It’s time to make “parent” a verb again.

What does it mean to parent (v)? It means actively setting and enforcing rules, boundaries and expectations for children — and disciplining a child who steps outside those parameters. This is an idea that some millennial parents are deeply uncomfortable with, and there are some who go to the extreme of having absolutely no rules in place. 

Writing for the New York Post, reporter Emily Lefroy described how one Texas mother, Mara Doemland, is raising her four children without any rules about food, clothing or appearance. That translates to the fact that the children, ages 2 through 9, are allowed to eat whatever they choose, shave their heads, wear whatever they want (or don’t want, in the instance of shoes) and even drink coffee.

Lefroy writes, “The Doemlands are one of many families who have opted for more lax living rather than rigid rules. On TikTok, some families are touting ‘gentle parenting,’ which involves neither punishing or rewarding children, while other parents swear by the concept of “sittervising” their children — a term describing leaving kids to play among themselves, without parental intervention.

Lefroy calls the practice “free-range parenting,” a descriptor the creator of the free-range movement takes umbrage with. Lenore Skenazy, the founder of Free-Range Kids and its nonprofit arm, Let It Grow, told me, “Free-range parenting is not about no limits, no discipline or no rules. It’s about giving our kids some of the independence that has evaporated from childhood. If you think back to when you were a kid, you probably had some time to just play, explore, ride your bike, figure things out, without an adult constantly supervising or assisting you.” 

Skenazy unintentionally used the same word I do when describing the parenting “style” of those like Doemland, deeming the children “feral” not free-range.

She went on, “We believe in stepping back, but we don’t step out of the picture entirely. Free-range is not feral. It’s not, ‘Come back home when you’ve killed your dinner.’ It’s giving kids some free time that isn’t completely filled with organized activities.” 

While the example of Doemland is extreme, it’s a style of parenting becoming mainstream: letting children set the tone in their household. Family meal choices are shaped around what is “kid friendly,” everything from bedtime to screen-time rules to clothing choices are now made by committee, in consultation with children. It’s parenting by consensus. 

Is childhood shrinking? Parents are torn over how much freedom to give kids
The summer of the free-range parent

Why are parents taking this approach? Doemland explained her children choose their meals — “even if that involves no leafy greens on their plate and extra dessert.” Isn’t it easier to give in than fight? But laziness isn’t the only reason why millennial parents are letting their kids take over, standing in as their own parents despite their underdeveloped brains being unprepared for the task. 

Doemland explained that the decision to settle on this parenting style stems from her feeling that she was being “mean” in the beginning of her oldest child’s life. That makes sense: It’s more enjoyable for everyone to be fun than “mean.”

Doemland, firmly in the millennial generation, embodies the ethos of the “participation” trophy mentality that plagues so many of our age. Instead of being declared winners and losers, we were all given trophies so that nobody dared feel a negative emotion related to losing. We were shielded from experiencing feelings of loss even while playing a sport as a child, and now those children have grown into adults who are uncomfortable feeling that their children might think they are “mean.” No, it’s better to let kids choose their own food or go to the supermarket barefoot than be labeled “mean” by a 4-year-old.

But what may be more enjoyable doesn’t translate to children who are healthy, both emotionally and physically, at the end of their childhood. Kids who are given freedom to eat whatever they want almost certainly do not make healthy choices for their short- and long-term health, and kids who are never instructed in boundaries will find the adult world impossible to navigate if they’ve never been given the experience as children. 

As the children of millennials have grown, children raised by parents who refused to set adequate boundaries, they are facing sky-rocketing levels of anxiety and depression. There’s obviously something amiss with how we’re bringing up the next generation. Parents like Doemland are an extreme example of a generation unable and unwilling to actively parent, but there are striking and undeniable similarities between her and how millions of other millennial parents are raising their kids. Doemland is tabloid fodder, but she should also serve as an avatar and warning about the culture of permissive parenting that is pervasive among those of her generation.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”