Are We Hurting or Helping Our Kids With Overprotective Helicopter Parenting?

Should kids today be allowed the freedom to play and explore without a parent watching them at all times? Or is the world we live in today too dangerous to allow our kids the freedom we once had? Which will cause our kids the least harm?

I remember the summer I was nine.

Living in Maple Ridge, a small suburb of Vancouver, Canada, I had the utmost freedom. My bicycle took me everywhere.

It whisked me away to imaginary play as a princess in the woods, or to build forts in a friend’s backyard, or a water fight at the school playground, or sometimes just to the corner store eight blocks from my house in search of baseball cards and sour soother candies.

There was a great sense of empowerment. Oh sure, I had rules. No going in a stranger’s house, never take a ride from someone you don’t know, tell my parents where I was going, be back in time for dinner.

But within these simple confines, I made up my days with all sorts of fanciful activity, imagination, creativity, exercise, and exploration. It was magnificent.

Today’s kids aren’t so lucky.

In this hyper vigilant society, where we super-sanitize and anti-bacterialize everything to death, we won’t let our kids ride their bikes solo to the park down the street, let alone to the corner store or a friend’s house ten minutes away.

We obsess over watching or being near them every second of every day, to the ridiculous level of neighbors calling social services on one another because they saw the children playing unattended in the front yard or moms being arrested because they let their kid walk to the park.

Danger, it seems, is lurking everywhere and well, we like to play it safe. Parents today seem to be trying too hard. They want so desperately to protect their kids from any remotely conceivable threat of peril that they wind up insulating and even hovering over them, helicopter style.

But let’s go back for a moment to my idyllic childhood liberties… did you grow up with those same sorts of freedoms?

I’m willing to bet that most of us who grew up in the 70’s or 80’s walked to and from school by ourselves or with siblings, rode our bikes around town (or at least our neighborhood), visited friends on our own, explored local woods or streams, babysat or held a job at a young age, and spent our allowance at the convenience store on things our moms wouldn’t have said yes to had they been present.

Which, of course, leads us to the million dollar question:

Should kids today be allowed the freedom to play and explore without a parent watching them at all times?

I would tend to say yes.

I haven’t always felt this way. At times, the struggle to give in to the societal norms, or to allow anxiety to pervade my thoughts, has made me grasp too tightly onto my kids.

My husband finds it easier to let go. As a young boy, he remembers playing for hours behind their house, climbing tall trees (which apparently need warning labels these days), and pulling generally reckless boy stunts. As a young teen, he walked or rode bikes around town with his friends once his homeschool work was finished for the day.

Today, although fiercely protective of our kids when he thinks there is genuine danger (for example, he had them in nearly a death grip when we visited the Grand Canyon and discovered half of the trails had no guardrail of any sort!), he also frequently reminds me to loosen the reigns. 

I get nervous when they want to shimmy up the ancient plum trees in our backyard. Or scramble up steep rock faces when we go out hiking. Or balance on precariously high points on a playground. But he doesn’t. He tells me how thankful he is that his mom let him explore and find his own limits as a kid, and that she didn’t hover over him when it came to his play. 

Thanks in part to his encouragement, I’ve been easing up a little. I’m more willing to let kids be kids, and trust that these childhood adventures and freedoms are ultimately teaching them crucial lessons in common sense, their physical limitations, problem solving and responsibility. 

Are we hurting or helping our kids with overprotective helicopter parenting?

Here are some things that we allow:

  • Our 9 1/2 year old can ride her bike within a perimeter of a few streets (none of which are busy) for 15-20 minutes before checking in. She’s well aware of the safety rules regarding going in someone’s home or vehicle.
  • When she was 7, we lived on a busy street that wasn’t safe for biking, but let her walk alone to get the mail or to the 2nd fire hydrant (2-3 minute walk) before turning around.
  • Our current 5 and 7 year olds can play by themselves in our front and back yard, but can’t go onto the road without us nearby. We live in a regular neighborhood in a city of 80,000.
  • The 2 1/2 year old can play outside in the back yard without us, if one of his siblings is with him. If they come in, so does he.
  • We stay to watch our 5 year old at her gymnastics class, but drop the 9 year old off and pick her up after. We’ll do the same with the 7 year old.
  • The 7 and 9 year old can play in neighbor’s yards if we can see them from our house, but not in the back yards or inside any homes. The 5 year old can invite friends to play in our yard, but we don’t directly supervise, just keep a window open to hear what’s happening and check in occasionally.
  • While living in Argentina when Abbie was 8, she could walk across the street to the corner store to buy veggies or eggs for me. We don’t have any stores near us right now, but if we’re out, she’s allowed to go into a store without us and make a purchase on her own.

