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Benefits of Free-Range Parenting

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That's why I try not to interfere unless I can hear that things are truly getting out of hand. Of course, my absence has ensured that our yard is the most popular hangout in the neighborhood—a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the well-meaning moms who perhaps think they're doing me a favor by standing guard at our play structure. What these moms don't understand is that I am listening, albeit from a distance. If one of my kids has strayed past his or her boundaries or is breaking any of our family rules—bullying, using bad language, destroying someone else's property—he or she has to come inside immediately.

And when I let my kids back out, I do so with the confidence that I'm teaching them to be less anxious about the world around them. Allowing Peter to go to the store without me tells him that I trust his judgment and teaches him how to handle unexpected situations. "If a kid gets lost on the way or loses his money," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (Jossey-Bass), "he gains real in-the-moment experience figuring out how to manage life, the single most important skill he can have." Giving Peter adventures also shows him that I think our community is safe and that the people he will come into contact with are—with a few exceptions, which we discuss—kind and decent.

My reasoning is shared by even the staunchest child-safety advocates, including Patty Wetterling, who has already faced the worst. In 1989 her 11-year-old son, Jacob, was abducted on a rural Minnesota road and has never been found. In response, she helped launched her state's AMBER alert program. But Patty says, "Kids should be walking around smart, not scared. They should know what to do if somebody says or does something to them, then tells them to keep it secret."

Monitoring kids too closely, even when it's a well-meaning way to try to keep them safe, has ratcheted up their anxiety to unhealthy levels, according to child development experts. "Overprotecting children keeps them from experiencing and resolving disappointment and failure," says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast. "Kids who don't learn to handle frustration become fearful. They're the teenagers who won't try new extracurricular activities. When they arrive at college, they retreat to their rooms and play video games rather than going out and connecting with others."

I'd be lying if I said my husband's and my approach to independence is always an unqualified success. Last summer I was working late in my home office while Walter was putting Luisa to bed. That's when Henrik and Peter decided it would be fun to spritz several of our neighbors' garages with cooking spray. Walter caught them mid-high jinks, and the next morning the boys were marched to the neighbors' to apologize and clean up. Even though I was mortified, I knew the boys were learning firsthand about consequences at an age when the stakes were relatively low.

Still, the incident did give me a bad case of mom guilt. Was I failing my kids by not hanging out with them more? Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), says no. Overinvolved parents are often addressing their own need for closeness rather than giving kids the space they need. Being a supportive parent, in other words, can't always mean doing what's comfortable. It's also about bearing the anxiety and consequences that occur when your child strikes out for new territories.

Encouraging free-spiritedness also creates more opportunities for our kids to show us just how creative and resourceful they are. This came to mind a few days after the garage door incident when I turned into my alley and noticed handmade signs tacked on to the utility poles. "GARAGE DOOR CLEANING SERVICE," they read. "Call Peter and Henrik or just stop over."