FREE-RANGE KIDS, Let them roam free!

This post was originally posted in  Good magazine, New Zealand. BY ANDY KENWORTHY

A backlash is beginning against bubble-wrapping our children. Wobbly go-carts are being wheeled out of garages, streets are being reclaimed for kick-abouts, and the river retaken for skinny dips and dive bombs.

New father Andy Kenworthy meets the parents who put freedom before fear

…When I look at my 18-month-old son, I sometimes think of Sophie Tinworth. When I was ten she dared me to jump from the top of the school climbing frame, but I ended up falling head first. A crossbar halfway down dislocated my right elbow, and I broke my left arm when I hit the dirt below. The dinner ladies phoned my mum to say I had “hurt my arm”. As a battle-hardened mother of three miniature stuntmen, she finished her coffee before coming to get me.

You’d think this relaxed and adventurous approach to parenting and life in general would be an inviolable aspect of Kiwi culture. After all, the old colonials sidestepped Victorian primness when they came camping down here. But clinical psychologist Nigel Latta, author of Politically Incorrect Parenting, reckons this mindset has been changing, and our relaxed reputation no longer matches up with reality.


© Tom Hodgkinson
Source :

  • We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work
  • We pledge to leave our children alone
  • We reject the rampant consumerism that invades children from the moment they are born
  • We read them poetry and fantastic stories
  • We drink alcohol without guilt
  • We reject the inner Puritan
  • We don’t waste money on family days out and holidays
  • An idle parent is a thrifty parent
  • An idle parent is a creative parent
  • We lie in bed for as long as possible
  • We try not to interfere
  • We play in the fields and forests
  • We push them into the garden and shut the door so we can clean the house
  • We both work as little as possible, particularly when the kids are small
  • Time is more important than money
  • Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness

Our minds absorb what we see, and our fears grow as we more readily think, “What if…?” If there were shows about lightning strikes on telly every night, we’d probably fit our kids with massive rubber shoes.

“One could be forgiven for thinking that, somewhere between 1982 and 1992, they started making kids from different stuff to all the previous generations of kids that had ever gone before,” he says. “Kids seem to have been getting steadily more complicated, and apparently more delicate as well.“Every time you turn on the television some reporter is telling you about some new research from the University of Poomfahfah which clearly demonstrates that we’re all basically completely crap and our children are doomed because we’re so crap.” With this endless babble of parenting advice coming at us from all angles, it’s no wonder so many conscientious parents increasingly expect to cop flak if they step over an imaginary line of acceptably cautious behaviour.


We´re not talking about neglect here, but finding a way to take it easier on ourselves and recapture the spirit that has bred so many famously intrepid New Zealanders.

These days, playgrounds have rubber surfaces, and should my boy take a tumble like mine, school staff would probably call an ambulance. How can I shield him from such trauma? I could always tell him he can’t jump off climbing frames. But I’m not going to. I went on to be an avid rock climber, and fell again, this time from a mountain in Wales. Who’s to say it wasn’t that childhood experience that sparked my split-second instinct to relax as I fell, an instinct that reduced my injuries and probably saved my life?

The science is in favour of keeping childhood free range. Study after study from around the world has shown how the grand tradition of regular time outdoors produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional well-being. For example, a 2005 study by the American Medical Association concluded that free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness.

So why is it so difficult to raise free-range kids? It’s about safety—or our perception of it. The good news is that the latest statistics suggest our young people are safer than ever. Research by the University of Otago’s Injury Prevention Research Unit found that injuries to people under the age of 19 requiring more than 24 hours in hospital are down 18 percent, from 16,350 in 1988 to 13,420 in 2006. And youth fatalities have been steadily dropping, from 375 in 1988 to 226 in 2006, including road deaths and suicides.

The timid among us might argue this is only because we are all being so very careful. And the crime figures are, admittedly, less comforting. They suggest crime of all kinds in New Zealand, including violent crime, has been steadily increasing. In 1971 fewer than six offences occurred for every 1,000 people. By 1999 that number had reached 140. But this covers all recorded crime: many things have been made illegal since the 1970s, and it’s entirely possible that much crime went unrecorded in the backblocks of New Zealand 30 years ago.

It’s understandable that if we perceive the crime rates to be rising we’re going to be less keen to let our children loose on the streets—but our fear of crime, especially crimes against children, vastly outstrips the real risks. The scenario that is most likely to make parents reluctant to let their children out of sight is the possibility of abduction or attack. Thankfully, this is still very rare, and the sad fact is that family members or friends perpetrate most of such crimes. There are only a handful of ‘stranger danger’ cases each year among the roughly 900,000 Kiwis under 15, and although it would be devastating if it happened to your child, the odds are several hundred thousand to one that it won’t.

