Free Range Parenting In The News Again Vs. Helicopter Parents

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on April 13, 2015

Here we go . . .  “free range parenting” is in the news  . . . yet again.

Free Range = Permissive Parenting

“Free range”, from my perspective is simply permissive parenting when you allow one’s children who are between the ages of birth to age 10 to be without parental/adult oversight in unpredictable environments for extended periods of time. Permissive parenting is not a new concept to this generation, though it does potentially put children in harm’s way, and that ultimately can be seen as neglectful. The latest story to be in the news is about the Maryland parents who made headlines in January for allowing their 10 year old son and 6 year old daughter to walk home almost one mile on a heavily traffic area and were cited for “unsubstantiated child neglect”. Apparently, these parents did not take this matter seriously, and did not abide by police judgement for their children to be supervised. Thus, the couple allowed their children yet again to be without parental oversight and the children were picked up by the police on April 12th, and the children were taken into protective services. According to reports, parents were to sign a waiver that they will not leave their children unsupervised, in order to take them home. Covered in this article includes the following:

  • Is free range parenting potentially neglectful?
  • Free range parenting is simply permissive parenting – an old package with a different colored ribbon (Permissive vs. Authoritarian vs. Parentified Children vs. Authoritative)
  • Systemic parenting – limited range parenting – Dr. Karen Ruskin’s approach to consider
  • Q&A with Dr. K
  • Should government be involved in parenting?

Is free range parenting potentially neglectful?

There have been many parents over the years who lived/live this parenting life style and philosophy of permissiveness. Does it put children in harm’s way? Yes, it can. Is it our duty as parents to protect our children and keep them out of harm’s way? Yes, it is. If we don’t keep our children out of harm’s way and intentionally place them in what is deemed to be harm’s way, even if we as parents don’t think it is harmful is that considered neglect? Yes it is. If a tree falls in the forest and you do not hear it fall, did it still fall? Yes it did. Therefore, at times free range parenting can be potentially neglectful.

Free range parenting is simply permissive parenting – an old package with a different colored ribbon

Growing up in Queens NY in the 70’s (which was where and when I spent my youth), this was a time of a mix of parenting styles. Not unlike nowadays.

Permissive = Free Range: Back then there were parents of whom were more on the permissive side, termed as: “permissive parenting”. An example of permissive parenting was to allow one’s children to be out and about without adult oversight for extended periods of time. Hm, sound familiar? The same old package with a different colored ribbon. Don’t let the new ribbon disguise the reality that it is the same package of a particular style of parenting that research has shown is not the best style of parenting, risky to say the least and potentially dangerous. Nowadays the term used is “free range parenting”.

Authoritarian = Helicopter: Back in the day there were also parents of whom were more on the controlling side, and quite frankly downright controlling which was termed: “authoritarian parenting”. These days the term for controlling parents often used is “helicopter parenting”. Though a distinct difference is that authoritarian parents were often considered lacking in affection, whereas helicopter parents which although quite controlling are often extremely loving and affectionate, not all but oh so many.

Parentified Children = Free Range: Back in my youth, there were parents who treated their children more like the children were the parents. Examples include; a) household responsibilities were often placed upon children crossing over the line from helping children to be responsible to rather the children felt over burdened, b) making decisions were often left to the children instead of the parents (if the young children feel they are responsible and thus wish to be free to roam on their own without adult oversight as long as they are home by dinner then that is acceptable, as it is the children’s decision to judge this), and/or c) young children were left to care for/supervise their younger siblings (e.g., the 10 year old is responsible for the 6 year old), sound familiar? The term used to be: parentified children. Nowadays, the term is: free range. As in some free range style households this may occur for the parents are so laid back that the children ultimately become responsible for supervising one’s siblings. Am I my brother’s keeper? Hm. Should a child be?

