Our kids - the ‘free-range’ debate

Research by a La Trobe University specialist in Community Planning and Development suggests that policy makers in professions ranging from traffic management, planning and the health sector view children as vulnerable and incompetent. 

child-independenceAs controversial US journalist Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, tours Australia, the study by Julie Rudner highlights the need for a greater focus on developing children's competence and skills in the modern urban environment.

Ms Rudner says the use of public spaces by children not accompanied by an adult has decreased over the past 40 years in the western world.  Fewer children walk or cycle to school, play outside, or help with family errands.

For her research, Ms Rudner surveyed more than 160 parents and local government officials in the Western suburbs of Melbourne and studied hundreds of documents from policymakers.

She sought answers to two key questions.  How do parents, local government staff, and policy makers conceive risk?  And how do these conceptions interact to promote risk aversion and lower the independent mobility of children?

Her study found parents’ were concerned about the possibility, rather than the likelihood, of children encountering danger – and children’s freedom to go places on their own was strongly influenced by worry about what might happen if children encounter dangerous situations.    

Interpretation of ‘expert’ knowledge affected parents’ views of their children’s competence. This may be an issue because many experts promote the worst thing that can happen to children as a way of educating parents about potential dangers and how to protect their children.  

With inadequate understanding of how parents understand risk, policies which aim to increase independent mobility for children may be self-defeating.

Ms Rudner says decision-makers should therefore emphasise children’s capacity to develop skills, advocate for their right to use public space on their own, monitor policies for their impact on the independent mobility of children, and reconsider the type of risk statistics used to influence their decision-making.

‘The fact is that  children in non-Anglo western-based countries successfully manage numerous responsibilities at younger ages, such as caring for siblings and other younger children and helping with household chores and shopping. 

‘As a society we seem to be suspicious of children who are in public spaces on their own. This can reflect on parents: their kids are up to mischief. We also tend to be intolerant of how children behave in a way that is different to adults, take skateboarding.’

Ms Rudner says that without sufficient exposure to the world around them, children may not learn how to interact, explore or protect themselves properly when they are older and more independent; when they take a gap year, move out of home, or start drinking in hotels and nightclubs.

The key messages from her study are:

  • Rethink what risk means;
  • Rethink how we view children and their competencies;
  • Encourage parents to discuss the issues and support those parents who want to give their children more freedom;
  • Avoid stigma and blame for parents who let their children out on their own, and for parents who are less comfortable about letting their children out on their own.
  • Nurture a positive view of the world;
  • Trust parents’ ability to help their children learn skills to be in the urban environment on their own, and children’s competence to learn skills;
  • Accept and encourage children’s use of public space, and society’s acceptance of children in public space;
  • Evaluate how we trust each other as citizens in society (including strangers) with regard to achieving goals such as a sense of safety and belonging;
  • Implement planning policies, urban design and aesthetics, and traffic management actions that are associated with more ‘child friendly cities’ such as lower speed limits;  
  • Don’t wait for ‘better cities’, but create the change ourselves as parents, carers, policy-makers, citizens.
  • Get away from a legal liability approach to planning, policy, playground management, etc.  by analysing potential benefits as well as potential costs.

Fieldwork for the study was conducted in the Brimbank local government area, and included surveys of 160 parents, 15 local government officers, interviews with three general managers, and a thematic analysis of 237 policies from multiple levels of government.

Julie Rudner
Phone: 03 5444 7228
Email: j.rudner@latrobe.edu.au

Ernest Raetz
Media and Communications
Phone: 03 9479 2315
Email: e.raetz@latrobe.edu.au