word there, Bequi, was that most neighborhoods are unsafe *OR* boring. I agree that statistically, the safe part is covered – never has there been a more worry-free time to let our children out into the neighbourhood to play. However, I think Mike has a point in that currently there’s very little incentive for them to actually go play outside – there simply isn’t much that’s interesting on our suburban neighbourhood streets anymore.

    With the en masse move to the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s, the diversity and community of our streets – the intermingling between age generations and economic, residential and community-based functions – has swiftly evaporated for most children and their families. Sure, urban planners will try to compensate by throwing in an occasional “nature walk” or maybe a kids’ jungle gym, but these are generally only engaging for a very limited age-range of children. Where do the older kids go? Inside, to the computers and electronic entertainment. Interestingly, in the documentary “Where Do The Children Play?,” it was found that children who lived in dense urban settings within the city had much richer and more dynamic play than children who lived in suburban settings (which were found to be isolating and boring for children).

    I don’t think Mike’s desire to improve neighbourhoods is incompatible with the Free Range ethos. If anything we simply have to acknowledge that Mike and Lenore approach the issue of empowering children to play freely from different places – Lenore, from the city, and Mike, from the suburbs. Given the vast range of geographies American children grow up in, we have to recognise that there simply isn’t going to be “one right answer” to this problem.

    In response to your first comment: Certainly, it seems that most “Free Range Parents” believe in and act those things (emphasising responsibility and skills)… BUT I think it’s only right to say that those have developed as corollary attitudes. They aren’t particularly well embedded directly in Lenore’s book or in what’s emerged as the “Free Range” manifesto, but for the most part are what readers themselves have brought with them. The core of Lenore’s message, I must admit (echoing Mike here), strikes me more as an indictment against overparenting than an actual declaration of what parenting should look like – a list of Don’ts, rather than a list of Do’s.

    I’m sure all of this is not so much a matter of disagreement, though, but a matter of differences in approach and concern.

  8. Daniel says:

    (Mike beat me to posting. I take too long to write these things, I think.)

  9. Mike Lanza says:

    Well, Daniel, I’m happy to see that at least one person agrees with most of what I say.

    I do take issue with when you said that my characterization of neighborhoods as boring for kids is only a suburban point of view. I lived in San Francisco until a couple of years ago. I have good friends with kids and many Playborhood.com contacts who live in many other cities. Almost all of these people would agree that their neighborhoods are wayyyy too boring for kids. So, simply “Free Ranging” those kids would do them little good. Like suburban kids, they need their neighborhoods to be way more interesting than they are now.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of responsibility. What worked well for us, is a combination of 2 things. First, being surrounded by, in general, quite responsible people and respecting those who are responsible. Second, being irresponsible ourselves. Children feel a void and step in to fill it. For exampe, when my daughtr was about 8-year old, we never set our alarm clock. She would and then come to wke up us saying: Pa, ma it’s time to get up, so I am not late for school.
    She could prepere herself for school and go there herself (about 1 mile walk), but we insisted on having breakfast together 🙂

  11. Anonymous says:

    As for boring neighborhoods, they are boring for us–adults. My 3-year old cannot wait to get outside and play in the same townhouse complex, which is 70% parking lot with some bushes, flower beds, and lawns around. He spends a lot of time observing bugs, drawing on pavement, playing ball with himself, counting airplanes, riding a bike, building something from sticks, he is collecting on our walks, floating leaves and sticks in the paddles, etc.

    The house is full of toys (quite carefully selected, though TV/computer is available maybe for 2 hours a week total), but there is something outside, which attracts him. Maybe, because there is more place to jump and run.
    Though I can see problems coming. For example, neighbors are already complaining about the noise of ball bouncing. And with age he wants to play with others more and more. Also I can see that he is ready and interested in going further from the house.

    I agree that it’s important having other children around. But I am not sure about us–adults–trying to create fun environments for children. Similarly to being irresponsible, it’s good to be boring and to maintain a boring (clean, quite and with no over-stimulation pouring from the virtual world) atmosphere at home. Then children will look for something else and create their own exciting world outside, which may look primitive and boring to us, but not for them. What’s important is to preven other adults from stopping them (for the sake of safety, of course) and starting to provide them with over-stimulation (not for free, of course).

    This ability itself–to create something exciting from whatever is available–is priceless.

  12. gramomster says:

    Neighborhoods have always been boring. That’s part of the point. Figuring out what to do when there’s ‘nothing to do’.

