Free-range parenting

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Thursday, April 12th. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

In 2015, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s two children walked home alone from a park about a mile from home. The boy was 10 at the time, his sister, 6.

Police in Montgomery County, Maryland spotted the kids walking home and picked them up. They held the children for several hours and later charged the parents with neglect.

EICHER: Montgomery County eventually dropped the case.

But it brought attention to a movement author Lenore Skenazy calls free-range parenting.

It’s the idea that responsible children should be able to walk to parks or school, play outside, or stay home alone without their parents being charged with neglect.

Now the state of Utah has enshrined that idea into law—and other states may do the same. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has a report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: It’s a busy afternoon at the Petersen house in suburban Provo, Utah. It’s spring break—and that means there’s lots of time to play.

Jenn Petersen has six children. And she’s a free-range parent–though she didn’t know that term until a couple of weeks ago.

AUDIO: Jenn saying names of kids.

She lets her oldest three children—ages 11 to 7—go to the local pond and fish without adult supervision. They sometimes light small fires in the backyard to roast marshmallows.

9-year-old Titan collects pocket knives and shoots his bow and arrow in the backyard.

TITAN: I stick an arrow in the fence and then I hang my target on that.

AUDIO: Mom can I go play with the boys?  

He heads out on his bike with other boys from the neighborhood.

Petersen has taught her older children to babysit the younger ones while she runs to the gym. Her 11-year-old daughter bakes and cooks regularly. And this summer, Titan will learn how to mow the lawn.

JENN: So helicoptering is great when your children can’t survive without you, but once they can start surviving without you and then they feel super independent and excited to be outside.

Jenn says her style of parenting is geared toward helping her children embrace independence.

JENN: You know the term adulting that’s been flying around in the last few years. Why is it so hard to adult? I wonder where do we miss the mark somewhere along the way. I don’t want to raise children to be children. I want to raise children to be adults.

Jenn Petersen’s parenting philosophy is part of the larger Free-Range Parenting trend, which came in reaction to modern-day helicopter parenting.

Connor Boyack is a Free-Range parenting advocate and the president of Libertas Institute. It’s libertarian think tank in Utah that lobbied to pass the so-called Free-Range Parents law last month.

BOYACK: The term itself really just broadly means that parents are giving their children more independence, right? So it’s more just letting kids roam around the neighborhood and go walk to the store and have the independence that many of us when we grew up had um, and we kind of were used to.

Boyack says he’s spoken with many parents who want to parent in a free-range style but are afraid to. And some may underestimate the hard work that goes into preparing children for independence.

Jenn Petersen says it starts with learning responsibility…that’s where chore charts come in.

AUDIO: Zeke, how old are you? 7. I was only shy for about a year.

7-year-old Zeke is full of boisterous energy, bouncing all over his mom.  The little boy has his chore chart nearly memorized.

ZEKE: It’s just get dressed and make beds. Brush teeth. Piano. dishes. School. Make 10 car. Yes. Mommy play. And then the exact same thing for Wednesday and Thursday. Same thing. Friday, Saturday.

Zeke runs down the stairs to a brown upright piano and proudly plays his latest tune.

AUDIO: Sound of piano practice

Jenn Petersen has different standards for her older and younger children. Though she’ll remind 9-year-old Titan to do the dishes, take out the trash, and put his laundry away. She doesn’t do it for him.

JENN: It would be easier for me to do them all the time, but he is a better person when he does those things. So I don’t have to worry about him hurting himself or hurting somebody else, you know, he’s to the age where he can rationally figure those things out.

Of course, 2-year-old Neela has less freedom.

JENN: But then, you know, I still helicopter Neela quite a bit because she’s 2.

Free-range parenting may come easier to some people than others. Jenn Petersen seems able to shrug off worry. Seven-year-old Zeke has a congenital heart defect that will require future surgeries.

JENN: I still have this thought often all the time, what if his heart stops. This is something that I can’t control, so I just have to let it go and let God be in control.

AUDIO: Sound of new home

Mark and Amy Coulter live in Lehi, Utah, about 20 miles away from the Petersens. Their house is cluttered with musical instruments: guitars hang from the walls, and a white grand piano sits in the living room.

Mom Amy Coulter doesn’t like labels. She hesitates to call herself a free-range parent but she’s trying to raise her five children to be self-reliant.

AMY: So for me, you know, my thing was I want them to be comfortable in new situations. I want them to be comfortable calling someone on the phone, I want them to be able to go to their teacher and say, I have this problem. Can you help me? I think that it’s a handicap if they can’t stand up for themselves and take care of things on their own.

And that means sometimes letting her kids fail.

AUDIO: Piano playing

In the Coulter house the kids have to take responsibility for getting stuff done, whether that’s practicing the piano, finishing homework, or learning to play the violin. 

AUDIO: Violin tune

Seven-year-old April started learning the violin this month.

AUDIO: April does your mom remind you to play? No, she doesn’t even do it with me.

Amy says she wants to teach her children that mom and dad won’t always be there to bail them out. Melissa says she understands why her mom does it this way.

MELISSA: It helps us make decisions and stuff so that then like we have to make bigger decisions, and it’s like we’ve already been making those choices.

AUDIO: Piano playing

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Lehi, Utah.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg) Coulter family

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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