The Spectrum of Free-Range Parenting

When I was small, I saw the movie Adam. It was the cinematic recreation of the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder. I was young when I saw it…quite young I think. But I still remember the scene of his Mom roaming the store screaming his name, “Adam!” like I watched it before bed last night.

When LilZ was small, I was very strict when we went to stores that he should NEVER LEAVE MY SIGHT. And he really never did. The few times he might have turned the corner of an aisle before I did and I looked up and didn’t see him…that scene immediately played in my mind. “ADAM!!” My heart would stop, I would want to vomit, I would panic.

Once I lost his friend Anastasia at Wal-Mart. She was more prone for wandering than he was because she didn’t have a hyper anxious mother keeping her at arm’s length. When we finally found her (in the produce section) I cried. At that moment, I understood child leashes. She had disappeared for five whole minutes and by the time those minutes were up and she was safely holding my hand…I was a wreck. As LilZ got older, he learned to tell Anastasia and Lauren (his two BFFs from birth to present day), “Hey…don’t disappear. It makes my mom freak out.”

Needless to say? I’ve was never good at the whole Free-Range Kids concept.

I met MrZ when LilZ was 5. As we started building our relationship, he started feeling more comfortable imparting his opinions on my parenting decisions. Let’s put it this way…he never saw the movie Adam. He also grew up leaving his house on his bike early in the morning and not returning until dark. He had a huge and friendly neighborhood surrounded by woods to explore. I grew up on a busy street that housed huge shipping companies – leading to a high population of semi trucks. There were no sidewalks and really very few houses. There were a few industrial buildings…furniture warehouses, meat-packing plants, etc. But no real neighborhood. So, I didn’t roam free as a kid. Those two very big differences in our upbringing created very different outlooks as parents.

I remember the first big disagreement we had. We had just graduated from college and were living in an apartment complex here in Huntsville. LilZ want to go across the residential street to play in another part of the SAME COMPLEX. I said, “No.” He was, maybe 7? 8? I can’t really remember but that seems about right. MrZ decided it was a good time to start playing the other side of the argument.

“Kim. It’s barely even the length of a football field away from you.”
“But I won’t be able to see him!”
“But you could probably hear him, he’ll be so close.”
“I don’t know any of those people over there. What if they’re all pedophiles and murderers?”

Eventually, I gave in. I think I told him he could play over there for, like 5 minutes or something. I was taking baby steps. I sat outside the back door and chain-smoked (Back when I still smoked…because that’s safe? For the kids? I know…) watching the direction he went until he returned. It might have been the toughest parenting day of my life.

Since then…I’ve gotten better. MrZ would disagree. He would still say I’m awful. Of course, he doesn’t see my major changes in giving freedoms to LilZ as major changes…he sees them as me still being too protective. He is most definitely, a free-range Dad.

The thing is? I want to be more of a free-range parent. Which is why I try year after year to be better and better. My younger kids will definitely have it easier than LilZ did. I believe what Lenore Skenazy preaches. The tragedies we fear have not increased in occurrence over the decades since we were kids…so why are we holding our kids closer to our chests? Because somewhere along the way of 24-hour news programs and true-crime dramas, tragedy started bringing people to their televisions. News programs know that headlines involving horrible things happening to children bring us to the TV. (Except in my case. I’m all about the tween programming.) Our darkest fears are not more common, but we hear about them more and more so they have become woven into our parenting decisions. Maybe keeping our kids close gives us some control. Takes away a few of the worries that plague our minds. Drugs. Sex. Rock-n-Roll. If we keep our kids close, we eliminate a few of the concerns. Who wouldn’t want that?

But, as Lenore points out over and over, what are we losing in the process? Have we kept our kids so close they haven’t learned the proper way to take care of themselves? Do we sacrifice lessons of responsibility and independence by never taking our eyes off of them?

I don’t know. I do know this: I’ll never be Lenore Skenazy. I don’t really want to be. I think I’m too high-anxiety for that. But every time she puts entries like this on her blog, I’m reminded that I also don’t want to be that Mom panicking about her son being 50 yards away. I am aware now. I know the truth. Adam Walsh was a horrible tragedy. Something of my nightmares. But also – very very rare as this article points out.