  13. Perla_Ni_FB says:

    I like the comment about the role of parenting as teaching our kids to be self-sufficient. That’s our ultimate metric of success as a parent if we can nurture kids to become functional, productive, independent people.

    But at the same time, I think as parents, we are unsure of how ready our kids are to be self-sufficient. I think someone published a checklist of what kids can do/should be able to do at certain ages. I’ll see if I can find it and post it here next time.


  14. Daniel says:

    Mike – You’re absolutely right, I think it does all boil down to an “individual neighbourhood” kind of level. It’s a broad generalisation, and it’s true, it’s not just the suburbs that bore kids. All of us could be a bit more proactive in considering how our communities impact children and what potential “free range” opportunities they have to offer. (Have you ever read Roger Hart’s “Children’s Experience of Place”, by the way?)

    Boredom is certainly a good thing, and what stimulates children in the environment will often be far different from our own. That said, that doesn’t mean there has to be NOTHING in terms of play provision; even the kids in “The Sandlot” had, well, a sandlot to be bored in. And I think that’s just the thing – in the sanitisation of our neighbourhoods, we’ve stripped them of everything interesting for kids. We’ve given children little to requisition and recycle as their own. Being proactive in providing for suitably “Free Range” neighbourhoods doesn’t mean necessarily providing environmental forums of entertainment or fun, but rather it might mean letting that junk heap in the corner of the backyard develop, or not manicuring your lawn, or maybe even purchasing a spare lot to turn into a junk yard and hangout for kids.

    Perla – just some thoughts, take ’em or leave ’em, but I think the chief problem with checklists is in how utterly cultural they are. Kids in rural areas are expected to drive tractors at the age of 8, while kids in the city aren’t allowed to cross the road alone until they get into middle school. An exaggeration, sure, but it gets to the point that it’s all about expectations – and if we challenge our own expectations, kids will frequently surprise us. Relying purely on a developmental/textbook knowledge of kids and their abilities strips life of all the passion and enthusiasm out of raising kids (at least for me).

  15. Anonymous says:

    Daniel, I think you put a finger exactly on it: all what is needed is a chance for children “to requisition and recycle as their own.” The moment we start building the play environment for children 3 things happen. First, the more we put into it, the more we risk of becoming attached to the outcome, and more resistant (maybe subconsciously) we may grow to an idea of them changing (destroying or misusing) our creation. Second, the more advanced, sophisticated, professionally made artifacts we put into their surrondings, the bigger will be the demotivating contrast between all that “advanced” stuff and what primitive toys they can make themselves. Third, anything we put into that environment was already at least once digested by human mind. We do direct and control not only when hovering, but also when shape the environment. Sure, most of our children will live in the world largely created and shaped bu other humans, and they need to learn how to operate in it. But it would be nice to expose them to the world untouched by human intellect as well. For example, it may be useful for a few of them, who will happen to reach the outer limits of what is known, when doing cutting edge research or exploring new worlds.

  16. Mike Lanza says:

    lr_khaimovich, I agree that kids don’t benefit from environments that leave nothing to the imagination at all, but that doesn’t mean that any old environment will be stimulating for a kid. Many places (e.g. suburban tracts with driveway-fence-driveway-fence-etc.) are just very, very sterile, and don’t draw kids to experiment and play at all.

    I used to think that architects and urban planners had way too inflated a view of how their designs could impact human behavior until I visited a New Urbanist community (see my Playborhood.com articles on “The Waters”). Simple changes in design *really* can have a dramatic impact on human behavior.

  17. bequi says:

    I think I addressed the dangerous OR boring aspect. My theory is that neighborhoods got boring BECAUSE everyone said they’re dangerous. I.e. I have a friend who won’t let her 9 year-old walk the couple blocks to school by herself because “there’s a sex offender on the route.” But really, what are the chances that he’s going to attack her on her way to school, with all those other kids walking, too? Which means the place he can “get” her is in his house, but why would her daughter go in there?

    You see what I’m saying? One mom won’t let her kids go outside alone, which means that is 5 fewer kids able to play outside with their friends. So let’s say there’s another kid on the block who wants to play outside, but he knows there’s no one to play with. So of course he’ll stay inside instead of playing by himself.

