Set The Children Free: Free-Range Parenting in the Helicopter Age

By Dawn Van Osdell

My 5-year-old daughter has an autopilot admonishment to those she cares about: “Be careful,” she warns them. She says it to her sisters when the three of them jump in the surf together. She says it to her friends as they hang from the monkey bars. She says it to me while I’m chopping veggies for dinner.  She even says it to herself when she’s crossing a parking lot.

I admit, with a bit of guilt,  that she inherited this cautiousness from me, thanks to my overzealous need to protect her, the baby in our family; and her older sisters, too. But I have no desire to raise fearful, reluctant children who are more concerned with the bad things that could happen, than the wonderful things that will happen if they’re able to take more chances. Which leads me to a dilemma: how to help my children achieve more confidence and in the process, more fun?

Some childcare experts and proponents of the “free-range” parenting movement— a backlash against the over-protective, “helicopter” style typical among my generation of parents—think the way to do it is to work hard to encourage independence. They advise that pushing our kids to be brave, self-reliant, and perhaps, most of all, to explore without being under our constant, watchful eye is good for them—and for us, too, no matter how much it may unsettle us.

“We need to realize that leaving our kids without direction or supervision at times is not negligence. It’s our obligation as parents,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshman students at Stanford University and the author of How to Raise an Adult. She’s seen scores of students in their late teens and early 20s arriving on her college campus with a worrying over-reliance on their parents and a weak sense of self. They are unable to forge ahead without reaching out to their parents for advice and guidance. She believes that it’s our duty to better prepare our kids, as fearful children who can’t make their own decisions lead to incompetent, unsuccessful college students. “We need to stop cutting their meat and start allowing them to talk to strangers,” she says.  In other words, we need to stop doing so much for our kids.

The idea of parenting with a longer leash seems unnatural or unsafe to many of today’s parents, although as children of the ‘80s—give or take a decade—we grew up with a lot more freedom than most of us are willing to give our own kids today. Though my own parents kept a close watch on my siblings and me, many of my peers were once latch-key kids: They came home alone after school; rode their bikes, un-chaperoned, to hang with other unsupervised kids; cobbled together their own dinner; even (gasp!) came home after dark on occasion. But Lythcott-Haims maintains that childhood is meant for opportunities like these. It’s how kids learn to function on their own.

But how do we set our kids free when the world is such a frightening place? Despite the horrible news we are perpetually bombarded with, all too often involving children, the world today, according to a recent study, is safer than ever before. The “stranger danger” warning is mostly hype. Our kids are more likely to be injured as passengers in our own cars, than to be abducted while we aren’t looking.

Even armed with this knowledge, it can still be tough to let our children live and learn without our careful supervision. That’s because of an inherent contradiction we face. “We are trying to balance two important parenting virtues: instilling independence, and providing safety and protection,” says Christine Ramich, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who works with families and young children.  “We want to keep our children safe, avoid potential dangers, and try to protect them from exposure to unwanted influences. But we also want to provide the opportunity for the development of independence, self-confidence, and freedom.”      

To make matters even tougher, we’re parenting in an environment that, while statistically safer, somehow feels more dangerous and complex than it once was. Our kids have access to a much bigger world, thanks to the Internet. Plus, we live in a more litigious culture that makes parents think twice before making decisions that could also impact other people’s children.

Before deciding how to best foster children’s independence in this new world, parents must first consider where they live and what kind of children they have.  Consider maturity, level of responsibility, and problem-solving and decision-making skills. Consider how safe your home and community are, whether your children have access to help from emergency services and from neighbors or friends, and also the time of day and length of time they’ll be home alone or venturing out without you. Also think about opportunities your child can be confident and excited about tackling.

But even before then, “We have to do our job on the front end by preparing and training our kids and giving them the tools they need to succeed in whatever task we give them,” says Amy McCready, the founder of and the author of the upcoming book, The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic. Whether it is loading the dishwasher, walking home from a friend’s house, or staying home alone, she advises parents to practice dry runs and to role play. Discuss the how-tos and the what-ifs and as kids demonstrate success and developmental readiness, gradually let out the leash, one inch at a time.


Ideally, the independence-building process should start when kids are young. Encourage toddlers to play alone in another room to make their own adventures and create their own entertainment, says Julia Cameron author of The Artist’s Way for Parents.  As kids get older, encourage them to venture further and further away. Lythcott-Haims suggests creating appropriate opportunities, such as a short bike ride to a nearby store to run an errand. By manufacturing a moment for them to tackle a task such as buying milk or bread, you are also setting them up to talk with a clerk, count money, pay for a purchase, and find their way home.  McCready calls it “creating a decision rich environment.”

You give kids opportunities to make their own choices and take personal responsibility— and this is a training ground for future success.

There’s something big in this for us, too:  We get the satisfaction of knowing we’ve done our job as parents, which is to gradually move our kids from complete dependence to the confident independence they’ll need to eventually leave the nest. Moms and dads who over-parent when their kids are young tend to panic when, as teenagers, their kids have no clue how to make choices or do anything for themselves, says McCready—hardly an outcome to aspire to. More immediately, when we let our kids go a bit, we make time for something just as important: ourselves. Says Cameron, when you aren’t on call for your kids 24/7, you “learn how to steal time for yourself,” which results in much-needed freedom for parents, and a reunion with identities lost and likely mourned once you had children. Think of all you could do with the time you’re no longer spending on eagle-eye watch.

I admit that I still can’t help keeping one watchful eye on my youngest, especially, even when she walks out to collect the mail in front of our house on a quiet cul-de-sac. But I’m working on letting go and giving her the confidence she needs to venture further out.  I’m hoping she’ll be cautious, but also brave and ready when the school bus arrives in a few months and she heads off to kindergarten.  And I’m trying to take solace in the fact that because I am trying to provide my children with necessary skills and opportunities now, I’ll one day be ready to sit back and say to each of them, “You’re ready to fly.”

Photographs by Sebastian Pichler and Jake Hills via Unsplash; James Van Osdell