There seems to be so much confusion about what Free Range Parenting is all about.
I am a clear advocate of Free Range Parenting, its part of my Six Key Factors in great parenting see here—however, lets be clear, Free Range Parenting is not Free For All Parenting!
If we are going to let our kids explore the world, learn how resilient and resourceful they are and build genuine self confidence, they also need to know the rules and they need to know what to do if something goes wrong. It is completely unfair to let your kids go into situations where they don’t know how to cope. At best they will be frightened, at worst they could be hurt.
For example, I’m an avid sailor and I’ve had my kids out on boats since they were tiny. My oldest has rowed her dinghy by herself since she was 4—literally. Being on boats is a fantastic study in Free Range Parenting, however, while it is a heap of fun, it is also potentially dangerous, and so as parents we mitigate and manage this risk.
To manage this risk we set very strict rules as well as expect our kids to have and be able to demonstrate, core skills. For example, the first fundamental rule is that they must wear lifejackets all the time unless they are down in the cabin. They also know to never put their fingers over the side of the boat or to jump onto the jetty until they have been told its safe. They know that if a boat tips over you always stay with the boat till help comes etc. At the same time they are expected to learn how to tie knots, how not to panic when things go wrong (which occasionally they do), how to pull the boat up on the sand in case the tide comes in, how to row and how to paddle a kayak etc.
Paradoxically by knowing all the rules and having these core skills, and, being able to demonstrate their knowledge of these rules, they get their freedom. This is how my oldest was rowing her dinghy by herself around the bay at the age of 4. She knew the rules, she knew how to row, the dinghy was unsinkable, the bay was completely protected, there was not a breath of wind and, she had spent the previous 3 months showing me how well she could row while I held on to the end of a very long piece of rope. She was so proud of herself when she got back to the beach!
A few years later when my kids were 7 and 4 and we were all spending the weekend on our boat, the kids were allowed to get on the kayak and paddle to the beach 60 metres away and play all by themselves. To be honest there was another agenda here… it was 6am and them heading off to the beach gave us an extra 30 minutes sleep in. Lying in bed and watching them play on the beach was rather fun. What was even more fun was the look on their faces as they came back. They kept to every single rule, carefully pulled the kayak up the beach in case the tide came in, had their life jackets done up properly etc—they were so proud of what they had done! What a wonderful gift of independence to give to a child. The biggest mitigation factor against risk is that my kids knew the rules and had the skills
I could not go over to New York and let my kids at the age of 9 use the New York Subway without me teaching them how to use it, where to get off, how to deal with strange people etc (this is the story that shot Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Parenting, to fame) . Just as Lenore most likely could not let her kids go out in our dinghy without them learning the core rules and skills required.
Now as my kids are older and are doing more adventurous activities, knowledge like first aid, bush craft etc are important, and frankly, they can’t go into the bush unless they do have this knowledge.
There is an irony here; in order to really let our kids be free range kids, we have to be very strict, making sure they do know the rules, that they do have the skills and from this strictness, paradoxically, comes a lot of freedom.
So for all you parents out there who are thinking about this, remember, Free Range Parenting is not just letting your kids do exactly what they want at any time. We need to give our kids the skills to cope with the situations they are in and teach them what the rules are. This way, they stay safe, learn about their world and, most importantly, learn just how clever and amazing they really are and build a genuine self confidence.