When mum-of-three Joanne Byrne was growing up, no one expressed concern about the level of freedom and independence her parents gave her.
“I lived in Ballymun and I was able to cycle to the shops when I was eight-years-old, or go play with my friends and come back a couple of hours later,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of eight or nine-year-olds who are allowed to do that anymore. I’m trying to reclaim that a little bit, while also making sure that my kids are safe.”
On a typical weekday morning, you’ll find Joanne and her seven-year-old son cycling to school.
“It’s five kilometres, and it helps to get him used to judging traffic and gives him some independence,” she explains.
She also allows him to go into the local shop on his own to pick up bread or milk. To some people, Joanne may seem like a bad parent, but she insists that exposing her children to an appropriate level of risk helps them to grow. Joanne is a self-described ‘free-range parent’, part of a growing worldwide movement of like-minded people who believe that today’s risk-averse ‘helicopter parenting’ norms have gone too far. However, Joanne dismisses the claim that this is a ‘hands-off’ approach to parenting.
“I’m not throwing them out on the street and leaving them to figure it out,” she says. “
You’re preparing them constantly for the next stage. We go through a lot of safety rules about how to access resources and how to trust their instincts when something doesn’t feel right. It takes time to build up to that.”
Free-range parenting is a subject that divides opinion, and it goes much further than tuts in the playground: unsupervised children make headlines.
Over the past few years, there have been a number of prosecutions of American parents for allowing their kids to go out alone.
In one high-profile case this spring, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, free-range parents from Maryland, were investigated for neglect after letting their children — aged six and 10 — walk home from the park on their own.
And last month, controversy raged over whether the singer Rachel Stevens was wrong to leave her 18-month-old and four-year-old alone in the car for 10 minutes while she ran errands.
“Around the world, most children walk to school by age seven. And historically, kids had babysitting jobs at 12. Now 12-year-olds have babysitters,” says Lenore Skenazy, the 55-year-old New Yorker dubbed the godmother of the movement.
Eight years ago, she came to prominence after letting her son Izzy (then nine) travel home alone on the subway, and she was inspired to write an article about it after seeing the shocked reactions of other mothers in his class.
She had given him $20, a subway map, travel card, and coins for a phone box in case he needed to call her — but didn’t give him directions.
“I trusted him to figure (it) out,” she wrote. “If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, ‘Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.’ My son got home, ecstatic with independence.”
Within days of her newspaper article appearing, she was being described on TV talk shows as ‘America’s worst mom’. But she refused to back down, instead starting a blog, freerangekids.com, which now gets half a million hits a month.
Free-range parenting is a hot topic but it’s nothing new — it’s about going back to how parenting used to be; in other words, not panicking about every possible danger to a child. As Skenazy puts it: “Our culture delights in taking normal, good things, emblematic of childhood — like the walk to school — and turning them into terrors. Never have parents had to scrutinise their children every minute of the day as we do now. There’s nothing ‘safe’.”
Here and there in Ireland, parents are forming free-range parenting groups. The Dublin-based Free Range Kids was set up in 2012, and has grown to have over 900 members in its Facebook group. They hold informal afternoon meet-ups and organise days out in the summer when older children are off school.
“We try to go to areas with a lot of natural play space. There might be a little stream, hills, forests, fallen logs,” says Joanne, who is a member of the group. “We ask that people don’t bring along toys, bikes or scooters so that they can just roam around and explore what’s there — you can’t fight over a stick when there are thousands of sticks!”
In this country, there’s no legal age when a child can be left home alone, although the ISPCC recommends that children must be over 16 to babysit.
“It would be similar for a child being left home alone,” says National Childline manager Margie Roe. The ISPCC also advises that children under eight shouldn’t be out alone.
While there have been no Irish prosecutions of parents for letting children play or go to school alone, there have been a couple of controversial cases for neglect in the UK. The children of Tim Haines, a family law advocate in Worcestershire, England, were nearly taken into care after he left his two-year-old in the car for 10 minutes while he went into a shop to buy Calpol.
Tragedies happen, of course. In July, seven-year-old Conley Thompson died after finding his way into a dangerous construction site in Barnsley, England, where he had been playing unsupervised with friends.
Serious dangers exist and children should be kept safe, agrees Skenazy. She wouldn’t leave a small child alone, and cares intensely about the safety of her two children, Morry (19) and Izzy (now 17). “Now that Morry is driving, I’m a wreck. But there’s a line to be drawn between protection and paranoia,” she says.
“We believe in helmets, car seats and seat belts, we just don’t believe our kids need a security detail every time they leave the house.”
Dr Ellie Lee, from the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the
University of Kent, worries “the word ‘neglect’ is used to describe what used to be ordinary parenting — kids playing without their mum around, or getting themselves to school. Being a ‘helicopter parent’ — doing everything for your kids — is what is culturally sanctioned. To not do this means being seen as a ‘bad parent’. These developments are very family unfriendly.”
Skenazy doesn’t judge helicopter parents. She sympathises with their fears and believes them to be victims of a health-and-safety and legislation-obsessed society.
As for Joanne, she says, “I would never tell anyone what to do with their family, but this is working for us.
“You don’t have to wait to be an
adult to start embracing risk — it’s too late at that stage, because people are much more anxious about trying new things.
“If you start it earlier, then you come to be a mature and developed adult.”
Additional Reporting Meadhbh McGrath