PORTLAND, Maine — A family in Portland says they’re taking on what’s called a free range parenting style to give their daughter more independence growing up. While some say the style gives kids too much freedom, Sarah Cushman and Robert Levin say it’s simply going back to how they grew up. Their daughter, 8-year-old Cedar Levin, walks to her elementary school in Portland without them.
“She’s 8 and really well equipped. She’s pretty mature and is really into exploring the world,” said Cushman.
Cedar doesn’t walk to school completely alone but with a friend. Cushman feels this is a better way for her to explore the world than with her mom always by her side.
“There’s some magic I think that happens when we’re liberated from those structures of grownups you know hanging around,” said Cushman,
Not all parents agree.
“I’d be panicking, yeah,” says Emily Keef, who has a 6½-year-old son. Keef says she’s very consistent with boundaries.
“He, I think, would be happy to do that. He’s very independent,” said Keef. “I think I’m more just like, ‘OK, I need to know where you’re going to be, of course, where you’re going to be going.’”
Keef says as a mom she tries to be very consistent with boundaries for her son.
“The world is a big place and I don’t ever assume that people are going to be safe even if they look like a trustworthy adult,” said Keef.
Cushman and her husband, Robert Levin, say they slowly started giving their daughter more freedom, allowing her to run an errand for them at the store down the street alone, then to the park, and now to school. They say they made sure she was ready first, giving her walkie talkies for the trips at first, and then having her get her “Walker’s License,” which they made up.
“We walked with them for a couple of weeks to make sure we felt comfortable with the route and traffic safety and their own ability to cross the street comfortably and safely,” says Cushman.
Other free-range parents have taken heat for the parenting style and even been accused of child neglect. In February Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Spring, Maryland, made headlines for letting their children, ages 6 and 10, walk without them to a park. On April 12, police picked their kids up and brought them to Child Protective Services after receiving a call that they were alone at a park. The couple did get their children back, after agreeing that they would change their parenting style, and not leave them unattended.
Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services Director Jim Martin tells CBS 13 parents can get in trouble with this parenting style if there’s reason to believe their child or children’s’ safety and well-being is at risk.
“Certainly if there was a threat or harm present and the parent was not protecting child even though that threat was known there may be risks associated with that,” says Martin.
He says every child and family is different in terms of how much freedom they can have but the state would intervene if there is a complaint that the child is at risk. He suggests parents talk to their children and assess whether their child has the capacity to know about dangers in the world and to create a safety plan in case they run into trouble.
Martin says in Maine there is no specific age when a child can or cannot walk themselves to a park or to school.
“I wish it was that easy,” said Martin. “Especially in child welfare, nothing is black and white.”
Aside from making sure kids stay safe, Martin agrees with other parents that there is no formula when it comes to parenting.
Rather than any backlash, Cushman hopes she and her husband’s parenting style just opens up new ideas for other parents.
“I would hope for most parents they get a chance to try in little steps in whatever way they feel comfortable letting go, letting go in a mindful way,” says Cushman.
“We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t feel safe,” says Robert Levin. “We’re not just trying to make a statement. I think we’re looking at all the information out there. Crime rates are lower than decades ago and Maine is a safe place.”