The 9 year old is begging us for even greater freedoms, like riding her bike 10 minutes away to the local bike park or a corner store. We’re not quite there yet, but I’ve thought a lot about the fact that at nine, I roamed all over town by myself and at twelve, I had a regular babysitting job every morning and afternoon for two younger boys. What makes my childhood so different from hers? 

To some, what I’ve just listed might seem crazy or reckless even. Others may have similar ways of doing things or give their kids even far more freedom. It’s very hard to say what the “right” decisions should be, although I’m thinking it comes down to a lot of things like where you live, the maturity of each specific child, and so forth.

But still… there’s a bigger picture here. Are we right in wanting to be uber-protective to the point of sheltering them, or should our kids be given a whole lot more free range?

What are free-range kids?

This week I’ve been reading Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry). It’s a fascinating (and entertaining) read, one that I was first introduced to in this post at The Art of Simple. The comments on that post surprised me and opened my eyes, but they got me thinking long and hard, and I’ve wanted to read this book ever since.

I honestly just want to share the entire book with you, but I’ll restrain myself by giving you one excerpt (bold mine):

“Think of how, thanks to fear, we restrict so many other aspects of our children’s lives. They’re not allowed to walk alone (cars!), explore (perverts!), or play in the park (those perverts again) or in the woods (ticks!) or in trees (gravity!) or in water (drowning!) or in dirt (dirt!). It’s not your imagination: childhood really has changed. Forty years ago, the majority of U.S. children walked or biked to school. Today, about 10 percent do. Meantime, 70 percent of today’s moms say they played outside as kids. But only 31 percent of their kids do. The children have been sucked off America’s lawns like yard trimmings.

Where did all this fear come from? Take your pick: The fact that we’re all working so hard that we don’t know our neighbors. The fact that the marketplace is brimming with products to keep our kids ‘safe’ from things we never used to worry about — like shopping cart liners to protect kids from germs.

Then there’s the way our brains cling to scary thoughts (girls murdered on a country road) but not mundane ones (all the girls who walk home from school without getting murdered). That’s just basic psychology….

Fear, fear, fear. We’re always expected to be thinking about fear…. Everyone is exhorting us to watch out, take care, and plan for the very worst-case scenario. Which puts a damper on things, to say the least.”  Taken from Chapter 1 of Free-Range Kids

I spent a bit of time perusing the author’s website, and I stumbled on a page of crime statistics, which emphatically makes the point that, despite the way our fears are on the upswing, crime all over the board is actually DOWN.

Read them for yourself. I’ll admit, I was surprised, but I can’t argue with the facts.

Which begs the question,

What do you think about allowing children to be “free-range”? And is today’s world really less safe than the one we grew up in?

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links.
Top image by the jbird. Second image by Martin Terber.

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  1. I didn’t realize just how tightly I held my kids, until we moved to the UK a little over a year ago. In short order, my 12 year old was taking the train to and from school on his own (that was a huge day for both of us!). We set him up with a cell phone and gave him lessons in how to take the train. His commute is 20 min on the train with a mile walk on each end (Dad drives him to the station in the am on the way to work but no rides home unless the locals are using umbrellas). It has been very empowering for him. After about 6 months, on a day when the younger kids had school, but he was off, I had him show me how to use the trains as I had been avoiding it. I picked a stop further down the line and we ate lunch together nearby (the waiter took our photo – a great memory). It expanded his map, and gave me confidence as well. This fall my 11 year old daughter is traveling with him and she is thriving also.

    1. That is really fantastic, Kim. What a great learning experience for your son (and now your daughter)! I’m sure I would struggle with having to let my kids do that at first, but really, I think it’s absolutely reasonable for an older child who’s been taught how to do it safely.

  2. I am the more relaxed parent in our family. I also enjoyed the freedom to explore as a child and want the same for my children. Whether we have lived in town or out in the country like we currently do. I have made a point to at least introduce ourselves to our neighbors. I feel that much of our fears are driven by the unknown. And the easiest way to dispel those fears is to explore myself and see if they even exist. I also think a lot of our fears are not driven by what could happen to our children, but by what could happen to us, if “someone” judged that we were not doing our job.
    Thankfully, we have wonderful neighbors and live on a quiet country road. Our kids are still quite young (7, 4 & 2)
    As for safety from getting hurt our rule of thumb is; if you can climb it, you are big enough to climb. If you can’t, than you are not quite ready, and if you go up, you must get yourself down. I prefer to let my kids find their own limits. They can get dirty and play in puddles. They can climb rocks. They play outside for hours on our land. I am continually surprised and impressed by their own self preservation with these guidelines. Even our two-year-old who has a rather… strong personality and often is determined to stay out after her siblings come in will stay right on the sidewalk and not wander far without the company of her brothers.
    In short of course we as parents need to be active guides in the lives of our child and it is our ultimate job to care for and protect. But I agree that we are not benefiting our children by micro-managing every aspect of their childhood because of our own fear of “what if.” Yes, bad things happen, and I would not wish that kind of sorrow on any family. But, as I said before, I feel that if we are to change the troubling trend of “helicopter parenting” (and I think most parents don’t want to be known as one,) than we owe it to ourselves and our children to do the work and determine for ourselves if the dangers really do exist within our own little worlds.

