As parents, we’re always trying to figure out the “best” way to raise our children. We keep a running list of parenting dos and don'ts based on our desire to help, not hinder, our child’s growth in the long run. We believe that our hopes for our children will enable us to answer any question that may come up, questions as fundamental as: Should I breastfeed or formula-feed? When do I start to bottle-feed, and which bottle is best? Should I sleep-train or co-sleep? What toys are best for my child developmentally? How much freedom should I give my baby and kids to explore?
There is a ton of debate—both online and in real life—over how much independence we should give our children, and when we should first grant it. My earliest experience with this debate, as I recall it, was when I took my baby to the park shortly after she started walking. My daughter could now get herself up and down the toddler-sized slide with ease, but as I sat back and proudly watched her do her thing, I noticed the visibly “concerned” parents looking at me. One woman even asked if I had other older children (apparently I didn’t strike her as a first-time parent). “No, but I do have three nephews!” I replied, a little too cheerfully.
Immediately, anxious thoughts flew through my head: Should I get closer to her? Do I need to spot her on the slide? Nah, that’s being too much of a helicopter parent, right? But what if she does fall? Then I’m that neglectful parent who isn’t paying attention—the worst mom ever. That brief conversation at the park sparked a worry spiral.
The debate over how we best parent our children isn’t just happening in conversations between moms at the park or in a thread within your neighborhood moms Facebook group. Parenting—and parenting philosophy—has become everyone’s business, from your local busy-body who will notify the police if you leave your children in the car unsupervised for two minutes, claiming you are engaging in neglect parenting behavior, to your local lawmakers and police officers who are doing their best to ensure child safety—and everyone’s safety. But has the “best” parenting debate gone too far?
You may remember this story: Free-range parents allow their children to walk home from the park unsupervised. The children are pulled over by the police. Ultimately the state government passes a law protecting parents who allow their children to walk to and from school by themselves from prosecution. But even though children now have that freedom and are allowed to exercuse their independence, statistics shows very few—13 percent at most—actually do walk to and from school by themselves.
In a recent article, Lenore Skenazy, a writer and nonprofit president, and Professor Jonathan Haidt explored how parenting philosophy has shifted over the last 40 years to create what they call the “fragile generation.” The article confirms what we already know—that the freedom Baby Boomers and many Gen Xers had in their childhoods is gone, replaced by structured and heavily supervised “official” activities. Essentially, helicopter parents—the overly protective type who insist that obsessive parenting is the same thing as protecting child safety. The writers cite examples that seem outlandish but are all too real. A public library that won’t allow children under 12 to enter without an adult, a school playground that removed the swings because they were “determined to be the most unsafe of all playground equipment,” and a science fair that restricted “chemicals,” “plants in soil” and “organisms (living or dead).”
In my own childhood, in elementary school, I remember how excited I was to be given a key to our house and the ability to walk home from the bus stop and go home on my own. Was that child neglect? I just learned not too long ago that my nephews, who are elementary school-aged, are not allowed to get off the bus if there isn’t a parent or some form of adult supervision standing at the stop to pick them up. This, in spite of the fact that you can literally see the bus stop from their house.
As parents, of course, we want our children to be safe. But at what point do we need to find it in our style of parenting to let go a little and stop being so overly protective? At what point are we truly restricting our children’s opportunity to learn, to problem-solve, to become resilient so that they can enter into and navigate adulthood successfully?
According to Wikipedia, free range parenting is “the concept of raising children in the spirit of encouraging them to function independently and with little parental supervision, in accordance of their age of development and with a reasonable acceptance of realistic personal risks.” This definition makes free range parenting sound totally reasonable, yet it continues to face criticism as a form of child neglect. Back in 2008, when Skenazy published an article about letting her nine-year-old son find his own way home in New York City, she was deemed “America’s Worst Mom.”
