The controversy around free-range parenting and how to know when to let your kids go solo
Today, like most Fridays during ski season, I'll pick up my six-year-old daughter from school and we'll drive up the hill to our local ski mountain and ride the lifts until they close. This has been our ritual since she was four, when she was just learning to make parallel turns and was still so little she needed a boost onto the chairlift‒back when the sight of her shooting through a wide glade of trees on the fringes of a flat green run sent shots of cold panic through my body. "Slow down!" I'd yell futilely from behind.
But we can't slow our children down. Not really. Their whole purpose in life is to grow and change and need us less until they hardly need us at all. We can urge caution in the moment and good judgment over time, but we can't arrest their development. At times we cheer their progress, at others we're heartbroken by how quickly they are changing. Either way, it's our job to help them grow so we can let them go.
The hardest thing about being a parent is knowing where to draw the line between reasonable, healthy risk and careless negligence, between hands-on guidance and helicopter parenting.
The line just got a lot muddier in Maryland, where a couple has been placed under investigation for allowing their children to walk home from a playground unsupervised. According to reports, on December 20, 10-year-old Rafi Meitiv and his six-and-a-half-year-old sister, Dvora, had been dropped off at a park by their father, Alexander, to play for a while. They were walking the mile home through suburban Silver Spring when police stopped them and asked them if they were okay. The siblings responded yes, and said their parents knew where they were. Then the kids produced a card their parents had given them. It said "We are not lost. We are free-range kids."
The Meitiv's note refers to the burgeoning parenting movement of the same name. Started by New Yorker Lenore Skenazy, in 2009, after she was chastised for allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home alone, Free-Range Kids is now the basis for the popular and sometimes provocative blog, where the Meitiv's story broke in late December, and Skenazy's new Discovery Channel reality show, "World's Worst Mom."
Despite the hubbub, Free-Range Kids is really just a fancy name for what Skenazy calls "a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times." In other words, the way kids used to be raised: outside, with a lot of range to roam.
My older sister, Meg, and I routinely walked home from school together, in Washington, D.C., in the mid 1970s. As we got older, we played four-square in the road and had the run of our suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Starting when I was six and Meg was eight, my mother used to put us unaccompanied on the Amtrak train from downtown Newark to D.C., to visit our father a few times a year. My mother still cringes when we jokingly remind her of this, but the fact is, we never missed our stop and we were never accosted or threatened by strangers. More important, we gained a measure of self-reliance and independence that I know has shaped the course of my life for the better.
In Silver Spring, the police drove the Meitiv kids home, where Alexander was waiting. Child Protective Services arrived later that day and placed the parents under investigation for neglect, citing a Maryland law saying that kids under eight may not "be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle while the person in charge is absent" and reportedly threatened to remove the children from Alexander's care unless he agreed not to leave them alone at any time until the case is resolved.
The Meitivs resolutely defend their decision, explaining that the park was part of their children's ever-expanding range. The kids started by walking around the block alone and were eventually allowed to walk unsupervised to the library nearly a mile way. The Meitivs gradually gave their kids more freedom as they demonstrated their ability to handle that freedom. "We refuse to deprive our children of critical opportunities to develop responsibility and independence, and have no intention of fundamentally changing our parenting to accommodate this kind of paranoia and bullying," Danielle Meitiv wrote.
They're far from the only parents to come under fire for allowing their kids to roam unsupervised. Perhaps most notably, the father of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker allowed his daughter, then 14, to sail solo around the world in her 38-foot boat, in 2009, despite the Dutch government's efforts to stop her. The Dekkers, like the Meitivs and Skenazy—who was dubbed "The World's Worst Mom" after the subway incident—have been by turns vilified and glorified in the press.
Tellingly, the reactions by the public and media had almost nothing to do with the experiences of the children themselves. Laura Dekker successfully became the youngest person to sail singlehandedly around the world. Skenazy's son made it home safely on the subway, in her words, "ecstatic with independence," and there's no evidence to suggest the Meitiv kids were in any danger that day.
New research from Ryerson University in Toronto published in January suggests that unsupervised outdoor play has physical, and well as mental, health benefits for kids. The study found that local fifth and sixth graders who were allowed to wander independently outside were 20 percent more active than those who were supervised by their parents. The study also revealed that parents who favor active modes of transportation—biking and walking—"were more likely to permit their children to venture out on their own."
"The more kids we have flooding the parks, playgrounds, stores, and streets, the safer and happier everyone is,” according to Skenazy. “And no busybody will call to report something strange and disturbing—a child outside!—because there will be just too dang many.”
Of course, there will always be naysayers. Once, in this column, readers skewered me for a story I wrote about river rafting with babies. On the surface, it does sound a little aggressive, but our decision was far more layered and considered than the outraged responses suggested. My husband and I have been rafting together since long before we had kids. We have solid whitewater experience, we choose mellow rivers, we bring friends for backup, we're vigilant about life jackets and water safety, and we travel with emergency satellite communication gear. Most of all, we believe in our choices to raise our children as close to nature as possible.
It's easy to stand on the sidelines and judge others' parenting decisions. It's far harder to pay close, mindful attention to your own children, to their growth and maturation, and to be willing make tough calls about risk and responsibility in the moment that so often fly in the face of our most basic, primal instincts as caretakers.
Once I was asked by this magazine to offer guidelines for how much freedom to give kids outside, and at what age. When is it safe to let them mountain bike through a state park alone? Walk to school? The truth is, it's almost impossible provide these benchmarks for other people's children. The decision is always personal. Only you know your child—her temperament for risk, her ability to follow directions, her trustworthiness—and the circumstances: Are there sidewalks in your neighborhood? Terrible traffic? Does the park have rangers?
While it's impossible to eliminate risk altogether, there are practical measures you can take to reduce exposure and assuage your worry: Start small and work up in stages over time, gradually extending your child's range and responsibilities. Send him out with a friend. Give him a cell phone for emergencies or periodic check-ins. There are even wearable GPS tracking devices, like kidsport GPS and the LG KiZon that you can put on his backpack or bicycle to keep track of his whereabouts. Finally, listen to your gut. Depending on your own experiences, horseback riding or trampolines may terrify you more than walking home from school or whitewater rafting. (Distracted driving freaks me out far more than taking my children into the wilderness.) Ultimately, if you are thoughtfully pushing his limits while respecting his limits, you will know when it's time.
Now Pippa is halfway to seven and carving on both edges. She skis black diamond mogul runs and prowls the sides for little kickers she can hit. I still yell to her to slow down. I still caution her about being careful on the trees. I'm still conservative and cautious and, to use Skenazy’s words, I’m "crazy about safety." And I'll always worry. It's in my DNA. The survival of the human race relies on anxious mothers like us.
But it also depends on risk-takers like Pippa, and parents who, despite our most basic instincts to keep them safe, are willing to let them go. Last week, Pippa asked me if she could ski her favorite glade solo and meet me on the cat track near the bottom. I knew she was ready. I wanted to ski with her but not as much as I wanted to see the look on her face after she skied down on her own, proud and elated.
Pippa and her four-year-old sister are already scheming about the day when they'll be old enough to walk home from school together without me. I have a vague idea when this might be—not for years—but I'm not making any hard and fast decisions now, because the day may come sooner than I think. I'll know when it's time. And when it is, they won't go alone. They'll look after each other, just like Meg and I did.
Until then, in this brief moment when they're still so little and sweet, we play this game:
"Stop it!" I bark in fake anger. "Stop it right now!"
"We can't stop it, Mama!" they shriek gleefully. "We're growing!"