Free-Range Kids
Free-Play/Limited-Range Kids

Should parents actively supervise their kids’ play time?

Some parents follow the “free-range” way of more relaxed parenting – but the extremists among them let their kids wander off alone to become more self-sufficient even though unsupervised kids are often too young to deal with potential hazards.

Other parents are more cautious – but the extremists among them are considered “helicopter” parents always hovering over their kids, which often results in fragile kids growing up overly dependent.

At what point does either type of parent become an extremist? Critics of over-parenting often ignore the harms of under-parenting – and vice versa.

Here's a balanced middle ground for moderate parents:

“Free-play/limited-range kids” is simply playing freely within an approved range and always with an adult nearby as a lifeguard. Greater freedom is granted only after careful tutoring. (See the end for links to tutorials.)

From One Extreme to the Other

Lenore Skenazy’s 2009 ‘FREE-Range kids’ book presents a breezy viewpoint urging parents to loosen their kids’ supervision and allow them to roam freely and learn self-sufficiency.

She deserves credit for trying to rescue kids from helicopter parents but often goes to the other extreme of too much freedom.

A Thumbnail History

Starting in the 1970s, the media overhyped crimes against children which resulted in overreaction and overprotection, and that led to stunted childhood development, which, in turn, caused anxious, depressed, and overly dependent college students.

At first the media ridiculed Ms. Skenazy’s free-range theory but as more research emerged showing the growing problem with college students’ self-sufficiency, some parents began adding more free play to enrich childhood development.

But extreme free-range parenting (unsupervised) needs to be pulled back to a more limited-range by always having an adult nearby as a lifeguard. That way, kids still get the benefits of free play and avoid the significant risks of extremist free-range parenting (such as accidents, drugs, and delinquency) when children and teens have too much free-range. See the stats below.

Zero Tolerance vs Hazy Guesswork

It’s difficult to exactly define ‘child endangerment’ or ‘negligence.’ As a result, most state legislatures enact strict parameters with zero tolerance and have a judge determine each case individually. But such inflexible laws are sometimes unfairly harsh and treat some parents unjustly.

In May 2018, Utah enacted Child Neglect Amendments to their law and redefined “neglect” to exclude things like letting a lone child walk to school or play in a park – with this clause: “of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm.”

Utah now leaves it to Child Protective Services to decide each case on its own merits – which may seem somewhat more commonsensical.

Ms. Skenazy spearheaded the drive for the amendments, which some media now herald as the “free-range parenting law.” But exactly what does such a vague term mean? And how do parents know exactly what is “of sufficient age and maturity?” (Again, see the tutorials below for some guidance.)

The “free-range” theory also sidesteps other vital issues – as shown below:

The Pollyanna Syndrome

The Pollyanna Syndrome (the “it couldn’t happen to me” attitude) is derived from the 1913 novel “Pollyanna” about an overly-optimistic girl. Though it feels uplifting, naïve optimism is self-deceptive and also applies to people who see the ‘good old days’ through rose-colored glasses.

Some free-range parents deceive themselves with ‘anecdotal fallacies’ and project their experience, or that of people they know, onto the general (and diverse) population, such as: “My childhood was (fill-in-the-blank) and I’m OK, so it must be OK for everyone.”

Predators Are Always Among Us

The USDOJ says between 750,000 and 1.3 million children are reported missing each year. Roughly 140,000-240,000 of those are temporarily lost or runaways, and 500,000-900,000 are kidnapped in a parental custody dispute.

Every year on average, 50-100 kidnapped children are murdered, and another 50-100 are offered for ransom or disappear permanently – and almost every one was alone and unsupervised by an adult guardian.

Ms. Skenazy thinks that a total of 100-200 are so few (compared to the millions of kids in the U.S.) that they're irrelevant.

But there are also an annual average of 58,000 children kidnapped for short-term molestation (too briefly to be noticed as missing). The FBI estimates another 150,000 children are targeted but escape by rejecting a lure and running away.

That’s more than 200,000 kids each year targeted by sex fiends. (See the links below for safety tips.)

Crimes Against Children

Three Types of Child Molesters - A 2001 University of Pennsylvania study found that 47 percent of child molesters were relatives; 49 percent acquaintances, such as a teacher, etc.; and 4 percent strangers. The molesters are 91 percent male – a quarter of them married with children.

Child Safety - Molesters shows how 'acquaintance molesters' find kids.

