4 Steps to Raising a Free-Range Family

How to Be a Hummingbird Parent

Written by Justine Uhlenbrock on November 6th, 2014

This entry was posted in Balance, Family Safety, Parenting Philosophies, Responding With Sensitivity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Raising a Free-Range Family - Natural Parents Network

Dear Gruff Stranger Who Recently Gave Me Parenting Advice,

What harm do you imagine could come from leaving my kids in the car for three minutes on a 60ºF day while I ran in to buy the forgotten milk? The car was parked, the doors were locked, the keys were with me, and I left the windows and the sunroof partially open. At six and under, my kids were strapped into car seats. I don’t even think they noticed, as content as they were to flip through a new stack of library books.

You’re right about one thing, though. You could have called the police. No doubt it’s breaking some law to leave my kids unattended. Once on the scene, the police might feel the need to do something because you requested assistance. I would probably at the very least have gotten a citation but could have been charged with a more serious offense.

Let me stop you before you tell me about the woman who travels the country warning about the dangers of leaving our kids in the car, or hand me one of those flyers about how hot cars can get on the inside. I am aware. I am simply asking the following questions to you and the others who parent my kids from afar (read McSweeney’s for a great comeback):
When did you give up hope and decide to suspect me of negligence? Where is my village to help me raise my children?


Your Fed-Up Neighbor


If it takes a village to raise a child, ours is letting us down.

The milk incident is not an isolated case of drive-by parenting. I’ve been shouted at for, among other acts of apparent negligence, not holding my kid’s hand on a sidewalk. As I watch the families literally put leashes on their kids in growing numbers, I no longer judge them. I judge the litany of threats and cajoles they might have received prior to making the decision to leash their kids.

Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids reported a story back in May in which two neighbors were arrested and taken to jail in DC after letting their seven-year-old daughters go for an unattended walk through the woods in their neighborhood. What happened to sending kids home with a stern warning?

I am more afraid of strangers reporting me for child negligence than I am of strangers stealing my children.

I keep waiting for the pendulum of child protection to swing back, but if anything it extends further. As our preoccupation with safety rises, fewer parents give their children freedom to roam. It has become odd–even alarming–to spot an unsupervised child. A middle-school student spotted alone waiting for a bus recently provoked a response by the Rhode Island legislation forbidding unaccompanied minors to walk home from the school bus. And of course, we all know about what happened to the mom who let her nine-year-old play at the park while she was at work.

We shouldn’t stop supervising our children altogether; teaching boundaries and safety are important and necessary. Laws work when they protect children from the truly negligent parents. But when Good Samaritans impose their overprotective ideals on my standard of care, I am no longer willing to let them threaten or terrorize me.

This parenting gig is hard enough without the courts breathing down our necks. I mean, hey, I recognize leaving my kids in the car that day was not ideal. And if you can parent without ever leaving your kids in the car alone for a second, my hat’s off to you. Good job! Go on with your bad self! But should I go to jail for my style of parenting? No.

Hannah Rosin, in The Atlantic this past March, points out that lowering the level of acceptable risk has not actually resulted in more safety. In fact, our current trend toward risk aversion has the potential to create a generation of “more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

What are we protecting our children from? Is it not my job as a parent to help them learn to navigate the world on their own?

A friend relayed a fascinating story from a trip to Berlin. At a neighborhood block party, her sister-in-law scribbled her phone number on her four-year-old son’s arm with a sharpie pen and sent him out to frolic on the grassy square while the adults chatted nearby. She kept an eye on him, of course, but knew that if he got away from her, her neighbors—not the police—would know how to reach her.


So what can you do to balance safety with freedom? Here are four steps you can take to raise free-range kids:1


1) Debunk the myth of stranger danger.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children notes it is far more common for people you know than strangers to abduct or otherwise harm children.


2) Be the hummingbird.

Children & Nature Network explains how to be a “hummingbird parent,” who remains nearby but unseen and swoops in only when there is a threat to safety. C&NN gives practical ways to get kids outside without the accompanying fear of risk. If you have a child ages seven and up, try participating in “Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day.” The more kids we see unaccompanied, the less alarmed we’ll be.

If you are a Good Samaritan who sees a child out alone, ask questions. Children as young as three years old are mature enough to follow and relay a parent’s instructions, so you should easily be able to tell the difference between a lost child and a child with a destination.


3) Speak up.

If you fear retaliation by the government for giving your kids a free-range childhood, tell your representative how you feel. The topic of child protection will remain a political hot potato until we let Congress know the fight for our children’s freedom is one worth taking up.

