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Helicopter Parents or Free-Range Families

Have today’s parenting styles helped our children or gone too far? Why some families are shifting back to parenting like they did a generation ago.

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Would you let your 11-year-old ride the Light Rail alone? Or allow your 7-year-old to walk home alone from school? In early 2015, a Maryland couple let their 6- and 10-year-old children walk a mile home from a local park. When a neighbor saw the children out unattended, he called the police and the children were taken to Child Protective Services. The parents were charged with neglect. The charge was eventually dropped, but the incident sparked a national debate about what is being called free- range parenting.

“Free-range parenting is really just regular parenting,” says Broomfield dad David James. With 4-year-old twin girls, James and Johanna Burian often don’t have the spare time to hover. They describe their parenting style as similar to how they were raised. “I was a latch-key kid,” says Burian, who added that in her childhood suburban neighborhood, she was given a boundary of about of a mile to run free.

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James and Burian are hands-off, letting their preschool twins do things like ride their bikes in the street outside their house. They don’t stay outside with them or even watch them out the window, except for occasional checks. “They know we are there for them if they need us, but we don’t jump as soon as they call us. We stay back and let them sort out problems,” says James.

Some parents are starting to reconsider the overly-attentive, intense, parenting style that has become popular over the past several years. Essentially, the free-range parent is the antithesis of the helicopter parent.

Rather than being criticized, James and Burian have noticed their friends” attitudes start to shift. “Instead of just saying ‘I”d never let my kids do that,” now, it’s ‘I don’t let them do that, but maybe I should”,” says Burian.

Old-School or Unsafe?

Proponents believe the method is simply what parents did for generations before. However, critics are concerned about safety. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, cases of child mortality and injury have dropped significantly in the last few decades. They credit this, in part, to changes in family behavior, and to the increase of information available about child protection.

Lenore Skenazy author of Free-Range Kids, believes parents have become too fearful. “Our brains have not evolved for this age of mass media. We see the same story over and over again and it feels like it’s a likely scenario, no matter how actually rare,” says Skenazy. Her book claims that most parents are terrified of kidnappings, yet they”d have to leave their child outside for several years in order for it to be statistically likely for them to be abducted.

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Boulder Psychologist Jan Hittelman says modern-day stresses put tremendous pressure on parents: higher divorce rates, more single-parent households, less extended family nearby and the need for both parents to be working. He thinks there’s more talk of free-range parenting, but he has yet to see any evidence. “I don’t see dramatic changes in parenting style based on weekly conversations in my office.”

Shift Parenting Styles as Children Grow

Hittelman promotes teaching kids independence to strengthen their coping skills, especially as they grow into adolescence. “The challenge

for parents is understanding the need to dramatically shift their parenting style as their child gets older—slowly shifting from control to empowerment.” He warns, “If parents continue to solve their children’s problems for them, they will not learn how to solve problems for themselves, have weak coping skills, and be vulnerable to low resiliency in the face of challenging life circumstances.”

Hittelman says these coping skills are crucial for dealing with issues such as substance abuse, teenage depression and suicide. In western states like Colorado, we are at higher risk for these problems.

April Kemp of Dillon, a mom of two children, ages 6 and 10, only recently heard of free-range-parenting, but identifies with the approach. “I want to raise my kids to be independent and confident,” she says. Kemp says she wants to be brave in this era in which we all have too much exposure to violence on television. “It’s not the reality,” says Kemp. She says she usually knows where to draw the line, but that it’s been a learning process for the kids as well as for her and her husband.

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Discuss The Changes

With more freedom, though, should come more family discussions. Most experts recommend having detailed conversations with your child about how to handle a variety of situations on their own, before making the shift. “This approach needs to be carefully thought through, designed, constantly evaluated, modified based upon the child’s ability to be responsible for his/her behavior, and the level of independence allowed,” says Hittelman. He suggests taking small steps, rather than general permissiveness.

“I strongly support empowering children with a voice in their day-to-day activities, house rules, discipline policies, et cetera,” he says, “as long as it’s consistent with their developmental levels and abilities.”

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