Three Types of Kidnappers - From “The Kidnapping of Juveniles” – USDOJ - July 2000 (an unprecedented analysis):
Family members commit 49 percent of kidnappings – usually a parent kidnapping their own child due to a divorce and custody dispute.
Acquaintances commit 27 percent of kidnappings – mostly adolescent girls kidnapped by the mother's boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.
Strangers commit 24 percent of kidnappings – usually within a quarter mile of the child's home.

See Common Kidnapping Lures at Child Safety - Outdoors 

See Stranger Danger vs Stranger Safety FAQ

Accidental Injury of Children

Unintentional injuries of children and teens 0-19 years caused 12,175 deaths and 9.2 million nonfatal injuries (hospitalized). Motor vehicle injuries were highest in teens 15-19 years. Source: CDC 2009 Child Injury Data

[Not surprisingly, most motor vehicle injuries of teenagers occur when unsupervised teenagers are driving. (This corrects the misleading stats on page 184 of the Free-Range Kids book.)]

• Every hour, 1 child dies from an injury.
• About 1 in 5 child deaths is due to injury.
• Every 4 seconds, a child is treated for an injury in a hospital.

“Injuries of children and teens 0-19 years are preventable. Car crashes, suffocation, drowning, poisoning, fires, and falls are the most common ways children and teens are hurt or killed. More can be done to keep our children safe.” Source: CDC Child Injury April 2012

Unsupervised Kids Gone Astray

When kids aren't supervised or monitored, a power hierarchy sometimes develops as group-think and peer pressure leads them into deviant behavior. Why risk your kids hanging out with ‘the wrong crowd’ and having ‘problem’ kids lead them astray?

There are also adult sexual predators who lure unsupervised teens with alcohol and/or drugs.

The CDC says there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017. There are also many more addicts. And the Prison Policy Initiative says 2.4 million inmates were in federal and state prisons and local jails in 2014 (the latest statistics available).

Where do such wayward kids come from? Does anyone really think that more than a tiny fraction come from tightly controlling “helicopter" parents?

No, almost all juvenile delinquents and gang members, most drug addicts, and most prison inmates were raised by extremist free-range parents (labeled as such by default) who didn't supervise their kids and monitor their ‘problematic’ friends.

To be clear, extremely ‘permissive parenting’ is not what Ms. Skenazy advocates – she simply wants to rescue kids from helicopter parents. Most well-parented free-range kids do not go astray – rather mostly just those raised by extremist, or lax, or struggling parents.

[And even her new program, 'Let Grow,' urges schools to add free-play periods in the playground or gym before and/or after school – with an adult nearby as a 'lifeguard’ – a key safeguard. (By the way, that's not unsupervised free-range – an adult lifeguard makes it a far wiser limited-range).]

Marketing Ploy vs Reality

FREE-RANGE kids” (as it appears on the book's cover) is a rousing and catchy title for marketing and publicity purposes. It’s further enhanced with the image of distant trees, a sumptuous blue sky, and a lone child dressed as an explorer, focusing on a map, seemingly in the midst of an exciting adventure. Go, kid, go!

But the fuzzy meaning of the title suggests that parents can just let their kids run wild and the title is the only thing most parents will ever see or hear.

Yet “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” So let's take a look inside.

The book’s content comes nowhere near what the cover implies. It also has an elitist slant that neglects the millions of kids in higher-crime neighborhoods. And the guidelines barely mention the dangers of accidents, drugs, and delinquency such as the annual toll of:

12,000+ accidental child deaths
9 million+ hospitalized accidental child injuries
70,000+ drug overdose deaths (and many more are addicts)
2 million+ prison inmates

How did she miss the glaring downside of her free-range theory? Or is the book cover's misleading hype due to crafty marketing? Or is she a blindly optimistic Pollyanna unable to see reality?

In any case, the ill-defined ‘free-range’ theory needs to be corrected with a more realistic and carefully defined ‘limited-range.’

A Balanced Middle Ground
Free-Play/Limited-Range Kids

Learn your state's laws and teach your kids the safety tips on the links below.
Take your kids to inspect the area or route where they're allowed to go – preferably not alone – that always has an adult nearby as a lifeguard.
Grant them more freedom only after step-by-step tutoring.
Monitor ‘problematic’ playmates who can negatively influence your child – even well-behaved youngsters can become cleverly devious teenagers.

See free-play/limited-range at a new kind of playground that always has adult “playworkers” nearby to watch the kids.

Stranger Danger FAQ
Child Safety - Outdoors
Child Safety - Molesters
GPS Child Locator
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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