    1. I really like two things that you said here Rita, 1) that too many of our fears are driven by the unknown. I couldn’t agree more! Our extensive travels in over 30 countries have shown that to us time and time again. And 2) we absolutely need to be active guides, but that doesn’t have to equal micromanaging. I liked how you pointed out your safety rule of thumb, and we function similarly. For example, our three bigger kids all like climbing the trees in the yard. The two older ones have no troubles, so we let them climb freely. However, in the past two weeks, the 5 year old has gone higher than she is capable of and has had to be helped down. Therefore, she’s currently not allowed to climb the tree because it’s beyond her capabilities. Just an example of actively guiding based on what each child needs and what we observe as parents that came to my mind as I read your comment. Thanks!

  3. We give our kids a little more freedom than that. My 6 year old is allowed to cross our small neighborhood streets, to go into friend’s houses (with my permission and a 1-2 hour time limit), and to play outside with our without her bike for pretty unlimited times. My 4 year old is allowed to go to neighbor houses with her sister or play with her sister, no crossing streets alone. 2.5 year old is allowed out for short times with his sisters (yards are not fenced and usually they play in the neighbor’s front yard which is actually our back yard neighbor (so out of sight for me). The 12 month old is clearly never allowed outside without an adult, though I do let her play unattended in the house with siblings. I consider myself mostly old fashioned in my parenting views with just a dash of modern. 😉

    1. Those things all sound reasonable to me. The main reason that we don’t allow our kids in the neighbor’s homes is that right now, we’re pretty new in town. We just don’t know any of those parents well enough to feel comfortable. However we do have plenty of other friends from where we used to live, whose homes we would leave our children in without us.

  4. This is something I really struggle with on a daily basis – especially with my two youngest girls who are 10 and 12. Like most kids who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, I had a great deal of freedom to ride my bike through the neighborhood, and walk with my friends, go to the park, etc. However, as parent I tend to be a helicopter mom. A lot of that stems from the fact that when I was a teenager, 3 men robbed the Arby’s where I worked. I seriously thought they were going to kill us all the way they were waving their guns. That experience has made me see potential danger everywhere and my kids don’t have as much freedom to roam as other kids might.

    1. Oh Jen, what a scary experience to go through as a teen! I can see how that might continue to affect you as a parent. When you’ve been that statistic yourself, I’m sure it is much, much harder to be reassured by the stats.

  5. Won’t be wasting my time on this book. Sorry. Let’s use common sense here. There is nothing wrong with protecting our kids! That is our God given responsibility. We are told not to put Him to the test. And I am sorry, but I find it difficult to believe that crime is down- not where I live it keeps getting worse. And hello pedophiles & kidnappers are very real. Germs, well there is nothing wrong with extra caution. People do not stay home when they are sick like they did years ago and let’s be reasonable if you have a new baby you should most certainly be on your guard because hey pertussis is around and it is life threatening to a newborn. Yeah, my mom & several siblings had it last year- for real they had a test to confirm it. Not trying to be offensive but this is the first KOTH post that raised a serious red flag for me. I hope everyone follows their own convictionsite no matter what anyone else tells them! Remember we will give an account for our kids- not someone else!

    1. Hey Amber! I 100% agree with you that I hope everyone follows their own convictions, and doesn’t just follow what others do or tell them to do. You’re totally right that we give an account for how we raise our own kids. Naturally, I don’t know where you live or what the crime is like there, I’m just looking at the stats done for the USA (overall and individual cities), and for places like Canada and Australia as well. That said, even if we do believe the stats are correct, it doesn’t mean we don’t still try to protect our kids. The author isn’t saying that we should just throw caution to the wind and stop being parents who care about safety, not in the slightest. What she’s saying is that we take it overboard, and in doing so, we’re preventing our children from having experiences that allow them to learn more maturity and responsibility, and even just good old creativity and common sense. She points out frequently in the book that there are many aspects of life where extra precautions are necessary and good. So don’t throw away the whole book because of that one quote, necessarily. 🙂

  6. The reason kids don’t play outside now days is because there aren’t other kids to play with they’re all in daycare.

    1. This is so true! I would love my kids to be able to play with the kids in our neighborhood – but nearly all of them are either in daycare or with a sitter/nanny all day! It’s sad that I have to drive my kids to playdates instead of letting them walk down the street to play with the neighbors.