The threat has been magnified by news media covering every single case in immense detail, and television shows and movies making up numerous fictional cases. I can easily spend an entire evening watching this kind of ‘blue light’ television, flicking from hospital show to cop show to surf rescue show. Our minds absorb what we see, and our fears grow as we’re conditioned to more readily think, “What if…?” If there were shows about lightning strikes on telly every night, we’d probably fit our kids with massive rubber shoes.

Many of us drive our kids to school, even if it’s a short distance from home, because we think it’s safer. Ironically, we may in fact be putting our kids in more danger, since many more children are killed and injured while travelling in cars than while cycling or walking.

Support is growing for the argument that keeping our kids locked up in cars and houses and not letting them talk to strangers could actually be making them more vulnerable. One champion of this idea is newspaper columnist Lenore Skenazy. She started the free-range parenting movement in the US after being branded “the world’s worst mom” by some rabid sections of the media for allowing her nine-year old to find his own way home on the New York underground.

“Teach your kids to talk to strangers,” she says. “That way, if they’re ever creeped out by someone in the proverbial white van, they can run to the man across the street, raking his leaves, and say, ‘Help! I’m being followed!’ Or they can run into a shop and say, ‘Call the police!’ Or, ‘Can I please borrow your phone?’”

The creeping culture of isolation isn’t making society safer. When a community reclaims its streets, parks and other shared spaces, our children can join others playing out there and are less likely to be vulnerable and alone.

As a clinical psychologist, Nigel Latta comes into contact with child abusers and worse. “If there was ever a person with justification to be paranoid and overprotective it would definitely be me,” he says. “But I am none of those things. I let my elder son walk to school on his own, and the little one will too, once we have a bit more confidence in his road-crossing skills.”

But freedom for children is not just about feeling safe on the streets; it’s about a far less rigid approach to their whole existence. The idea that we have to use our time in a constructive or structured way is becoming pervasive, and is shaping children’s behaviour at a younger and younger age. This is one of the key ideas strongly challenged by a new book by Tom Hodgkinson, The Idle Parent. Hodgkinson argues that we should consider doing a lot less for our children, spend a bit more time with them, and leave them alone for as much of the rest of the time as possible.

“The modern parent fills the child’s day with enclosing activities,” he says. “From the enclosure of the school we enclose them in a car, and then we drive them to more adult-organised activities. Try not to fill children’s days. Let them live.”

Nobody can deny the value of swimming lessons when only about one fifth of our children can swim 200 metres. And there is fun to be had from many of the sports and pastimes on offer these days. But turning childhood into an exercise in certificate accumulation puts way too much pressure on our kids, and on the poor parents shuttling them from one ludicrously competitive thing to the next.

Instead of football club, what about a 32-a-side kick-about in the park? Instead of ballet classes, why not dance around the living room with the kids to your bounciest music? Is that specially designed pay-onentry playground really better than the bush?

If we spend more time with our children instead of assuaging our overworked guilt by purchasing toys and activities, we can make our family lives more sustainable and more fulfilling. The easiest way to achieve this is to do more with what is free: time, space and nature. There is an abundance of all three around us. After all, what’s the point in trying to conserve the environment for the next generation if we hardly ever let this generation out in it anyway? Are we teaching our children that our environment and our culture are both so polluted that they’re not safe for them?

Kids need time and space to make their own contacts with the world around them. It’s a weird and wonderful place, and it takes some getting used to. They can’t do that properly through a car window or from an indoor play pit. They can learn the names of plants and animals in a book or on a screen, but they make real contact with them only with mud on their knees, leaves in their hair, and thorns in their skin.



The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

Tom Hodgkinson (Penguin $23)

Give your kids a break. Give yourself a break. Do not suffocate them and do not allow them to be suffocated.

Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)

Lenore Skenazy (John Wiley & Sons $28)

Next time you’re going to watch one of those crime shows, turn off the TV and take a walk outside instead—maybe with your kids. Talk to some neighbours, look around, get a feel for the place again. This is the world you’re living in, not the one on TV .

Politically Incorrect Parenting: Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy, Read This!

Nigel Latta (HarperCollins $30)

The quality of the relationships that contain the family can most easily be seen in the extent to which playfulness is present in the house. Playfulness is the grease of family life—it is the stuff that keeps the wheels turning. Without it, things inevitably grind to a painful halt. Whenever I sit with families and see an absence of playfulness, I start to worry.

A final word by John Cowan…

Writer, producer and presenter with Parents Inc.

Settle for less and settle for mess. Tidy the house when the children leave for college. The opportunities to earn big bucks and all that will come again; the opportunity to be with your kids when they are little won’t come again, ever.

I´m off

1 thought on “FREE-RANGE KIDS, Let them roam free!

  1. Pingback: FREE-RANGE KIDS, Let them roam free! (via onlifemag) | concretecrissy

Comments are closed.