While Skenazy is absolute in her commitment to free-range parenting, as a mom of young children I’m not always so sure myself. The idea of someday letting my own kids ride the subway at nine years old makes me a nervous wreck. At the same time, as an older millennial, I’m very aware of how helicopter parenting has turned into more and more adults still relying on their parents to pave the way to success. Helicopter parents are synonymous with parents who call college professors to debate their child’s grades or parents who have tried to participate in interviews or negotiate salary on behalf of their child. These children need adult supervision long after they are children—and that style of parenting debilitates them.
Shifting my research focus to psychology and child development, I discovered the work of Diana Baumrind, a development psychologist who researched child behavior and determined it correlated to three distinct styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian and permissive. In 1983 Maccoby and Martin divided permissive parenting into indulgent (permissive) and neglectful (uninvolved) parenting. Today these four parenting styles are often called the Baumrind Parenting Styles. Here they are in more detail:
Authoritarian – Authoritarian parents often have strict rules that, when violated, result in punishment for the offending child. These parents often do not explain the reasoning for the rules and may frequently use the phrase “because I said so.” Authoritarian parents are often seen as very demanding and harsh. They are not typically warm or nurturing toward their children and use punishment instead of positive reinforcement to direct their children’s behavior.
Permissive / Indulgent – Permissive parenting is the near-opposite of authoritarian parenting. Permissive parents have very few rules, and therefore allow their children to be in the driver’s seat. While these parents are typically warm and nurturing toward their children, Baumrind says they “are more responsive than they are demanding. They are nontraditional and lenient, do not require mature behavior, allow considerable self-regulation, and avoid confrontation.”
Neglectful / Uninvolved – This parenting style is exactly what it sounds like. These parents only worry about ensuring their children’s basic needs are met (e.g., food and shelter). These parents are not involved in providing guidance, structure, rules or support. Child welfare is not much of an issue to these parents.
Authoritative – Authoritative parents create rules and boundaries for their children much like an authoritarian parent, but they do so in a way that involves their children. These parents expect a lot from their children but also listen to them, provide them with choices, answer questions, explain the rules and discipline using methods that are more nurturing than punishing.
As researchers have continued to test and study these four parenting styles, they’ve seen strong evidence of each style’s direct impact on a child’s academic and social performance—as well as child welfare. While these studies don’t completely account for various cultural differences, overall the results do encourage parents to take on an authoritative style. Children raised by authoritative parents often have higher self-esteem, perform better academically, manage their emotions more effectively, and are more capable and more successful.
While free-range parenting may not always be considered synonymous with the authoritative parenting style, the benefits of free-range parenting clearly overlap with those of a more authoritative approach. Free-range parents give their free range kid some choices, allow them age-appropriate freedom, and teach them safety skills. Free-range parents and those who follow an authoritative model similarly allow their children to make mistakes and accept responsibility for their actions. All of this inevitably fosters resilience. In one of Skenazy’s blog posts, she likened free-range parenting to giving your child a helmet but allowing them to ride and fall off their bike. It’s the best way, in her view, for a child to learn to get back up and keep going.
In today’s America, we will still have “concerned passerby” who may call the police if your children are left unintended even for a moment. And as parents, we still need to be aware of local laws. For example, in Illinois the law defines a neglected minor, “any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent or other person responsible for the minor's welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor.” However, there are clear benefits to giving your child some freedom within a semi-structured environment.
While my children are still preschool-aged, and the thought of sending a nine-year-old boy into the New York City subway system alone still seems a bit crazy to me, I do know that I want my children to build resilience, be able to manage their emotions, and live happy, successful lives. So, for now, that means backing off at the park, letting them fall down, encouraging them to navigate play dates without too much hovering and finding ways to continue to set them up to create their own success.
Mary Beth Ferrante is the owner and founder of Live.Work.Lead., an organization dedicated to working with companies to retain top female talent by supporting women navigate their first critical year of becoming a new parent. Live.Work.Lead. works with new and expecting moms through 1:1 and through group programs. They also provide training to managers on the maternal wall and how to better support their employees planning for and returning from parental leave. Prior to founding Live.Work.Lead., Mary Beth was an SVP of Business Strategy for a Fortune 100 company. In addition, Live.Work.Lead. offers Virtual "Mommy and Me" Classes designed for Working Professionals.