How to safely take your kids from ‘cooped up’ to ‘free range’

Over-protecting our kids may be doing more harm than good

Outdoor fun, Outdoor exploration

“Be careful!” “Watch out!” “You’re going to get hurt like that!” “You’re up too high; climb back down!”

As parents we can sound like a broken record, repeating these and other cautionary phrases over and over again. While our intent for issuing these warnings is to keep our children safe, many experts now say hovering over our children to protect them is detrimental to their development.


A safer society

When many of us were growing up, we were allowed to walk to the playground by ourselves. Perhaps we spent hours riding bikes and playing manhunt with our friends until the sun set, with nary an adult in sight.

The thought of so much time spent outside and out of view from adults is terrifying to many parents now, who are afraid that their children may be abducted or hurt by a stranger. Such fear has even led to a criminal investigation of a Maryland couple who let their two children, aged 6 and 10, walk home alone from a neighborhood park, something many of us did in our youth.

The statistics don’t bear out our fears. In the last 20 years, violent crimes in our country have decreased 48 percent. According to the FBI, homicides are down 50 percent, and rape has declined 34.5 percent.

Crimes specifically against children have also declined in recent years. Instances of physical assault directed at children aged 2 to 17 has declined 33 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to research conducted by the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and published in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2014. Rape and attempted rape of children aged 2 to 17 declined 43 percent during those same years.


‘Stranger danger’ is rare

Even our culture’s insistence on the perils of “stranger danger” doesn’t have a basis in statistics. The people most likely to harm a child are their relatives or family friends, not strangers.

In a study titled “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1998-2008” by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it was shown that between 1980 and 2008, 63 percent of all children under 5 who were murdered were killed by one of their parents. Only 3 percent were killed by strangers.

Child abductions by strangers are incredibly rare as well. According to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children conducted in 2002, only about 115 of the 800,000 children reported missing annually are actually kidnapped by strangers. The vast majority of those reported missing were runaways or victims of a custody dispute.


What’s the harm?

So sure, we don’t need to be so afraid of our kids being hurt or abducted, but better safe than sorry, right? What’s the harm in keeping them close to home under our watchful eye?

Andrea Grunblatt, a psychologist and licensed play therapist operating in Kingston, says allowing children the freedom to explore and play without parents hovering or planning every move gives them confidence.

“They learn to feel competent at doing things on their own and discovering things,” something which is important for a developing child,” she says.

And yet, a recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles, found that American kids spend 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of the TV or playing video games. Even when kids are physically active, their actions are arranged for them and they are watched closely by adults — either in school, camp, at home, or at extracurricular activities.

Outdoor Activities, Exploration, Blindfold

Clay, 8, Finn, 12, and Gabe, 14, practice their survival skills with a blindfolded string walk in the woods at Danger Camp.


Healthy dose of danger

Whitney Hall of Hurley runs a Danger Camp for children ages 8 to 13 on her property for a week in June. The camp, developed by Growing Kids, purposely introduces children to things many parents would consider dangerous, including building, tending and using fire, and using spears, knives and other weapons. They even have one day devoted to “getting lost” in the woods and using various skills to find their way back to the camp.

“Keeping children from dangerous situations is detrimental in the long run,” says Hall. “Think of a body and its immune system, for instance. ‘Healthy’ does not mean free of disease. ‘Healthy’ is a body that is equipped to fight off a disease when it encounters one. The healthier body is the body that can effectively take that threat and beat it. This comes from having a good immune system, which means that it has fought off several things before and is getting good at it.”

For kids and danger it is the same thing, says Hall.

“You can’t ever keep your kid out of danger entirely. It makes more sense to me to introduce them to dangerous things, so that they can handle it on their own when it comes up.”

Start a fire

Maple, 9, uses a bow drill to light a fire at Danger Camp. 

knife safety

Nancye Good from Earth Living Skills teaches
a knife skills safety lecture at Danger Camp.

In addition to just keeping them safer, allowing children the freedom to explore and experiment helps build imagination, according to Hall. She says that constantly structuring the things kids do is limiting their imaginations.

“We have kids so scheduled with one activity after another, that they are unable to use their own creative brain. These activities are always run by an adult and structured for safety. When kids are not scheduled, we allow them to have full access to video games, iPads, or devices, but these experiences are also structured. They never get a chance to make their own world anymore.”

Hall also runs a Maker Camp for kids in August, as well as homeschooling programs during the school year. 


Striking a balance

How do parents, who most certainly want what’s best for their children, navigate that balance between allowing children to imagine and discover on their own and keeping them safe?

For starters, keep an eye on yourself. Are you constantly issuing warnings? This may be doing more harm than good, says Hall.

“Here’s an easy rule of thumb for parents: If you hear yourself saying ‘be careful’ or ‘watch out’ to your kids over and over, try to be aware of it. Do a self-assessment. How many times a day do you tell your child to be careful? How many times an hour? Now, do you think that your advice to your child to be careful is having an effect? Do you think you are helping your child learn to be more careful by simply saying those words? Or do you think that you are helping them to feel fear at every turn, to feel that danger is lurking everywhere? This is the effect we have when we tell them to be careful. Instead, we should show them how to carefully do the dangerous thing.”

Hilary Crispell, a Kingston mother of two, agrees that parents must teach their children how to navigate dangers, and then must back away and trust that the children will remember the lessons.

“Teaching your child about trust, your trust is harder than anything,” she says. “Like watching your little bird trying to fly out of the nest, you need to trust that your teaching will take hold. The best way is to put it to the test.”


Communication is key

Next, establish and maintain good lines of communication with your children.

“Make it clear to the children that the parent needs to know at all times where they are and that they children are not allowed to just wonder off,” Grunblatt advises. “In other words, let the children explore within an appropriate boundary, not everything is OK. When parents provide boundaries within some freedom children feel taken care of, and that leads to safety.”

Saugerties mom Juanita Lorraine says she has worked very hard to communicate openly with her children, and that it has helped her to know when it is time to let go or alter some of some of the boundaries and rules for her children.

She refers to the balance between freedom and safety as a negotiation that she openly has engages in with her children.

“I think overall maturity and the expression of needing more space would be my number one sign that it is time to negotiate space,” says Lorraine. “I also check in with my children and ask them questions like ‘so what will you do different with your children when you have them?’ It's a torturous question, but it really has helped me put my parenting in check without putting them on the spot to possibly feel like they are hurting my feelings.”

Lorraine says this helps her see the gap between where they are and where she is. “The other question I ask, ‘Is there something you want to be doing that you feel like you are not allowed to do?’ I always do my best to listen, and let loose as they need it.”

It can be very difficult for parents to balance the desire to protect their children against the desire to make them more self-reliant, especially when faced with the additional fear of being arrested themselves if they give them too much freedom.

At the end of the day, parents must decide for themselves what levels of freedom they are comfortable with for their children. But the next time you catch yourself crying “Be careful!” you may be doing more harm than good.


Dawn Green is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Saugerties.