Free Range Parenting – A Cult?

Children 5-10 Years Old Without Adult Supervision – Is That Really The Best Option?

A 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 year old child simply does not have the same risk assessment skills as does a 12/13 year old. May I be so bold as to suggest this? Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves, in my humble opinion, and truly does not know child development. As a Psychotherapist/Family Therapist since 1993 I have met hundreds of children and adults of varied backgrounds and life experiences, and I can confidently state that even though chronological age is not always an indicator for the level of a person’s maturity, it is an outrage to suggest that it is healthy for a child as young as 6 to be in a park for several hours without adult oversight, or for a 6 year old to walk a mile without parental supervision, citing that THIS is THE way to teach self reliance, self confidence and independence. Although children vary in terms of one’s development intellectually and emotionally, as parents (and yes, for those who are wondering, I too am a parent), it is up to us to continue to evaluate and re-evaluate the level of activity our children experience without parental or adult oversight. Albeit work, yes, it is work, it takes hard work to raise children. Make the effort I say. For those of whom are blessed to be parents, relish in the joy of this work, never take it for granted, and don’t give in to the easy way out of parenting by signing on to a parenting cult with no base of excellence. In this blog article I shall address the following:

  • Free range parenting- a cult
  • Parents have rights- a message to free range parents: stop bulling parents who believe in oversight/supervision
  • Parenting philosophy
  • Sales pitch- free range rationalization
  • Permissive parenting or parentified children- that’s what free range is
  • 3 main free range parenting arguments
  • Parental and adult oversight/supervision
  • Parenting information

Free Range Parenting – A Cult

What is this reference to a cult I am suggesting? If you have not already heard about the case this past week of the Maryland couple who allowed their 6 year old daughter and 10 year old son to walk 1 mile home without parental oversight – this is an example of what I am referencing. This case is the latest of the ‘free range parenting’ cry for acceptance asserting by parents of this philosophy that this is not only okay behavior it’s actually fabulous behavior and that everyone should be doing it if you want your child to grow up to be independent and have self confidence. To date, the Maryland parents were charged with ‘unsubstantiated child neglect’. It’s one thing to decide you are going to let your young children be unsupervised, it is another thing to suggest that this is the healthiest form of parenting and that it is THE way to teach independence in children.

Although consideration of one’s children’s maturity level in terms of their personality is important, certainly it is also important to consider their actual age. It is ludicrous to say that it is NOT putting 6 and 10 year old children in harm’s way to allow them to walk 1 mile home without adult oversight. It is absurd to suggest that a 7 year old should be left at a park without adult supervision for several hours. Yet, case after case that is so blatantly inappropriate parenting, that the children are simply too young for the responsibility being placed on them, it is simply unnecessary and poor judgement. Do parents who support the notion that children between 5-10 years of age that it is a great way to teach them independence, specifically to be without adult supervision/oversight for large spreads of time in varied environments REALLY intellectually and logically think that’s the BEST way? Well, they must, since they are asserting this notion.

Parents Have Rights – A Message To Free Range Parents: Stop Bullying Parents Who Believe In Oversight

I believe it is each person’s right to parent their own children. When a parent decides they are going to label a style of their parenting ‘free range’, which includes children who are not old enough to supervise themselves, let alone others, to be without adult oversight for extended periods of time in environments in which situations that are unpredictable may occur, and force this philosophy down others throats by bullying parents who wish to raise their children in a more protective style, this saddens me. When did it stop becoming our job as parents to protect our children by keeping them out of harms way? If that is how some parents wish to parent, so be it. To cram one’s philosophy down other parents’ throats and nose snub with verbal accusations about the personal character of parents who believe in the importance of consistent parental oversight for children between the ages of 5-10, well, I believe that is a problem. Sadly, that is what I am seeing. Parents who believe in oversight/supervision and write about it, or are on TV sharing their thoughts, the free range followers attack that person, not in a professional dialogue, rather they attack personally, aggressively and angrily in packs. Furthermore, the consequences that I am witnessing this form of behavior taking is that it is leading parents to take sides. Thus, free range parents ultimately put down and exclude other parents who believe in adult oversight. Those children thus become exclusive in turn.

