At some point, a parent must decide when it’s time to allow a child more freedom. The freedom to walk to school alone. The freedom to take the el into the city. The freedom to make plans with friends and execute those plans.

To let go and let them become “free-range kids.” 

“We’ve tried to do steps, leveling up the independence with the kids,” says Ana Garcia Doyle, mother of three children between 9 and 17. “But I do attribute living in Oak Park to the success of being able to let out the rein,” says Garcia Doyle, who grew up in downtown Chicago, first taking the CTA herself when she was 9.

Giving a child free range can be daunting for the parent and the child. Often it’s parents who are the most fearful about their child exploring the world around them. A recent Wall Street Journal essay noted that “children have less independence and autonomy today than they did a few generations ago,” pointing to stats indicating that fewer children ride their bikes around their own neighborhoods or walk to school on their own.

It’s understandable that there’s a “climate of fear among parents,” says Gerald Lordan, a long-time Oak Parker and teacher at Fenwick High School. His research interests include nurturing critical, independent thinkers. But there’s always been terrible things happening in the world, he says. There have “always been earthquakes and famines and floods. We just didn’t know about it” [the way people do today.] We tend to think of the world as going crazy. It’s always been crazy.” 

Lordan says he understands the anxiety parents have. A lot of comes from “adults who live in Balkanized networks,” he says. People don’t know others outside of their cohorts—and families have gotten smaller. When the number of children decreases, “the amount of focus and attention that one child gets goes up. Too much of a good thing can be bad for us.”

One reason there are fewer free-range children, he thinks, is that parents with fewer children can spend more time monitoring children’s behavior. And that leads to the “hurried child,” who gets rushed one from activity to the next. “Kids don’t have enough time to play and assimilate stimuli on their own.”

Educators and psychologists warn of overzealous parenting, seeing it as “one factor fueling a surge in the number of children and young adults being diagnosed with anxiety disorders,” the Wall Street Journal piece noted.

Children all mature differently, says Orson Morrison, an Oak Park psychologist who works with children and families and directs DePaul Family and Community Services in Chicago. “It’s important for parents to know their child, to know where they are developmentally,” Morrison says. “One 9-year-old may be super responsible and super mature and able to navigate the community, whereas another may need a lot of supervision and oversight.”

Morrison believes the sensible approach to loosening the apron strings, or shirt tails, is to take it gradually. He encourages parents to introduce new freedoms one at a time. Consider allowing a child to ride their bike around town, he says. Get a sense of where your child is in terms of his or her ability to navigate independently, how savvy they are in terms of safety issues.

“I feel like in Oak Park, a kid can get around starting in 4th, 5th grade on their bikes,” Garcia Doyle says. “If they can do a little check in.” With most kids these days having their own mobile phones, that’s easy, she adds.

Morrison thinks the term “free-range kids” grew out of the backlash to helicopter parenting, so “experts wanted to go the opposite way.” 

About 10 years ago, former journalist Lenore Skenazy launched the “Free-Range Kids” blog after getting lots of criticism over a column she wrote about letting her then 9-year-old son navigate New York City by himself.  With the blog, she says she’s “Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.” Through her nonprofit Let Grow, Skenazy tries to convince entire communities to give their kids independence.
The idea has caught on. Last fall, Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of a school district on Long Island in New York, launched a Let Grow project because he was seeing kids “bubble wrapped” and averse to risk-taking, something Lordan, the Fenwick teacher, has witnessed, too.

Parents step in to rescue kids from their mistakes, Lordan says. “We’re so proactive in the way we manage their lives, they never do anything wrong. If they do something wrong, then we step in to solve the problem.”

Being more of a free-range parent helps with a child’s development, says Morrison. 

Some think “free-range parents sometimes implies a very laissez-faire approach,” Morrison says. “But I do think parents need to balance allowing for gradual autonomy and freedom while still providing some structure and planning around safety concerns, so if [a child] encounters certain things in the community, what do they do, where can they go, whom can they call.”

He’s aware, though, that some kids more than others — African American children — “face different sorts of safety issues” out in the world. “Parents of color often report concerns for safety of their tweens/teens as they navigate the community on their own and they struggle to find safe spaces in the community for their tweens to hang out,” Morrison says.

It’s important for parents to engage their children in exercising their own critical thinking and executive functioning skills, Morrison says. One day that daughter or son will be out of the house and need to know to manage on his or her own.  Perhaps the first time your child is having to make an appointment or to plan something, you take a more active role. But the next time, you allow them to take the reins and eventually you’re allowing them to do it on their own.”

That’s essential, says Garcia Doyle. “It’s a total disservice for them to not be trained under your tutelage.

“For them to be 19, go off to college and never have taken public transportation. They have a part time job, an internship and they looked stunned and lost. That is not how you get a street smart kid.”

SIDE BAR: Two parents, two ‘Let Grow’ stories

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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