Fostering Independence


“Parents investigated for neglect after letting kids walk home alone.” A recent, local event quickly created a national debate about two purported extremes of parenting: “free range parenting” and “helicopter parenting.” Since Fairhaven School has been designed to foster independence in its young people since we opened in 1998, we have followed this debate with interest.

On the one hand, we see the growing tendencies of parents to control, monitor, and dictate the experiences and education of their children. Between school, after-school activities, and summer programs, many parents see their primary role as ensuring that the lives of their children are filled with the right activities. Crucially, these parents often try to shield their children from failure or risk of any kind. Notwithstanding the commonplace shepherding through elementary and high school, we now hear stories of parents inserting themselves into even the college lives of their offspring! Although the examples and patterns of so-called helicopter parenting continue to proliferate, evidence of actual, successful, independent people resulting from this cultural shift is lacking. Indeed, the opposite seems to be occurring.

Enter “free range parenting,” a movement that seems designed to foster unsupervised, independent young people. One of its spokespeople is Lenore Skenazy, who wrote a book called “Free Range Kids.” Here is its blurb from Amazon:

FREE RANGE KIDS has become a national movement, sparked by the incredible response to Lenore Skenazy’s piece about allowing her 9-year-old ride the subway alone in NYC. Parent groups argued about it, bloggers, blogged, spouses became uncivil with each other, and the media jumped all over it. A lot of parents today, Skenazy says, see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range. Any risk is seen as too much risk. But if you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child’s everyday life, that child never gets a chance to grow up. We parents have to realize that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters choice or independence.

In case you missed it, recently in nearby Montgomery County, two parents let their ten and six-year-old children walk a mile unsupervised, prompting a citizen to call the police, who promptly picked up the children and brought them home. Social services began an investigation.

While we applaud these and other parents who consciously seek to foster independence in their children, we also wonder what happens in between these episodes of autonomy. That is, do these children also get to decide what to learn, and how to learn it? Do they get to spend uninterrupted hours finishing a book, playing Minecraft, practicing parkour, or exploring the woods? Do they get to eat when they want? Do they decide the rules under which they are governed, and do they enforce these rules if they are broken? Ultimately, are they agents of their own lives, or are they dragged through childhood and occasionally set free, cell phones in hand?

Here at Fairhaven School, as the cultural debate continues, we will continue to provide a safe, lively place where young people dictate the terms of their own lives, day in and day out. They take risks, they discover limits, and they explore both the outer world and their inner selves. The process is transformative, difficult, and liberating, and we think it is precisely what life should include.



Mark McCaig

February, 2015

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