Of all the dangers to children, this is the one most alarming and the most frightening and probably the least likely to ever happen,” said Paula S. Fass, a University of California-Berkeley professor who wrote “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America.”

The odds are about 1.5 in a million.

That seems rare, right? So…if I’m so freaked out about those odds…why don’t the other more real odds disturb me?

For most, putting a child in a car is the most death-defying act we perform every day.

Unintentional injuries, mostly car wrecks, are the leading cause of death for everyone between age 1 and 44, when cancer takes over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I’m not going to ever claim to be a Free-Range Mom. I know myself too well. But I do consider myself much better informed and now try to make decisions without the movie Adam playing in the background. LilZ walked home from school for the last few years. He periodically walked with friends to eateries. He got dropped off at shopping complexes for hours at a time. All of these things I started allowing long before I was comfortable with it.

Because letting fear dictate my parenting decisions helps no one.

What about you? Where do you lie on the spectrum between The Old Me and Lenore? Are you more paranoid than I was? Are you somewhere in the middle like I am now? Or are you sending your kid on the subway alone like Lenore does? I look at her end of the spectrum and envy it…to be honest. I think I would much rather have her as a Mother than myself…frankly. But…I’m just not there.



30 thoughts on “The Spectrum of Free-Range Parenting”

  1. Me and my brother used to play out in the street where my parents live – it was kinda busy as it used to be on the bus route. Most of the time we’d play in someones garden along the street – as long as mum knew we were at no 2 or something then we were okay – if we moved venue (like going next door to number 2a we needed to tell her – usually one of us took it in turns to go back and say where we were going so that the other one still had playing time (usually me going back as I was the eldest)

    Then we started going to the park which was near the house and sometimes my Dad would come to collect us when it was time to come home. Either that or we were given a curfew.

    Even when I was about 17 and started my part time job my Dad would come and meet me at the end of my shift so I didn’t have to walk home on my own. It was a little embarrassing but there was a bit where I had to walk past some woods and it wasn’t very well lit so it was good to have some one else there.

    I’m 23 now and both my parents are still protective of me (I sometimes still get the “Can you call us or drop as a text when you get home?” line). However my Dad and Mum give the best hugs which just make you feel like the whole world is going to get better and there will be no problems.

  2. First of all, don’t read this book.

    I think it’s normal (and healthy) to instill in your children this awareness of what they’re doing. The can absorb the anxiety that letting them out of sight causes, and better understand the dangers that are out there. There’s a nice, big middle ground between putting GPS tracking in their shoes and leaving them unattended in the shopping cart while you go fix your makeup in the bathroom.

  3. I’m not a free-range parent either – nor am I overprotective (at least I don’t think so). I lost my oldest child in the mall one time. He was 3 and I was hysterical. Longest 20 minutes of my life and I just KNEW I’d never see my baby again. We found him at the cookie store – the staff gave him a cookie and were playing with him till they found me. He was having a blast – completely unaware of his mother’s breakdown in progress!

    Still, my kids grew up riding their bikes around the neighborhood and walking to friends’ houses. But if they went somewhere other than where they told me they’d be, I expected a phone call. My oldest son turned 21 on Monday and I called him to make sure he’d gotten home ok after a night out with friends. =) My middle child (now 15) loves to walk and has walked on his own for years (for the record, he’s always been a big kid and I know he can take care of himself). He does not, however, get into his friends’ cars. Not yet – I’m still not ready for that one. And I’m still very reluctant to let my baby (now 7) out of my sight for too long.

    My children definitely don’t have the freedom I did, but then I look back at my childhood and wonder sometimes about my parents. LOL I and my brothers, like MrZ, were gone from dawn to dusk most weekend days and all summer without so much as a peep from my parents. But nothing bad ever happened to us – we’re all relatively well-adjusted adults. Who’s right? Who knows??

