November 18, 2019

Winnipeg
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Legalize free-range parenting

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2018 (353 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2018 (353 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

(Editor's note: Winnipeg mother Katharina Nuss was visited by a social worker recently after an anonymous person reported to Child and Families Services that she let her seven-year-old and three-year-old children walk from their home to a nearby bakery on their own as a "confidence building" exercise. The children were unaccompanied, but never out of her sight. Read our related story. She is petitioning the province to enact a "free-range parenting" law for Manitoba.)

I am encouraged by the amount of discussion and conversation that has been happening around whether the law should more explicitly allow children under twelve more independence.

Dan Lett, in a Nov. 3 column, argues that protecting children requires diligence, and I fully agree with that. As I have said before, my issue is not with receiving a visit from a Child and Family Services worker — I understand and support CFS’s need to follow up when a concern is brought to their attention.

Katharina Nuss has started a petition urging Families Minister Heather Stefanson to tell CFS to back off and allow free-range parenting. She's shown with her children, nine-year-old Frieda (bottom), seven-year-old Johanna and Raphael, 3. (Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Katharina Nuss has started a petition urging Families Minister Heather Stefanson to tell CFS to back off and allow free-range parenting. She's shown with her children, nine-year-old Frieda (bottom), seven-year-old Johanna and Raphael, 3. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

What I take issue with is being told that it is not acceptable for children under 12 to be on their own under any circumstances, and that is the focus of the petition I started.

Lett makes the argument that there is no harm done in being overly cautious, and that a few CFS visits that turn up no concern are a small price to pay as it may keep some children from suffering serious neglect or abuse. It seems to be a sensible argument.

However, this does not take into account that the status quo is not neutral, but is actually doing damage. It prevents children from engaging in activities that are key for healthy development. By denying our children opportunities to gradually learn independence, we put them at risk of a number of conditions and challenges. There is a sizeable body of respectable research that demonstrates the importance of self-directed play, outdoor play, risk-taking, and incremental independence for children’s physical, social, emotional and mental well-being.

According to the Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health of Canada"Access to active play in nature and outdoors-with its risks-is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children's opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings-at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature."

Psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray says "Over the same decades that play has been declining, we have seen a well-documented increase in all sorts of mental disorders in childhood… five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically significant anxiety disorder as was true in the 1950s…"

ParticipAction  has identified the protection paradox: "Children are overprotected in the name of safety, but trying to keep them safe by keeping them close and indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run."

"Children are overprotected in the name of safety, but trying to keep them safe by keeping them close and indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run."

Dr. Mariana Brussoni et al. state that "The evidence… indicates that the overall positive health effects of increased risky outdoor play provide greater benefit than the health effects associated with avoiding outdoor risky play… (and) that risky play supportive environments promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience.

"These positive results reflect the importance of supporting children’s risky outdoor play opportunities as a means of promoting children’s health and active lifestyles."

As it stands right now, we have a law, enforced by CFS, which says kids cannot be unsupervised until the age of 12.

Reality, however, paints a different picture of what we as a society deem normal and acceptable. Many children under 12 play outside without a parent hovering over them at all times — as they should, according to the research.

Many children walk to school alone, or with friends or siblings, long before they are 12. School patrols are responsible for helping children (often under 12, often unaccompanied) navigate traffic, before they are 12.

If CFS tells parents that children under 12 should never be unsupervised, that means we are turning a blind eye to many such "violations," and the law is being enforced very selectively.

What I am advocating is not for CFS to ignore a concern when it comes in. Rather, I would like to see a change in the law that explicitly allows for children to have these basic freedoms and learning opportunities, and which creates room for parental discretion based on the circumstances and an individual child’s maturity. That way, there is no basis for someone to call CFS solely because a parent is not hovering over their child every moment of their day.

CFS then would not have to get involved in such a situation, which frees up valuable resources for them to attend to children and families that truly do need support and protection. Calls to CFS about children going to the local bakery, with a parent watching, are not, in fact, the ones that save lives, but ones that divert CFS resources from situations where the lives and safety of children are at risk. These situations only make parents and children anxious, and damage CFS’s reputation.

To use an analogy: we do not aim to address the dangers of driving by saying that “staying out of a car is a small price to pay,” but rather by trying to balance the need for safety with people’s need to get places.

To use an analogy: we do not aim to address the dangers of driving by saying that "staying out of a car is a small price to pay," but rather by trying to balance the need for safety with people’s need to get places. Similarly, we should try to strike a balance here.

I believe we need to find a way, while protecting all children's safety and well-being, to also honour their need for healthy development.

A change in the law would do both: it would give children the opportunities to develop the skills needed to become competent and confident in the world, while freeing up valuable CFS resources to focus on children and families that truly do need protection and support.

Additionally, it would reflect the reality that our society already expects and allows our children to have gradually increasing independence before they are 12.

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