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How this classic parenting style teaches kids responsibility through independence

Helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting. No matter what side of the spectrum moms and dads fall on, the goal is to raise strong, independent children. But just how much freedom to give to children and when is the question.

While Diane Lane, a mother of five, doesn’t like to use labels when it comes to parenting, others have described her style as free-range. For Lane, the pros of free-range parenting simply are “more independent, capable, confident children.”

Said Lane: “As parents it is our job to raise adults. Our kids will go out into the world someday if we do our job well. By allowing them more freedom at a younger age, we are setting them up to take on the ‘real world’ without batting an eye because they’ve already lived in the real world.”

For example, Lane is comfortable sending her 9-year-old out to the car to retrieve something she forgot when she is in the store or allowing her 4-year-old to go to the children’s section of the library to choose her own books while Lane picks out books for herself.

While some parents may not feel ready to let their children cross the street by themselves or go to the playground alone, Lane did permit her son to ride his bike by himself to the neighborhood park when he was around age 7.

“He did this several times and always came home a happy boy,” she said.

Free-range parenting—a term for moms and dads who are willing to step back and allow their children to explore the world on their own—may be the response to the stigma behind helicopter parenting, which describes parents who seem to constantly hover over their kids.

“I think that we need to be careful of the extremes in parenting,” cautioned Dr. Holly Schiffrin, a professor of psychology at University of Mary Washington and co-author of the books Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood and Balancing the Big Stuff: Finding Happiness in Work, Family and Life.

“Helicopter parenting seems to have swung too far in one direction with too much control that may undermine children’s developing sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness,” she said. “However, there is a danger of swinging too far in the opposite direction in response to this and allowing children too much freedom. We’d all agree that not supervising children at all would meet the legal definition of neglect. The question is where do you draw the line for the appropriate amount of freedom to promote children’s autonomy and competence within the context of a warm and nurturing relationship?”

The answer may differ from parent to parent and child to child.

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“The problem is that no one knows exactly where that line is and it likely differs based on the unique characteristics of each child,” said Schiffrin. “What is too much freedom for one child might be OK for another. As long as free-range parenting includes parenting behaviors that meet the legal definitions of appropriate levels of supervision and are developmentally sensitive to a child’s needs, then I think it might be appropriate for some families.”

It is important to know your child and try to strike a balance when it comes to parenting.

“Parents need to educate themselves on what developmental norms are in terms of what types of responsibilities children can and should be given at different ages as well as how long they can or can’t go unsupervised,” said Shiffrin. “However, they also need to tailor the ‘norms’ to their individual child.”

Which is what Lane often does, with each of her children having their own responsibilities, privileges and expectations based on their personalities and strengths.

“My 9-year-old son is a people person, so he’s great at being able to go into a store and buy a gallon of milk by himself,” Lane said. “My 7-year-old daughter is going through a shy phase now and she doesn’t want to do that. She’s amazingly responsible, though, so I can send her into the library by herself to grab my books on hold and she can check them out without the temptation my son would have of being distracted by the newest comic book.”

Lane recommends moms and dads start small when it comes to allowing more freedom and responsibility for their kids.

“Let your kids lead the way,” she suggested. “If your kid asks to do something by themselves, let them. Take time to teach and prepare them before sending them to do something alone. Maybe show your kid how to use the self-checkout lane in a store. Next time, walk them through it. After that, let them do it and stay quiet unless they need help. Once they don’t need your help anymore, send them into the store by themselves.”

Though parents may be hesitant to let go, the benefits will be worth it.

“Remember back to when you were kid,” said Lane. “I bet you could do a lot of things your parents didn’t realize you could do. It’s the same with your kids. Give them the chance to surprise you. And just know it’s all going to be OK.”


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Village Fathers is a fatherhood education program and support group sponsored by Healthy Families Rappahannock Area. Its goal is to help fathers improve their parenting skills by promoting healthy and positive attitudes towards fatherhood and parenting.

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