Free-range parenting. Helicopter parents. Tiger mothers. When it comes to the national argument over the best parenting style, every approach earns both praise and critique.
Last year, the free-range parenting style took the spotlight when police accused parents in Maryland with neglect for letting their two school-aged children walk to a nearby park and play.
How much freedom and independence should we give children? Does protecting them have negative consequences?
“In our society, we’ve become extremely cautious and fearful about the world, sometimes to an extreme,” notes clinical psychologist, family medicine teacher and mother Claudia Allen, PhD. “Now anytime anything bad happens in the world, we see it in the news. If it happens in Des Moines, we see it on the news in Charlottesville, and I think we develop an unrealistic sense of how likely those things are to happen.”
Allen worries that the distorted perception of risk causes parents to overlook very real dangers their children face.
“For example,” she says, “it’s extremely unlikely that your child will be snatched off the street. And yet that’s something that parents are worried about a lot. What your kids are more at risk for is being obese or having mental health issues; they’re at risk if they don’t have seat belts, don’t learn how to swim or are around firearms.” The statistics agree.
Allen often asks parents about how they parent, or their parenting style: “Do you let your kid walk to school by themselves? Do you let them play outside by themselves? Do you let them walk to the park that’s two blocks down the street?”
There are an awful lot of parents who say no: “’I will drive my kid two blocks until they go to college.’”
UVA Children’s Hospital developmental pediatrics expert Alisa Bahl, PhD, has seen this protective attitude as well — and its detriments. “Often, parents try to provide the best answers or solutions to their children, when in reality, the goal of parenting is to foster good-decision making; to support your children in becoming confident individuals who know how to make good choices and seek out help when they need it.”
Allen encourages parents, instead of acting out of fear, to take the time to realistically assess:
- Your child’s readiness
- The environment
“When is your child ready to walk those two blocks by himself? Do I live on a street with sidewalks?”
Allen says that teaching independence requires parents to prepare their children over time, like walking your child to school and showing them how to use crosswalks multiple times.
“You have to prepare your child for that. You can’t just say it’s a good idea and tell your child to ‘go do it yourself’. Do your homework and let them do it bit by bit. I think that’s good for kids.“
Bahl agrees. She suggests parents provide daily chances to make choices for themselves.
“This can be as straightforward as making decisions about when to do homework or which homework to do first,” she says. But a crucial piece of the exercise: “Within reason, parents should plan to respect the choices made by their children.”
Over time, and after a great deal of practice, children who have been guided by parents to make good choices learn how to do so on their own.
Negative Effects of Parental Fear
Allen sees three main negative effects of a fearful, restrictive parenting style on children.
- Not enough exercise – often, the lack of independence in the environment leads to a lack of physical activity, which in turn leads to obesity, heart issues and other concerns.
- Living in fear – teaching kids that they live in constant danger leads to chronic stress, and “staying in a heightened state of anxiety all the time is not good for us,” Allen says. “A chronically elevated level of cortisol is bad for your heart, it’s bad for your organs, it causes inflammation, it leads to medical illness.”
- Inability to survive – without the practice of doing things independently, teens and young adults lack the skills and confidence they need to survive on their own.
“It’s hard to find the balance of being a parent who is watchful and aware but doesn’t communicate chronic anxiety,” Allen admits. “And I don’t consider myself a ‘free-range parent,’ but I do believe it is important to give your kids increasing autonomy and to be realistic about the risks that are out there.”
The Role of Communication
Bahl believes that “one of the most important features of good parenting is good communication. Positive communication between a parent and child can set the stage for important learning and the internalization of family values and expectations. If parents and children are able to speak openly together, parents can guide their children toward greater autonomy.”
What does good communication look like, for a parent?
“Parents should acknowledge and accept their child’s feelings,” Bahl says.
For example, she says, “if a child says, ‘I don’t ever get to do anything by myself!’ the parent should reflect or echo that feeling back to the child by saying something such as, ‘you feel like you don’t get to do anything by yourself.’ If a parent gets defensive and says, ‘that’s not true. You get to do a lot by yourself,’ the child is likely to respond defensively as well.”
Likewise, instilling confidence in your child, a key foundation of autonomy, requires open communication about your child’s fears.
If you are encouraging your child to walk to a friend’s house alone, and the child expresses fear, you might be tempted to:
- Keep the child home, shame them for being scared
- Say, “too bad,” and force them to do it anyway
- Drive the child to the friend’s house
Bahl suggests another response. She suggests a parent say something like: “You are nervous you’ll forget the way. Why don’t we practice together, so we both know that you remember how to do it. You can show me the way, but I’ll be there in case you need help.”
This approach registers the fear, but instead of ignoring or giving into it, helps the child get through it. This kind of open conversation and problem solving gives children support and encouragement, without undermining their ability to be independent.
Parenting Style and Healthy Choices
Communication like this is a key feature of the authoritative style of parenting. A parent with this style tends to set age-appropriate boundaries and limits, while giving kids the tools they need to become secure in their own abilities.
Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, tend to:
- Restrict their children
- Punish without discussion
- Expect obedience without question
Experts put authoritarian parenting on the demanding end of the parenting style spectrum.
Be a Healthy Parent
Did you know that family medicine clinics as well as pediatricians can give you informed guidance and facts about parenting? Find a clinic near you.
Permissive parents, on the other end of the spectrum:
- Give into and excuse their children
- Do everything for them
- Try to be a best friend.
Both authoritarian and permissive parents react out of fear and tend to doubt their children’s ability to make choices in the world.
Off the spectrum altogether, uninvolved parents ignore their children, completely oblivious to their needs. This style neither demands or permits too much from their child, while the authoritative parent finds a balance between the extremes.
Of these parenting styles, Allen points out, “research has found the authoritative style, where the parents provide strong limits and supervision but respect the child’s thoughts and feelings, lead to the best outcomes — good behavior, academic achievement, lower rates of depression and anxiety.”
And because so much of maintaining good health depends upon making positive choices, this parenting style optimizes a child’s chance to live a healthy lifestyle.