Free range parenting: Neglect or common sense?

LIFE LESSONS: Free-range kids learn valuable skills and independence, say parents and experts.
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

LIFE LESSONS: Free-range kids learn valuable skills and independence, say parents and experts.

It is my 6-year-old daughter's greatest wish to walk home from the park on her own.

It's just 100 metres of wide pathway, which turns into our quiet little street. My catastrophising mind says: "Forget it kid, walking all that way is a dangerous prospect, what with all those child-catchers and heavy traffic to contend with."

But I say: "Sure." And then I tail her up the path as though at least one of us is playing What's the time, Mr Wolf.

This is my small foray into "free-range parenting" - a style of parenting that is supposed to give your littl'uns freedom to learn self-reliance by being allowed to test limits out in the real world.

We can call it free-range parenting but really, it's just a dinky title for how we grew up - and I'm talking the 1970s here, when certainly at the age of 8 or 9 my siblings and I, along with our mates, would roam a neighbourhood consisting of beach, bush tracks and all that lay in between. Hometime was when dusk fell and we could smell dinners being cooked as we meandered home for our own.

The only time I recall my mother being remotely worried was when a friend and I were a tad late for dinner and I told her it was because we'd got stuck several metres up on a shed roof, where we'd been playing, naturally.

And all this is to say nothing of our exploits "nicking out" at night to do what, I can't exactly recall.

Now that I'm a parent I have grasped firmly the adage "do as I say, not as I did".

If I had it my way I'd probably tether my daughter to me. For life. At the moment she quite likes the idea of living with mummy and daddy till she's 40. But then she's also told us she'd like to marry us, so that's where she's at right now.

All this free-range malarkey has reared its public head with the story from Montgomery County, Washington, about the parents of a couple of free-range kids - a 10-year-old and a 6-year- old - who were allowed to walk a mile to their home unsupervised.

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The police stopped them halfway, took them home and got the child protection service involved.

The parents are determined their children will continue to range freely. Meanwhile, outraged comments from both free-range and conservative parents ensue online.

Tracey McLeish, mother of four, made headlines recently after her 7-year-old son, Jacob, fell several metres off a rock in White's Bay, near Blenheim.

He was not seriously injured but her and husband John's parenting has been criticised online in social media.

Tracey and John responded to the backlash by saying their son was just being a boy.

They are firm believers in giving kids scope to be independent.

Their three older sons - aged 10, 7 and 5 - all walk 1km to school together crossing two roads to get there.

"We taught them from a young age that roads and cars were dangerous so they are really on to it," Tracey says.

"We gave them rules and we gave them our trust and they have not betrayed that trust.

"There's no reason kids can't do this on their own. By giving them independence to walk to school they gain confidence in themselves, self- reliance and self-worth."

SAFER WORLD TODAY

Russell Ballantyne, co-director and teacher at Early Childhood on Stafford, in Dunedin, has long been an advocate of free-range parenting. The father of three grown-up free-range kids runs what he terms a "risk-taking centre". That is to say, they have ropes and swings, kids leap from great heights and ride their bikes fast.

Ballantyne says today's world is safer than the one he grew up in "but the mentality is that we are under seige".

"We think risk is hiding behind every lamp-post in the neighbourhood. Fear has become the dominating young parent's response.

"Those parents who let their kids walk home from the park in Montgomery County made the conscious effort of giving their children responsibility but they're being punished for it. We should be aspiring to do what they did."

If you give your children freedom, he says, these same children will not be scared to make decisions in life, they'll know their capabilities. They are the people who will become our future leaders.

"Ninety-nine point nine per cent of people are good and yet we treat them as if they are evil and that's where we have lost the plot.

"We have to have faith in our children. We have to have faith in our society, in our villages. If you do not have faith in your village then as a community, we do not exist."

Sure, he says, we have to monitor our children and make sure they are OK but we should not always be the source of their entertainment.

"That's not healthy. The way for children to know themselves is to have the freedom to try."

Lenore Skenazy would have a field day with my parenting style.