Got a story worth sharing? Tell Lenore what’s going on, whether positive or negative, so she can share it with the greater “Free Range” community.


4) Let your kid do dangerous things.

Gever Tulley, the founder of the Tinkering School, gave a TED talk in which he argues we should give our kids more “dangerous” opportunities for self-direction. Obviously he wouldn’t want you to let your child do anything truly dangerous; some limits must be set. Ariadne Brill wrote a great article for NPN about setting limits with kindness.


It is unlikely we will rely on neighbors as a safety net; for most of us, reconstructing the village isn’t possible. What we can do is create a happy medium in which we give our children the respect and responsibility they are capable of and deserve.

Are you with me?


  1. Lenore Skenazy coined the term “free-range kids” and writes about the topic on her website

Photo Credits


About The Author: Justine Uhlenbrock

lonehomeranger My NPN Posts

Justine Uhlenbrock, MPH, CD(DONA) is a writer, epidemiologist, doula, and mother living in Massachusetts. She writes at Heirloom Mothering.

9 Responses to 4 Steps to Raising a Free-Range Family

  1. Amy Phoenix  

    I’d like to be with you, and I’m exploring the links you’re sharing, but I don’t feel comfortable leaving small children in a car alone – and I think that protective instinct is an okay one for me to have. I get that there’s a movement for parents to allow their children more freedom, and that the world we live in is relatively safe and threat is over spun at times, but we are parents for a reason. Kids need adult guidance and protection at times. If I’m not in the vicinity, I can’t help my kids. I’d like to trust that another adult would, but I’m not going to leave them to find out – or to make my own life (or seemingly theirs) more convenient so I don’t have to take them into a store. Believe me, I’ve considered it many times and it’s felt plenty frustrating to either wait on a shopping trip or wake up sleeping little ones. We don’t have the village we’d like to do this and I’m not sure how we can create such a village when we rely on a fast pace and convenience as cornerstones of our lives.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, Justine, and I appreciate you sharing your experience and wishes for your community. This just brings up some stuff for me and there are many aspects to consider; it’s not a black and white situation.

    • Justine  

      I agree with you that protective instincts are not only okay to have, they are a blessing! I certainly am not advocating for more parents to leave children alone in the car–just that we trust them to make the call one way or the other.

      You wrote that, “It’s not a black and white situation.” I think I used the milk story as my example of “drive-by” parenting because of exactly that. What if I had been stopping at a liquor store for beer instead of a grocery store for milk? Would that change the situation? I don’t believe it should, but it makes people squirm when I ask, so I guess it does!

  2. Amy  

    I’m really pondering your question now, though… why would we assume negligence rather than be part of the village that’s raising your children? I think that’s the sticking point – we are the village – all of us. Even this person who seems like they’re offering advice that’s not helpful. This person cares. We’re not living in a tribal village where we know everyone and trust them, except for outsiders. Or are we? In some areas the person who came up to your car and saw your children unattended would possibly not be considered as part of the village. They’re an outsider, a person of concern one way or another. In some villages this person would be seen as the threat, instead of the other way around, and that’s why the children would be entrusted to the care of someone or taught to fend for themselves.

    I think what comes up for me mainly is that we are not living in this ideal village we want for ourselves and our families. We’re in a conglomerate, a melting pot of opinions, with values on a wide spectrum – except that most people do value safety and express this in various ways. This post is probably aimed at piercing the veil of the village we currently do have in hopes of creating the one you desire. On that note, I’d love to see people appreciate mothers more, trust they’re doing their best and when one needs to run back into the store she could easily ask a nearby patron to kindly keep an eye on her kids while she gets the forgotten milk. Maybe this would be an alternative to leaving them alone, strapped into a car seat they potentially can’t get out of on their own in the event of an emergency. I don’t like car seats much anyhow, and that’s a whole other related issue, but they serve their purpose and we use them. We’ve come to adapt to the society we live in (or not) and sometimes that means working within the societal expectations when those expectations are not harmful and can promote well-being. Lots to consider here. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Justine  

      Amy, I love your thoughtful responses, and I’m glad the post got you thinking. When you wrote, “I’d love to see people appreciate mothers more, trust they’re doing their best,” that’s just what I was getting at.

