4 Small Ways to Help Kids Test Their Wings

4 Small Ways to Be a Free-Range Parent

As enthusiastic as I am about free-range parenting — where parents let go of overblown fears to give children the freedom to explore  — I would probably give myself a B- on the Free-Range Parenting scale.

My older children are 10, 8, and 4-years old, and I don’t let them walk to friends’ houses, I don’t leave them at the playground (have you heard of Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day?), I barely let them near the oven, and in general, I feel like an over-protective mama.

Yet, I am convinced that weaning myself away from anxious helicoptering and towards relaxed overseeing is the way I should be going. I want my kids to learn how to navigate the world so they can handle the ever-more complicated situations that they will come across.

I want them to feel comfortable, not scared, when it’s time to walk to middle school on their own. I want them to know I have confidence in their ability to be responsible, to take care of themselves, to respect others, and to do the right thing.

As many studies have shown, when we expect a lot from children, they rise to the occasion.

4 Small Ways to Be a Free-Range Parent

But what about the danger part? According to Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Parenting movement, in an article published today called Free-range kids encouraged to spread their wings:

“Statistically speaking, you would need to keep your child standing on the road outside for 750,000 years before they would be kidnapped and held by a stranger overnight. To keep seeing things only in terms of risk even when that risk is minute is weird,” [Skenazy] said.

“Today is statistically the safest time in human history and yet we act … as if the whole world is filled with paedophiles and perverts and runaway cars.”

So even though I am not a poster parent for Free-Range, here are some things I am doing to help foster my kids’ self-reliance without taxing myself with worry:

1.  Let them walk to school by themselves

We just moved to this city neighborhood, and I occasionally let Sofia, who is in fourth grade, and Virginia, their grade, take the 10-minute walk to school by themselves. Of course when we were young, this was the norm: I used to walk a whole mile to kindergarten by myself.

Even though I love the time to connect when we walk together, sometimes it’s helpful when they can walk on their own — and they appreciate the vote of confidence.

2.  Let them walk to an after-school activity

Ten-year-old Sofia has one after-school activity, and her ballet class is two blocks from school in her teacher’s house, which she walks to on her own (then I come pick her up).

Sofia was a bit wary at first, but now she enjoys this shot of independence and feels proud of her ability to handle it.

3.  Let them play on the side streets by our house

This year I let the girls go pick wildflowers in the two blocks around our house. They have also gone to the tree-swing on the corner, and explored the surrounding streets to take pictures of cherry blossoms. It’s not anything like running around the neighborhood until dinnertime like I used to do, but it’s a step.

This freedom is exciting to them, and they always come back flushed in the face, excited to show me their finds.

4.  Teach them to cook dinner once a week

4 Small Ways to Be a Free-Range Parent

Eating Virginia’s first-cooked meal together last night

After the third time Sofia told me that she wished I would make her “dream salad,” one that included iceberg lettuce, grated carrots, sliced tomatoes, canned corn, and Ranch dressing (so much for my spinach concoctions!), I offered to let her and her sister make dinner a few times a month.

4 Small Ways to be a Free-Range Parent

Sofia took a picture of her plate: she clearly goes by the no-touching rule

I thought they would like the idea because they had made several comments that I got to do the fun part (cooking) while they had to do the yucky part (setting the table).

So Virginia inaugurated the tradition last night by making farfalle with ham and cream sauce, and an iceberg lettuce and corn salad. (What is it with iceberg and kids?)

She picked the groceries, cut up the veggies, stirred the pasta, heated up the bread, and did pretty much everything except tipping the pot full of the boiling water into the sink. I was there, of course, every step of the way, instructing and coaching. But how else would someone learn to cook?

Virginia was engaged in the whole process, and her siblings reinforced her achievement. Her older sister, often criticizing, actually said, “Wow, this looks good!” Mark, the four-year-old dessert-fiend, even cleaned his plate.

I think letting children cook is in tune with free-range, because it’s allowing children to take (age-appropriate) risks in order to learn about the world, have fun, and grow.

Are you participating in Screen-Free Week?  Much to my eldest daughters’ chagrin (who wants more computer time), my children’s screen time is so limited, there is not much to cut. But I like the message behind the event: unplug and play, daydream, create, explore, and spend time with family and friends.

We all could use a little more of that.

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  • Jen May 21, 2015, 8:50 pm

    Hi again Amy… Do you have a recipe for the pasta, or do you just use your alfredo recipe? It looks delish (as does the salad)!

    • Amy May 21, 2015, 8:54 pm

      Hi Jen,

      Sure! Let me see: we just boiled pasta in salted water (2 t. salt), then we drained it and tossed it with about 1 cup of heavy cream, 3 Tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of grated parmesan, fresh pepper, and about 1/2 c. sliced ham (cut into squares). Toss it all, and voila’: super easy and satisfying!

      Glad it looked good to you too,

  • Jen May 21, 2015, 8:49 pm

    Free range parenting…I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’d probably give myself a C, or in some cases a D. I do allow my son in a different room or even a different floor at this point, but I’m probably overly cautious about some things. Recently I witnessed a shocking example of what I can only assume was the “free-range” parent idea in action. I saw a little boy about the size of my son (though maybe 4 or 5) walking on the sidewalk completely alone shortly before dusk. I approached him and asked where mommy and daddy were. I didn’t get a clear answer, so I waited a while. Nobody turned up. The boy told me that he was walking to a school about half a mile away to meet up with his brothers. His face was dirty from dinner, so I thought maybe he had escaped unbeknownst to his parents. Just as I was dashing into my house to call the police, a car pulled up and the driver started talking to the boy. It was his dad, who must have noticed me talking to his son (I found out they live on the next block). He asked his son if he had told me where he was going. When I told the dad the name of the school, kind of chuckling because I thought it was absurd, the dad replied “Good!”, and told the boy to keep going. I left it at that, but I couldn’t believe it. I felt bad about possibly confusing the boy as to how he should interact with strangers, but I had no idea whether his parents knew what he was up to or not. I don’t know for sure if the dad was engaging in free-range parenting, but if so I think his experiment was way too extreme.

    • Amy May 21, 2015, 8:53 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I loved hearing your thoughts about screen time, creative play and free-range parenting. I don’t think the situation you describe with the 4-year-old sounds like conscious and careful choice of offering age-appropriate independence to a child, but who is to say? The issue of children and safety is tricky, and we all have different comfort levels, experiences, and family situations.


  • Juanita August 12, 2012, 8:23 am

    I think that all kids (no matter the family size) need to help at home to: 1) participate in daily living as they will need to do as adults; 2) to help the family maintain a pleasant living environment in the middle of the madness of working, school and activities (however minimal); and 3) to learn that work is everyday, sometimes not fun, important, for every person and much of it is unpaid so that reward lies in creating order, etc. It’s great to see that I am not alone in thinking that having kids help is important.

    As for smaller houses, we live in one and I still feel overwhelmed at the work sometimes eventhough we have significantly minimized on all fronts. It is a process and takes years (I mean time.) Habits are a big part of it, I’ve found. We are now at the point of converting mindsets to seriously consider the value of ANY item in our lives before we bring it in the house; no matter the cost (a member of my family is very good at finding free things….but do we NEED it?! ). I am so glad we don’t have a medium to large house to start with or it might have taken a decade, if ever, to get to this point.

    It’s always good to hear discussions on free range parenting as a grounding point for us…Thanks for the post!