Sorry, But Free-Range Parenting Doesn't Make Me Lazy

by Steph Montgomery

A few weeks ago, I heard a knock at the door. I glanced down to make sure I was decent and answered with my toddler on my hip. A neighbor was looking for her daughter. I said, "She's not here, but my kids are at the park. Maybe she's there, too." My neighbor looked shocked and said, "I would never let her go to the park alone." She didn't directly question my parenting but the implication was clear: I was a bad mom. I'm not, though, and free-range parenting doesn't make me lazy or neglectful, either.

We live in a culture where moms are expected to do it all — often far more than our own moms did and always way more than our male co-parents. If we dare let our kids do things like walk to the park, play outside, or even wait at the school bus without hovering over them, we find ourselves on the receiving end of some serious judgment and shame. I should know, too. Before my kids reached ages where I felt safe giving them freedom to roam and play independently, I judged the hell out of free-range parents, too.

Then, a few years ago, my family moved to a small town. Our older kids (ages 7, 9, and 12) were fully capable of walking to the park, or playing in the meadow behind our house without me. Our 5 year-old could ride his bike up the street or play in the back yard alone, and although I still keep a pretty close watch on our toddler I don't have to touch him all day long. In fact, I would prefer he learn to gain some independence, too. The kind of parent I used to judge was the kind of parent I quickly turned into, and the kind of parent I still am today. Funny how that works, huh?

I have my limits, of course. I would never let my 9-year-old ride the subway in a busy city alone, like Free-range parenting movement founder Lenore Skenazy. And for the most part I don't think it's age-appropriate to leave our kids home alone or in the car by themselves. But when my kids say, “I’m bored,” I’m probably going to tell them to go do something outside and without me, and that doesn't make me lazy. Here's why:

Because It's Actually Harder

Courtesy of Steph Montgomery

When I give my kids space to grow and the ability to do things by themselves, it's not because I don't want to parent them. As a free-range parent I actually spend a lot of time providing careful instructions and guidelines to my children, and I'm constantly considering their abilities, maturity, and age. I also have to trust them and learn how to let go, so believe me when I say it's harder than it looks.

Because I Am Paying Attention

Even if I'm not around my children, I know where they are. I can almost always reach y daughter on her cell or, if necessary, take five minutes to look around our tiny town for my children. That's rarely a necessity, though. When you give kids responsibility they learn to be more responsible, and my kids are responsible because of my free-range parenting.

Because My Kids Are Learning Independence

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Teaching your kids to do things without you is so weird at first, to be sure, but I believe it's necessary. When I let my kids go places by themselves and play independently, I am giving them the confidence to make their own choices, to make mistakes, and to accept the consequences of their choices. For the most part, I think they are becoming amazing people who know how to be assertive, empowered, and adventurous. In my opinion, that's awesome.

Because I Still Set Boundaries

Free-range parenting doesn't mean I don't parent my kids. For the most part, I always know where my kids are going and let them know when they need to be home. I'm not saying they are perfect, and I've had to dole out my fair share of consequences when my kids test boundaries or willfully break the rules. But they have boundaries that I enforce and there are consequences for their actions.

Because I Don't Have To Play With My Kids

Courtesy of Steph Montgomery

I hate playing with my kids or being their constant entertainment, and I know that doesn't make me a bad mom. As the old adage goes: work smarter, not harder. You shouldn't have to touch your kid all day long, or provide them with an endless supply of sensory, craft, or learning activities, to be considered a good parent. In fact, leaving them to their own devices is probably better for them.

BECAUSE I Recognize My Privilege

I am privileged to be white, to live in a safe community, and to be able to choose to raise my kids this way. So many other parents — especially women of color — have been judged, shamed, and even jailed because they don't have the privileges I have.

Because My Kids Are Fine

Courtesy of Steph Montgomery

I'm actually less worried about my kids being harmed playing in our yard or up the street at the park alone, and more worried that someone is going to report me to child protective services (CPS). In fact, Utah just passed a law protecting free-range parents from arrest for letting their kids do age-appropriate things — like ride their bikes or walk to the park — but in other states the police are being called on free-range parents.

Researchers from University of California, Irvine found that people think kids left unattended are more unsafe when they also judge their parents for doing something people deem morally wrong. In the study, two kids placed in the exact same scenarios (like going to the park alone) were deemed more safe if mom left on accident than if she had to go to work or was having an affair.

This makes me so sad. My kids are fine, so please don't take time and resources and manpower from legitimate investigations simply because you are judging me as a mom.

Because Being A Perfect Mom Is Impossible

I am so tired of this myth that moms should have to martyr themselves to be good parents. Letting my kids have space to roam teaches them self-reliance and how to make choices. Letting them have age-appropriate opportunities to make mistakes teaches them how to live in a world full of choices and consequences. Ideally, they will eventually leave home and have the entirety of that world to explore. Until then, however, it's my job to help them learn and grow and prepare for life without mom and dad. I'm far from perfect, but I'm nowhere close to lazy.