I Tried Free-Range Parenting, & This Is What Happened

by Sarah Bunton

You’re probably familiar with seeing “free range” on menus at super hip, organic restaurants, but what does it mean when it comes to parenting? Well that depends on who you ask. Some think free-range parenting is inherently dangerous, like the people who called the cops on a Maryland couple who let their children play alone at the park. Yet others just want to embrace a more relaxed lifestyle, like giving their child a 1970s summer.

This trend for a less restrictive style of parenting seems to have its roots firmly placed in nostalgia, when things were more carefree. This longing for a simpler time isn’t really a new trend, though. It’s almost like a guilty pleasure to indulge in a fantasy world where there are fewer restrictions and more freedom.

But as I read more about Free-Range Parenting (FRP), I was increasingly intrigued. My son can be insanely adventurous at home: attempting to climb out of his crib, seeing how many Goldfish he can fit in his mouth, the list goes on and on. But when we’re in large crowds, he clings to me and my partner tighter than a Chinese Finger Trap. I was hopeful that by exposing him to the FRP model, he would be less scared in public situations and more independent. Some of the fundamental principles – encouraging children to test limits, explore their environment, and worry less – seemed like they would do just that.

The Experiment

I’ve never been a “Helicopter Mom,” but I still wasn’t sure if FRP was right for me. Maybe it was all my years of binge-watching Law and Order: SVU that had me overly nervous when the idea of “letting go” came up. Even so, I didn’t want to let my fear hold me or my son back from trying new things. So I decided to test out the FRP style of parenting to see what impact – if any – it would have on my little family. For seven consecutive days, I decided to document the pros and cons we experienced by employing some of the FRP methods into our daily routine.

Would my child become more independent? More importantly, would I be okay with it if he did?

Day 1: Welcome To The Jungle

One of the first main beliefs I wanted to put in practice was letting my son explore his environment. Step one? Take the locks off (most of) the cabinets. I still kept the locks on the cabinets with cleaning products and chemical-y things in them. According to the principles of Free-Range Parenting, if you step back and steadily allow your kids to navigate their world more and more, they’ll learn how to be confident, self-sufficient, and resourceful. This sounded easy enough, right?

Before I even had my camera ready to capture the results of this experiment, my son already had two pots out. He looked up at me, with his eyebrows up, as if to say, “Is this cool?” When I didn’t intervene, his eyes lit up and a coy smile spread across his face. He began a lovely symphony of metal, glass, plastic, and door slamming. He even brought his favorite bear in to watch the display. He clapped for himself and occasionally brought me some of his more interesting finds, like the pasta fork.

I was afraid removing boundaries would lead to chaos. And it did, in a way. My kitchen floor was covered with dishes and toys by the end. Yet it didn’t feel out of control; it felt fun! The FRP model isn’t about living life without rules, instead the focus is on freedom being “learned and earned.” So when his kitchen playtime was over, I told him he needed to help me put everything back. He got maybe a quarter of the way in and then decided dancing was a better way to spend his time. I’ll still mark this down as progress.

Day 2: Literal Free-Range Parenting

As I mentioned earlier, the term “free range” was initially brought to mean food, not kids. Apparently that’s not a coincidence. The pioneer of the movement, Lenore Skenazy, says, “children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage.” I took a little freedom with my interpretation here and decided to remove my son’s “cage,” aka the play gate we keep in the living room. Again, I was cautiously optimistic about this idea. I really didn’t know if, “It was for a parenting experiment!” would be a good excuse if my son broke any of my husband’s electronics.

Surprisingly, my little guy was only mildly intrigued by the lack of the gate. I left the room, so I wouldn’t be hovering, and then I heard some interesting sounds. Just as I was beginning to think my son had more self-restraint than I gave him credit for, he discovered mommy’s not-so-secret cookie stash. As it turns out, my growing toddler is far more interested in what he can stuff in his little mouth than he is in breaking gaming consoles.

I came in and found him lounging, the perfect picture of hedonism, eating cookies, getting comfy, and surrounding himself with his favorite toys. Again, things didn’t turn out quite as horribly as I thought they might have. On a scale of one to Better Call Saul, this wasn’t a bad mess to clean up. I wasn’t stoked to pick up cookie crumbs, but I did like that this tested not only my son’s level of independence but it pushed the limits of my comfort zone, too. So far I was doing okay. Until…

Day 3: This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things!

Remember when I said I wasn’t sure this whole experiment would be a great excuse if my son broke something? Yup, it happened. My husband is, like me, a self-proclaimed nerd, but he is way more into collecting than I am. He loves Star Wars, Legos, and anything that says “limited edition.” So when my son decided me going to the bathroom was the perfect opportunity for Project: Find Daddy’s Collectible Star Wars Lego Ship, there was definitely a disruption in the force.

Every parent’s least favorite sound, second only to painful cries, is a loud crash followed by, “Uhhhh oh! Uhhhh oh!” My son came busting into the bathroom and brought me a few souvenirs from his expedition and I immediately knew where they came from: my husband’s 2012 Lego TIE Fighter. What I found most shocking wasn’t that he broke the collectible, but that he genuinely looked remorseful. He said, “sorry, Momma,” and knew that he did something to warrant an apology.

I texted my husband to let him know what happened and was really nervous to see what his response would be. Sure, he thought it sucked and he was bummed, but he wasn’t mad. He understood, like most Free-Range parents do, that incidents like these are learning opportunities. Almost halfway through this experiment and I was already seeing some effects: One of my fears (that he’d break something) happened, the world didn’t end, and my husband, our son, and I all grew a little from the exercise in freedom.

