Free-range parenting experiment leaves at least one kid in tears

Twelve young children were given a completely free evening without any parental guidelines. How did this experiment end?

 Pillow fight (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Pillow fight
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

A new Australian program explores several different parenting styles and examines what the boundaries of parents and children are, how a parent reacts to other parents’ choices, and what can we learn and incorporate into our own parenting. It also looks at what is the best way to allow children to spend time at a party where everything is allowed.

It was a moment every child probably wishes for: An evening without rules, with other children but without parents, accompanied by chocolate fountains, mattress slides and a crazy pillow fight. But the experiment in Australia's new hit program "Parental Guidance" took a toll on some children and on their parents.

The program, accompanied by Australian parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson, has 10 couples with completely different parenting styles compete in challenges with their children for three weeks. In a recent episode, the facilitators gave control of all 12 children for one night to Penny and Daniel, whose parenting style is defined as “free-range parenting,” which gives maximum independence to children. The parents organized a “storm party” for the children.

"Free parenting is not a completely permissive thing that allows children to go wild,” Coulson explained. “Many of these children have not experienced such a level of autonomy. It may not be easy for them. We as free parents believe our children have good values. When children are given a choice, what do they want to do? 

“I think what will happen is that our values will prevail,” he said.

But, when the kids stepped into a giant chocolate fountain with marshmallows, one young boy admitted: “My parents would never allow this.”

Freedom proved too much for young Jagan who burst into tears and had to be comforted by his friend Daniel even before the party started. 

His father Tony, who was watching from the sidelines, revealed: “I could see him thinking, “What's going to happen?” His father said that Jagan “likes his bedtime at 8:30 p.m. He doesn’t like anyone talking. He needs his fan. He’s quite anxious about his routine."

At an “enabling” party for children, as at a party where the children are free to do anything they choose, the kids enjoyed sliding on mattresses down the stairs and unlimited access to the computer and video games as their parents watched them in horror. 

“Why are all three of our children gathered around a screen?” one couple asked from the sidelines. Another concerned parent added that there was no sense of family, that most of the children just did their thing, whatever they wanted to do, but the sense of collective togetherness wasn’t there. 

Coulson admitted: “I imagine most parents will feel quite uncomfortable with the breathtaking informality.” 

He added that it’s “each person for himself.” The kids come and go as they please, the parents don’t initiate any routines or intervene if there are problems.

He welcomed this free and easy parenting style and said it has its benefits if there are also some limitations. 

"One thing we saw with free parenting is that it’s not permissive," he said at the end of the experiment. "It doesn’t allow children to do as much as they please. They still have boundaries. They just want their children to experience life."