You Might Be Surprised at What's Considered 'Free-Range Parenting'—What To Know About the Controversial Style

Free-range isn't just for chicken. What to know about the parenting style.

Before you entered the parent world, "free-range" was likely a term you only encountered when ordering chicken on date night.

But once you become a parent, you realize that there are so many labels: "crunchy," "silky, "scrunchy," "Montessori," "Waldorf," "gentle," "helicopter," "commando"—the list goes on and on. There are so many teams you can join. Except, honestly? Teams are best left to sports, and labels are great for ensuring your tiny tyke brings their water bottle home from camp, in my opinion. Nonetheless, they persist. And one you may have been surprised to hear is free-range parenting.

Dawn Friedman MSEd, a clinical counselor with Child Anxiety Support, used "free-range" parenting on her kids without even knowing it.

"Free-range parenting wasn’t something I really decided on because there wasn’t such a thing when we were raising our kids," Friedman says.

Still, like many parents-to-be, she read a bunch of books.

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"We were more informed by the work of the late John Holt, educator and author of How Children Learn and How Children Fail," Friedman says. "John Holt wrote about the inherent ability of children to learn through experience and encouraged an involved by hands-off approach. We were also inspired by Alfie Kohn, who writes about parenting and education—particularly about questioning traditional parenting."

Friedman's kids are now 19 and 26 years old, and both are fine. So, should you try free-range parenting? Why is it so controversial? Experts weighed in.

Related: Controversial 'Commando Parenting' Is Trending—Here's What Psychologists Have To Say About Its Impact on Children

What Is Free-Range Parenting?

The parenting style emphasizes independence and freedom.

"The goal is to help children learn life skills, develop self-confidence and responsibility," says Dr. Regine Muradian, PsyD., a licensed clinical psychologist and author.

Ever heard of helicopter parenting? Free-range parenting is not it.

“It's a style considered a 180-degree turn from hovering/helicopter parenting," says Karen Aronian, Ed.D., a former New York City public school teacher, parenting expert and founder of Aronian Education Design LLC.

The style isn't really new. But the term was popularized by Lenore Skenazy, who stirred the pot in 2008 when she blogged about letting her nine-year-old ride the subway alone. She may have gotten called the "world's worst mom." But Skenazy also got an Op-Ed in the Washington Post and a book deal. Her book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, came out in 2009.

Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry

Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
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What Are Examples of Free-Range Parenting?

In her blog, Skenazy starts off with an anecdote about leaving her nine-year-old in Bloomingdale's. He made it home on a subway he took by himself.

That may not sound like your jam—or maybe it does. Either way, Friedman says there's a spectrum of free-range parenting.

"The idea behind it is that kids benefit from having agency and experiences, which can run the gamut from parents who encourage their kids to walk home from school alone all the way to radical 'unschoolers' who let their children dictate the terms of their education," Friedman says. "The commonality is the belief that, culturally, we have become unnecessarily overprotective—much to our children’s detriment."

Related: 13 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew

Why Is Free-Range Parenting Controversial?

Have you logged into TikTok and spent even a millisecond scrolling the comments?

"Parenting styles trigger parents who have different styles and do things differently," Aronian says. "For example, think about sleep training and feeding."

"Mommy wars" aside, free-range parenting is disruptive.

"Free-range parenting is controversial because it challenges traditional parenting norms and can be seen as risky or negligent," says Dr. Muradian. "Some may argue that allowing children too much freedom, such as allowing them to play outside without supervision or walk home alone, can be dangerous."

What's the Difference Between Free-Range Parenting And Neglect?

Free-range parents may be labeled "neglectful," but this conversation requires nuance.

"Neglect is when parents do not properly care for and appropriately safeguard their children," Aronian says. "Neglectful parenting can also connote providing the bare necessities of food, shelter and material needs without emotional attachment and engagement. Free-range parenting gives care and caution, yet offers children the space to make their path."

As a one-time free-range parent, Friedman agrees and speaks from personal experience.

"Free-range parents stay involved," she says. "Free-range parents know what is developmentally appropriate, so they’re not expecting a five-year-old to cook dinner without help or supervision. Free-range parents are checking in with their kids to get feedback and offer support."

What Are the Benefits of Free-Range Parenting?

There's not a ton of research on free-range parenting. But experts share it may have some benefits.

Builds Self-Confidence

Children may become more confident in themselves by developing a sense of independence.

"When children are given the freedom to make their own choices, they learn to trust their own judgment and become more self-reliant," Dr. Muradian says. "In addition, they may feel a sense of control over their own decisions and not hesitate during decision-making."

