I’ll be the first to admit, I hate parenting labels like helicopter or tiger mom. These speak to extremes to me. They are caricatures of parents that very few people actually embody completely.

I’ve found that instead of being directed fully by any one label, we can have the common sense to define our own parenting. We recognize what does and doesn’t work for us out of each particular style, and can then apply that to our parenting decisions.

But even if that is the case, these labels still exist. And depending on the situation you’re in and the decisions you make, someone will inevitably slap one of them on you.

What is free-range parenting?

Free-range parenting seems to be the most buzzworthy label of 2016. It refers to parents who are willing to step back and allow their children to explore the world without the constant hovering of mom and dad overhead.

Most parents who embrace free-range parenting do so while looking back nostalgically on their own childhoods, when kids were allowed to ride bikes in the neighborhood with their friends for hours on end, and parents didn’t expect them home until the streetlights came on.

There are a lot of different variations of free-range parenting. You’ll find examples online of those who take it to an extreme. But the main goal of this parenting style is to provide kids with a sense of freedom, which they will hopefully learn and grow from.

But what are the pros and cons of all this freedom?


Pro: Increased self-confidence and self-sufficiency

When you think back to your own childhood, what were the moments you were most proud of? Were they the times your mom and dad stood nearby, directing you in every step of whatever task you were taking on? Or were they the moments when you spearheaded that task yourself, perhaps cooking your first solo meal, or building a makeshift fort with your friends?

The answer is probably obvious for most of us. Those opportunities to learn and create on our own are often the biggest confidence builders. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends providing kids with the chance to make “real choices and decisions” on their path to empowerment. This is something that often can’t happen with mom and dad nearby. At least, it can’t happen with as much impact.

Letting kids roam free gives them a chance to make their own decisions and to feel as though they have some power over the course their lives may take.

Pro: Active play

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years. There are likely a lot of factors contributing to this, but one could reasonably argue that the reduction in active play has a lot to do with it.

With parents more and more hesitant to simply send their children outside to play, kids are more likely to sit in front of a screen engaging in sedentary activities.

Free-range parenting, almost by definition, encourages kids to get outside, engaging in the climbing, running, bike riding, and exploration that was common in childhood just a generation or two ago.

Pro: Improved social skills

One of the wonderful benefits of free-range parenting is that it forces kids to navigate their own social atmospheres. Without mom and dad steps away, prepared to swoop in if anyone dares to cross their child, there is no one to turn to when conflict arises. Which means that kids have to learn how to deal with that on their own, something that’s crucial to developing those skills prior to adulthood.

Pros of free-range parenting

  1. Kids gain self-sufficiency and confidence.
  2. It encourages kids to play outside more.
  3. Children may improve their social skills.
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Con: Increased risk

There’s a reason more and more parents have tended toward helicoptering in recent years. It’s because we have all heard tragic stories of what can happen when childhood freedom goes awry.

There are nightly news reports of abductions or drownings. We’ve all heard instances of bullying gone too far, or kids being hit by cars.

Statistically, there is no greater risk to our kids today than there was 20 years ago. Stranger abductions, for instance, have always been, and continue to be, extremely rare. But the 24-hour news cycle means that we are now more aware of these tragedies, which can make it harder to let go. Most parents believe that if they keep their kids in sight, they can keep them safer. And to an extent, they may be right.

Con: Government intervention

Today, one of the big concerns for parents who are comfortable with this independent exploration is the possibility of running afoul of the law. There have been several cases in the news of Child Protective Services being called on parents who’ve allowed their children to play outside alone, or granted them permission to walk home from school by themselves. In some cases, criminal charges have even been brought.

It’s important to know the laws in your state and what’s allowed. Even if you are legally within your rights, there is no guarantee that some busybody neighbor won’t call the police on you for neglect, simply because you’ve allowed your child some freedom. The fear of this is enough to hold many parents back from fully embracing free-range strategies.

Con: The absence of a village

Society today is simply not the same as it was 20 years ago. Back then, parents could often allow their kids to wander because they knew every other parent on the street was doing the same, and keeping a passive eye out.

If something happened, if a child was hurt or an issue arose, parents would step in to help and call each other with updates.

Today, it’s far more likely that even the other parents on your street are less tuned into what’s happening outside their own front door, mostly because they probably have their own children inside playing video games. And you can no longer count on that village mentality to kick in than you can be sure that your neighbor won’t call the cops on your wandering child.

Cons of free-range parenting

  1. Kids face increased risks without constant supervision.
  2. Some parents have been accused of child neglect.
  3. Parents may not have the community support they had in previous decades if something goes wrong.
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Next steps

The truth is, the world has changed over the last few decades. Not necessarily in the dangers that exist, but in our perception of those dangers and how that reflects upon our interactions with society as a whole. These changes can make free-range parenting more difficult, though not impossible.

There’s certainly room for common sense adjustments here. Take into account your child, your family, and your surroundings, and decide what level of freedom fits those circumstances. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing: You don’t have to let your 6-year-old walk home from school alone in order to fit into the free-range mold.

You just have to have a desire to raise strong and independent children, providing for enough freedom and flexibility to cultivate that independence.