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Free-range parenting: Deciding when the time's right to expand a child's boundaries
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On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Lakeside Sports Park in Vineyard, Utah, bustles with families watching soccer matches on its fields. Among the hundreds of parents are Brittny and Justin Niswander, rapt as their daughter Jessica, 12, plays.

Their attention is also divided because they have other children. Cameron, 14, is fine on his own, but they must keep track of Olivia, 8, and Beau, who's not quite 2.

Each day, the Niswanders tackle one of parenting's big challenges, finding the balance between keeping their children safe and giving them room for the exploring that builds confidence, skills and independence they'll need to navigate the world. It's a tricky process, because kids mature at different paces and they don't desire equal independence.

There's another challenge, too: Other people may disagree about how independent children should be.

They've heard the story of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Silver Spring, Maryland, who after practice runs let their kids, 10 and 6, walk home a mile from a park and became mired in a child protective services investigation on allegations of neglect. Or author Kari Anne Roy of Austin, Texas, who was investigated for a month after she let her son, 6, play alone on a bench visible from her porch but 150 yards away. Or that of Lenore Skenazy, a New York journalist who a few years ago wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone. She was dubbed "World's Worst Mom" by folks who didn't approve.

Skenazy, 55, founded the "free-range kids movement" based on the notion that, absent clear danger, abuse or neglect, the parents who presumably know their kids best should decide how responsible a child is.

Free-range proponents cite statistics showing crime is going down and that risk is actually quite small especially when compared to the apparent perception that danger lurks everywhere.

But it's hard to forget stories like that of Etan Patz, 6, who disappeared in New York City in 1972, or the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh, also 6, in Hollywood, fanning a spark of "stranger danger" fears into a blaze that continues to burn in the hearts and minds of parents.

Faced with the reality that there are predators, however rare, parents struggle to weigh the risks against the benefits of giving kids some needed autonomy and freedom. And parenting experts agree that children must be taught to protect themselves, from being leery of strangers to riding bikes responsibly, to feel safe where they live.

How dangerous?

The free-range kids movement has its own website and even provides "I'm a free-range kid" cards that children can carry when they're outdoors. But Skenazy, who wrote "Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry," said her goal is not to get everyone to parent the way she does. "I just want parents to know their children are pretty safe if they decide to give them some freedom."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said this year that violent crimes dropped almost 48 percent from 1993 to 2012. Murder rates have nearly halved in 20 years, while robberies fell 10 percent from 2008 to 2010. The University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center shows violence against and by children has also decreased.

The last time the crime rate for serious crime murder, rape, robbery, assault fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807," said a 2012 article in The Christian Science Monitor.

Most Americans have not registered the improvements in crime rate. Since 1983, Gallup polls have consistently found that when adults are asked whether theres more or less crime in American than a year ago, the vast majority say more.

People say the world has changed. Ironically, its changed for the better. Theres less crime, there are fewer assaults. Its proven that the majority of child abductions are someone who is part of the family or known to the family," said Richard Greenberg, 61, author of Raising Children That Other People Like to Be Around.

When we talk about free-range parenting, we are really teaching our children how to survive in the world without us. Its up to each of us as parents to decide where we want to start teaching our lessons, but I certainly believe that neighborhoods should be considered safe places rather than places that are filled with predators and ominous, terrible possibility, Greenberg, a Los Angeles native, said.

That doesn't mean bad things don't happen to kids. It's about managing risk as realistically as possible, said Greenberg. Because tragedy sometimes occurs doesn't mean all children must be kept at home.

"I would rather teach my children how to be safe and how to navigate the world than make it my full-time job to hover and be their protector all the time," he said, adding as children grow, they should be given more room to explore the world and more autonomy.

It is up to us, as their parents, to decide the way we want to raise our kids, said Skenazy, who wants the parents who know a childs capabilities to make the decision, not the government and not strangers. Parents should have a right to be more cautious, too, if they want. But teaching children to live in fear doesnt keep them safe, she said.

Set free, responsibly

Michael Rich, 63, an attorney in Waltham, Massachusetts, was given great freedom to play outdoors. His own kids, now 30 and 26, were not allowed to go to a park by themselves until they were teenagers.

He's not sure what changed his perception of the world's safety. Professionally, he represents parents dealing with allegations of possible abuse or neglect, sometimes for inadequate supervision.