      I’ve also gotten dirty looks for letting my 6-year-old ride her bike on the sidewalk (only as far as 2 houses away) without me being right next to her. What is this world coming to?

  7. Very nice article. Common sense, not fear, is needed to raise great kids. Children today are under nourished in many ways and this is one of them! God bless you for putting this thought out there. 🙂

  8. My husband and I read that book (& loved it) a couple years before our daughter was born. Now she’s here and 1, so she’s not quite to the point where we can figure out what to do with her outside-of-the-house-limits, but we do let her pretty much explore on playgrounds without us (we usually just stay somewhere in a corner where we can see her, since she’s still a bit unsteady). We were talking the other day about how things like what you discussed would go for us. We have a library that’s less than 2 miles away and while there aren’t currently sidewalks, there is plenty of space to walk there safely in the grass. We would love to let her walk there someday. We’re also interested in a Sudbury-style schoole that is located rather far from our house. We’d love for her to be able to take the bus there, but our main worry for things like this aren’t for kidnappers or things like that, but for all these parents that are so quick to report things like that to social services. I don’t know if it would make a difference if we lived in an urban area – I wonder if people don’t have as many problems with kids getting around on their own (like on subways and walking around) there? I’d be curious to hear…

    1. I hear you that one of your main worries is not the safety aspect, but rather would someone else report you. That crosses our mind a lot, too. We’re thankful that in our neighborhood, the other families with young children seem to function pretty similarly to how we do and most of the kids do things like play on the lawn by themselves, the older ones ride bikes or play hockey, etc. But if I didn’t see that happening, I might be more nervous to let our kids do so, because of what others might say and do. It’s a bit scary that we live in a day and age when other people feel so at liberty to take it upon themselves to determine how someone else ought to parent their kids, isn’t it?

  9. Oh I so agree with you! As much as I want to give more freedom to my almost 6 year old (like playing by herself in the shared yard we have with other neighbors), it’s impossible in the society where we live. I’m surrounded by parents who hover over their kids and even threatened to call CPS on us once just for my kids being outside on my front step without me. So it’s not an option. Badly want to move out of this neighborhood that diverges with my idea of a civil society. Not to mention that it is unfortunate the kids in our neighborhood are not ones I would want my daughter playing with (cussing, destroying property, disrespecting people, and these are kindergartners and 1st graders!) So a lot depends on where you live, whether it is a low-income, high crime suburb or a quiet rural small town.

  10. I am so glad you went out on a limb with this post. I have given these things a lot of thought too. Trying to determine whether or not the freedoms we enjoyed as kids are as safe (or responsible) today can be hard. I would say that I err on the side of allowing more freedom, but then there’s the fact that other people who disagree with you may be inclined to report you.

    When I was 11, and we lived in a small neighborhood near our school and a handful of small stores, I was allowed to ride my bike to the school to play. I was also given the freedom to ride my bike to the gas station for a snack or to McDonalds a couple of stores down to get an ice cream. This is an addition to all the other exploring and roaming we did around our neighborhood. Truly, these are some of the best memories of my childhood. I loved the freedom and was thankful that I was trusted to do these things. Being able to buy my mom a mother’s day present on my own from the gas station was an added bonus 😉

    I appreciate the list that you gave about what freedoms you give your children. It is really helpful to know what other parents do. (Especially since it seems like many are even overly cautious about sharing what they aren’t very cautious about). We live somewhat in the country now and allow our boys (4 & 2.5) to play in our yard (no neighbors in sight) by themselves. I check on them regularly and leave a door or window open to listen for them, but I also feel like I may get arrested any time.

    I’d like to check out that book too. I’m reading one now called “Boys Should Be Boys” that encourages parents to let their sons in particular, (but the principle could be applied to girls too), to be free to take risks, climb trees, and have the independence they need to learn to relate to other kids on their own and to be problem solvers.

    Thanks again for your post. It’s one I’d love to sit down and chat with you about over a cup of tea 🙂

  11. A reply to Amber- The poster is not saying that we should not protect our children, that is our responsibility as parents. There is a huge difference between the helicopter parenting that the poster is referring to and letting our kids enjoy life while still being under our care. I believe will also answer to God for being TOO protective, because being TOO protective and living in FEAR shows complete lack of Faith in God. God loves them more than we do he will take care of them. He has all our children’s days pre counted. If something is going to happen ( even under our loving watchful eyes) If it’s God’s plan to take them NOTHING we could ever do as a parent could change that. Our society is raising a generation of children that won’t even leave home because they won’t know how to function in the real world and children with no immune systems because we try to protect them from every little sniffle ( pertussis is another matter of course if it’s something more serious we take precaution) . She is not saying let our children run free and have no rules or protection it’s to stop living in fear and use our common sense …. protecting our children is what we are called to do but we are also told to NOT FEAR and TRUST!

