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Free Range Kids? Is That Safe?

Posted by on Sep 12, 2012 | 14 Comments

A recent article published on Yahoo News reminded me of the “free range kids” idea. This idea has been a fascination of mine for some time… mostly because of our nomadic lifestyle. The idea is simple- allow your kids to explore their world unsupervised. The freedom allows children to develop the “survival” skills they need as adults, including the ability to negotiate social situations, find their way in new environments, etc.

For most parents, this idea is too scary to consider. The drive to protect our children is overpowering. After all, the evening news is filled with stories of murderers, kidnappers, and pedophiles. We don’t allow our kids to explore on their own because it’s just too dangerous.

Or is it?

A quick review of crime statistics and criminal profiles reveals our fears to be misplaced. We don’t allow our kids to play unsupervised because of the dangers from strangers. But are strangers really that dangerous?

Not really.

Most kidnappings are done by non-custodial parents or relatives. Strangers only account for about 10% of all kidnappings. And the fear of a stranger molesting your kids? It only happens in about 3% of all cases (U.S. DOJ reports for both statistics).

Most kidnappings are done by family members. Most cases of child molestation are done by acquaintances. Statistically, your kids are safer with strangers.

I found the best way to alleviate the fear of allowing your kids to play on their own is education. Teach them! Here’s what Shelly and I do:

  • Teach your kids not to talk to strangers, especially if they’re asking the kid to do anything. For example, there’s no reason an adult should ask a kid for directions or to help look for a lost puppy.
  • Teach your kids to regularly check in with you. This is more for your own sense of security, but it does help alleviate the fear of allowing your kids to be unsupervised.
  • Teach your kids what to do in an emergency situation. This is always good information for them to know anyway.
  • Teach your kids anatomy, the idea of inappropriate touching, and explain to them what should be done if anyone tries to molest them.
  • Learn to identify real threats. For example, here are some red flags:

Red Flags

  • They want to spend time with your kids. Let’s be honest- kids are annoying. If an adult wants to be around your kids, it’s a giant red flag… especially if they’re male.
  • They spend a lot of time wanting to help kids by showering them with gifts or attention… and it’s focused on one kid instead of a group of kids.
  • They treat kids as peers or places kids on a pedestal.
  • They work or spend a lot of time in places where kids congregate.
  • They are an adolescent male. This group tends to be more of a “crime of opportunity” situation than people that are sexually attracted to kids… but still a threat.

Conclusion

Give your kids some freedom. Let them occasionally play unsupervised. Teach them to see real threats. Teach yourself to see real threats.

I’m hardly an expert on the topic, so I’d love to hear from other parents that allow their kids to range freely. Leave a comment!

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14 Comments

  1. StaceyLynn
    September 14, 2012

    My kids always had age appropriate freedom to explore. I’m a fan of unsupervised with the requirement that I knew/know where they are at the time. There is a balance. When they were very little they played in our yard or the neighbor’s yard without supervision. That progressed to our block then neighborhood and so on. Whatever was right for them at the time. My youngest (13) is allowed to go running on her own in the afternoon, but when she wants to do a predawn run, she is with one of us. The others are all adults and don’t live with me, but I do think their transition to living on their own was made easier by having achieved some level of self reliance and independence.

  2. Jimmy N
    September 13, 2012

    I’m having a hard time understanding why “unstructured” and “unsupervised” have to occur simultaneously. I’m all for unstructured play – allowing kids to explore their environment without rules. Creativity is born from boredom. Take the leap pad and gameboy out of their hands so their brains can actually develop. But why does this have to be unsupervised? There should be a comfortable middle ground where kids can play within certain boundaries and an adult can remain within earshot.

    Kidnapping may be statistically a rare event but it does happen. As a father of two girls I’m just not willing to take the 0.00001% chance that my child could be kidnapped and molested. That doesn’t mean I have to hover over them like a hawk, but I need to know where they are at all times.

    Oh, and as for charging $350 for the privilege of letting your kids play unsupervised, I mean is she really surprised that no one has signed up? Maybe I should start selling barefoot shoes – pay me $100 and you can go run in your bare feet 8-).

  3. Mark
    September 13, 2012

    I am of the generation that did not ride bicycles wearing helmets, played with pocket knifes, roamed neighborhoods freely, could not wait until I was 10 to cross the highway by myself, etc. There is some merit to allowing kids to be on their own, BUT…

    We did not realize that there were moms who knew us keeping a distal eye on us (they stayed at home then, because caring for the kids was something only a mom could really do well — my mom went to work only after we were all out of elementary school), and they communicated to each other. They were not “helicopter moms”, but were always aware.