  4. Hudson, who is three, is allowed to play in the backyard alone anytime he wants. My nephew, who is 7 is allowed to play in the front yard unattended, and when he had his bike at our house, could ride it out front. (I think he didn’t have a helmet either – double whammy.) I was raised in a tiny town where the worst I could do is have a bike wreck or get sprayed by a crop duster.

    I want to be free as a bird about hits, but I have to admit, seeing Kendall ride off on his bike seized my heart a little bit. I don’t want to go out there and watch the front yard because I have plenty of other stuff to do than sit in the heat, but I guess I’ve been trained to think that something bad is lurking just around the corner.

    Hudson has made a new friend across the street and another one down the circle from us, and I can see myself letting them play in the circle unattended. Or letting him walk over to Sawyer’s house to play or whatever. In a few years anyway.

    It’s hard to untrain yourself. And I don’t want my kids to have an unhealthy sense of fear. Skepticism and street smart, yes. Debilitating fear of any white van that passes us, no.

  5. My father lost a lot of his family aged 13 during the second world war. Hence he knew at a young age that life changes in an instance and people you love are lost for ever. He was a very complicated parent, extremely over protective and anxious. I never went for sleep-overs (if there’s a fire Dad will get you out) not allowing me to bike over to a friends house (incase I was hit by a car). It led to me feeling suffocated as a teenager and I am an anxious adult, but I have coping strategies, so its not obvious. I’m not gibbering in the corner of the room while I type this but I am protective of myself 🙂 . I don’t have kids but I do wonder if I would be able to let go enough to have them. I think I would worry like heck about everything, but you have to let go so they grown right and learn from mistakes etc? On the plus side of over protective parenting I always knew I was loved, that I was precious.

  6. I am a paranoid parent. My poor children will probably never get to roam the neighborhood that we live in without me trailing behind or will have cell phones with GPS locators or something. 🙂
    My husband was raised to leave on his bike at sunrise and not return until after the sun went down. He did however make a lot of trouble with his brother while out but they were lucky enough to not be caught. He could go wherever he wanted when he wanted.
    I on the other hand couldn’t walk or ride my bike out of my parents or grandparents sight (in the middle of no where mind you). But it turns out a child molester was not far from my house. He kidnapped a girl from her parents car at the local store, took her back to his trailer, and raped her. So that only solidified my parents view that I shouldn’t be allowed out of the area surrounding my house.
    Paranoia has been instilled in me since I was small and I don’t think it is going away anytime soon.

  7. I will let my kid ride his bike up and down our street (and then farther as he gets older) without me watching. The only traffic is from other people who live on our (short) street. He will be able to leave our yard or our street, as long as I know where he’s going. I don’t think I’ll mind him being out on his own, but I do want to know where he is at all times. Those were my rules growing up, and I think they’re fair.

  8. Never. Ever. EVER read anything by John Douglas.



    Because I did. And whooodoggggy.

    I am trying not to be an overprotective parent but it’s so -hard-. Five years old seems like an old kid but really it’snot is it? he’s just a baby!!

    I let him in the back yard whenever he likes, I like him within sight, especially in public..and not only because of stranger danger but because he TOUCHES EVERYTHING. He’s horrible about it. I turn around for a moment and he’s got some glass ornament up and is about to do something horrifying.

    I -am- afraid. I know I might not want to be but I -am- afraid.

    I remember roaming my neighborhood even riding my bike to other ones but it seems different now as a parent. Maybe it’s not..but it -seems- like that.

    I work on it too.

    As soon as he freaking -stops- touching things!

  9. I love Lenore’s book. I give it out regularly. I am not as free range as her for sure, but I am FAR more free range than most of my friends.

    It is still hard to let go, but we have to give freedom in order for our kids to learn to live in the real world.

    Most accidents in childhood happen IN the house…that one woke me up to the fact that I can’t keep my kids safe just because they are with me.

    My older boys are 9 and 7 and I have started letting them have more freedoms, but I still worry.

    But I keep my worry to myself.

