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Ready To Try Some Free-Range Parenting?

Free-range parenting isn't anything new, says anthropologist Barbara J. King.
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Free-range parenting isn't anything new, says anthropologist Barbara J. King.
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In a radio interview with WBUR's Tom Ashbrook on March 26 , dinosaur paleontologist Scott Sampson, who's also the author of How to Raise a Wild Child, said that the average child in the U.S. today spends between 4 and 7 minutes outdoors daily — a 90 percent drop from the time spent outside by their parents. For at least 7 waking hours a day, these kids are indoors and sedentary, in front of electronic screens, he said.

If these figures are accurate, they represent a stunning behavioral shift within a single generation.

Among those fighting back are free-range parents who aim to raise active, independent kids. Free-range parenting is meant to counter not only this housebound syndrome, but also over-protective, "helicopter" parenting which, says Lenore Skenazy, the founder of Free-Range Kids, has gotten way out of control:

A mom in an upscale Atlanta suburb won't let her daughter walk out to the mailbox: 'There's just too much that could happen.' Another mom was actually on the lawn with her kids, reading as they played, when a passerby yelled, 'Put down that book! Your kids could be snatched at any time!' And on a visit to Ikea, a grandmother waved at a cute four-year-old holding her daddy's hand. 'That lady SMILED at me!' shrieked the girl. 'Is she going to kidnap me?'

It's hard to know whether sensational examples like Skenazy's exaggerate the situation. Yet, it seems reasonable enough to posit at least some degree of correlation (even causation?) between Americans' documented — and skewed — fear of "stranger danger" child abduction and American kids staying indoors, super-focused on technology.

Free-range kids of elementary school age are encouraged to take walks in nature, ride public transportation on their own and, generally, to get outside, stay active and acquire independent skills. Realistically, whether this is safe for an individual child depends to some degree on his or her immediate surroundings.

Negative consequences may accrue to parents even when there is no obvious local risk, however. This happened to a couple in Silver Spring, Md., who allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to walk a mile home alone from a park; after a two-month investigation, they were charged with "unsubstantiated child neglect."

Based, in part, on national publicity from the Silver Spring case this year, the debate about free-range parenting has suddenly exploded: See here and here for two more examples from March.

WebMD describes free-range parenting as "a new, hands-off approach to raising kids." I believe free-range parents would balk at that "hands-off" label, as many, from what I've read, devote serious preparation time to equipping their kids with skills to stay safe. And, as an anthropologist, I can't go along with "new," either.

When I asked UCLA anthropologist Elinor Ochs for her thoughts on the movement, she emphasized that "free-ranging parenting" is a descriptor originating within a certain segment of our society, whereas the behaviors themselves are norms in many cultures — past and present. Ochs told me by email:

" 'Free-range parenting' sounds like children are politically correct chickens. Outside the contemporary middle class U.S., typically developing, intelligent, school-age children the world over, living in post-industrial urban environments or small-scale communities, are demonstrably self-reliant in basic life skills, including finding their way home and running errands. In addition, they are expected to care for younger siblings and otherwise help hard-working parents to keep the family and household intact.

"Indeed, these skills were unremarkable in the not-so-distant past in the childhoods of Baby Boomers. What has changed in the U.S. parenting zeitgeist is a shift from what the late historian Tony Judt called 'the politics of social cohesion' (trust in a secure and stable social infrastructure) to 'the politics of fear' (think 'terrorism' on every street corner)."

As I've written about in considering moms who breastfeed their older kids or children (and adults) who identify outside the male-female gender binary, what may strike some of us as unusual in our own communities is often comparatively routine when we expand our view to encompass a cross-cultural, cross-temporal perspective.

On free-range parenting, the bottom line for me is that whatever gets our 21st-century, housebound kids safely outdoors and active for appreciably more than 7 minutes a day is a good thing.


Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.