Neglect or Nurture? The Value of 'Free-Range' Parenting & Childhood Freedom

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How much freedom should young kids have to play alone?
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On Sunday, Dvora Meitiv, age 6, and her brother Rafi, age 10, decided to walk home alone from a park near their house in Silver Spring, Maryland. Between the park and their home—a two-and-a-half-block walk—a neighbor spotted the kids and called the police.

This wasn't their first encounter with local law enforcement. Last December, the pair were picked up after their parents, Danielle and Alexander, allowed them to walk home from a different park a mile from their house.

"CPS has finally succeeded in making me terrified to let my kids out unsupervised because I'm afraid they're going to take them away,” says Danielle.

Though the state of Maryland might disagree with Danielle and Alexander, providing their kids with a certain amount of independence is part of their parenting philosophy, which they call “free-range parenting.”

"It means that we’re giving our children the childhood that we had—it’s the idea that kids can be trusted to go down the block, to play at the park, to walk home from school," Danielle adds.

Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” and professor of psychology at Boston College, applauds the Meitivs.

He tells The Takeaway that, over the last few generations, parents have kept a tighter leash on their kids as time spent on school and school-related activities has increased. The result, Gray says, is less time for freewheeling play, and more mental health problems as children grow older.

“We are increasingly restricting children's’ freedom—we are not trusting children, and we’re not believing that they’re competent to look out for themselves like we once believed,” says Gray. “In fact, my historical research on this question suggests that there’s never really been a time or place in history, aside from times of slavery and intense child labor, when children have been less free than they are today in our society. This is a very, very serious issue.”

Many modern parents feel a strong sense of fear when it comes to letting their children roam alone, despite research that shows that those fears are often unfounded.

“The crime rate is way down, and the crime rate against children is way down compared to say the 1970s,” says Gray. “Abduction, murder, or the molestation of your child by a stranger when your child is out doors—these are very, very rare. But of course, whenever they occur, and they do sometimes occur, and people sometimes get hit by lightening too, we all hear about it so we think it’s much more common than it really is.”

Gray says that many fearful parents fail to realize that they are putting their children “at great risk” for psychological problems—including anxiety and depression—by over protecting them from the dangers of the outside world.

“When we don’t allow children the opportunity to have the kinds of adventures and free play that they really need for their healthy development, they don’t develop emotionally and socially as healthy as they otherwise would,” he adds.

Over the last 60 years, Gray says there has been a continuous increase in the number of psychological disorders seen in children and adolescents.

“And it’s not just that we are seeing it because we haven’t looked for it before,” he says. “Even by standard clinical questionnaires that have been unchanged over the years, given the normative groups, the rate of what would be called ‘major depression’ [among children] is now seven to eight times what it was in the 1950s. This has been a continuous increase.”

Additionally, Gray says that the number of anxiety disorders among children and adolescents has increased five to eight times over the same period.

“This is exactly what you would expect to occur if children are not allowed to play, explore, and develop the kind of confidence that comes from that kind of freedom,” he says.

The denial of childhood freedom can have serious long-term psychological effects as kids grow to adolescents and even adults—and Gray says that the number of young adults that are not socially and emotionally prepared for college is on the rise.

“If we overprotect kids, if we coddle them, and if we don’t allow them the freedoms that they need to develop, then they grow up into young adults who are not prepared for the kind of independence that is required of them when they leave home,” he says.

So do these revelations change things for Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who have been threatened with the removal of their children?

“This is traumatic to have this happened,” says Gray, who spoke to the family this week. “The kids are frightened not by the strangers in the park, but by the police who picked them up and kept them in a squad car for a period of time, and then brought them home and threatened their father. That is far more traumatic than anything these kids have experienced out there playing alone in the park.”

Instead of focusing on the parenting philosophy of the Meitiv family and others like them, Gray suggests that the state of Maryland should focus its energy elsewhere.

“If we really think it’s not safe out there, we need to do something to make it safe,” he says. “It’s not appropriate that we as society say children are no longer allowed in public places without being supervised and directed by adults. This is a whole new thing in the history of humanity—to say that children are not allowed outdoors on their own playing with other children. This is how children learn the emotional and social skills that they need to grow in a healthy way.”