Going ‘Free Range,’ a return to parenting of the past

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - From the cities to the suburbs, a parenting movement is underway.

A direct reaction to the 'Helicopter Parent' we've heard so much about, it's a return to the parenting of our past.

The moms and dads who follow this path -- known as 'Free Range Parents.'

The movement can be traced back to 2008, when Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself. Skenazy, a New York journalist, then wrote about the experience. Within days, she had been dubbed 'America's Worst Mom.'

Rather than accept the backlash, she fought back, eventually starting the Free Range Kids website.

The website's mission statement reads: "Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape."

"I walked to school at age 5 and my crossing guard was a boy with a sash who was 10. Now, we're arresting parents who let their 10-year-old walk with a sibling to a park," Skenazy says.

Far-fetched? Far from it.  A Maryland family found themselves under investigation for just such a scenario.

Last year in Florida, police arrested a mother for letting her 7-year-old walk a half-mile by himself from their house to the park.  In South Carolina, another mother was arrested after her 9-year-old was found playing alone in a park. She was at work. However, the park was only a six-minute walk from their home.

Skenazy understands the societal fears that lead to such reactions. But she believes these fears are misplaced, pointing out that crime rates are at the lowest levels in some 50 years.

"The number one way kids die is in cars with us driving, but you don't hear parents saying, 'oh, I would like to drive my child to her dentist appointment but what if something bad happened? I just couldn't forgive myself.'"

The result of all this fear? A culture in which Skenazy says children have been made too safe to succeed.

"If you never give your kids a chance to figure out how to stand up for themselves, how to handle a tricky situation, why do you suddenly expect them to have these skills at 16, 18, 20?" she asks.

So, what if you're ready to begin giving your child more freedom? How do you know if he or she is ready?

Donna Gullatte is a Family and Child Development specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

She says there is no "magic age" at which children will be ready for certain activities or responsibilities. Instead, she says it's a matter of age plus maturity.

That's why Gullatte encourages parents to first try out the task in question -- with supervision.

Suppose you are considering letting your 11-year-old stay home alone for a few hours. Go through different scenarios she may encounter.

Does she know how to answer the phone appropriately, without giving away too much information? What if someone comes to the door? Or, there's an emergency?  If she'll be by herself during mealtime, observe her preparing a small meal on her own.

Some other tips from Gullatte -- tell a neighbor you'll be gone and consider that this might be a good time to give your child a cell phone.

"I know lots of children may be happy to hear me say that but especially if there's not a home phone available," Gullatte says.

While some states do have laws regulating at what age children may be left home alone, there is no such law in Alabama.

However, the US Administration for Children and Families has issued some guidelines parents may want to consider. You can read more here.

And, if you'd like to learn more about the Free Range Kids movement, you may want to check out the FAQ section of Skenazy's website.

If you're looking for general parenting resources, the Alabama Extension Family and Child Development page offers information for every stage of child development.

NOTE: This topic is part of our week-long Taking Action for Families series.  Read and watch the rest of our coverage.