Sounds like a typical enactment of creative warfare by a four-year-old, doesn’t it?  But,sadly, it is the grown-up parents doing the fighting.   Though it may not involve real claws or bullets, it is fierce. These groups  are the parents and ‘experts’ with strong opinions about the amount of supervision and direction that a child should be given. I am not going to take a side in this debate.  Instead, I hope to clarify the disagreement and point out a few reasons this fight is not a good use of our time.

The parents who are derisively called helicopter parents say more supervision is better while free-rangers say less.  Free-rangers say the helicopter kids are overscheduled, stressed, nature-deprived and grow up without independent thinking and living skills. Free-range opponents say free-range kids are dangerously neglected and at risk of being left behind in today’s competitive world.

Like many conflicts between people thinking really hard about something that most people just go ahead and do, the opponents here have at least as much in common as in contrast.  Both factions contain folks taking parenting seriously and being conscientious about their choices.  Good for them.  Also, both factions are speaking from positions of good fortune and abundant resources. They are all parents who get to choose how much of anything to give their children.  Millions of children in America live with less supervision and structure not because of their parents’ ideology, but because of their parents’ low pay and long hours of work.  Many children live with high-levels of adult involvement because their special needs demand it.    

The question of supervision is essentially a question of the assessment of risk.  Both groups believe the right amount of supervision puts the child at the right amount of risk.  Too much risk would means genuine danger, too little risk means a neurotic, unsuccessful adult.  Everyone wants their kids to be safe and grow up to be functional adults. I think everyone agrees with this:   The right amount of risk for a child is one in which he remains safe from genuine harm and feels secure enough to develop well, yet is free enough to gain skills and emotional benefits of competence and independence.

How much to supervise kids, a continuum:



0= Absolutely no supervision, like Mowgli in the Jungle book

100=Child monitored absolutely every second from birth

Red=seriously problematic parenting

Black= the range of those in this discourse


As is clear from my awesome graph, the majority of the line consists of shared values.

To know the right amount of risk to expose a child to is immensely complex.  To suggest otherwise is naive and lacking in compassion.  

Here are just some of the legitimate factors involved in determining how safe a child will be in a given circumstance,

say, letting my child walk to a friend’s house by himself:

Step One: what risks are there?     



scary animal interactions (lead to lifelong fear of squirrels?)

getting hit by a car

getting lost or confused

being approached by scary strangers

scary adult, not doing anything yet, but gaining knowledge of child and his routines for future exploitation

tripping and falling with no adult comfort

clothes getting dirty

wrong door being knocked on, child embarrassed and develops low self-esteem, or social-phobia

random rare medical emergency happening to child while they are between houses and no one is watching

overhearing inappropriate conversations or music coming from car without parent to explain or deflect

neighbors seeing child alone and judging parents to be not their kind of friends

neighbors seeing child alone and judging parents as neglectful

police or social services seeing child alone and judging parents as neglectful



Step two: Go through each possible risk and evaluate for likelihood.  As the Freakonomicists and others like to point out, we (parents and others who look out for children) are really bad at this part, so we shouldn’t trust our guts, I guess.  That means we should look to real hard numbers for likelihood of risk.  But this  opens  up the horror show of wretched statistics, which may or may not apply much to your particular location, circumstance and/or demography and so maybe the gut is not so bad.


Step Three: factor the ‘badness’ of each risk.  


Step Four: Consider all possible benefits.


child will gain sense of independence

child will gain better self-esteem

child will have genuine, non-intermediated experiences of the world, leading to the development of a sense of comfort in the world

parent is able to complete important task rather than walking child to friend’s house

parent is able to rest or enjoy self/time with other adult

neighbors see child alone and judge parents to be their kind of friend

neighbors see child alone and are inspired to let their own child outside


Step Five, balance all of the above


Step Six: don’t forget to factor in the opinions of your co-parent and what your decision may mean to the dynamics of this, at best,   18-years of continuous negotiations.


Step Seven: And still, consider the expectations and values of your family of origin, your religion, and larger cultural norms.  Factoring in these things does not make someone foolish or small-minded.  Sometimes not factoring them into parenting decisions can be pretty crummy for your kids.


That is the process for just one little decision.  Multiply that times a gazillion and you get parenting.   

This part is hard.  Good, smart, conscientious  parents  asking the same question come up with different answers.  That is because they live in different places, are part of different families and communities, have different temperaments and have children with different skills and temperaments.  It is an infinitely complex and fine grained decision. Proclamations from parenting movements or experts may provide useful suggestions and comfort as you walk through the maze, but none can give you the map.  Dogmatism and parenting go together as well as a toddler and your grandma’s china.

Parenting and teaching young children is filled with unrepeatable moments, and decisions made without the benefit of flowcharts  Yes, some choices parents make are genuinely bad decisions that harm children.  Frankly, though, most choices we make are unlikely to make much a difference one way or the other.  With gratitude for the luxury that is this choice, we muddle forward.  With loving intention and we do our best – almost  all of us,  almost all the time, from the most free rangers to the lowest flying helicopters.  


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