The concern I have is that there are those of whom drink the Kool-aid of ‘Free Range Parenting’ who blindly commit acts of irresponsible parenting, which ultimately puts their children in harm’s way, which in turn indeed can be seen as negligence. But rather than seeing their behavior as potentially harmful physically and/or emotionally to one’s children, and simply saying- “this is how I have decided to parent”, the free range cult attacks parents who wish to provide parental supervision and adult oversight for children under 12 years old. What a silly argument. I cannot even believe this has become a debate. On what planet am I living when parents who want their 5-10 year old children to go places without adult supervision (e.g., park, mall, restaurant, walk home) react with vile words, respond with aggression and anger at parents who wish to provide parental oversight/supervision? Earth apparently.

Parenting Philosophy

Let your infant cry and cry and cry until he/she falls asleep. Remember that philosophy? That philosophy is all about teaching your child to self-soothe. Well, golly, god forbid your infant learns that when he/she is feeling lonely that what is soothing is to seek out a trusting relationship and experience physical closeness. NOOOO! That is a horrible notion. (Sarcasm). Rather, let’s teach this infant to suck him thumb, for example. Figure it out on your own, be independent kid! So as this infant ages perhaps he/she will not provide warmth and affection to his/her mate when the mate longs for intimacy for the infant has learned that it is important to be independent, to self soothe. Reading relationship social cues and accommodating them will not be in this child’s dictionary.

Independence, independence, independence. If you are available, attentive, nurturing, warm, provide structure and routine, hear your child’s voice with respect which does not mean you always obey it, and provide oversight and supervision, provide opportunities of healthy independence and responsibility – all this- if you provide this to the 5-10 year old age group, that I see as a healthy therapeutic parent-child relationship package.

What if your child wants to smoke marijuana? Well by all means. Let’s teach children that it is acceptable in our culture to soothe one’s self by inputting chemicals in one’s body! Heck, it’s legal right? So therefore it must be acceptable. (As much can get lost in written translation, just to assure my point is taken in the context in which I mean it to be, I am being sarcastic).

If an 8 year old wants to go to the park but mom it not available for another 2 hours to bring him/her there, say yes to the 8 year old to go without mom (says the free range parenting style). Why? Answer: because an 8 year old is a self sufficient self containing unit who can self soothe, make smart judgement that keep him out of harms way, and certainly won’t run into any harmful scenarios. For horrible crime is not as likely as unlikely, so let that be a reason to discount the various other emotional and physical scenarios the child might encounter. But, hey, if he or she does encounter something horrifying or challenging and does not know how to handle it (although free range parents have such a sense of attitude about THEIR children, oh yes THEIR child can handle anything so nothing like that will occur) he/she can certainly ask another adult, a friendly looking adult stranger for help. Well, unless of course that particular adult just happens to be the one sick individual, the one rare sick individual. You may recall the horrifying sad story of the boy in Brooklyn who walked home from camp, a short walk one might suggest in the grand scheme of things, he got a little confused about the direction he was going (even though he’s been down this path plenty of times, for FYI, that happens to kids, heck that happens to adults- who hasn’t experienced missing their exit on the highway), asked a seemingly nice man for directions who ended up chopping him into pieces (real story, look it up). Well, says the free range cult, this is so rare so cluck cluck cluck, let’s have our children be free range. Well, it is within each parents right to raise their children their own way. Not for me to say. I can only speak for myself, even if there was 1 in 1 million chances for my child to be harmed, I sure as hell would not take it. Would you?

Sales Pitch – Free Range Rationalization

If you take a moment to really think about what the sales pitch free range parents are inferring, it is that one must teach one’s child independence, and that THE way to do this is by allowing children between the ages of 5-10 to do things for extended periods of time without adult or parental oversight . If the inference is sincerely that the ages of 5-10, when children are oh so vulnerable, that the only way to teach them independence and self confidence is the aforementioned, then I shall boldly state that is a serious flaw in this sales package. The rationalization of allowing one’s children between the ages of 5-10, that it is a great way to teach independence and self confidence, is just that: rationalization. If as a parent you cannot name off the top of your head 5 other ways in which you can do that, OTHER THAN extended time periods of lack of adult oversight, I feel sorry to hear that. This is lunacy.

The sales pitch that free range parenting asserts is that they wish to combat the helicopter parenting style. Good grief I say. Hovering over your children vs. letting your children take the steering wheel are both hardly wise. Does it really have to be one or the other?