      I’m one of the few people I know who admit to (rarely, honestly!) leaving my kids in the car for a few minutes. Perhaps I could have written more about the particular details of my situation (that my kids are in booster seats so can unbuckle their own seatbelts and get out of the car if they needed to in an emergency; that they know they could walk right in to this small store down the hill from our house that we’re in almost every day and where employees know our names), but my point in not including those details is that they shouldn’t matter. If I were given the trust I think I deserve, I wouldn’t have to explain myself. I believe it should be my decision whether to leave them or not, and it worries me that these kinds of decisions are increasingly being taken out of our control by Good Samaritans. That’s the point I was trying to make. Thanks for weighing in!

  3. Crunchy Con Mom  

    Honestly this is one of the reasons I love Halloween-it’s one of the few chances we have to actually meet our neighbors!
    I think unfortunately though, the high mobility of today’s families and the low number of at-home parents and grandparents and others during the day to keep a watchful eye out makes our current neighborhood unsuitable as a village for safety purposes. It’s frustrating though to think I may never be able to send my kids to ride their bikes to the park alone because they’ll be too old for the park by the time I can send them there without someone calling CPS.

    I think we are probably in agreement here that there’s room to disagree on which specific practices are unsafe for which children, but that the bigger problem is neighbors calling police or CPS rather than asking children and parents if they need help or expressing their concerns to them.

    Like if I saw your kids in the car and instead of immediately dialing (something I’ve never done, actually), I stood by the car for 5 minutes, ensuring no harm was coming to them. Sounds like you’d be back out before then.

    • Crunchy Con Mom  

      Ps that was a little unclear, but the thing I’ve never done is call CPS.

    • Justine  

      “I think we are probably in agreement here that there’s room to disagree on which specific practices are unsafe for which children, but that the bigger problem is neighbors calling police.”

      Amen, sister.

    • Amy  

      I agree, Crunch Con Mom, that I would not immediately call the police when I see something of concern – unless that’s what I feel would be most helpful. Jumping to call CPS or the police are huge steps and I’d much prefer to address the concern directly with the person/people involved. CPS and the police are systems full of human beings who may or may not be helpful. We’d like to believe they would, but it’s correct that they are also trained to be look for concerns and in some cases very competent parents seem to be singled out for certain actions that are not imminently harmful, just negligent in terms of the law.

      I do find it sad that we think we “need” laws to “behave” in socially appropriate ways. Certainly, such laws are guidelines and boundaries of which we look to for individual and mutual understanding, but we as a species often take it too far. I think this is part of the big lie of a punishment, power over based society and it needs undoing at the most fundamental levels on out until it touches literally everything in the universe.

      Our family went to the local mall recently on a Halloween and it was super busy, packed with many more kids and families than usual. As we walked by the open play space in the middle of the mall a little girl came walking out in full sobs saying, “Mommy!” She was beside herself and very scared, about four years old. I knelt down, told her we’d find her mom and that we’d keep her safe, as I walked her back to the play space. A couple of other moms joined in and we looked around to see if an adult would claim the child. After about five minutes with no one coming I admit I did start to feel judgment. Where was this child’s mom, dad, someone? Another parent called security to help and eventually we found the brother in the play place (probably about 8 years old) who knew that the parents were sitting at a food court table a good 150 feet or so away. They were not in view of the play place at all and there were all kinds of people in there that evening. He went and got his mom and she briskly got her daughter (and probably a talking to from the security guard). It looked like the brother was probably a little in trouble also as he’d been the one mom had trusted to watch the younger one.

      Anyhow, I was surprised, but I also realized that this mom has different values than me – or at least different application of them. Maybe she trusts the world more, maybe she thought her daughter could find her or that her son would watch his sister the whole time, every minute. Regardless, we do need to come to some standards in our current “village” because we need a way to determine what is needed to help kids stay safe. In Protecting the Gift, Gavin DeBecker talks about the fact that kids can’t be part of their own protection system until they know how to do so – and that’s a gradual process as they mature and we share with them how to keep themselves safe in various situations. We need to be honest with ourselves about how competent our kids are at getting help, navigating dangerous situations and then we need to be there with them or trust someone else to be as they grow.

      • Justine  

        Gavin DeBecker is mighty wise. I love both “The Gift of Fear” and “Protecting the Gift.” Thanks for sharing what he said about kids gradually becoming a part of their protection system. The last time we took visitors on Freedom Trail in Boston, I started the day by reminding my kindergartner what to do if she were separated from us (1. Stay where you are; 2. Ask a mom or grandma for help finding us). But I carried my three-year-old in a backpack because I knew she wasn’t ready to understand that concept yet.