Free-Range Parenting Can Make Your Toddler Smarter


toddler playgroundI had one of those toddlers who hates putting on a coat. Actually, I think they all come that way. I remember reading in one of my child-rearing books that when my son said "no" to the coat I should calmly wrestle him down and put the coat on him: That means "yes." Obviously I was strong enough to pull that off -- well, just barely. But I went a totally different way. I let him walk out coatless.

Keep in mind it doesn't get dangerously cold where I live. We hover around the 30s and 40s for most of the winter. But for me, letting my son take minor physical risks like this and learn from experience has been more important than teaching him unconditional obedience, especially when he was a toddler.

When it comes to wearing a coat, my son caught on pretty quickly. I always carried the coat out with us, and he'd tottle down the block, maybe a couple blocks, before he would realize that he was uncomfortably cold and maybe that coat was not such a terrible inconvenience after all. Meanwhile, I'd endure some of those accusatory stares from strangers. HOW could I risk my son's health like that?

Well, I'm happy to report that my son has a ridiculously robust immune system. Going coatless did not make him sick, ever. It just made him sensible.

I've let my son test out his physical limits in many other ways. I've let him jump off playground equipment, sit on backless stools, touch the hot radiator, and climb his loft bed from the back end. We've seen some scratches and bruises, but so far we've had no broken bones or burns. And obviously, I've stopped him from any activities that could cause serious injury. As a result, he's incredibly cautious and knows his limits. And yes, if I had a daughter I would be the same way.

Maybe it's because I grew up in the western states with a large family, but we don't focus on hovering and protecting our son from every possible injury. Yet here in my East-Coast, urban neighborhood it's not unusual to see toddlers wearing a helmet, knee pads, and elbow pads just to ride a tricycle down the sidewalk. I get that instinct to protect. You don't want your child to experience a painful moment ever in their life. But what I've learned is that toddlers learn from little scrapes. And I think the lessons are worth it.

Do you let your toddler take small physical risks? How do you judge what's not dangerous?


Image via Mary McKinnon/Flickr

learning, play, safety, toddler activities, toddler health, toddler development


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nonmember avatar rhianon

Most definately! I think its soo important for toddlers especially to figure things out for themselves like that, especially with falling and getting burnt how are they going to kno it could really hurt them unless they have a couple close calls. I just judge by what I know my daughter is capable of. Loved this article!

ebmmy... ebmmy2004

I agree with you completely. My mother was the same way with me and my brothers... kids get hurt its part of life. She never let us do anything life threating but if we wanted to climb up the bunk bed the wrong way, she'd warn us... "you better be careful cause you can fall" we'd do it anyway, and sometimes we'd fall and sometimes we wouldn't its all about teaching your kids to make their own decisions and thats how they learn is by making mistakes, and if they decide two blocks from the house that... "holy crud its cold out I want that jacket now" then there ya go! 

Melis... Melissa042807

Yep, I follow the Jeff Foxworthy method of parenting - "Eh, let him pull it down on his head a couple of times, he'll learn!" :-) 

Of course I'd never let my toddler do anything really dangerous. But minor things? Sometimes they need to learn by experience, so that in the future they believe you when you warn them not to do something. 

jagam... jagamama0710

I do this with my almost 2 year old. Well, not anymore because he doesn't fight the coat. But when it started getting cold in the fall he would fight me on the coat like nobody's business. I pick my battles and the coat battle is not one I choose to fight. Sometimes he wouldn't say anything (like when we're just going from car to store) and other times he would say "boooo coat" and I would put it on him. 

By the way, it's a myth that going outside without your coat will make you sick. Viruses make you sick, not cooler temperatures. 

zombi... zombiemommy916

I was raised that way and I will raise mine the same...My daughter is 9 and my son is 6 and they both have had perfect attendance in school (I kid you not), we hardly know our pediatrician and we've never visited an ER for anything...I encourage my kids to "shake it off" when they get a bump or bruise...My son was riding a two-wheeler by the time he was 3! The point to all that info is...let kids be kids and have an actual dirt, fall off their bike ( knee pads), play in the creek...HAVE FUN, be gets way more complicated later on and no amount of helmets and Sanitizer can protect you com that..

AliNo... AliNoelle

Unless it's really dangerous I am a firm believer in "they'll only do it once and then they'll learn". I was raised this way myself and I am still in one piece. Plus how are kids ever going to learn to be functional adults if they can't learn from their own actions?

momto... momtolittleg

Yep, I'm with you!

As a teacher, I tell my students that if they choose to not wear a coat, it is ALL on them.  By second grade, you should know when you are cold or hot.  I'm just waiting for a parent to come in and bitch me out for not making their precious baby wear a coat.  Sorry, but I have more important battles to fight..

nonmember avatar rhianon

Zombiemommy I agree completely, and may be slightly in love with you lol I never wore kneepads, rode my bike straght into a creek, still alive and know that bikes and creeks don't mix. I remember going really far away from my house, to visit friends go to. Different park, whatever, stuff like that makes kids turn into better people in the end you have to have experiences and knowledge

katyq katyq

I definately agree with this. I'm not a full on free range mom but I certainly don't hover. My son is 19 months and I remember taking him to the play area at the mall when he was 8 and 9 months old, he hadn't started walking independently yet but held onto things to get around and loved to crawl up and down stairs...which is normal right? i would just stand by him and let him do his thing but I was the only parent that did that. All of these other moms and dads would run over and grab their child off of the stairs to the slide and say "no no no" and put them on the ground, every time. It's absurd. Kids aren't mentally slow, they are the extreme opposite, they are learning so much constantly and if they fall once, they won't do what they did to fall a second time.

jagam... jagamama0710

Did you purposely change the title of this to attract more people and cause controversy? Because it wasn't "free range parenting can make your toddler smarter". lol 

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