“Mom, can I go fishing?” The pond is nearly within sight. It’s a private pond. He is almost full-grown. But he’d have to ride his bike there. Alone. Everyday moms face sobering truths of the world they’re raising children in, making decisions for their children’s safety, and battling intellect vs. instinct. The struggle begs the question, is free-range parenting safely possible in the 21st century?
Free-Range Parenting: What is it?
Defining lines and explanations of free-range parenting vary significantly from one parent to the next. Some big-city parents who hold tightly to the most nonrestrictive spectrum of free-range parenting allow their children freedoms such as taking public transportation alone, riding bikes unescorted, or playing at the park unsupervised. While yet others cling to increased management and control. Although extremes can be effective, guiding the precious gifts God has entrusted to us through life demands a balanced approach.
Is Free-Range Parenting Biblical
This question doesn’t have a simple answer. To begin our investigation into whether free-range parenting is biblical, we have to consider the variables and dig into the three parenting practices I believe are mandated in the scripture.
So let’s start with those and see how free-range parenting measures up.
1. We are commanded to train our kiddos. Proverbs 22:6 makes it clear that we won’t simply wake up with great kids one day. Great kids aren’t born; they’re raised. And that rearing is accomplished through training, which requires intentional work from parents. You’ll find further scripture in support of intentional hands-on training in Titus 2:12, Luke 6:40, and 1 Timothy 4:7, among others.
2. We are commanded to discipline our children. Unfortunately, often when a mom hears the word discipline, visions of harshness, aggression, and hurtful oppression dance in her mind. That is not biblical discipline. Proverbs 13:24, Hebrews 12:6, and Hebrews 12:11 reveal the need for healthy biblical discipline.
3. We are commanded to pursue their hearts of our children. God’s love for His children is our perfect parenting example. He longs for a relationship with us and seeks to be near to us. He desires our hearts above all else. As image-bearers, we mirror this relationship pursuit with our children. Love wins people. Including our children. John 13:34-35
When free-range parenting is endeavored with a “hands-off-let-the-kids-learn-on-their-own” mentality, intentional training and discipline are absent. Therefore, this philosophy of free-range parenting lacks as a whole.
A Healthy Free-Range Parenting Approach is Balanced
Free-range parenting safely with a balanced approach means we understand the massive benefits self-efficacy, life skills, and independence provide a child, while not turning a blind eye to the fact that perversion, ungodliness, and wickedness are attacking 21st-century parents from every direction, often all at once, and in the cleverest and sneakiest of ways.
So how do we give our children the skills they require, the confidence they desperately desire, and the capability to stand firm on their own two feet while guarding their heart (Proverbs 4:23) at all costs?
With training, discipline, and connection.
Free-Range Parenting Safely
When deciding the appropriate level of free-range parenting for your family, consider the following:
Have you been training your child all along?
Is he obedient? Children who don’t complain about holding their parent’s hands in public, staying together and display first-time obedience are going to promptly listen when told to stay close by.
Even more important here is how training grows with your child. Children who understand the need to obey and comprehend the necessity of obedience for their well-being and safety will be more likely to carry that with them as teenagers.
For instance, if my teenage son wants to go fishing at the pond in our neighborhood, and I know that he will follow my instructions of:
- Going straight to the pond.
- Responding as I’ve trained him if someone were to approach him.
- Texting me when he gets there and again when he leaves to come home, I am far more likely to allow him to go, and he is safer overall.
Furthermore, being able to experience and enjoy life in this way independently will grow and strengthen his whole being.
Is he bold? Children who can communicate confidently, look another person in the eyes, hold their heads up, and possess boldness are far less likely to be bullied, more likely to have friends, and are typically overall more successful throughout their lives.
- Go to the grocery store and tell your child that she may have a cookie at the end if she behaves well throughout the trip.
- Gently remind her of the prize throughout the shopping trip and coach her to success.
- Take her to the bakery counter at the end of the shopping trip and tell her she may have a cookie if she speaks these words to the attendant, “May I have a cookie, please?”
- Rinse and repeat.
This child is not afraid of strangers and, therefore, less likely to be intimidated to loudly proclaim, “NO! Get away. You are too close to me, and I DON’T KNOW YOU!”
Does your child display good character?
Is your child showing the kind of character you must see to say yes?
Q: When will I be able to drive? A: Let’s investigate the character you show the 16-17 years prior.
Q: When can I check the mail on my own? A: Let’s talk about how well you follow instructions in every other area of life.
