Going places: the pros of free-range parenting

The benefits of early independence to kids are clear.
The benefits of early independence to kids are clear.  Photo: Getty Images

Today, letting a 10-year-old catch a bus alone may lead to accusations of neglect. At what stage does protectiveness turn to paranoia? Amanda Hooton talks to advocates of free-range parenting.

As a kid in country Western Australia, I rode my bike to school: down a dusty road and through some scrub to the edge of the playground. When I was seven or eight, a rumour went around that a man was loitering in this scrub, exposing himself to passing children. My mother dealt with it in a single conversation. "If you see that man," she said, "keep riding. And don't look."

My mother was not a laissez-faire parent by any stretch of the imagination, but there was – at least as far as I knew – no question of changing my routine. Not a single other kid I knew stopped riding or walking to school, either.

Kids are told they can't do anything - all the systems seem to suggest, 'You can't cross the road because you're a moron'.

What would public opinion make of my mother's decision today? What do I, now a parent myself, make of it? In the US last year, the parents of a six- and 10-year-old were found guilty of neglect (before later being cleared) by child protection services for allowing their children to walk less than two kilometres home from a park. In England in late 2014, a family law advocate described his kids being placed on a child protection register after he left his two-year-old in the car for 10 minutes while he bought children's paracetamol at the chemist. And in Sydney's northern suburbs in 2012, a Manly father was cautioned by police after his seven-year-old son was found walking 400 metres to the local shops, and a Hornsby mother was warned by police after they spotted her 10-year-old daughter waiting for a bus after a music lesson.

Where do our sympathies lie in such cases? It's an article of faith for most of us that the world today is far more dangerous than the one in which we grew up. And so, we often think, we can't afford to give our kids early independence: we can't let a six-year-old walk a block to the local shops, or a seven-year-old catch the bus, or an eight-year-old ride her bike to school. To do so would be to put their safety in jeopardy; it would be a needless risk; it would make us bad parents.

Wouldn't it?

Not according to Lenore Skenazy, accidental founder of the international Free-Range Kids movement. Eight years ago, she let her nine-year-old son travel home on the New York subway alone, armed only with a map, a MetroCard, a $20 note, and coins for the phone. She wrote about the experience in a newspaper column – her "tinge" of worry, his "ecstatic" delight and safe return. Parents all over the world were riveted – and opinionated. Either she was criminally uncaring and stupid, or she was a voice of sanity in the increasingly hysterical debate about child safety.

"The irony is that I regard myself as an above-normal worrier," Skenazy admits from her home in New York. "I mean my kid – the subway kid – is not home now and I'm talking to you thinking, 'Where is he?' But something's happened in the last generation, so now it's not just worry, it's this totally catastrophic, 'worst-first' thinking. I tell parents, 'Turn your cellphone off occasionally.' And they say, 'But what if you turn it off, and at that very moment your kid is being stuffed in a car trunk, frantically trying to call you?!' "

Skenazy encourages parents to fight this fear. "Stage an intervention with yourself! Call your friend and have a coffee while your kid walks to the shop to buy a cake mix. And then let him make the cake!" And do it, moreover, as soon as your child seems ready. "If you did X or Y at six or seven or nine or 10, and you don't think your kid is dumber than you, why wouldn't you let your kid have the same experience?"

For most of us, of course, it's fear. Irrational, kid-in-the-car-boot fear, yes, but real nonetheless: even Skenazy acknowledges that. "As parents," she admits, "of course we're hard-wired to worry," to imagine the unimaginable: our children being abducted, abused, irreparably injured, even killed.


But even so, it comes as a surprise to find that Australians are some of the most protective parents on the planet. A 2011 study by La Trobe University's Dr Julie Rudner and Western Sydney University's Professor Karen Malone found that surveys conducted in Japan, South Africa, Tanzania and Australia showed that children here "have the lowest [independent mobility], and the highest restrictions" of all four countries. Less than 15 per cent of children cycled to and from school, and less than 30 per cent walked home. In addition, fewer Australian children (52 per cent) said they felt "fairly safe" or "very safe" in their local environments, compared to 72 to 76 per cent of those elsewhere. Since, as Rudner points out, "the realistic risks are really low in Australia", this suggests that children are absorbing their parents' fears.