A parent must first know the child, said Rich. There are some kids I wouldnt leave alone at 14. There are other kids who can do well, maybe even baby-sitting, when younger. It depends on the neighborhood, both in terms of crime rate and traffic level. And the maturity of the child and the circumstances. If nothing happens, its fine. But there's risk if something goes wrong."

While he thinks its good to let kids develop independence, you may want to talk to your neighbors and say thats your theory before letting kids out alone in a neighborhood." And realize someone with a different philosophy may report you, he added.

Marnie Maxwell, intake program administrator for Utah's Division of Child Protective Services, said thousands of calls come in monthly reporting child abuse and neglect. Some report kids left in situations a caller deems risky. It's tricky deciding which need attention.

The hardest choices fall in the middle, between the clearly foolish calls and the absolutely dangerous situations, she said. Child protection staff must assess whether a situation really places a child at risk. They consider multiple factors, including not just age, but maturity levels, how long a child was unsupervised and where.

"You don't want to make a decision that ends up putting a child at risk and something bad does happen," said Maxwell. "Because we open a case doesn't mean we are out to hurt the family. If we find nothing, we close the case. We may provide help to a family that needs help."

Children usually initiate enlarging boundaries, as Skenazy's son Isaac did. A young Greenberg asked his mom to expand his three-block border. When hed proven himself responsible, she enlarged it to five blocks. Throughout my life, there have been opportunities for me to earn greater responsibility and greater respect from my parents, he said.

He couldn't wander aimlessly; his parents knew where he was headed. If plans changed, hed call and ask. He did the same with his four children, now grown. When one wanted to do something, he'd say, "Lets do it together once and then youll know what to do."

Greenberg said when his daughter went to college, the dean told him of dropping his child off to catch a bus, then hiding in the bushes to watch with three other parents, doing the same thing.

Know the law

Skenazy was repeatedly asked how she would have felt had her son been harmed. It was a way of chastising me. If you are a good parent in America now, you are supposed to imagine the very worst thing that could happen to your kid in almost any situation," she said. "And that whole attitude has become so ingrained in us that you see it actually embedded in the law."

Some states assign ages to when children can by law to do certain things, like be alone in a car. Parents should know the rules in their communities, said Shannon Karl, a counselor and associate professor with the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I honestly think its so hard, especially for modern parents, to find where that balance is, she said.

She points to Jean Piagets theories of childhood cognitive developmental stages, a broad outline of ages at which a child might be capable of something, such as critical thinking or assessing safety. Younger kids need more hands-on adult help thinking through situations. She suggests that if a child at 9 wants to walk to the nearby park, for instance, its a good idea to talk through it, but also to take the walk together so both parent and child are comfortable.

"Its important a child be able to say 'Im not sure about this' and a parent, too. Both have to feel confident, Karl said.

Chronological age may not be the best guide. While Cameron was old enough to watch younger siblings at one point while his parents had a brief period of overlap in their workday where neither was home, Jessica two years younger was more responsible, said Brittny Niswander.

Judgment call

When the Niswanders didnt know neighbors, they were more leery of letting their older kids outside without an adult. Around age 8 they could walk together to a neighbors house or play outside their home in Lindon, Utah. If only one went, Niswander watched. Their comfort level rose as they got to know their neighbors well.

I feel like if you hover too much, you hinder your childs growth, said Brittny Niswander. I think its good for them to feel a sense of 'Im old enough and responsible enough to do this thing, to walk to a friends or play outside without mom watching.

Karl doesnt think structure should be abandoned. Child play must mesh with a safe and structured environment. Optimally, parents give children as much freedom to explore, learn and be curious as possible, within parameters.

When a child knows how far he can venture, theres an emergency plan and its all developmentally appropriate, it is an awesome learning opportunity and much better than keeping a child enclosed because of bad things in the world. But safety must come first," she said.

Brittny Niswander's style has been to talk about it. Were not good practicers, she said, adding they've had many safety talks because she is a neuro-trauma rehab nurse who has seen what happens when children have accidents and arent wearing helmets or are in crashes without seat belts.

She's glad her kids don't need to be pushed from the nest. Theyve always ridden bikes or scooters to school in large groups, bucking the carpool trend thats common in America. And neighbors arent shy about telling her if the kids act unsafe.