Permissive Parenting And Parentified Children – That’s What Free Range Parenting Is

I don’t believe that most of the parents who are choosing to live a lifestyle of free range parenting believe they are being permissive, nor feel they are creating parentified children. Though they are. From my perspective, I see the free range parenting style as creating and promoting these two distinct types of parenting. Free range may be a new term for parenting for this generation of parents, but I will share with you that each generation of parenting, there’s a new label to differentiate styles of parenting. And I believe, really when you break down what the product that free range is selling, is marketing, it is simply an old style of parenting that has proven is not the best option: permissive parenting or parentified children.

Years ago terms like: authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, and permissive parenting were often used to suggest different parenting philosophies. The way I see free range is that for some it will ultimately result in either permissive parenting, and others will become children who are parentified. Even though study after study of real reports from real children, from real adults, from real adults who were once children (lol), shows that the authoritative style of parenting results most often in children who become socially competent, responsible, and autonomous, free range doesn’t want you to look at that. They say to stay clear of research and child developmental experts. (Hmm).

Parents who incorporate the authoritative style of parenting encourage their child to be independent while also maintaining limits and yes, controls on their actions. So, ultimately authoritative parenting is the big win. Not too permissive, yet not too controlling. Allows and provides for and supports opportunities of independence wisely. Their child’s viewpoint is of value and is taken into account, but it does not mean that a child between 5-10 is without adult oversight. In contrast to cases of permissive parenting and parentified children, that is what parents indeed allowed. The permissive parenting style, parents who parentified their children did allow young children to be alone for extended periods of time.

Authoritarian children is the closest term that was used “back in the day” that is similar to what is now termed “helicopter parents”. Authoritarian parents were known to be highly controlling. Research has revealed that children of authoritarian parents learn that following parental rules is valued over independent behavior resulting in rebellion or dependency. The difference though is that authoritarian parents were typically known to display little warmth, whereas there are helicopter parents that although controlling do display warmth. That difference is important, as that can alter results indeed.

Permissive in style is where children will ultimately receive the message that their parents don’t care. These children experience the lack of structure and routine in their home where they as children get to make the decisions. This has shown, that ultimately leads children to lack in impulse control. The results of permissive parenting has shown that those children may have difficulty with self control, and demonstrate ego-centric tendencies that can interfere with the healthy and proper development of peer relationships. These are children who grow up feeling entitled because the; I want what I want when I want it philosophy rules. Sure honey, you think you are mature enough, then you must be, so go do what you want to do. There are rules in life, and to grow up believing you have free range to do what you want, because your parents have labeled your childhood to be one in which you grew up with free range parenting – how far will that go in terms of who this child becomes as an adult? We all have met adults of whom had permissive parents, and that parenting style of free range does not work out so well for far too many of those children. Years ago, it was free range, sure, but it was called: permissive parenting. Just because a parent says I am choosing to allow my young child to walk one mile home at age 6 without adult oversight, just because a parent says I am deciding and allowing my child at age 8 to go to the park for several hours without adult oversight does not make it right and any less permissive. Believing that your 10 year old will and should take care of your 6 year old, whether during a one mile walk home, or at a pizza restaurant and then walk to the park and be there for several hours is providing a healthy opportunity for independence rather than creating a parentified child, is concerning.

When it comes to parentified children, these are children of whom parents give their children too much responsibility because they feel their children can handle it. Ultimately these parents have their kids attend to the responsibilities and chores that the adult should be doing, for the parents believe it’ll teach the kid responsibility, even though there are other tasks that are really more appropriate for child development. Just because a child can handle something does not mean it is age appropriate and the best option.

“My child is soooo beyond his/her years, so capable, maybe yours isn’t, but my 6 year old can walk a mile where there’s traffic, street crossing and no matter what obstacles may come his/her way, he/she will be able to handle it. But the fact that you are thinking there will be an obstacle means you are a fear monger and I despise fear mongers. For the odds are soooo low that anything bad will happen.” This is the very concept, the consistent message that is being articulated from the free range parenting philosophy, with various degrees of conviction and words, but this is the concept. “Fear mongers”, hmmmm. That’s the term, the label, free rangers call parents who believe in adult supervision. To suggest that a 5-10 year old may encounter an obstacle that they may not be able to deal with, that something bad could happen, is that really being a fear monger or simply realistic? To suggest that one’s 5-10 year old will not encounter an obstacle or something bad, as though that’s a guarantee is just naive. We are adults and we encounter unforeseen obstacles, some of which are quite bad. To think that if an obstacle that’s unexpected were to occur that YOUR child is so high on the food chain that they’ll be fabulous, well, that is high and mighty. Putting both of these points to the side for a moment, although both are relevant, the point that it is THE way to teach self confidence and independence just adds to the disturbing nature of this.