  10. Kim,
    Wow. I have goosebumps because I JUST posted this morning about this. I lost Arun last night while at a crowded county fair. And I had to put everything that I held to be dear about Free-Ranging on the line. But it won.

    Lenore is not some crazy quack insisting kids run wild, she is quite sensible about it all. And truthfully, her writing really helped me last night while I held my shit together as I hunted for my kid.

    Have you read the book? I will gladly lend you my copy.

  11. My husband and I just finished reading this book. Our son is not quite two years old so we don’t have a whole lot of free range opportunities yet. However I agree with what she says and I hope to let him roam free. We’ll see how that works out!

  12. right now with the little ones I babysit it is the standard rule (set by their parents and that I am totally in the same court with) is: if you can’t see me, I can’t see you. Meaning you have gone to far. This happens at parks, at music events (parents are musicians) and other events.

    I got lost when I was little, I don’t remember how old 3 or 4? possibly 5. We were at some sidewalk sale at the mall, it was packed, had been holding my dad’s hand let go for a minute and grabbed somone else’s pant leg thinking it was my dad’s (so I am told) I know it FREAKED my parents out to no end and I was found within minutes… is scary. It is okay to be concerned…too overly concerned isn’t. I think it sounds like you are making great strides!

  13. I’m somewhere in the middle, more towards the paranoid side. My kids are still young, though. My oldest is only 5. If he wanted to go outside to ride his bike, though, I’m sure I’d let him. I’d be watching him like crazy, probably, but I’d let him. He’s terrified of bikes, though.

    Suffice it to say, I don’t think I could ever be like Lenore, and really, I don’t really want to be. Sending your kid on the subway by himself is just ridiculous to me.

  14. I was overprotected — smothered, some might say — as a child. As a result, I have a lot of social anxieties I’m working through. I would never want to raise a kid the way my mother raised me.

    Shane, on the other hand, was the epitome of a free-range kid (he grew up in a smaller town, it was different time, etc.), but got into a lot of dangerous shit when he was a kid that he wouldn’t want his own child doing … I think he’d definitely fall more on the paranoid end of the spectrum as a parent.

    It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out if we have kids.

  15. I”m you. Same upbringing same fears. Scott is MrZ same upbringing, same neighborhood. My kids are obviously younger than Lil Z and so haven’t done much on their own. though we do allow them to walk through the woods to their grandparents house (1/4 mile) sometimes.

    I want to be more relaxed and I hope as they become more boys and less babies that I will..but I’m terrified…I believe the statistics that things aren’t worse we are just more inundated but…I’m still terrified as I believe most parents are, for some of us though it takes a lot of therapy and breaking the cycle of our sheltered childhoods to be the free range parents we want to be..

    it would probably be easier if we had ranges…

  16. I am this weird mix of paranoid/easy going mom. There are some things I let him do that others would flip their lid (ride 4 wheelers for one) but then there are times where letting him out of my sight is a monumental effort. I hope that as both my kids get older I’ll find a good balance. But right now, I fear they’ll be locked up in their rooms.

  17. That movie and Adam’s story have haunted me my entire life as well! I vividly remember watching it and being totally freaked out.

    I don’t have kids, but I have a nearly 4 year old nephew who is probably as close as I’ll get. With him, and with the 100’s of kids I have babysat over the years, I’m pretty paranoid. I’ve always chalked it up to being responsible for other people’s children and wondered if it would be different with my own.

  18. I think it’s about balance, just as you said. My Mom was pretty lax about rules: no curfews, etc. and I always swear I will be more strict with my own children but really? I will have to have my own before I know for sure. I think you have every right to be protective and it seems as though the relationship you have with LilZ is strong as a bull- clearly you’ve done a lot of things right.

  19. I love Lenore and that site. It always gets me thinking.

    I grew up pretty free and spent hours riding my bike around the neighborhood. More importantly, I grew up free to figure out how to fill my time, entertain myself, and make my own mistakes…things that even the most paranoid parents can practice without letting their kids out of their sight. So if you aren’t comfortable letting your 10-year old disappear for hours, then at least try that part.

