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Op-ed: How free-range parenting raises strong women for the future

Free-range parenting creates a positive setting to encourage adventurous play for girls, leading them to grow into equally as brave adults.
Free-range parenting creates a positive setting to encourage adventurous play for girls, leading them to grow into equally as brave adults.

When I was 9, the monkey bars were my favorite playground toy. As my skills increased, I liked to test my abilities by seeing how many bars my short arms could skip. One rainy day, I reached too far and broke my arm from a slippery fall. Although I was miserable in my hot-pink cast for the next six weeks, I don’t recall my mom chastising me one time to be less risky on playground toys in the future. She understood the importance of leaving room for my young and energetic spirit to grow.

For much of the female population, however, a debilitating fear of failure threatens to extinguish this fire of passion that my mother helped ignite in me. Free-range parenting creates a positive setting to encourage adventurous play for girls, leading them to grow into equally brave adults. Author Caroline Paul echoes that idea, saying to “raise brave young girls, we must encourage adventure.” In light of the recent free-range parenting law, Utah leads the way nationally in providing such opportunities to raise brave, independent and self-reliant children. And these opportunities can be particularly impactful for young girls.

Studies show that many women hold themselves to such high standards and are so averse to failure that they only apply for a job if they feel 100 percent qualified, whereas men will apply when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications. In addition to holding themselves to these impossible standards, Stanford sociology professor Shelly Correll asserts that when women are placed in a “situation where they are aware of negative stereotypes about their gender, they become more anxious about failing and proving those stereotypes right.” As new waves of feminism continue to sweep the nation, opportunities for women are greater than ever. But what is the point of this rising attention to equality if women don’t actually internalize it by emboldening themselves to action?

The free-range parenting bill specifies that children's activities such as walking to school, going on a bike ride or playing outside without supervision do not indicate parental neglect. This effort to deter helicopter parenting allows children to practice skills they’ll need to be successful, independent adults and give them the creativity to try new things. A more open legal space also gives parents freedom to choose to raise their girls with less hovering.

In a U.K. study on how parents treat their children based on gender, Sara Weir recounted the following about her children Luke and Sophie: “I worry less about Luke, because I think of boys as tougher. He came home recently from rugby, saying someone had stood on his head. I thought, 'Well, you're a boy, you can handle it.' But when Sophie had an accident in nursery where she cut her face, I worried about her and thought, 'Oh, I hope it doesn't scar.'"

From the same study, a father recalled sending two of his children to summer camp. Both kids got homesick, but his reactions to their homesickness were very different. He essentially told his son to suck it up. However, he drove all the way out to the camp several hours away to pick up his daughter and bring her home. While in the moment, parents may perceive these types of actions toward their daughters as loving, but it does a disservice to girls by teaching them to worry about a few bumps and bruises, in both a physical and emotional sense. Instead, we need to teach our girls they can do hard things and then support them in their efforts.

Encouraging our girls to be adventurous will inevitably lead to the development of brave and independent adults who recognize their place in society as equals. I am not saying we should replace their Barbie dolls with skydiving tickets at age 5. But we ought to teach them to be courageous in their everyday interactions so they can envision a world full of equal opportunities and attainable dreams. Not only is there space for strong women in society, there is a need for women who understand their own talents and intelligence to innovate in the world around them and who have confidence that implementing their creative ideas can benefit the communities where they live.