So what, exactly, are we afraid of? Karen (not her real name) is a mother of one in Sydney's inner west. "We have a long, long front garden, with a high hedge onto the road, and a big gate across the drive," she explains. "But I hate my daughter being out there. The gate squeaks as you open it, and when she's playing handball I'm listening for that squeak – of someone coming in and grabbing her – the whole time."

Louise Pirie, Sydney mother of three, thinks she's "pretty much smack-bang in the middle" of the parents she knows in her attitudes, but she only allowed her daughter to make the five-minute afternoon walk from school to swimming training at age eight-and-a-half. "I'm thinking of all the roads she'd have to cross," she says. "She's really sensible and I'd trust her implicitly; it's all the other unknowns that play on my mind." As well as traffic, last year "there was an apparent intruder at my kids' school, and an attempted abduction. It's a bit difficult to establish what happened, but even if it was just a rumour, for me it was quite terrifying. I was probably thinking, 'Okay, we could start to introduce a few freedoms,' but after that I almost went the other way."

As a parent, this seems totally understandable. And yet, like child deaths as pedestrians or cyclists on the road, child abductions in this context are incredibly rare: while utterly terrible things do happen, they are the lightning strikes of fate. By almost every measurable factor – and against all our instincts, perhaps – our children actually live in a far safer world than we did. ABS statistics show that kidnapping and abductions in Australia dropped from 643 in 1993 to 550 in 2014; the number of children aged between one and 14 who died as pedestrians in automobile accidents fell from an average of 40 a year between 2001 and 2003 to 17 in 2013. Indeed, ironically, by far the most likely way a child will die in Australia today is while travelling in a car – and more than ever, today, we drive our children everywhere.

One terrible crime against children hasn't dropped: sexual assault and abuse. But this is thought to be at least partly (and perhaps largely) the result of increased reporting; as well, a very high percentage of child sexual crimes are perpetrated by people known to them. Other forms of child abuse, injury, abduction and death are also statistically far more likely to happen in the home, or by people children know, than in public or at the hands of strangers.

The growing ranks of free-rangers like Skenazy want us to remember all this, and loosen the reins. Sydney surgeon and mother of two Catherine actively encourages her children to be independent: her 10-year-old daughter walks from school to swimming, to ballet, and home (a range of about five blocks). "We actively encourage it," she confirms. "Kids are told they can't do anything – all the systems seem to suggest, 'You can't cross the road because you're a moron' – but you can't mollycoddle them till they're 21. You can't suddenly wake up and be an adult."

Earth Waratah, a Sydney father of four (18, 14, 12, and 11), has encouraged all his children to catch public transport independently: the oldest started at seven, the youngest at 10. "You're not throwing them into the deep end," he says. "You make judgment decisions about what they're ready for. At my daughter's 16th birthday, none of her friends had ever caught the bus on their own. Not a single one."

This is despite the fact that the benefits of early independence to kids are clear. Obesity rates – an increasing health disaster among Australian children – are lower in active kids, and children burn more kilojoules when adults aren't present. Increased confidence, resilience and independence are all connected to children doing things and going places on their own. Kids who don't get these opportunities are less confident, both in public environments and generally, have less sense of spatial awareness and directional ability than their peers, and – according to several studies cited in the 2011 journal of the Global Studies of Childhood – they may suffer from "adverse impacts on [their] physical, psychological, social, emotional, cognitive and spatial development".

There's some evidence that policy is starting to change in response to research like this. Local councils are starting to include child-friendly elements in urban design: hopscotch games painted onto pavements; dinosaur footprints leading to local schools. The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) has recently released a handbook that aims to educate parents in giving kids more physical freedoms; and national strategies like Walk Safely to School Day try to help children feel confident in their local environment.

As parents, meanwhile, perhaps the best way of changing our attitudes is to stop focusing on fear, and to start thinking about happiness. "One of the things I ask people is, 'What did you absolutely love doing as a child?' " concludes Skenazy (whose "subway son" has returned home while we're talking). "People could talk for 48 hours about that stuff. The smells, the thoughts, the exhilaration of something they did. And then I ask, 'Okay, and how many of you had your mum with you during that experience?'

"It's ridiculous. We're all here, as parents, trying to give our children the best of everything: organic food, after-school classes, wonderful toys, educational experiences, great vacations. But when you think back, the best thing you did as a kid was probably make a fort, or find a coin, or go somewhere with your friends on your own! We should give our kids that."

And looking back, I realise that, as usual, my mum was way ahead of me. Because that's exactly what she did.