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Organic and free range usually go together like costumes and Halloween. When you’re talking about food, the labels are often used synonymously (although they’re actually pretty different, in ways that are significant). And even though “organic” is the label that’s won out as most valued in the food industry, many of those most knowledgeable on the topic argue that “free range” is actually more important when searching for healthy food.

But when it comes to kids, “free range” has a very different connotation.

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids (a book and a blog), was called “America’s Worst Mom” on the Today Show. Why? Because she let her nine year old son take the bus home from the library. Alone. Scary? Well, if you think that giving an elementary-school-aged kid that much freedom does make her a terrible mother, then you really should read her blog. Crime levels in the U.S. today are the same as they were in the 1970s–when most of us were growing up and walking to school and riding our bikes around the neighborhood–but kids today have less room to roam away from (or even outside of) their homes than ever. We escort our kids, usually by driving them, everywhere: to the playground, to school, to church, even up the street to a friend’s house.

We do this, of course, because we want our kids to be safe. Again, I’ll refer you to Lenore’s blog if you want to research how dangerous it would really be for a third- or fourth-grader to walk half a mile to school alone. (Here’s a hint: not very.) What I’d like to point out is that even in the baby and toddler years, you can start to give your child freedom. Freedom to wander, to roam, to enjoy nature, to have space, to practice skills, to learn confidence. And there are real benefits to this, even at a young age.

So how can you let a toddler be free range?

You can start by letting him out of your sight. Babyproof your house like crazy if you want to–for your own peace of mind if for no other reason. But then, let your kid play. Encourage him to play in the next room, to wander the house without you, to try things on his own. Most young kids won’t wander far from you (although it depends on their personality).

At some point, it’s okay to let a toddler play in your yard without sitting out there with him. Really. Depending on your neighborhood and your yard, of course, but if you have a fenced yard without too many holes or stairs in the area, it’s probably a pretty safe place for your toddler. One of the main selling points in our house when we bought it, for me, was the fully fenced yard. My computer is set up so I can sit at it and have a good view of the front yard through the glass French doors. I let my daughter go play in the yard while I write. She’s three. Yes, people look at her funny as they walk by. And my parents are convinced somebody’s going to walk by and kidnap her. Seriously? I think I would notice.

Start teaching your baby or toddler skills that will enable independence. As soon as he’s mobile, teach him how to safely climb up and down stairs and how to navigate any dangers in your house. Give him lots of practice with you helping, and by the time he’s walking, you’ll know you can trust him on the stairs alone. As soon as he’s walking, take him on walks–not just in the stroller–and start teaching him to navigate your neighborhood. Go around the block, and ask him which way you should go to get home. Plan on giving him a few years to practice finding his way around with you, and by the time he’s five or six, you won’t worry about him walking alone up the street to a friend’s house. I just started teaching my three year old how to cross the main street that lies between us and the park. Every time we walk to the park, I ask her to look at the crosswalk and tell me if it’s safe to cross. I figure after she’s done it with me for a few years, I’ll feel comfortable letting her cross alone.

Teach toddlers accurate information about strangers–and encourage them to trust their judgement. I really hate it that we teach kids to never talk to strangers. Not only is it impossible (how are you going to buy a movie ticket? purchase groceries? ask directions if you’re lost?), but it’s hypocritical (adults talk to strangers all the time). But teach your kids how to interact with strangers. Teach them what kinds of interactions are appropriate with strangers (like saying hi) and what interactions are not appropriate (like offering a ride home). And teach them to trust their judgement about strangers, because a lot of the time kids–and adults, too–have a pretty good sense of whether a stranger is dangerous or not. Keep in mind that your Great Aunt Mary is a stranger to your toddler, and don’t force him to kiss her if he’s scared of her. Great Aunt Mary will get over it. Introduce them and give your toddler a chance to get to know her before he has to treat her like family.

As I try to practice this, I’m realizing it isn’t the most popular style of parenting. At best, people worry about your kids. Just the other day I let my daughter run ahead of me to the playground. We were both in the park, and she’s been walking to the playground with me for years. She knows the way. She was out of my sight for five to ten seconds, at most. But that was long enough for my neighbor to see her and wonder where the heck I was. The neighbor mentioned it to me later, saying she was worried for a second because she saw my little girl running and didn’t see me. Granted, the fact that I have neighbors like that is part of the reason why I think it’ll be safe for my daughter to walk to school alone in elementary school–because I know the families in our neighborhood, and I know there will be people who will look out for her if she needs it. But the truth is that most people are like that. Yes, there are bad guys out there. But they’re outnumbered by good guys. And yes, I know it only takes one bad guy. But all of our kids will eventually grow up and have to navigate the world alone. Do we want them to practice that when we’re around? Or do we want them to be thrown into it the day they turn eighteen, with no practice ahead of time?

Ultimately, it’s a question of balance. We have to balance our fear as parents, and our desire to protect our children, with their need to develop skills, confidence, and independence. But there are real costs on both sides. It’s not just a choice between safety and danger. As with free-range food, the benefits are often hard to see in the short term. But that doesn’t make them any less important.