  12. I think kids should have freedoms, however in this world the way it is now… it’s not the world of the 70s and 80s. There are all kinds of things going on in this world. I hear everyday about another missing child, and little girls being put into some very horrific situations. I am with my kids at all times, and I am watching them. I don’t feel bad about that… and they don’t either. Have you looked up the sex offenders around your area? They are everywhere. Even sending kids to public school is dangerous, I hear all the time about another teacher being inappropriate with students. I am not a “Hovering” parent, but I am always within a certain radius of my children. I wish this was the world of 25-35 years ago, but it’s not. My kids do have freedoms though, and I will add more as they get older, I will just be “one of those Moms” who isn’t going to let my kid be out of my vision. If I can’t see them, then that’s a problem for me. The reality is, there are evil people in this world, and we do need to protect our kids. Even if a kid is by themselves and they refuse to get into someone’s car, they can be taken by force. That happens.

    1. You know, I’m not sure that the world is really so different than it was when we were younger. I think the primary thing that has changed is that we live in a very visual, media-driven world. We see and hear and read about those few bad things that happen in much more graphic and constant ways than any generation of parents ever has before us. Bad news sells, so that’s what the media focuses on. A lot of fear, honestly. It’s so unfortunate that that is what gets pushed in the media, but I truly believe it messes with our minds and emotions so that we view the world as a far safer place than it is in reality. Now hear me… I’m NOT saying these things don’t happen. Or that they aren’t truly awful or tragic when they do. I know they’re real and someone (or someone’s child) was that statistic, however low the numbers are. So I’m not ignorant of these things. In fact, I used to struggle with a large amount of anxiety because I was constantly full of images I had seen or heard about, imagining that they might happen to me or my family. It was an awful way to live and often made me feel paralyzed. I’m so thankful that I hardly deal with that anxiety at all anymore, and one of the main things I’ve done is to avoid a lot of graphic news shows, TV shows, movies, etc. Because what’s being fed to us through our TV screens is not an accurate representation of what really happens in the world. I know full well that there will still be evil in the world and that’s unavoidable, but I also don’t want to fill my mind and heart with that fear.

      1. In some ways, the world hasn’t changed. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes). But I know that in some ways, due to the constant visual barrage of inappropriate material available on the internet and smart phones, etc., the number of people with dangerous inappropriate addictions involving young children and teens has really grown. That’s not just media hype; it’s reality. I’ve looked up how many registered sex offenders there are in my own neighborhood, and just within a few blocks, there are quite a few. 🙁 And three houses up the street from my house used to live a man who “befriended” two jr. high aged boys and took advantage of them. We got an Amber Alert phone call this evening about a missing jr. high girl who disappeared this afternoon from the school next door to us…and I know numerous children who have been messed with, some by people they knew, and some they didn’t. I can name off 12 children I personally know who got in trouble with things like this. My parents – normal people – didn’t really know anyone who had these kinds of worries with their children when I was a child in the 70s and 80s. So I do think things are much more prevalent now, and that is worrisome. We live in a low-income neighborhood, again, as I mentioned, with several registered offenders within a mile all around us. I didn’t let my girls go running at the track at the school next door to us until they were at least 14 years old. Prostitution and drugs used to be constant at night at the school, until the school put up video cameras a couple of years ago. I’m protective! And if I had boys, I’d be even more protective, especially in any public restroom. (Two friends who are police officers have told us that it’s much more dangerous to let boys go into public restrooms unassisted by a parent/guardian than girls in a public restroom.) We homeschool, so I suppose people would say we were helicopter parents just because of that fact. But our children are out and about all the time, very involved in our community, and we aren’t hovering over them all the time, although we did attend their events and activities a bit longer than some of the other parents did. Playing in the fenced backyard by themselves was fine, but not ever in the front yard by themselves…too many very potential people walking by all the time to buy drugs, etc. It truly depends on the neighborhood and whether you know your neighbors or not.

  13. I wish I lived in a neighborhood where I could let my kids go off and play on their own. We’re fortunate enough to live in a relatively safe pocket of a low income, high crime neighborhood. Cars speed down our street and we only have partial sidewalks, which are too uprooted in places to safely ride a bike. Our nearest park is too far away to walk. The nearest “corner” market is a 20 minute walk away on a super busy street across from a medical marijuana shop. So, no, I cannot allow my kids to venture outside our house on their own. Sadly, my kids will never be able to walk to school on their own like I did as a child, because our neighborhood school (which isn’t even within a reasonable walking distance for a young child) has very low ratings. I was blessed enough to be able to get a permit for a school way across town.