Skenazy, to her naysayers' chagrin, embraces rather self-deprecatingly the title of "World's Worst Mum" bestowed on her after she let her kid take the subway home by himself at the age of 10 in New York's Manhattan.

The backlash from this act was huge and enough for her to launch the Free- Range Kids website, write a book and star in her own TV show. So what would a free-range parent let an almost 6-year-old do?

Skenazy, mum to two boys now aged 16 and 18, reckons we could let them walk down the street and knock on a friend's door to play or maybe walk to school with a friend, depending on the area you live in and how far away the school is.

Heart palpitations kick in. It's OK, Skenazy says. "Take a moment to think back to your own childhood.

"Think back to when you were a kid and try to recall the times you enjoyed the most.

"A lot of people recall making forts, playing ball with their buddies. Most recall doing these things without a parent.

"You might be giving your kids organic bananas and violin lessons but you could be missing the one thing that you recall so fondly. Why would you keep that precious thing from them? Give them the free-range childhood you had." Skenazy says by giving the reins on our kids some slack, we're giving them the knowledge that their parents believe in them.

"If you're doing everything with, and for, your child, they get the message that you don't believe in them.

"I'm trying to restore perspective on the fact that our children are not in constant danger. We shouldn't have to make our decisions based on that premise."

But how has it come to this, I wonder. Why are we so freaked out by every conceivable danger for our kids?

The fact that we live in a fairly litigious society means we see everything through the lens of danger, Skenazy says.

"In America recently a school got rid of all its swings because they read a study that said swings were the most dangerous equipment in the playground. If you look at everything like 'what terrible thing could happen?' nothing seems safe enough."

She coined the phrase "worst-first thinking", which means coming up with a worst-case scenario first and perceiving that it's likely to happen.

"It drives us crazy and it has no relation to reality. It has relation to fantasy.

"The fact that you can dream up something terrible doesn't make it more likely to happen."

The number of horrifying TV shows and 24-hour news add to our paranoia. So does the culture of "experts" where parents are fed so much information on how to do everything from hugging their own kid to how to have fun in the sun. It's got to the point where we don't even trust ourselves to make our own decisions without going to some expert to tell us what to do, she says.

Skenazy also points to the exploitation of parental fear - the easiest way to make a buck is from a terrified parent, she says.

"We live in constant fear of two things: One is that your child will be kidnapped and eaten and the other is that they won't get in to the best university. So all these products and services exist to make them safe and make them get ahead."

Basically, Skenazy says, giving your child a free-range childhood gives them a place in the world, not just inside our homes.

But whether you're letting your 8-year-old walk to school on his own or letting your 6-year-old daughter walk up the path by herself, wannabe free- range parents might consider the story of a 10-year-old kid who rode his bike across the George Washington Bridge to New York City on his own.

He pedalled 30 kilometres down unfamiliar roads and busy streets, past neighbours and strangers, out into the unknown. "I didn't need help from anyone. It took me all day, but I found the way and did it myself," he recalled.

This free-range kid went to the moon. His name is Buzz Aldrin.

NO HOME ALONE

In New Zealand, it is against the law to leave children under 14 without making reasonable provision for their care and supervision. What is considered "reasonable" takes into account the circumstances in which children are left alone and the length of time they are alone. Parents are required to assess all the circumstances and make sure that any child left alone or in the care of another child or young person is safe and not in danger.

Babies and young children should never be left alone at home or in a car, or unsupervised in any situation. In addition to the obvious safety risks, they can easily get frightened or distressed and can become anxious and insecure at other times, worrying about being left alone again.

If parents do need to leave a child over 14 alone they need to make sure the child knows where they are and who they can contact if there is a problem. Talk to them about possible emergencies and check that they know what to do. Make sure that they feel confident about being left alone. Parents need to consider whether any situation could possibly arise that the child might be unable to handle.

Source - Child, Youth and Family

Murder and abduction/kidnapping rates have risen. In 1980 there were eight convictions for murder and 19 convictions for abduction/kidnapping. In 2013 there were 33 convictions for murder and 89 for abduction/kidnapping.

 - The Dominion Post

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