    I think the first step to making neighborhoods less boring is to spread the word that the world is safe (generally speaking). Like you were saying, there is still the danger of cars, but that’s where a free-range parents would be especially sure to teach their kids about safety. Don’t run into the street, look both ways, keep an ear and eye out for cars at all times, etc. But we need to convince people that no one wants to steal their kids. Child molesters are usually someone the kid knows, so keeping them inside won’t protect them.

    The second step is to do exactly what you’re doing. Meet your neighbors, take your kids around to meet other kids, do what it takes to make adults comfortable letting their kids go outside. I’ve been thinking a good way to do that would be to organize a “Child Watch” rotation, where one parent instead of all the parents can stay outside and supervise from afar to make sure the kids are being safe. Rotate the responsibility, and when all the parents feel like they can trust their kids, quit sitting outside.

    Kids would rather be running around playing with friends, than sitting alone in front of the computer.

    And please note that almost every sentence in my comment could have “generally” added to the end. Obviously none of my advice would work for every single person.

  18. Mike Lanza says:

    bequi – I agree with you for the most part, but I would add one thing: the proliferation of engaging screen activities since we were kids (immersive video games, the Internet including social networking sites, hundreds of TV channels, videos) has upped the ante substantially for what will engage a kid. Next to all these screen activities, our neighborhoods look incredibly boring.

    When I was a kid, because we didn’t have anything engaging inside the house, we would go outside with nothing to do and create something.

    So, in order for them to compete with screen activities for kids’ attention, our neighborhoods need to be pumped up to make them more attractive, I believe. One important part of that is just getting people outside. Another part, though, might be putting things out there that make it more attractive. This would include seating, play spaces (e.g. sandboxes, playhouses, etc.), sporting facilities (e.g. basketball hoop), etc.

    I have a lot more to say about this – I’m writing a lot about this these days.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I am not sure that it’s possible to compete with screen activities. Many of them are just like drugs–providing easy and immediate pleasure. Do we want to offer our children even easier and faster pleasure, when the whole point, for me at least, is to help them to become engaged into sustained creativity, which can be even more rewarding exactly because it takes time and effort to learn enjoying it–both the process and outcomes.

    So, I am dividing fun into 2 categories: trivial and serious. Then it’s the never-ending battle to teach children to recognize and avoid the former on one hand, and a constant effort to expose them to the latter on the other hand.

    The easiest way to that is finding surroundings where slightly older children are already having serious fun.

    The easiest trap to fall in is to have children involved in adult-led paid “developmental” activities. There is nothing wrong with learning from adults, but probably the most important lesson children can learn by observing a person—doesn’t matter what age—completely engaged into serious fun to the point of not being able to stop, and, for sure, flying well above the extrinsic stimulation like approval of others, money, and the whole bunch of so-called therapeutic rewards.

  20. Daniel says:

    Just wanted to pop back in and say:

    This is a fantastic discussion! I’m really enjoying everybody’s ideas and insight. (Mike, any chance we could get you to set up a Playborhood National Conference? *wink wink*)

  21. Shannon W says:


    As a reader of both sites and of Lenore’s book, I am very disappointed in your criticism of “Free-Range” parenting. The moniker “free-range” may be a little much but as several responses here have pointed out, the philosophy is not.

    You state that “It does an excellent job of telling parents what they shouldn’t do, but it doesn’t tell them what they should do instead.” I disagree. In every chapter of the book, Lenore gives suggestions of what to do differently, both in examples and in bullet points, and the active community on the free-range website is always giving suggestions in addition to support. You state “we need to already have a very well-articulated new parenting style that tells us what we should be doing more of. “ I do not think this is possible. What to do differently will depend on every family, every situation, every neighborhood. Your children are still quite young. In a few short years, their world will expand beyond your neighborhood and you will have to figure out what to control and what to merely oversee. Lenore’s philosophy may be helpful to you.

    You and Lenore are tackling different, though overlapping aspects, of a larger problem (the controlled, screen-addicted, fear-driven state that childhood has become). Others come at it from an even different angle (for example, Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, would probably feel that the outdoor enhancements that you advocate are inferior to a natural environment). In truth, all approaches are “inadequate” because the problem is too big but I believe each provides a part of the solution.

  22. Kellie says:

    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading all of the posters comments. You have all touched interesting points that I grapple with daily. Thank you for the ideas and the ideas generated just by reading your comments.

    And a super cheesy note… I’m uplifted to know that so many of you exist in other places besides my little town McKinney, Texas. What a great country you are making for our children!

    Have a super day