Apodaca: Free-range parenting style is another simplistic fad

When I was a kid I had very little in the way of organized, adult-supervised activities outside of school, and my parents certainly did not obsess over my every move.

After homework was done, I played in the street with other local kids until dinner time. During long, lazy summers, I spent most days running and bicycling around the neighborhood and sometimes across town. I could have been on my way to Timbuktu for all my parents knew.

Mom and Dad would be tickled to know that their style of parenting is now a fad. It even has a name, “free-range parenting,” which is meant to foster “free-range kids.”

This is not to be confused with the supposedly healthier and happier chickens that are liberated from tightly packed coops only to end up in your supermarket’s refrigerated aisle.

Rather, this type of free ranging is an attempt to harken back to the nostalgic days of yore when parents couldn’t stand having their kids underfoot. But today there’s a decidedly modern twist in that parents who engage in free-ranging do it in a very deliberate and occasionally self-righteous way.

Free-ranging, you might have guessed, is seen as the antidote to the much-maligned helicopter parents who constantly hover over their children. The free-range movement’s leader is Lenore Skenazy, who rocketed to national attention when she wrote a newspaper column about letting her then-9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone.

Skenazy went on to author a popular book, “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry),” and stars in the new Discovery Life television show ironically titled “World’s Worst Mom.” The program showcases families that are ostensibly gripped with fear over letting their children “go,” a problem that Skenazy swoops in to solve.

Not surprisingly, the free-range concept hasn’t been welcomed everywhere. A Maryland couple made national news recently when they became subjects of a child-neglect investigation for allowing their 10-year-old and 6-year-old to walk by themselves to and from a park a mile from their home.

Such incidents have only served to stoke the fires of indignation among proponents of free-ranging. They argue that they are responsible parents who believe their kids will become more independent, confident, and successful if they are allowed greater freedom to explore and figure out the world on their own.

There’s certainly much that is attractive in this philosophy, especially given the backlash against the highly mockable stereotype of today’s parents as fearful, zealous control freaks who buy organic, banish germs, orchestrate play “dates,” imagine bullies and pedophiles lurking behind every bush, sign their 4-year-olds up for Mandarin lessons, and generally attempt to shield their kids from frustration and failure.

Many of us connect with the idea that kids learn best through self-directed discovery, and they gain maturity when they get outside their comfort zones and challenge themselves.

But here’s the issue that I — and apparently many child psychologists and other professionals — have with this or pretty much any other parenting movement: They all have elements of truth and common sense. But they risk becoming a one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all answer to what is inherently a complex process that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a unified “Theory of Everything.”

Parenting is all about balance, these experts often remind us. Whether parents identify more with the hyper-controlling Tiger Mom, the naturalism of attachment parenting, or the free-rangers, the choices we make shouldn’t be boiled down to slogans or limited to the strictures set forth in the latest best-seller.

That’s not to say that Skenazy doesn’t make some excellent points, and that her methods aren’t grounded and well-articulated. But these narratives often have the effect of sending some parents off into extreme territory, while causing others to second guess themselves at every turn. A few years ago, the Tiger Mom phenomenon provoked legions of parents into wondering whether a borderline abusive parenting style would ensure that their kids would become straight-A stars and musical prodigies.

Now that free-range parenting is getting its 15 minutes in the media sun, will those parents now do an about-face and decide that the best lesson for Junior is to let him hitchhike across the country, or to drop him off in a forest with only a canteen and a flashlight for company?

Probably not, but that’s the point. We take from these trends what feels right to us and adapt the ideas to our own families. Most of us would be hard-pressed to describe our parenting styles in just a few words or catch-phrases because we know that parenting is a constant juggling act involving deeply held beliefs, intuitive spur-of-the-moment reactions, and compromises we can live with.

For many of us, our decisions about child-rearing are derived from a combination of what our own parents did that we think worked well, and what our parents did that we swore we’d never do to our own kids. We embrace and we rebel, just a little, every time we make a parenting choice.

It’s all about balance, and we don’t need the latest celebrity parenting guru to tell us that.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.