Is it safe to be a free-range kid?

I think what’s best depends on the individual family, and in particular the kids.

A mother and father are being investigated for neglect after they allowed their six-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to walk home together from a playground a mile away without adult supervision. Neighbors called the police and child protection services to report them.

The laws in Maryland, where this happened, prohibit children under the age of eight from being left unattended in a vehicle or a home, and a child must be at least 13 years old to supervise a younger one. Despite this, the educated, professional pair is defending their choice to “free-range parent”—a childrearing style that both my husband and I grew up with, and now our children are growing up with as well.

Yet before reading this story in the news, I had never heard of the term “free-range parenting” and simply considered our style to be somewhat old school, reminiscent of the days when we played unsupervised outside from morning to night. After learning of an actual label I looked it up.

Described as a commonsense approach to parenting in an overprotective era, it is almost opposite of what’s been termed “helicopter” parenting where children are monitored and sometimes controlled continuously by their folks who hover over them.

I’m not about to claim one style is better than the other. I think what’s best depends on the individual family, and in particular the kids. For us, the old fashioned approach is working out well so far. Sam and Daisy are confident individuals who for the most part make responsible decisions, are self-reliant and don’t take unnecessary risks. Not everyone agrees with our choices though.

“I can’t believe you’d let them take public transit without you,” one of my friends said recently. “A man was just stabbed to death on a city bus you know.”

Yes, I do know. The tragic murder she referred to occurred in Kelowna two and a half months ago and was a shock to our community. But what were we supposed to do? Take away the independence our 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son have earned because of the remote possibility someone might attack them?

As we’ve also seen in the news, horrifying things can happen anywhere—even in their protective schools with teachers present.

This world we live in isn’t 100 per cent safe like the vast majority of us wish it was. But is it worse than it used to be? From all the reports and statistics I’ve read over the years, when it comes to Canada and the US it is not. It only seems like it is.

According to the Department of Justice the crime level has dropped significantly and we are now in line with the way it was in 1970. It is actually safer for our children to play outside than it was for me when I was their age.

Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids, states that our society started believing children were in constant danger “after cable TV started showing abductions 24/7 and finding the weirdest, saddest stories from around the world.”

The internet prominently highlights a steady stream of that as well.

It’s not just the fear of crime that scares us though. All the extra safety concerns we’re bombarded with make us worry as well.

The current tobogganing restrictions and bans making news across North America illustrates this. No one can deny there is a physical risk and liability issue when sledding, but risk exists with just about any activity.

“Look at that empty park,” a cantankerous tour guide hollered up top a New York double-decker bus I was once on. “It used to be full of active children having fun. But all the so-called ‘dangerous equipment’ was replaced with safe boring stuff and they stopped coming. Now they’re inside playing video games and watching the boob tube.”

As parents, my husband and I could still be considered too protective compared to previous generations. We thoroughly child proofed our house, put gates on the stairs and even walked up the ladder of the slide with our kids and caught them at the bottom when they first slid down. But we also taught them what they shouldn’t touch, how to navigate stairs and the safety rules at the playground.

The older they got the more independence they wanted, so we helped them earn it.

None of us want our kids to experience any harm, but I believe overprotecting them and perpetuating this feeling of living in fear could hurt them more in the end. Teaching them responsibility and assisting in becoming self-sufficient is not neglect, it’s a rational parenting decision.

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Lori Welbourne is a syndicated columnist. She can be contacted at


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