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Bobbi Wegner Psy.D.


Utah Passes the Nation's First Free-Range Parenting Law

A psychologist-mom's perspective on raising her own free-range chickadees.

Utah just passed the nation’s first free-range parenting law — permitting kids to play unsupervised or stay home alone, and protecting parents from the legal repercussions of giving their children more freedom. This is the polar opposite of helicopter parenting. As a mother of three, a clinical psychologist with a specialization in anxiety management, and a child advocate, I am thrilled: This is a first step in the right direction, and I hope the rest of the country follows suit. The new law gives parents permission to connect with what they believe is best for their children, and then to parent accordingly. This could bring pleasure back to parenting, while raising more durable and self-reliant kids.

The other night, my husband, Mark, and I had dinner with great friends — a colleague who is a seasoned psychologist, and her husband. On some cultural rating system, the four of us would be deemed relatively successful adults, although we all bore the bumps and bruises of having grown up in times when we were allowed to fumble our way through childhood. We had loving, well-intentioned parents and were given the opportunity to explore the world without intense restriction. I spent many a day frantically biking around on my baby-blue banana seat, trolling the neighborhood, and having ink berry fights with the boys down the street. My dinner guests' experiences were not dissimilar. The interesting part is that we came of age in different decades, spanning the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. We laughed and connected over the crazy things we did and not only survived, but were better off because of.

Our stories were pretty similar, although the times in which we were raised were different. And we talked a lot about how parenting today is different, and, dare I say, worse — more restrictive and anxiety provoking. In our business, my colleague and I often see the results of anxious parents and family systems — which are, understandably, anxious kids. I think most parents would not define themselves as anxious, but the way we currently parent as a society is anxious and avoidant of distress or discomfort — otherwise known as helicopter parenting. As Mark and I raise our three children, we wrestle over the "right" way to do it. He errs on the interventionist side and I on the free-range, but we somehow have come to agree on what works best for our family.

We are not perfect. Our kids are not perfect. We all are flawed, human, and works in progress. I write this post to open a discussion about modern-day parenting and whether it is working for our children — and to share some ideas that guide our parental approach.

A snapshot of a few things we prioritize as parents include:

  1. Promoting a healthy sense of self (also known as helping our kids develop solid self-esteem);
  2. Letting go (allowing our children the freedom to learn from their own experiences);
  3. The Frame — a balance between hard, basic structure with loads of freedom in between.
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

Promoting a healthy sense of self is of the utmost importance to us as parents — allowing our children to develop a strong ego and solid self-esteem. Every parent wants this but in my clinical work, I often see parents getting in their own way. The question is: How do kids develop a strong sense of self? I often refer to Heinz Kohut, the founder of Self Psychology. He believes that if parental figures are attuned to their children's needs for nurturance and soothing, and are responsive to these needs, they ultimately promote a healthy development of the child's ego. In very basic terms, the goal is for parents to have a deep understanding of their children, to love them, and to reflect this back to them; the child then internalizes self-worth. It is like holding a mirror up to your child, so they can see their own greatness. You can also think about your child as a bottle that will get filled up with feelings and thoughts about themselves. Parents can help their children genuinely see their strengths and goodness, or fill them with judgment and criticism. Be empathically attuned to your children, and help them see their beauty. This is fundamental and has long-lasting effects.

Moving on to a less complicated idea: "The Frame." This idea is that our kids have a general structure of what is right and wrong. They absolutely know they cannot leave the property without telling us and that hitting will get them sent to their room, but everything within the framework is generally fair game. In my home, there is a lot of rambunctious wrestling, jostling, potty-talk, teasing of each other — all things I am not thrilled with, but those are the battles I am willing to give up in the name of letting kids be kids. Imagine my yard: My children know they cannot leave the yard without asking, and don't generally try, but are free to run ruckus within its parameters.

This style grants us space to back off our kids, enjoy our own time, and let them be developmentally appropriately active, while removing the nagging element from the dynamic. Nagging does not work. Now, when I say something with certainty, the kids listen, because they know I will follow through with a consequence. I have earned their respect by respecting their individuality and need for space.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Lastly, we focus on independence in the name of self-efficacy. We believe in giving kids the space to discover what works and what doesn't on their own. This helps them learn in a deeper way than just being told what to do, and it also allows for optimal frustration (another Kohutian idea), which states that children learn self-soothing skills by experiencing tolerable disappointments. These experiences help build their internal psychological makeup and prepare them for a world in which there are normal and expected disappointments. I picture these little guys in high school and really want them to be independent and self-efficacious so they can navigate their worlds with success and without needing to check in with us about every decision. The reality is that we are not going to be there when they are offered alcohol, drugs, or a ride with a drunk friend. They need to be able to think about it and respond. My hope would be that they will talk to us about these difficult decisions, but realistically, that is going to be outside of my control; I need to do the front-end work now (while I have a captive audience). In American culture, some might say it is early, but we have begun directly talking about drugs and alcohol with our kids, consciously laying the groundwork for these conversations later.

I learn as I go by blending personal experience with professional research, but some tenets have emerged very clearly: Kids need space to explore, fumble, fail, and succeed on their own. They need us to empathize, and to validate their experience as developing people in this sometimes harsh world. They also need clear and distinct boundaries to guide their path. Some things are off-limits, and they need to know parents are in charge. This actually makes them feel safe, cared for, and loved.

I encourage parents and caregivers to step back and honestly ask themselves if how they are parenting feels right. How would you parent if you trusted that nobody would judge you (or call the police)? What are the qualities you want your child to develop? How can you build those qualities now? Parents want to raise happy, independent kids, but our interventionist parenting model is not getting us there. We must do something different and shift the current parenting paradigm. Way to go, Utah.


About the Author

Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.