Being independent within developmentally appropriate parental limits and boundaries is very important for the development of children. The overwhelming endorsement of the authoritative parenting style which is associated with healthy development one would think would be enough for all parents to want to implement. This style of parenting has proven successful, it provides self reliant opportunities and a healthy sense of autonomy, that is within a set of parental guidelines, rules, and limits. Certainly parents modify their parenting style to fit certain circumstances. And it is NOT for young children ages 5-10 to be without oversight. This is the piece of the puzzle I strongly believe is missing.

3 Main Arguments Presented By Free Range Parents

Let’s summarize 3 main arguments the free range parenting style presents:

  1. Nothing bad will happen if my 5-10 year old child does not have parental or adult oversight/supervision. Because that is rare cases when bad things happen. And any parent who disagrees with this philosophy is a fear monger and a helicopter parent. How on earth can he/she develop Independence and self confidence? THIS is the best way: 5-10 year old children either alone, or with a fellow 5-10 year old, have them be without parental/adult oversight for extended periods of time in environments that are unpredictable where there are strangers.
  2. If something bad or challenging happens, my 5-10 year old will be able to deal with it and come out mentally and physically unscathed. And for those parents who don’t allow their children to be raised this way, their kid is never going to be independent and those parents are fear mongers and helicopter parents.
  3. THE way for him/her to achieve self confidence/esteem and learn independence is to experience childhood from the age of 5-10 where they do things for extended periods of time without adult oversight. And for those parents who think there’s another way to teach this, they are wrong, fear mongers and helicopter parents.

Just like a cult, the free range philosophy asserts that followers should NOT listen to empirical research on child development, nor listen to parenting experts. Rather, like any dictatorship, like any cult, it is to isolate the followers to one style and listen to one person, one mother named Lenore Skenazy. Not a parenting educator, not a therapist, no background in child development. Her experience: a mother. So her experience with her two children, not based upon her experience in interacting with other children nor years worth of observational experience, it was her personal experience that led her to make a decision that led to a marketing extravaganza. She is the “founder”, of this label “free range” when it comes to parenting. I invite you to take a look back at her early interview before she marketed this concept, when she first was interviewed, and in her early articles, she admits to actions that she did as a parent, that so clearly were extreme the other way. For lack of a better term, one might consider her a helicopter high pressure parent. Assigning her children school work to do during the summer time is just but one example. So when her son wanted to take the train by himself in NYC (yes, he was in the 5-10 year old age bracket being explored in this blog today), she compared it to all of the other things he wanted to do (e.g., drive their car), and this is what she said yes to. Can you believe this? So basically, a child lists all the things he wants to do, and as a parent we should pick the one that’s the least “wrong”? Hey, he wants to, he’s mature enough – why not. That shouts permissive parenting to me, or a parent who is overwhelmed and thus gives in. Oh wait, gives in, that ultimately results in permissiveness. But… if we can brand this, market this, and say it’s good for kids because we are trying to combat the ohhh too many parents who are not letting their children play outside, well then, there’s gold. Why? Because the villain was displayed, and the solution was presented. The villain: parents who won’t let their kids out to play cause they are overprotective. Solution: free range. The sad thing is, free range is not the answer to the problem and yet is being marketed as such.

Those parents who were or are so overprotective to where they literally won’t let their child cut their own food or let them outside in the front yard to play, the solution is: control your anxiety and allow your child to cut his/her food and play outside. The solution is not to have your 5-10 year old children without adult oversight for extended periods of time in unpredictable environments.

Parental and Adult Oversight/Supervision

I know there are many parents overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities. Having to get one’s children from A to Z, while balancing work, home, marriage, life…  can be overwhelming. The answer need not be having your 5-10 year old children without adult oversight so you don’t have to try to balance this all. That shouts overwhelmed parent thus becomes permissive. There are alternatives. I understand fully that there are way too many children who are not playing outside, and instead watching TV and playing video games. The answer need not be have them go to the dry cleaners by walking 1 mile and then 1 mile back because that will teach them responsibility and independence. That shouts parentified children if you keep that behavioral pattern up. There are alternatives. Be a parent, set limits to TV watching and outside time. But… that is way to hard for some parents, so instead they avoid this conflict by not setting limits. Setting limits actually opens up opportunities for children to play freely and independently in a safe environment where there is parental or adult oversight, no not hovering, rather simply within reach.

