Why I Won't Raise Free-Range Kids

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Audrey D. Brashich says she won’t raise her children with a free-range philosophy. Pictured here with her two sons, ages 6 and 8, before ski team practice. (Photo: Courtesy of Audrey D. Brashich)

It always goes something like this: I’m sitting around with a bunch of parents whose kids are as scheduled as mine (Soccer practice! Hockey tournaments! Piano lessons!), when someone starts lamenting about how much better our own freewheeling childhoods were.

“We used to spend hours unsupervised at the lake (or park or biking around town) while our parents hung out drinking Tab (or gin & tonics or Nestea),” one will say. “And our childhoods were so much better than our kids’ — right?”

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At which point I either play along nicely or drop my bomb: I don’t want my kids to have a less busy, unstructured childhood so I’m not raising them free-range style, which seems almost sacrilegious to say these days, especially given the wide support for a Maryland family who was recently cleared of child neglect charges after allowing their children, ages 6 and 10, to walk around the neighborhood unsupervised.

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You’re raising free-range kids? Fine with me! I’m not interested in judging your choices or their outcomes. What I am interested in, however, is exposing my kids to a wide range of opportunities early on because it helps them develop confidence and instills the idea that they can achieve their dreams. They just have to show up with the right attitude and be willing to get involved.

Free range isn’t in my DNA. I grew up in Manhattan, where I participated in supervised after-school programs, music lessons, and even weekend day camps (whenever my working parents needed an actual day off on their days off). I didn’t muck about in the mud or pull wings off fireflies in the woods without adult supervision, and — to use the logic that’s always implemented in situations like this — I turned out okay.

Don’t get me wrong:  There are some worrisome pitfalls associated with childhoods crammed full of lessons, tutoring, and year-round sports. As Shimi Kang, M.D., argues in her book The Dolphin Way:  A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger, kids who attend too many activities don’t know how to rest or cope with boredom. Plus, finding ways to relax, have fun, and learn independently can be especially challenging for kids who’ve never figured out how to do those things. Also, there’s been a significant rise in children suffering from stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and insomnia in addition to kids with “overexercise” injuries and “overstudying” problems such as obesity and vision problems.

But I don’t believe that means we should ban our kids from activities and turn them loose in the neighborhood for a “1970s Summer.”

My boys (currently 6 and 8) attended activities at our local community center from a young age. Baby sign language class taught them how to communicate “more” and “stop.” Music class included shaking tambourines and dancing with colorful scarves, not starting them on a path to being musical prodigies. And when they headed off to kindergarten, each had developed excellent listening skills, understood the sequencing of events and routines, and were comfortable in large groups. More importantly, they had developed an appreciation for participating. And as they’ve gotten older, they’re completely comfortable showing up on the first day of team practice or camp, making friends, and digging in to whatever is on tap.

In contrast, many friends who opted out of early programming because they didn’t want their kids on a schedule or who emphasized the importance of “just playing” had different experiences — when their kids entered school or tried an organized activity, they were too timid to try, more comfortable roaming than focusing, and didn’t respect authority figures.

“Structured activities can be a great experience,” Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., author of Easing Their Stress: Helping Our Girls Thrive in the Age of Pressure, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But if the goal is to propel a child into elite sports leagues, bolster their résumés before it’s time to apply to college, or to help them find their ‘passions’— well, that’s where problems start.”

Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D., author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow also tells Yahoo Parenting, “We need to listen to the truth of our children’s experiences. If kids ask for an activity and enjoy it — if there’s an element of self-direction involved — that’s a good thing.” He notes, however, that parents should watch for signs of burnout, to help judge the quality of the experience, and to carve out unstructured time in kids’ schedules.

Ultimately, I have a hard time buying into the free-range philosophy because so many amazing opportunities exist for kids today. This summer, the boys are attending skimboarding camp and farm camp—where they’ll learn things I could never teach them, without pressure from me to excel in either area.

Maybe I’ll let them while away a few hours alone in the backyard — but if they don’t, I’m not going to worry about it because I think my kids will turn out okay, too.

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