The Scarlet

Judging a Movement: Considering the Validity of Free Range Parenting

Erlend Lane, Contributing Writer

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Almost everyone has something to say about how to maintain the well-being of children, but unfortunately people usually disagree on how and when that well-being is threatened, and how it should be protected.

For more than half a century, there has been debate about the degree to which parents can or should restrict their children’s freedom in the name of safety. In March of 2018, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a law amending the definition of what constitutes child neglect, a law which many consider to be a push in favor of “free range parenting.” Free range parenting is perhaps most easily described as what it is not, rather than what it is. Free range parents reject the notion that their children should be within the range of familiar adult supervision at all times and that they are either too incompetent or in too much danger to engage in independent activities such as going to the grocery store or the playground by themselves.

This debate is exceptionally complicated, and because of that I am not going to try to make a judgement call about whether the bill is ultimately a good or a bad thing. Rather, I would like to talk about the difficulty of making such an assessment and approaching the complexity of making judgements about any particular parenting style.

While many have clamored for this “philosophy,” something that must be kept in mind is that creating any one particular creed for how one should parent is potentially dangerous. This does not mean that how one raises a child should be completely free from judgement, but rather that one should not base one’s parenting style on the teachings of an ideology, beneficent as it may seem.

Ruth Paris, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, eloquently explains, “What children need is a balance between permissiveness to explore the world and limits to contain the world. We know it’s a continuum. You want to be in the middle, depending on the parents, the kids, and the parents’ style and needs.”

What Professor Paris is pointing to here is, in part, the incredible difficulty of finding the right rules for raising children. If there was a specific point on the continuum of good parenting, there would be no continuum. As such, it is dangerous to utilize the definition of good parenting from an external standard or movement that is not carefully considered within the context of one’s own home.

While I believe that there is a legitimate case to be made that the Utah legislation will help avoid needlessly charging parents of child neglect, one must be careful in making vast generalizations about parenting based on that legitimacy. There have been instances in which parents have been arrested for allowing their children to play outside in the yard, and on one notorious occasion, two children (ages 6 and 10) were detained when a neighbor reported them walking around the neighborhood without an adult (which statistically speaking, was likely safe).

However, there is a distinction to be made here. There is a difference between removing an incentive to punish parents for allowing their children more independent mobility, and generalizing the parenting styles enacted in those specific scenarios as child rearing methods that should be adopted universally. While I personally think that the parents mentioned in the above cases were well within the bounds of good parenting, one should not be hasty to say that one parenting style (in this case, free range parenting) is superior simply because the definition of that parenting style is exceptionally flexible from person to person.

The instinctive common-sense reaction would be, “Well, act within the bounds of reason, obviously.” But what might be reasonable to one person may seem completely insane to another. This is not to say that there are no rules for parenting, rather, figuring out what those rules are across such a situational and subjective practice as parenting is difficult. The least that we can do is consider judgements of parenting specifically and situationally, before advocating a generalized style of parenting.



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Judging a Movement: Considering the Validity of Free Range Parenting