Weigh the Risk vs. Reward
Moms make over 30,000 decisions every day. Some of them simple, many of which, not. Of those decisions, the most taxing are those for the well-being of our children. There is no greater task given a woman during her child-rearing years than raising her children up well.
In recent years much debate has come of whether allowing children the space and freedom to try things independently is healthy or even acceptable.
Let’s look at some facts.
- Girls between the ages of 11-18 account for 80% of female abductions.
- Abductions by strangers occur within a quarter-mile of the child’s home. (Crushing the false sense of security that close to home is better.)
- 78% of trafficking victims are female.
- Between the ages of 9-11, boys are at an increased risk.
- Data shows roughly half of predators are someone you already know, while half are strangers.
- Of the nearly 26,500 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2020, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
- A child’s self-esteem (or lack thereof) is well underway to being established by the fifth birthday > a child’s self-esteem is largely determined by his skill and ability > skill and ability are largely determined by opportunities to practice doing things on his own.
- Increased boldness decreases targeting.
- Experiential learning improves retention.
- Life skills are a priceless gift.
- Confidence helps children cope.
- Confident kids are more likely to stand up for themselves and ask for help when they need it.
Should you stretch your child’s capability with a new chore? Risk vs. reward = decision.
Deciding whether or not to equip your child with boldness by practicing talking to new people? Risk vs. reward = decision.
Wondering whether your young teen is ready to ride his bike to the neighbors alone? Risk vs. reward = decision.
How to Teach Children the Skills Without Compromising Safety
1. Practice at home first.
Implement sessions of role-playing to teach children the exact words to say if they feel uncomfortable or threatened. Furthermore, provide audible examples of tone, volume, and infliction.
Use these role-play sessions to practice drills on what to do in given situations. Doing so creates a sort of response muscle memory for your child.
Do this intentionally every day during the early childhood years, and maintain it through the teens.
2. Stretch and challenge them “in the field.”
The cookie counter example I gave above is what I call in-the-field training. That child is out of the house, they are talking to someone they don’t know, and there is a reinforcement attached to the outcome. Notice, the child is safe under your watchful eye, but they are still living the skill. Do this as much and as often as possible.
Child buying something from the store? Require him to go through the checkout and complete the transaction himself.
Does your child want to play with another child at the park? Require her to say, “Will you play with me?” herself.
And so on.
A Special Note on Child Training
The scripture is clear about the need and requirement for biblical training, discipline, and relationship building while parenting our kids.
These directives are intended to be intentional acts by a parent.
Training. Disciplining. Connecting.
Modern thought and definitions of free-range parenting tend to lean away from parental involvement and toward exclusive natural consequences, child-led discovery, and hands-off parenting.
I have found no scriptural evidence to support that not actively involving yourself in your child’s upbringing is healthiest and most effective.
Indeed, when scouring the scripture for parenting wisdom, I see the command to take ownership of our parenting efforts. To be keenly and intentionally involved and responsible for our children’s training.
Ephesians 6:4 “Train a child in the training and admonition of the lord.” That is a command to do it on purpose. I believe it’s possible to use elements of free-range parenting biblically while walking in discernment and wisdom for the broken, fragmented world we live in without being a helicopter parent.
A Certified Parenting Coach’s 21st Century Parenting No-Nos
Some parenting areas present such potentially catastrophic risks they are simply a no from the get-go.
1. Free-range internet.
Allowing children free-range access to the internet is like opening the window to your child’s bedroom door at night and giving ALL the worse unimaginable predators complete and unobstructed access to your child.
2. Free-range friendships.
Parenting and family expert Joe McGee said it best, “No one and nothing can drag your child straight to hell faster than their friends.” Parents decide who comes and goes from their homes and whose home their children come and go. Don’t believe the lie that you don’t have a right to decide who your child can and cannot be friends with.
3. Free-range sleepovers.
It is my firm opinion that the day of the sleepover is over.
Free-Range Parenting Safely in the Bible
When Jesus was 12-years-old, he left his parents briefly to listen in the temple courts. When his parents found him, they were troubled and questioned his actions. He said to them, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house? Luke 2:49
Raised in a Jewish home, immersed in Jewish culture, training was a substantial part of Jesus’ life. He was keenly knowledgeable of the scriptures and actively listened to the voice of God. His Father’s voice. He was perfectly safe, in the center of God’s will.
That is the thesis of biblical parenting.
To raise our children in such a way that they hear the voice of the Father, find their joy in a life with Jesus, and live safely smack dab in the center of God’s will. This has little to do with free-range parenting safely and everything to do with biblically parenting boldly.