Free Range (Permissive or Parentified, depending on how the parenting style plays out) Vs. Helicopter (Authoritarian with love): Ugh! Enough is enough – I am quite frankly sick and tired of this ridiculous debate between these 2 opposing parenting styles. Stop with the nonsense. Either extreme is just that, an extreme, and neither is ideal. There are many free rangers who used to be helicopters and are emotionally drained from being so extreme to where they were experiencing symptoms of anxiety as were their children from being so overly invested in assuring their children are the best of the best. So for some helicopters it helped them to be more open to cutting the umbilical chord. For others who are free range, they are simply free range from the getco. Either way you slice it, this argument of parenting comparison and debate as to which is better is ludicrous. Children don’t have to be raised free range to not be hovered over, there can indeed be a healthy balance. And children don’t have to experience extremism in terms of helicopter parents to feel that their parents are vested in them and to achieve and stay safe. So, what’s the answer? Keep reading…

Authoritative: Shown and proven by research, real life case example after case example of the best approach to parenting in an effort to develop well adjusted children is authoritative parenting. Authoritative parenting is an approach which encourages children to be independent while also placing limits and controls on their actions. The children’s viewpoint is taken into account, though that does not mean that children between ages birth-10, at their very vulnerable stage of development are free to roam without adult oversight. So, what’s the term these days for authoritative parenting? How about: just healthy parenting? Balanced parenting? What about this one- are you ready, yes, I decided on a term, and I should publicize it so all parents who are doing a fabulous job of balancing have a label for their greatness and that is: “Systemic Parenting”.

Systemic Parenting – Limited Range Parenting  – Dr. Karen Ruskin’s Approach

Yes, Dr. Karen Ruskin (that’s me) says: systemic parenting is the style of parenting that allows for a healthy balance and mix of mindful awareness of parenting. Systemic parenting allows parents to be mindful of all things within the system of one’s world thus there are limits placed on children/limited range parenting. The various pieces of the puzzle of the system we as humans live in to be mindful of if we wish to raise our children from a systemic parenting approach includes all of the following 10 points below as a full package deal. Not any 1 point without the other, all 10 points parents must be mindfully aware of if they want to parent systemically. Do note: it is not for me to say how to parent. It is up to all parents to make their own decisions about their own style. I am not the judge nor jury. Simply I am sharing information.

Ok, so here it is- Systemic Parenting includes mindful awareness of the following items when making parenting decisions:

  1. the age of the children (consider the law of what is considered the appropriate age to be left unsupervised)
  2. the personality of the children
  3. the circumstances at hand
  4. the culture of our times
  5. potential risk-reward benefit
  6. taking the children’s voice into account
  7. being a parent who keeps one’s children out of harm’s way
  8. an affectionate and attentive parent
  9. a parent who balances the importance for children to experience independent opportunities along with maintaining parental control
  10. the environment

Although I am being a bit sarcastic in my writing, in case it did not come through, as much can get lost in written translation I thought I’d point it out. Though do know this, I am also being quite serious. As a Psychotherapist/Family Therapist, as a parenting educator, I have met with children and parents since 1993, and it is clear as can be. Permissive parenting is a gamble. As a therapist, and as a parent, I will share with you that I would never gamble with such a precious blessing: one’s children.

Authoritative parenting, systemic parenting, limited range parenting, mindful awareness parenting – whichever term you wish to use, this is the way to go, hm, I better run out and get “systemic parenting” and “limited range parenting” as terms that are owned by me and only me – right now (lol).  This is not a selfish style of parenting, this is not a style that is simply looking at one’s past through rose colored glasses. This style includes; self, family, community, culture, society, law, child development, age – in one’s awareness for each decision one makes as a parent.

Q&A With Dr. Karen Ruskin

Some who are in favor of permissive parenting, AKA free range parenting, share that they simply want to raise their children more like how they were raised. Guess what? Your children can play and have fun with parental oversight.