Enhances Personal Responsibility and Problem-Solving Skills

Free-range kids learn quickly to figure things out on their own. They're not going to get it right every time, but that's part of the process.

"In general. the only way a child will learn is through failing and/or making mistakes," Dr. Muradian says. "As parents, allowing them to fail and understand how they can improve creates resiliency and problem-solving skills. This will help as they face challenges in their life."

Free-range kids may also need less validation as a result.

"They tend to not seek others' opinions as they feel they need to make decisions on their own. It also promotes leadership skills and accountability," Dr. Muradian says

Improves Mental Health

Friedman says parents who are highly involved with their children often do so with the best of intentions. But sometimes, it veers into overboard territory.

"As someone who specializes in child anxiety, I can see how 'over' parenting, while meant to protect kids, can actually make their anxiety worse by not asking them to face up to their fears," Friedman says.

Boosts Creativity and Lowers Stress for Kids

Friedman has noticed a habit of overscheduling. Johnny has soccer practice on Monday and Wednesday, piano lessons on Tuesday and Thursdays and soccer games all weekend. Plus, that whole school thing. When is the break?

"Lining kids up in a million different extracurriculars so that they are never left alone is stressful for both kids and parents and robs kids of the chance to be bored," Friedman says.

Boredom isn't a bad thing.

"Boredom breeds creativity," Friedman says.

Less Stress for Parents

You matter too, right?

"Parents deserve a break, and helping kids to manage some aspects of their own lives can give us one," Friedman says.

Related: What Is 'Gentle Parenting'? Why It Requires Much More Than Just Hugs, Kisses and Kindness

What Are the Cons of Free-Range Parenting?

No parenting style is without its drawbacks.


Friedman and Dr. Muradian agree–this one is a biggie.

"Some people may view it as negligent or irresponsible," Dr. Muradian says. "Parents who choose this approach can face criticism and judgment from others."

Friedman faced it first-hand.

"I remember that in the neighborhood where I raised my kids, the local moms' Facebook group would often 'report' seeing children at the playground alone and try to track down the 'neglectful; parents who let their eight-year-olds swing without supervision," Friedman says. "That means we can get into trouble with people who don’t realize we’ve made these decisions on purpose."

Sometimes, it can feel easier to stick to something more "socially acceptable."

"In some ways, free-range parenting can be more difficult because it means going against the flow, which can be lonely and leave us feeling misunderstood," Friedman says.

It Can Go Too Far

Going overboard isn't limited to helicopter parenting.

"Parents can go overboard, just like parents can go overboard in supervising," Friedman says. "[They] need to be sure they understand what their child is able to do developmentally."

If your toddler can't walk, it's likely best not to leave them in Bloomingdale's to catch a subway.

Safety Concerns

While we'd like to believe every person who comes across our kids as they walk home from school is nice, we know from watching the news that that's simply, unfortunately, not the case. Also, even kids who can swing on monkey bars and ride their bikes like pros are susceptible to falls and spills.

"Free-range parenting fears may be more vulnerable to accidents, injury and abduction," Dr. Muradian. "Parents would need to balance the benefits of independence while keeping children safe."

Related: 13 Ways To Be a Good Mom That Make a Lasting Difference, According to Experts

Is Free-Range Parenting Effective?

There isn't a ton of research on it. One study released in 2021 found that children were more likely to spend time outside and play independently from a younger age when their parents had more positive attitudes around risk-taking in play. While not specifically about free-range parenting, it leans into hallmarks like letting children take risks and emphasizing independence.

Even as a former free-range parent, Friedman believes this answer needs a disclaimer.

"Sure, [it's effective], but that doesn’t mean one particular way of parenting is right for every family," Friedman says. "It was a great fit for our family and for our unique kids, but I don’t pretend to know what’s right for every family. In fact, my job is literally helping parents figure that out."

What Are Alternatives to Free-Range Parenting?

Aronian has practiced a more instinctual style of parenting.

"[It's] an amalgam approach that calls on parents and guardians to be true to their intuition and their children's needs," Aronian says. "One size doesn't fit all, and parenting and children change daily, which requires personalization."

And parenting doesn't necessarily require a label.

"I think it’s less about styles and more about sitting down and being honest with yourself about your values as a parent," Friedman says. "What really matters to you? How would you define success for your children? What does 'the best life' look like for you? And then ask how your parenting is supporting that or not."

Next, Why Apologizing to Your Kids Is Important—Plus, Therapists Explain How To Do It Effectively