    And if you need to know what a grown-up child of extremely overprotective parents looks like, you need look no further than my sister-in-law, a woman who was so terrified of being attacked that if she arrived home before her roommates, she would wait in her car with the windows up and doors locked until someone else got home. She’s gotten a lot better, but it took her years (and YEARS) or hard work to do so. I’d say she was crippled by irrational fears for most of her 20s. Very sad.

  20. This is something I think about all the time–I don’t want to be too overprotective but I also can’t help feeling better safe than sorry!! We live in Israel, and while it may seem on the news like it’s a war zone, our daily life is quite similar to what it was in the US…but, I feel like my kids are much safer here at the park or the mall or wherever. I let them run ahead of me if we are walking somewhere (although I am horribly afraid of them not stopping at a driveway and a car not seeing them but that is a whole other story) and I don’t think twice if I can’t see them for a few minutes in the park. When we go back to the US to visit, I go into “protective” mode and seem to genuinely confuse my kids when I won’t let them out of my sight! I guess finding the right balance is hard but you have to just find your comfort zone.

  21. I grew up on 13 acres. There was no one around to steal us and even if there was, they’d have to FIND us first.

    But even with that upbringing, I have the EXACT same anxiety you do. I live in a relatively small, close knit community. We’re very suburban. We can leave doors unlocked, keys in cars, etc. But I don’t. My anxiety prevents me from doing it. And I get teased quite a bit by my husband and friends. They’ll be all, “What are you worried about? That a deer is going to steal your car? That’s all you have around here anyway. No one’s going to take you/hurt you/steal the baby. It’s not going to happen.”

    My response, “UNTIL IT DOES!”

    When we visit my parents in the city I buckle my kid into the stroller so tight because I’m actually afraid someone is going to pick her up and run away with her. Ridiculous, right? But it’s a real fear. We stand at those crosswalks a long time!

    Oh and putting kids in the car? Scares the crap out of me. Every day. I need an IV of attivan attached to my seat belt.

    So, long story short. I’m with you. Kids stay close. Until they’re old enough to physically push me (and anyone else that comes near them) away.

  22. I’m definately not a free range Mom. My daughter is 8 and I still make her stay with me in stores. Occassionaly I will let her look at toys while I’m in clothing–next section over–but I can still see her. In our neighborhood I let her go to her friends but I do set limits on where she can go. This is something that my husband and I do not agree on. He says I’m over protective–and I may be but this is the only child I have or will ever have. I don’t know how to explain it but I feel like I HAVE to protect her.’s hard being a Mom.

  23. When I was a kid, my brothers and I would walk to a mini-mart that was a good 5 blocks away by ourselves at the ages of 8, 6, and and 4! I don’t frankly know what my mother was thinking since it wasn’t that great of an area.

    When my son first started walking I was pretty paranoid about him wandering off. But he’s really intuitive and I think he can sense that it makes me nervous so he almost never goes anywhere without checking in with me at first (he’s the best 4 year old EVER!)

    We recently moved to a house on a family friendly cul-de-sac, and more and more I’ve been letting him play outside with the other kids without me hovering near by. He has VERY strict boundaries to stick to, and boy-howdy does he hear it if he breaks the rules.

    But I mentioned how he’s the best 4 yo ever, right? Even when he’s outside with his friends, he still pops in the house every 30 minutes or so just to say hi! I’m a very lucky mom!

  24. I was at the lake today with my son 2.5. I was nursing my daughter in the shade about 25-30 feet away and he was about 25-30 feet away from the water. He would come back and forth between us and his trucks. A woman was staring him and I down like I was the most awful mom ever. But I could see him and get to him quick enough if needed and he understands his boundaries. So, I am not sure if I was in the wrong, but I felt comfortable.
    I guess when he is 3 next summer I will let him in the yard by himself, if we get a fence. Our neighbors have an aggressive dog and I have heard one too many of those types of stories.
    I guess I am on the fence post like a lot of others around here.