  • Can you be available for one’s children and not hover nor suffocate? Yes.
  • Can young children develop the skill of being independent in their older years and learn to be resilient if there is parental supervision between the ages of birth-10? Yes they can. (Those who live the free range parenting philosophy are often cited that teaching resilience is to be achieved without parental supervision).
  • Is a parent being a fear monger if she/he is supervising their young child? No. They are being cautious, and not gambling. (“Fear monger” is the term Lenore Skenazy of whom is considered the founder of the free range phenomenon and thereby her cult following use, as they refer to parents who are cautious and believe in consistent adult supervision of young children).
  • Is an adult who notices a young child walking by him/herself, or two young children walking together that are not of legal age to be without parental supervision a “busy body” or a concerned citizen? Well, could be either/or, but likely a concerned citizen. (Lenore Skenazy and her followers of the free range parenting terminology and reactions, like the flip of a switch, reference others as either a busy body or a helpful adult – only as it fits their desires). Does it take a village? Or does it only take a village when parents want to leave their children to freely roam without parental oversight and then if the children are in need of help and a friendly adult nearby notices the children needs help then they are being helpful. But . . . if a nearby adult does not know if the children need help and contact 911, then they are a busy body? Seems like whether a person is a busy body or a concerned citizen is decided based upon if the free range parent of the children wants the help or not. Well, if you want your children not to be “helped” by another adult, then be within a distance that you are the helper not a stranger.
  • Does same or less crime reported from now in comparison to long ago mean there is no crime? No. There is still crime. (Free range parents will often cite that less crime or equal/the same by contrast to long ago means parents should not provide supervision for their young children because nothing bad is going to happen to their children). Sadly, there is still crime, a lot of which is not reported. I would not recommend gambling with one’s children.
  • In addition, is it possible that among the various variables that has led to less crime have to do with parental oversight? Perhaps indeed.

Should government be involved in parenting?

This is a difficult question for most to answer. Why? Because the answer is not so black and white. Generally speaking my philosophy is that government should not be in the parenting business. As a Psychotherapist, as a Family Therapist, I do believe that parents have the right to parent how they want to parent. That’s it: bottom line. Though, the grey area here is that painfully there are decisions that some parents make that are abusive and neglectful that leads to outside agency involvement, and thankfully so. For an example, a father who sexually abuses his daughter – should there be outside intervention or do we as a society turn away? For an example, a mother who physically beats her son several days a week while she is drunk be something that we as a society don’t intervene? For an example, a child who is experiencing emotional abuse, neglect? What one defines as emotional abuse or neglect may be quite different by definition then another person. The waters get quite murky whether the topic is surrounding physical, emotional, and/or mental abuse as well as neglect. So, back to the question: should government be involved in parenting? I wish I had a clear and distinct answer for every case, but that is simply not the reality for every case is different.

And . . . that is why the answer to this question is: case by case dependent.

My answer is that I generally believe no, government should not be in the parenting business. Parents have the right to parent the way they want to, even if it is not what through a therapeutic lens appears to be emotionally, physically, or mentally healthy. Though I recognize the value of having outside agencies for there are circumstances that intervention truly saves. It makes sense why there is much reaction to the case of the Maryland family. Should the police have the say on this? Should child protective services have what to say on this? Hm. There is a definite problem here and it does not appear that the solution implemented by government involvement is the direction we want to go in as a society. As that is problematic on many levels. Clearly this topic needs further exploration and discussion. It concerns me greatly to leave parenting in the government’s hands. Though there are cases in which having help is advantageous. The way things are currently being handled is not the way in which I would recommed.

If you found this article of interest, provided below are a few additional parenting articles I have written as well as interviews on the topic and more items of interest:

  •  Free Range Parenting – A Cult? (Dr. Karen Ruskin’s blog article)
  • At what age is it okay to leave your kid alone? (Dr. Karen Ruskin’s interview on FOX News Boston).
  • 23 tips for raising mentally healthy and happy kids (Dr. Ruskin’s blog article).
  • Grow Up: Parenting Wars (Dr. Ruskin’s interview on FOX News Stossel; the 4minutes32seconds mark is where Dr. Ruskin’s interview begins until 5min31sec. Then again at the 8min4sec mark to 8min35sec).
  • Ask Dr Karen on FOX News Boston (Dr. Karen Ruskin’s segment on FOX News Boston ‘Ask Dr. Karen’. Viewers submit their questions. On this segment one of the questions was: Is it okay to let my 9 year old go to the park and ice cream store for several hours without adult supervision?).
  • 9 Key Techniques For Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices (Dr. Ruskin’s parenting book which includes Dr. Ruskin’s parenting philosophy and 9 techniques to raise children who have a healthy self esteem, are compassionate towards others, and make responsible choices).
  • How to raise a child of character (Dr. Karen Ruskin’s blog article- explains what having good character is and 4 important life skills).

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