    I remember being on the other side of the neighborhood playing baseball. A fight broke out for whatever reason (such things happened with boys, and no grudges were held). I got back home, went into the basement where my mom was ironing, and without looking up she asked, “Why were you and Barry fighting?”…

    Aware, looking out for each other and one another’s, though we never sensed it…until we got home, of course.

    :-)

    • HeatherW
      September 13, 2012

      Mark, that’s a really good point that, in previous years, children weren’t quite as unsupervised as we thought they were.

      Nowadays, the women in my area are not at home during the day. And that goes for older women as well, whose children have grown. Most of the houses in my neighborhood are empty, and I don’t know many of my neighbors.

      The neighbors a third of a mile away don’t know my children, either. If my child were to fall off her bicycle and hurt herself, it’s unlikely anyone would be home to help or would even know where to return her.

  4. wilberfan
    September 12, 2012

    Almost every kid I knew (when I was a kid) walked or rode a bike to school. I read recently that car traffic goes up 30% when school starts up again at the end of the Summer?

    Not cool.

    The congestion around schools in the morning and afternoon is insane…

  5. David
    September 12, 2012

    Here’s Bruce Schneier on the topic: https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/09/parental_fears.html

  6. David
    September 12, 2012

    Ridiculous. I, for instance, have always liked kids. If I’m going to the lake and the neighbor kid wants to come along, I take him. And I tell his mom, or he does.

    I knew lots of adults when I was a kid. I’d go by their houses & talk to them, or learn how to work on a car/lawnmower/whatever. Or go fishing. Nothing bad happened. Lots of good things happened. I still know some of those people.

    My daughter talks to strangers. She doesn’t go anywhere with them without coming to find me. If they want directions or are looking for a puppy, I imagine she’ll help. Good thing, too.

  7. WeaZel
    September 12, 2012

    Thank you for teaching your kids not to talk to strangers! I don’t like kids (not that I wish them any harm) and have noticed a disturbing trend as people “my age” have kids that those kids are randomly talking to me. It isn’t rude for a kid to say “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.” The adult in question shouldn’t have been talking to them in the first place. Why would you talk to a kid, especially if you are a non-parent?
    Anyway, good for you Jason and Shelly, other than that maybe teach kids about situational awareness and to use a buddy system.

  8. Mark Lofquist
    September 12, 2012

    i just tried it…. and since little Isabella is only 6weeks old I don’t think it went well.

  9. Dustin
    September 12, 2012

    Is it possible that the reason there is not a higher incidence of strangers kidnapping or molesting children is that parents are more protective and less inclined to let their children roam about unsupervised?

  10. Steph
    September 12, 2012

    I agree with the danger of drowning. We have rules about playing near a body of water but i’m always nervous about it because often there is no second chance.
    Unlike you, I want to encourage my kids to talk, or at least respond to strangers. As you mentioned, they are statistically less dangerous than the crazy sister in law or weird neighbor.
    I want my kids to not be afraid of/rude with strangers. I also want them to apply some rules to *everybody*: don’t follow anybody even if they say mom asked them to pick up the kids, don’t do anything with anybody (show directions, look for puppy, let them in the house to use the phone,…) without notifying a parent first. That applies to friends, family and strangers alike.

  11. HeatherW
    September 12, 2012

    Know what you really have to worry about? Drowning. It’s always one of the top 5 ways that kids die every year. As in, dead, no bringing them back.

    If there’s open water, don’t let your kids play unsupervised. They make stupid decisions, and when there is water involved, it can cost them their lives. (I lost three friends as a child to drowning. All of them swimmers).

    • HeatherW
      September 12, 2012

      Oh, I should add that I’m actually not afraid at all of my children being abducted by a stranger. Not one bit. The numbers say it just isn’t that likely. I won’t teach “don’t talk to strangers” because strangers are way more likely to help my children than they are to hurt them.

      But I AM afraid of them making dumb decisions regarding their health and safety. It’s tempting to laugh and say, “Yeah, we didn’t worry about that, and we all survived!” But, well, we didn’t all survive. I went to a number of funerals for classmates of mine growing up, and here’s how my peers died: two died of cancer (leukemia, both of them), two committed suicide, five died in traffic-related accidents, and three drowned. My mother’s coworker just buried her two year old last year, who drowned in a swimming pool. That’s all pretty consistent with the numbers the center for disease control collects on child deaths.

      Preventing the drowning deaths is at odds with the “free range” philosophy, I suppose.

    • Jimmy N
      September 13, 2012

      I read somewhere that have a pool is something like 100 times more likely to cause a death than having a handgun in your house.