  25. I guess you could say that I grew up being a “free-range” kid…in Brooklyn. The fact that I had so much freedom actually leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. It makes me feel like my parents didn’t really care. At the age of 8, I was taking the city bus to and from school both (I even had to transfer, so it wasn’t like my parents’ put me on on one end and i got off at school at another – in fact, my parents’ didn’t even wake up in the morning to see me off). My oldest is only six, but I don’t think I would dream of letting him do that in just a few short years. But I would probably let him walk to a friends house. My husband on the other hand…

    My husband grew up in a relatively small town (relative to Brooklyn anyway). He was also “free-range”, but with parents who cared a lot more. He won’t let our oldest go into bathrooms by himself at Chick-Fil-A – and that’s like the safest fast food place around, right?

    So I think it has a lot to do with how we grew up. I’m trying to get my husband to let our son feel responsible for something, and he’s trying to get me to understand that not everyone out there are good people. I guess we’ll just have to see what kind of damage we’ve inflicted on our kids when they grow up, huh?

  26. I met John Walsh when I was 10 years old. My cousin was abducted and murdered, and he came to help out and support my aunt – even though his loss was still pretty fresh at the time. Needless to say, my childhood was squashed after that. Not allowed to go anywhere or do anything.

    Unfortunately, my children are raised in a modified version of the bubble I lived in. I can’t help it. I’ve tried to let go – my husband is similar in thought to MrZ, but I can’t. I’ve gotten a lot better though. I’ve had 6 kiddos, and the last three have enjoyed more freedoms than the first three. I’m older now, so maybe that helps. I t-r-y not to pass the fear that I lived with along to them, but I do preach about awareness and safety and stranger danger till I’m blue in the face.

    I will say that it’s so much easier now with the first three though. They are all old enough for me to breathe easy about the whole bad stranger thing. That bothers me the most. I still bristle about driving and hanging out at The Shops and underage drinking and all that jazz – but that’s all for different, normal reasons. I’m learning to deal with things like this – hopefully in a non-neurotic sort of way.

    In the end, I just hope I don’t screw ’em up too much.

  27. Hi! It’s Ms. “Free-Range Kids” Lenore here, just saying: Bravo! I know it’s sort of counter-intuitive in this “Adam”-ized age to let go of our kids and let them play, grow, fall and get up again. So it’s no wonder that you’re taking it slowly. But you ARE looking at the world a little differently, a little less as if we are all in the middle of the Adam movie, and that’s great. No one is completely “Free-Range” — or at least I should say, I’m not! Certain things still scare me (ask me about cars!) and I’m always re-setting the boundaries, too. So kudos to you for this honest essay, and honest evaluation of your outlook! — L

  28. I had helicopter patents as a kid. I hated it so much! This was so bad that I couldnt even go anywhere (eg a friends house after school) without a weeks notice first.


    Being an only child probably didnt help much either….

    Anyway.. Between the both of you, you have a good parenting mix! I would love a free-range mum, and im sure your kids will appreciate your effort.

    (even if that only is when they are adult and have kids of their own 🙂

  29. My son turned 11 this week. I dropped him at the library a mile and a half down the road for about three hours, three afternoons. I talked to the librarians before doing so, not that they’d be responsible for him, but that they knew he was there, unattended by a parent. I gave him my cell phone with my number programmed into it in case he needed to reach me. THAT was a stretch for me.

    I see it as being my responsibility to protect my kids. We can’t possibly teach our kids everything they need to know to keep themselves safe and not have them in our beds every night from the nightmares.

    Bad things can happen anywhere at any time. I think that by taking on the responsibility of keeping my kids safe I’m permitting them the freedom to be carefree. If I watch my kids like an overprotective mama bear then they don’t need to be burdened as much by the fear of strangers and dangers lurking behind every cute puppy and they can enjoy the innocence of this time in their lives.

  30. I’m with you. I want to be less anxious, but I just can’t. There is a mom in our neighborhood who lets her 3 year old ride his trike around the block unaccompanied, and just the thought of that gives me hives. Maybe once they’re a little bit older…Maybe.

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