    1. That’s tough when you live in a situation that doesn’t feel safe. I can understand that you would have greater concerns living there than what I have, or that maybe your kids would need to be a bit older to get some of those same freedoms. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Sorry, but I fear other parents and busy bodies that make it their mission to call police (or cps) every time they see older children without a parent. I want to let my 11 year old have more freedom but I fear someone taking my kids away. That’s the real world we live in.

    1. Michelle, I hear you on that fear. It’s real and it’s terrible. Why and how our society has come to that is beyond me, because I’d think there are a whole lot more important and useful things that they could be focusing their time and attention on. It worries me that because of this fear of others interfering, we’re never going to be able to grant our children the chance to actually develop the necessary maturity and responsibility to handle situations on their own because we’re too afraid to ever let them BE alone without someone else freaking out. Sigh… it’s frustrating, isn’t it?

  15. I’ve been thinking about this more since reading the TAoS post the other day and I realized that in our semi rural neighborhood where we know the majority of our neighbors, my biggest fear is of them getting hit by a car. I think this will probably go away as they get bigger and more visible to drivers, but it is the main thing I find myself worrying about when they are outside playing without my direct supervision (which is every day).

  16. I grew up in the late 80s-early 90s in a small, quiet neighborhood. I played outside in our yard, rode my bike on the road in front of my house and was allowed to play at my great aunt’s house behind us, the neighbors across the street and two houses down. By the time I was 12 I could ride my bike around the neighborhood with my younger brother or friend. This is amazing to think about, considering that my mom was the victim of a kidnapping/rape from a stranger in the same exact neighborhood. Now that I’m a mom I can only begin to imagine how hard that must have been for my mother and the fear she must have felt. But I think she knew it was important to give us freedom too.

    Now I am the parent of a 3 year old and 1 year old. I allow my son to play in the fenced in backyard by himself. There are other children in the neighborhood and sometimes the kids play outside together while parents supervise and visit. But often we are the only ones outside. Kids just don’t play outside anymore. When we do play with the neighbor children it is a constant battle with their parents to go inside and okay on their tablets. I desperately want to give my children freedom to just be kids and play, but sometimes I feel like we are the only ones trying to encourage that. And personally knowing someone that was a victim of a random attack does add to the fear of letting them explore. I know as my kids get older we will have to find that balance. It’s just one of the many hard things to think about as a parent.

  17. I think the world is also different in that we had no idea (30 years ago) how many children truly were preyed upon and sexually abused in settings that seemed so normal and familiar. In fact, most sexual abuse doesn’t come from strangers (like those driving by in a car) but by those we are most familiar with and comfortable with our children – teachers, grandparents, relatives, sitters.

    As a parent of three almost-three-year-olds, I am less concerned with the consequences of *their* choices (climbing too high, etc.) than I am with *my* choices (who I trust them with). I can’t believe that I will *ever* regret my caution with their caregivers. A broken arm from a tree-fall is one thing, but a broken understanding of sexuality, trust and their view of God is something I’m willing to go to *great* lengths to protect. And not in a godless fear but a reverent respect that *I* and my husband have been given such a huge and wonderful responsibility.

    So, maybe that means I helicopter-parent. I’m ok with that. 🙂

    1. Jennifer, I can definitely relate to what you’re saying. I used to think that the issue was protecting them from strangers, but now I really don’t think that’s the case. Because the stats show that the great, great majority of things that happen to children are from those we know, as you said – like family members, teachers, etc. So in terms of that and worrying about who you trust your kids with, I think that a high degree of caution is wise indeed, and nope, I don’t think it makes you a helicopter parent. 🙂

  18. I think there is a lot of truth to this. While there can be a case made for a certain amount of caution, I believe that our hovering has hindered our children’s creativity and maturity. They are no longer required to learn responsibility because parents often don’t give them the opportunity. Instead we plop these kids in front of T.V. or video games. I am not advocating sending young children off unprotected where there are real dangers, but as you said, the dangers are probably less than our imaginations (or the evening news) make them out to be.

  19. Stephanie, I appreciated the practical applications in your post. I admit, the idea of “free-range” parenting makes me nervous. I’m aware I’m a worrier and try really hard not to let it limit my kids so I don’t make them fearful! My older is entering Kindergarten this year, and I’m finding that his age has helped me to grow more comfortable with giving him more freedom. We live on a great little cul-de-sac with lots of kids and great families and we’re all getting more comfortable with letting the kids play in someone’s yard and keeping an eye out. It’s great for them to be outside together!
    The first time I let my son “out of sight” was this summer camping when we let him ride his bike to the bathrooms and back on his own. It was a big first for me and once I realized he wasn’t going to come to harm just because I couldn’t see him, I got much better with it!!
    One area I continue to be cautious about is letting him visit other families’ homes without me if I don’t feel I know the parent very well. I worry about too much TV, what kind of TV, or what kind of video games will be played.

