Free to choose
“The view that children need to go out alone, play unsupervised, take risks and learn independence and resilience speaks to something important that Western societies have largely lost”
The notion of “Free-Range Kids” is becoming very popular in certain circles. The view that children need to go out alone, play unsupervised, take risks and learn independence and resilience speaks to something important that Western societies have largely lost.
Certainly, we are more protective of children than we ever have been. We supervise them more, intervene more in their disputes, discourage them from taking risks and prevent them from being alone outside or even at home.
There is evidence that this leads to increased fearfulness, fragility and dependence on authority to resolve problems. However, this method of parenting is not new. Benjamin Spock advocated precisely this approach in 1946. It is currently seeing a resurgence and is being blamed for the ongoing problem of what has been called “Generation Snowflake”.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mindmakes a convincing and much-evidenced argument that the increasing inability of young people to cope with difficult ideas or hurtful words and to seek protection from authority figures stems directly from this over-protection of children. It is a wonderful book that all parents should take seriously if they want to raise independent, resilient children.
Nevertheless, it is hard to miss a certain backwards-looking element to the narrative growing up around free-range parenting; a kind of nostalgia for sunlit Enid Blyton-esque days spent climbing trees and wading through rivers. This is often accompanied by a suspicion of technology, computer games and social media.
While there is some evidence that the last of these, at least, is linked to a number of psychological problems experienced by the young, this genie is not going back in the bottle. Surely, if we are to prepare children to navigate the world, we should prepare them for the one we have now rather than a fondly-remembered halcyon past.
There can also be an ideological element to the free-range kids narrative: “No child of mine is going to be a snowflake.” This can look a lot like a rejection of individuality and an enforcement of tough outdoorsiness and extroversion. If you don’t want to climb a tree or wade through a river with your work colleagues, consider that your children might not either. Even if you do, consider that they might not. Give children free range to develop their own personalities and preferences.
The Free-Range Kids movement is, on the whole, very positive and there is much to it that parents should take seriously and incorporate into their parenting. But
do be careful not to use it in service of an attempt to relive your own rose-tinted memories of childhood, a rejection of technological reality, the imposition of your ideology on your children or a denial of their freedom to learn how to be themselves in a 21st-century world.