The debate in the media and around the kitchen table continues to gain momentum. Is free range parenting good or bad for children?
This debate has been fueled by several arrests, including those of parents in Silver Spring, MD who allowed their children — 6- and 10-years-old — to walk home alone along a busy street from a park about a mile away and found themselves under investigation for neglect by their local Child Protective Services agency. The parents are followers of free-range parenting, a movement sparked by Lenore Skenazy which encourages parents to teach children to be self-reliant without always being under the supervision of hovering adults. The parents in Silver Spring say this is just normal parenting. This is the first tale — of these parents in Silver Spring.
There is a second tale in Baltimore, MD — less than 40 miles away from Silver Spring. As Baltimore seethed from the riots following the burial of Freddie Gray, who died in policy custody, parents were interviewed in the media bemoaning the school closures on the first night of protests, fearful that some children would be roaming the streets, fearful of what might happen if the police turned on the children or the children got in trouble.
One country, two cities, and two very different tales: one is more of a tale of privilege and the other is of a community under duress. Let’s look at the highly publicized parents’ actions in both these tales. The parents in Silver Spring let their young children walk home on their own, while a mother in Baltimore is caught on a video of the riots beating her son in public and bringing him home.
It’s a stark display of how environment can dictate parenting styles, and parenting imperatives. There must be some middle ground, however, when it comes to teaching children to rely on themselves and keeping them safe.
• Know your community. Obviously, there are places that are safer and less safe and that is critical. Wherever possible, we as parents need to make judgments on the basis of the safety of the community and we need to help our children know where to turn for reliable help if they find themselves in a scary situation or try to create them, if they don’t exist.
• Know your child. Some children are ready to venture out and some are less so. There are skills that you can teach children to help them learn to be safe and become more self-reliant and responsible or, in a word, to take on challenge.
• Be our best selves. Studies, such as those by Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland, show that we can stand in the way of helping children learn to take on challenges if we are alarmist (seeing danger everywhere when it isn’t there) or intrusive (trying to fix things for our children without letting them learn to fix things for themselves, as is age appropriate). Children will learn what they live as well — if we are overly harsh with our children, they learn to be overly harsh with others. We are teaching our children by example.
• Teach our children the skill of taking on challenges. Little by little, we can teach our children how to venture out, how to be aware of stranger-danger (don’t go with someone you don’t know even if that person seems nice), how to handle themselves in menacing situations or not get into trouble (like the police presence in Baltimore). Using a problem-solving process with children helps them learn this skill, such as asking them, “What would you do if…” And then helping them evaluate their solutions.
It is one country with two cities that are symbolic of the real issue, the real divide — between people with more resources and those with fewer. It is a divide we won’t bridge easily — but we need to start trying.