  20. I grew up with a over-protective mom in the 70’s and 80’s. It has to be the one and only time I was ahead on the trends. I wasn’t allowed off of the block, couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities that meant that I would have to get rides from other people/parents, since both of mine worked, was at a baby sitter until 13 and the next year we called what I did a “mother’s helper”, but I know my checks from the lady were smaller than the checks my mom gave her, LOL. My dad likes to describe the fights over each and every bike, skateboard and skates that he bought for me and I was never allowed to have or ride on a big wheel. I think if she could have, my mom would have me in bubble wrap to this day, God bless her.

    I don’t want to say that it ruined me, but it definitely contributed to many of the problems that I have had as an adult. I can’t always trust my instincts, I have anxiety in many new situations, I went absolutely insane my first year in college, etc. There are things that even today, I am doing for the first time because my mom was so involved, AKA controlling.

    I choose to never have kids because like her, I was terrified that I would break them or give them my allergies or whatever. I just knew it wasn’t a good idea.

    Now, I have a roommate with a 12 YO son and he is being raised much like the Free-Range that you described. Besides me worrying about him when no one else seems to be, there are blips or problems every once in a while with communication and you would think that all of this freedom would lead to him being a responsible and fairly precocious kid. In my opinion, it hasn’t. (BTW we live in a very small town so the free-range isn’t as dangerous as it could be other areas) He doesn’t seem to slow down and think things through and then when he does something wrong, it is NEVER his fault. You can argue or go around in circles for hours and he will not take responsibility for a stupid or thoughtless move. It’s like he’s a con-artist around adults, “Well, I thought you meant such and such, not that too,” etc. You have to be very specific when you ask him to do something or he will do the absolute minimum and blame it on you when you aren’t thrilled. ie. Take out the trash in our house means take out both the trash and recycling. In his mind, it is just the trash, so we have to point out each and every can or receptacle that we want emptied. And he seems to be constantly scattered and seldom thinks ahead further than an hour or so. Part of that, I can excuse on the sometimes confusion of having two houses, but it’s like she or I have to walk around the house before he leaves or he will forget something. Last weekend he was with us the whole time, but his backpack with his homework was at his dad’s. Or he just texted me and asked if he’d left his violin music here…..he did, so they are going to have to drive over in order for him to practice.

    I guess this is my long way of explaining that I like your rules and that every kid is different, just as every situation is different and helicopter mom’s are totally crippling their children. There are times that I think he could really benefit from all of his adult caregivers just sitting down and making sure we are on the same page, but I just can’t see that happening or turning out well. I feel that he should have more supervision, but it isn’t my place and since I work from home, I tend to do most of the supervising covertly anyway. The whole experience has been a massive amount of learning for me and in some ways, his parents are so hands-off that it has been good for me to see that he won’t break just because he has a scooter or just because he has a cough, it doesn’t mean that we have to go to the ER now. I have mellowed somewhat and when you through that in with getting to be one of the major role models in a young man’s life, it’s still a win-win, even if I have bitten off all of my nails and occasionally want to scream at both parents.

    I still made the right choice for me, that has also been very clear, so I guess you could call it win-win-win?

    Sorry, your post hit many of my triggers, both old and new:)

  21. I love this post and agree whole-heartedly with you. We recently moved to a more rural area and I let my 4 and 6 year old play outside alone in our fairly large yard. I can’t always see them, which does make a me a tad nervous at times. But I was also a child who, like you, by age 8 only had to check in at lunch and dinner. My siblings and I roamed miles everyday from neighbor’s houses to the middle of the woods. We never encountered major dangers. We were smart enough, and had enough instinct, that if we did see an adult that seemed suspicious, we steered clear.
    I think we are over protecting kids today and not to their benefit, or ours. We all worry about our kids. But it seems like it’s become an occupation rather than a part of our thought life. I want my children to have independence and room to make discoveries and mistakes, even if it means a few bruises or broken bones along the way. THAT IS HOW WE LEARN! I admit my kids occasionally eat off the floor or lick shopping carts. I don’t encourage it, but I also don’t freak out if if happens. Sometimes I realize I haven’t seen or heard them in 15 minutes, so I peak out at the yard while my heart rate quickens a bit. Like you, letting go has been a process. But it’s a necessary process. My two main goals for my children are that they would serve others and their God and that they would be confident, trustworthy, dependable adults. I don’t think they can develop the skill set needed for those outcomes if I navigate every situation for them. Set safe limits, but make sure those limits promote growth and exploration. I love your heart and your blog, as always.