Even in predictable environments, such as one’s house, it is important for there to be adult oversight (an adult within reach) for children ages 5-10. Let’s look at a basic example. 3 boys playing at a house. They are 3 friends who know each other from school and are each 6 years old. They are playing in the playroom of one of the kid’s house. One friend takes a baseball bat and hits the other friend in the head with it. They were rough housing, doing what boys do, grabbing soft swords and other things in the play room, and of course there was a baseball bat in the playroom since the older sibling is 13 he has a metal bat. (How’d that happen? They are mature 6 year olds thinks the mother.) The boy who hit the other boy then ran under the air hockey table and wouldn’t come out. The boy who got hit in the head with the bat was crying, or perhaps he was just laying there stunned and not crying. The kid under the hockey table was curled in a ball rocking back and forth, and the kid whose house this is goes to get his parent who is home. Or maybe the kid whose house it is freezes. Maybe the bat was not metal, maybe it was plastic. Either way, what’s the damage? Physically? Emotionally? So, you tell me, what is going on with the kid under the table emotionally if an adult doesn’t come and speak with him? What happens to the kid hit in the head? And what happens to the kid hosting this gathering if for 1 hour there’s no adult around? VS. What’s the value if the parent is there to help them navigate this after 5 or 10 minutes of them trying to navigate it themselves? Which really is the better scenario? What if the parent hears crying? Or what if the parent hears silence because the kid who swung the bat is rocking under the table, the kid who is hit is laying silent on the floor, and the kids whose house it is freezes. Fight or flight? Different people respond differently to unpredictable scenarios. Parents may think they know how their kid is going to respond and may or may not be correct. Bottom line: the parent hears silence for an extended period of time or crying, and although the kids had time to work it out, because the parent was in the house, the outcome emotionally and physically and medically turns out completely different then had their been no oversight because the parent left the kids for 1 or 2 hours. These types of stories happen with kids everyday, whether in the house, front yard, back yard, at the playground etc.

Free range likes to infer that if you are not living their parenting style, then you are hovering, you are a helicopter parent. May I so boldly state that you can give your young children the freedom to play independently and yet be within a healthy distance where you are there if they should so need you. You don’t have to be sitting in the play room, for example. OHHHHH the horror if you are in the same house, or at the actual park with them instead of them being there without you!!! They may need you? How will a child of 15 or a young adult of 22 possibly ever make independent choices if when they were children between the age of 5-10 there was adult oversight? (Notice my sarcasm?) Providing consistent adult oversight to children who are 5-10 years of age seems like a given to me. It can only do good, not harm. Whereas the lack of oversight has more likelyhood to do harm. The gradual progression of length of time regarding parental oversight and children being in places without parents need not start between the ages of 5-10 in order to develop into healthy independent confident teenagers and adults.

Parenting Information

If you find this article interesting, for you believe in parental oversight and adult supervision for children between the ages of 5-10, and you want to learn more about my perspective/watch any of my interviews on this topic, or just learn more, below are a few items for your review:

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Follow Dr. Karen on Twitter or Facebook. Media Psychotherapist Guest Expert; Relationships, Parenting, Human Behavior, Analyzes Hot Topics In The News. Has appeared on FOX News Channel's: The O'Reilly Factor, Your World With Neil Cavuto, Hannity, America's Newsroom, America's News HQ, FOX & Friends, FOX & Friends FIRST, America Live, and FOX Business Network's: Neil Cavuto, and The Willis Report. The go–to expert for FOX News Boston including the regular segment; Ask Dr. Karen. Also appeared on ABC's Good Morning America, Lifetime, Discovery Network's Destination America, MTV, The Steve Harvey TV Show, and more. Sought after Radio Guest Expert. Columnist. Speaker. Often quoted in various print media: Wall Street Journal, FOX Business, FOX News Magazine, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, WebMD, Good Housekeeping, Yahoo Shine, Parents, Parenting, CNN, TIME, Woman's Day, Women's Health, Men's Health, USA Today, Care.com, and more. Owner/Founder/President: Dr. Karen Ruskin & Associates, Inc. Based in Massachusetts. Author of: 9 Key Techniques For Raising Respectful Children, 10 Seconds To Mental Health, and Dr. Karen's Marriage Manual.

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