Parenting Styles: Free Range or Helicopter?

. July 31, 2018.

“Our goal as parents is not necessarily to make children happy. Although I love it when my kids are happy, my responsibility is to produce competent, contributing, contented adults, and you have to teach kids independence and responsibility for them to grow into independent, responsible adults,” notes Ann Arbor parent Elise Napier.

“I think parents can judge what their kids are ready for,” says Napier, adding, “Within reasonable boundaries, we use our judgement to support freedom for our kids to explore the world, develop their imagination, and as I said, grow into competent, contributing adults. I would add that I am neither a helicopter parent, or a free range parent; I’m really in the middle, but I support parents’ right to decide what their kids are ready for.”

Kids independently navigating their world

Prompted by high profile cases involving child protective services, a recent law enacted by the Utah State legislature allows parents more freedom to let their children engage in independent activities. The ruling essentially trusts parents who in turn trust their children enough to independently navigate the world in small ways, like walking to school, or playing outside alone.

With no similar legislation in Michigan, the Utah ruling begs the question of how Michigan parents could respond. “Deciding on the best parenting style, whether that be, helicopter style, hovering over a child’s every move, or free range parenting, giving the child more independence, or even choosing something in between, remains with the parents,” says Doug Martelle, Community Engagement Officer, City of Ann Arbor Police Department.

Free range or helicopter parenting

Officer Martelle adds, “I am not endorsing the concept of free range parenting. If parents choose to practice this with their children, safety should be their number one concern. Parents need to ask themselves, does this make sense? Look at the big picture. Consider such things as the child’s age, size, and maturity level.”

“My mom had a whistle that she would blow to tell us to stop playing and come back home before the sun went down,” says Officer Martelle, noting that one or two generations ago, it was a perfectly natural thing for kids to play outside by themselves and walk to school alone. He cautions, “That was in the late 1960s. Our world is very different now. Many of the parents I’ve talked to tell me they are much more protective of their children today.”

Building a parental style that works for both kids and parents

“I decided my desire to escape for a run during a recent nine-day solo parenting stint justified leaving all three of my kids goggle-eyed in front of Netflix for half an hour. I also shooed the older two out of the house within the same week to play football in a nearby park by themselves and do what kids are good at doing – playing and exploring,” Susie Mesure, an Ann Arbor parent, wrote in a column for the UK-based online newspaper.

Mesure takes issue though with the term free-range parenting. “What we’re talking about is basic common sense. Kids need encouragement to cope by themselves while they’re young, otherwise how will they manage when they grow up? I’ve always given my children as much freedom as I think they can handle for their age, if not slightly more. My five-year-old son used to take a slightly different route to school in London on his scooter for five minutes before we’d meet up again. He loved the feeling of responsibility.”


Should kids be allowed more freedom to think for themselves?

Mesure, originally from the UK, wonders what other parents think of her parental style, but also what their kids are doing instead. Guessing it involves a screen of some kind, she cites recent research by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University which suggests that, “Today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy, and completely unprepared for adulthood.“ Mesure’s point is that kids are perhaps being controlled too much, not only by their parents, but the vast amount of information they can find within that super-connected world.

Applauding a NYC mom who let her 11 year old son ride the subway by himself, Mesure adds, “All things considered, if my nine-year-old son wants to cross London by tube, alone, when we get back to the UK, he will have my blessing to think for himself and explore the real world.”

When free range parenting is an economic necessity

Napier, reflecting on a case in South Carolina reported by Jessica McCrory Calarco on, where a mother was arrested for letting her daughter play in a local park while she worked at a nearby McDonalds, also notes, “I think that there is a lot of privilege in saying, ’you have to watch your kid every second’. That implies two parents with big enough incomes that someone can always be home, and that is not everyone’s circumstance.” With a husband and a good support group of family members around her, Napier feels privileged to make free range parenting decisions while applying common sense rules to her kid’s activities. “Others, although they may have the same thoughts and ideals, don’t have the same choices.” she says.

Common sense, the best rule

Officer Martelle notes, whatever decisions parents make, and for whatever reason, “Common sense should prevail, and as always, parents should be providing their kids with information to keep them safe and to help them make the right decisions. By doing so, they begin to empower them to be independent.”

Safety Guidelines for Free Range Parenting

If you are considering giving your children the opportunity for more independence, you’ll want to develop guidelines for both you and your children to follow. Here are some tips from Officer Martelle, Ann Arbor Police Department, to help you get started:

Ensure that your kids are old enough and competent enough to be where they are and to be doing what they are doing.

Know where your kids are, who they are with, what they are doing, and when they will be back with you.

Establish rules of what your kids should not be doing while away from you.

Know what route your child takes to their destination and have them stick to it.

Know they are dressed appropriately for the weather conditions.

Provide a failsafe way of you both to contact each other if needed.

Establish procedures that allow you to bring your kids home quickly and safely, if needed.