  22. Just wanted to say that I’m glad you were brave enough to bring up this topic. Thank you! It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot because, at 25, I am in that window between *being* a child and *having* children. I’m starting to figure out what mindset I want to have with my own kids someday, by looking at what my childhood was like and assessing how it impacted me.

    My parents weren’t extreme in either direction, but definitely leaned more toward the helicopter side. Actually, I should use “lean” instead of “leaned”, because I still have a very active relationship with them, and as I bring up concerns I have of feeling hampered, at times, by their protectiveness, they share with me the difficulties of being the parents of a young lady who is otherwise alone in the world, and how hard it is to let go and trust. I’m learning to see wisdom in their point of view, instead of judging and being bitter, and they are learning that if they really love me they must let me grow and fly more. We both have to give. It’s a ticklish process, but our relationships are stronger because of it.

    I wanted to mention all this because I thought someone should share that the mindset of over-protection doesn’t just impact young kids. It continues all the way through to adulthood. Also, it goes beyond bike rides and the front yard. I agree with other commenters that this world IS different than the world of the 70s and 80s. But if it really isn’t safe to let your kids ride their bike alone, then don’t assume that you can never offer them the feeling of freedom. It’s all in your mindset. Simple things like being able to mess around in the kitchen and create a recipe on their own without being scolded or pressured about the results can give a kid a feeling of being their own person and being able to explore without supervision. The same goes for being able to check books out of the library without having to have every title inspected, or being able to have their own email address (at an appropriate age). It’s because my parents gave me freedom in little things like this when I was younger that I’m able to work with them now on bigger issues.

    It’s all in the mindset, not the actual activity. Your kids aren’t dumb – most of them don’t want to explore and have freedom just for the sake of running risks. They value freedom because it means you trust them, because it’s just plain FUN, and because it means they are a person who is strong. We humans instinctively know that it’s the weak and helpless who are guarded, and we don’t want to be in that group. So *train* your children to be trust-worthy, and then convince them that you are confident in them, that you trust them, and then give them chance to prove that trust. That’s all most of them want. 🙂

  23. I think there IS danger lurking around every corner – the nosy other adults who feel it’s their right to call in CPS to parent everyone else’s children. (insert wry smile)

    Like Jennifer, I’m VERY cautious in WHO I will trust with my kids. But when it comes to their own exploration as children, we’re much freer than many. And I think that we have to keep in mind that everyone’s ENVIRONMENT is different.

    When my oldest was older 2/younger 3, I let her play outside by herself. I could see her through a window in case she hurt herself (fell and skinned a knee, etc.) and we lived over a mile down a country lane with zero traffic, so she was physically safe. Now I live on a suburban street and my kids at that age, if outside alone, needs to stay out back (where there’s no street). Just 5 minutes away at my parents’ house, they have much heavier – and faster – traffic, so I’d exercise greater caution there. Point being, we adapt to the circumstances. (And internet readers need to realize that, too. Before you decide that someone else is being ridiculously unsafe with their children, keep in mind that their house, neighborhood, or community might not have the same dangers yours does.)

    We live VERY close to a corner store that doesn’t require walking any busy or main streets to get to, so my older two (12 & 7) are allowed to walk there on occasion if one of the neighbor boys is with them. I wouldn’t let the 7yo go without her older sister, though. And if our corner store were the gas station immediately off the interstate, I probably still wouldn’t. Lots of factors to think about, but I think it’s really important not to just subscribe to some “formula.” (And to remember that life is inherently risky. If there’s NO risk, you’re not living. We can’t guarantee absolutely that nothing will ever happen to any of our children, no matter how closely we hover.)

    1. LOL about the danger that lurks. 🙂

      I absolutely agree that the environment really affects how free we can allow our kids to be, and also that we can’t necessarily compare what one person allows and another person doesn’t, because yes, it’s so impacted by their home and community.

      I would also say that we are far more cautious of the WHO than the what or where. Not that we’re not cautious of those things, because we are, but we tend to get far more uptight and concerned when it comes to whose care our children will be in. We’re definitely slow to let them go to the home of someone we don’t know very well, to visit a neighbor’s home or backyard, that sort of thing. And I think a lot of it stems from the knowledge that most of what happens to kids actually happens from the people we know, not just the random stranger driving by.

  24. I have a daughter who is in 4th grade & she wants to stay home before & after school by herself & take the bus.

    I trust her, but am concerned about her safety. She would be home alone for 1.5 hrs by herself in the morning & 2-2.5 hrs in the afternoon. Most concerned about her in the a.m. waiting at the bus stop.

    House is in a suburb of a big city, pretty safe.

    Am I worrying too much?


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