Expert Voices

There's No Such Thing As 'Free-Range' Parenting — It's Just Parenting

Two children sit on a hillside.
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Madeleine Deason is a graduate student at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Judy Converse knew when she heard a referee's whistle that dinner was ready and that it was time to go home. If it was a ship's bell, that was her best friend's mom. Another friend's mom just yelled from the porch.

"Every family had a 'call,' and we all knew each other's calls," Converse said. Call it what you will, but "free range" parenting is not a new phenomenon. What has changed, however, are society's assumptions about "good parenting." Converse, who has worked with special-needs children in her pediatric nutrition practice for 16 years, has seen these shifts among her patients' parents.

New world order?

When Converse, now 54, was growing up, no one expressed concern about the amount of freedom her parents gave her. In fact, it was "quite the opposite," she said. "Parents who would not let their kids roam were regarded as peculiar." 

"Words like 'helicopter parent' are cruel," Converse added. "Parenting has nearly become a contact sport, a competition. There is more judgment now." 

Melissa Milkie, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, told me the current climate is "an interesting reaction to changes in the culture in which children have less freedom to roam outside and have adults managing or organizing leisure activities more often."

Amanda Mason, 36, a marketing manager who grew up in the suburbs of Midland, Texas, finds it strange that she would have been a called a "free range kid" by today's standards. She crossed a busy street by herself, on foot or bike, every day on her way to school — which was a mile from her house. She often rode her bike several blocks to a friend's house.

"My dad used to say he gave us enough rope to hang ourselves," she said. As long as her dad knew where she was going, she was free to roam. "It was no big deal," Mason said. 

When she heard about the Maryland parents who were under investigation for letting their kids walk home from the park alone, she was surprised. "My parents would have been arrested 10 times over," Mason said. [The Top 5 Benefits of Play]

The Meitiv family became the subject of national debate this year after police twice picked up their children, 6 and 10 years old, as they were walking home unsupervised. The parents were investigated by Maryland's Child Protective Services and were charged with neglect. They have since been cleared in one of the two cases.

Is free-range parenting legal?

David Pimentel, 52, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University, worries about the legal implications of free-range parenting, a topic that began to interest him after he returned to the United States after living abroad with his family for many years.

"It was kind of a culture shock to discover that children are not capable of getting themselves to the store, getting themselves to school — things like that," Pimentel said.

"Parents may face criminal prosecution for child endangerment, or Child Protective Services may intervene," he said, but "parents are far more afraid that their children will be taken away from them than that they'll be charged with crimes."

But the police are not to blame, Pimentel said. The police and social service agencies are only responding to calls from concerned neighbors, and can't afford to ignore them, he said. "The police can't shrug that off. If the child comes to harm, then the police are totally in trouble," he said.

The callers probably think they are doing the right thing, but "the minute you place a call like this, families are torn apart," Pimentel said. "We should be really, really slow to put those wheels in motion, I think, because it's so hard to stop them," he added.

Like many others his age, it was common for Pimentel to walk to school when he was young. "This is the way that all of America grew up just one generation ago, and now it's considered completely unacceptable," he said.

Is the risk real?

The reason for the change has to do with people's misperceptions of risk and the focus that the media often put on children's safety, Pimentel said. "When we're assessing risk, we evaluate the likelihood of an event happening according to how easily we can recall an instance of it," he said. 

"You've got social media, you've got the Internet, you've got the 24-hour news cycle," Mason said. "Every time a kid goes missing, every time something happens, it's right there. It makes it 10 times scarier than it felt like when I was growing up," she said. [9 Weird Ways Kids Can Get Hurt ]

In the 2000s, Ana Villalobos, an assistant professor of sociology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, interviewed and observed 168 mothers, 34 of whom were monitored over a three-year period, to determine how terrorism and security threats affected their ideologies and approach to parenting. In her essay "Mothering in Fear," she found that, in a post-9/11 world, large-scale security threats have increased parents' feelings of anxiety for their children's safety, leading to more overprotective parenting. Her study appeared with others in "Twenty-first Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency" edited by Andrea O'Reilly (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Pimentel thinks the ongoing debate about what is "good parenting" is healthy, but "when we start enforcing legal standards, we can't have that discussion anymore," he said.

Helicopter parenting hurts

The law often favors overprotective parents, despite the potential negative psychological effects of this parenting style, according to a 2011 UC Davis Law Review article. In the article, "Over-Parenting," Gaia Bernstein, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, concluded that intensive parents are more likely to win custody disputes, and restrictive parenting standards are being incorporated into the law.

But parenting is complicated. 

"Parents have different styles depending on who their children are," said Kenneth Rubin, a professor of human development and director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland. "Where you live, who you live with, the stress that you're under, different cultural values — all of those play a role in what you think is proper parenting."

Parents also guide their children differently within the same family based on each child's individual characteristics, he said. "There is not one single way of raising a child," Rubin noted.

"What is considered extreme in one era, culture or subculture may not be in another," Milkie added.

Just as the Baltimore mom who became famous after a video of her smacking her son who was participating in the Baltimore riots went viral, parents who live in dangerous areas are more likely to adopt a more controlling parenting style.

"Parents buy [misleading parenting] books at Barnes & Noble because they're trying to be good parents," Rubin said. "It's a sad, sad situation, because parenting is very complex."

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