Day 4: Taking Baby Steps

The FRP model isn’t just for kids, it’s for parents, too. Sure, the children get to reap most of the rewards, like stolen cookies and making an orchestra of appliances, but so do we. By letting our children have the freedom to play with few limits, we can teach them they’re braver and more capable than they might think. Much like the balance between freedom and discipline for our kids, parents get to experience it, too. We give ourselves permission to step back and really enjoy watching our children play and grow, but we also discipline ourselves by resisting the urge to prevent every mistake or accident.

One of the limits I set for my son during our first time outside during the experiment was that he wasn’t allowed to go in the street. I’m not going to keep that restriction in place forever, but I know my son isn’t quite old enough to know to watch for or avoid traffic. That’s another principle of FRP: knowing your child’s level of maturity. My son and your child could be the exact same age, but yours could be completely capable of navigating a busy street safely. So it’s strongly encouraged that you know what your child can and can’t handle.

The test came when my son ventured beyond the normal play area of our front yard and driveway and into the rocky, landscaped area right near the street. It was kind of a game of chicken. I waited and watched to see if he would make a run for it. He paused and looked back to see if I was watching. Thankfully he got distracted by a lizard and I got to wait for my heartrate to go back down.

Day 5: Taking Bigger Steps

We successfully had ourselves a play day in the comfort of our own yard, but I felt I wouldn’t really be doing this challenge justice if I didn’t step out into the big, scary world. After all, that was one of my hopeful outcomes for this experience. I wanted my son to be more at ease in public situations. So we took a trip to our local Panera where my sister works. I thought that if he at least saw his aunt there, it would be an easier transition than just setting him loose in a mall or something.

Partly because it’s adorable and partly because I wanted to believe he’d be invincible, I gave him a cape to wear for our adventure. At first he gripped onto me tightly when we walked in and there was a crowd by the front door. I implemented the method of encouraging his independence, but reassured him he was capable and I was still there if he needed.

One sugar cookie and a couple of laps to get himself familiar with his surroundings was all he needed to leave me in the dust. Instead of feeling like I had to chase him or scared that he may get himself in a bad situation, I actually loved seeing his little cape flutter as he walked up to strangers to say hi (and try to take their food). He even stopped himself when he got to the door and turned around to try and find more free cookies from his aunt instead.

Day 6: What Doesn’t Kill You

My husband is vegan and I’m what I like to call a “flexitarian” – I’m mostly vegetarian but I have moments of weakness and adopt a more flexible diet. We try to be healthy in our house, especially since our son came along, but I still love soda and eat processed snacks. So on day six, when my son found my, again, not-so-secret stash of barbecue chips, I was positive I had failed some imaginary parenting test or I’d lose my veg powers like in Scott Pilgrim.

I’m sure he has to eat more than a handful of chips to have any negative effects, but I still wasn’t psyched that his tiny fingers were stained an unnatural hue of burnt orange. But that brought me to another principle of FRP: relax. I had to remind myself “not every little thing you do has that much impact on your child’s development.” I highly doubt, years from now, my son will find himself in therapy telling his doctor, “If only my mother never let me eat those horrible Pringles my life wouldn’t have gone down this tragic path!”

So I struck a balance. I let him keep what he already took out, but I closed up and put away the container stating that this was food for mommy. He didn’t seem to care since he was just so proud of himself for finding this treasure trove of tasty treats. The silver lining? He came up to me after I snapped this pic and offered to share his chips with me. Not wanting to be rude, I obliged and didn’t mind our matching orange mouths.

Day 7: “Dirt Don’t Hurt!”

You know that old saying, “Dirt don’t hurt,” right? I’d heard it but never had the opportunity to put it to the test, nor did I equate eating dirt with the FRP model. We were coming home from a late day of errands and I decided to let him play around while I unloaded the car – which isn’t something I normally do, but did for this experiment. He hung around the garage and driveway, still in my sight, seeming to engage in some harmless play.

Maybe it was because it was getting dark and he couldn’t see as well. Maybe it was because I’m an awful parent. Or maybe it’s just because he’s curious and a little confused. I heard him excitedly shouting, “Cookie! Cookie!” Clearly I knew there were no cookies outside, so I went to see what he was talking about. Had I left a cookie stash that I’d forgotten about?


He found a round, firm clump of speckled dirt that – in his defense – did resemble a chocolate cookie in the dim lighting outside. Before I could even think about reacting, he shoved it into his eager mouth. My heart broke a little for him as his eyes instantly shot up to mine with a look of betrayal and disgust. He scraped his tongue to no avail with his fingers while I stifled a laugh and grabbed him some water. “What better way to end this challenge?” I thought to myself after immortalizing this moment on film.

What'd We Learn?

This experiment really exceed my expectations when it came to seeing if it would impact not only my son, but my husband and I, too. Making the conscious decision to take a step back, resisting the urge to prevent a catastrophe, and realizing your child isn’t as fragile as I thought really showed me that our little family of three is more capable and calmer than I gave us credit for.

My son is growing up faster than I’d like, but I’m happy to do anything I can to put him on the path of becoming an independent, resilient person. This experiment forced me out of my comfort zone of wanting to be his personal bubble wrap against the world. He tripped and ate dirt and survived. It was tough to allow those things to happen, but it was worth it to see him bounce back from his falls and learn from his mistakes on his own. I really surprised myself not only with how independent he could be, but how comfortable I was with his growth. Much like my foray into the world of Attachment Parenting, I came away from this experiment not switching teams, but adding a new perspective to my parenting portfolio.

Images Courtesy of Sarah Bunton (8)