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The Free-Range Kid Conundrum


Our son is a free-range kid. Sort of. We are doing our best to raise him that way.

There are definite benefits to that, but there are also challenges. And these challenges bring a conundrum to parents who want to have “free-range” kids.

“What on earth are you talking about?!”

You may not be familiar with the term “free-range kids.” They are not baby goats that are allowed to roam without pasture. It’s a recent term that has been coined for children who are not micro-managed, whose parents allow them to make a lot of their own choices, and who are allowed a lot of freedom to explore their environment. The term is often used in relation to homeschooled children.

I guess the phrase is adapted from “free-range chickens”, which are chickens that are not confined to small spaces.

 Why raise your child to be “free-range”

There are several benefits to allowing your children freedom of choice.

  1. They begin to take responsibility for their actions at a young age.
  2. They often experience natural consequences when they make the wrong choices, making external discipline unnecessary.
  3. They learn to solve problems on their own; in other words, they develop a skill sadly lacking in most kids today: critical thinking.
  4. They get to focus on their strengths, instead of being constantly reminded and forced to work on their weaknesses (like adults do in real life).
  5. Free-range kids tend to get a lot of exercise.
  6. Their education is often “just in time learning.” In other words, instead of being forced to learn something that has no relevance to them, they learn what they need to know, as they need to know it.

We have witnessed some of these benefits first-hand. Our son definitely gets a lot more exercise than most other boys his age. Although he is small for his age, he may be stronger and he is definitely faster.

While there is a particular time of day when we make him practice basic academic skills (he is a typical ADHD boy who struggles with that, especially reading), most of the day he gets to engage in activities that interest him. He can probably tell you more facts about more different animals than most kids his age because he took an interest in wildlife around age three and the interest has only intensified. I couldn’t tell you how many books on all kinds of animals we have read to him, and he practically falls all over himself when the Ranger Rick magazine arrives in the mailbox each month.

When he comes to me whining about a problem, if I’m having a good day I will ask him what he thinks he should do about it and he generally comes up with an appropriate solution. (On a bad day I just snap at him my own answer in my “what are you, some kind of idiot” tone. It’s called perimenopause, people. Forgive me for not being a perfect parent.)

As for responsibility, well, we’re still working on that.

The objection

A lot of parents, having been raised in strict, highly structured environments themselves, are afraid of the free-range kid movement. “Experts” who don’t even have their own children are the worst. “Children need structure! They’ll never learn anything unless you force them to! They’ll become uncivilized heathen!”

Don’t think I haven’t had the same thoughts – probably because I am a trained schoolteacher, working hard to unbrainwash myself from the values of the mainstream educational system.

But, here’s the thing: God doesn’t micro-manage us adults.

The Almighty has given us free will. The freedom to choose. He isn’t up in heaven saying, “All right, son, daughter, by the age of thirty you will have memorized the book of Isaiah and written a thesis paper about five of the prophecies…or you will get an F and be marked as a dunce.”

Neither does God spank us (metaphorically speaking, of course) every time we screw up.

That said, children are not adults and they require some training.

And here comes the conundrum with free-range kids: how much freedom is too much?

The extreme

Some parents take this concept to the extreme and provide no structure at all for their children.

  • The children never receive any external discipline (I bet the parents regret that by the time their kids are 12 or 13!).
  • The children lack the basic academic skills to survive in the modern world. Except maybe to write in texting short-hand, which I don’t count.
  • The kids develop unhealthy habits.
  • They put themselves into dangerous situations because they have not been given any boundaries.
  • happyfamily

The middle ground

There is a middle ground to be found between strictness and rigid structure, and complete freedom of choice. Children do need some structure, and to be given some boundaries.

Just like, hello, adults do.

I will admit: we are still searching for that middle ground. Sometimes, I know I’m being arbitrarily strict because of either how I was raised or because of fear (“What if I don’t make him experience a negative consequence for that, and as a result he turns out to be a psychopath?”). Other times, I think I’ve been too lax.

Then there are the times that I perceive that he is out of control. But is that true, or is it just that I’m a control freak?

Lessons we am learning

We have not arrived yet. But here are a few things my husband and I can agree on, and are trying to incorporate into our parenting:

  1. Homeschool needs to be semi-structured, at least (as opposed to complete “unschooling”). Children need at least to be taught the basics (the “3 R’s”, if you will), but they don’t need to be funneled into a rigid curriculum based on what a certain group of adults have decided children “need” to learn. Most of the time, children should be given the freedom to explore – within healthy boundaries established by loving parents.
  2. Discipline should emphasize teaching children to show respect, kindness, and consideration. We need to pick our battles, not get upset at every little infringement.
  3. Where and when a kid needs more structure, provide that structure.
  4. Our job as parents is to teach our son to care for himself and others, and to provide him with wisdom where he lacks it (seemingly everywhere, some days!).

To some people, our son may seem to have too much freedom. Actually, I wish he’d be a bit more free-range and not need so much attention from us.

Regardless, I want to leave you with this thought: mainstream culture has taken away freedom from children as well as from adults. How can you recover some of that freedom while maintaining a healthy amount of structure?

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