The concept of free-range products and branding is spectacularly successful in the culinary world. I must admit I appreciate and buy into the concept of free-range in that arena. In the context of parenting the concept of free-parenting is associated with granting children with substantial amounts of autonomy and independence; through this freedom (in theory) comes a greater understanding of self, responsibility, and accountability. One crucial tenet of this parenting philosophy is that said freedoms are delivered in age-appropriate increments. In fact, when I first introduced my theory regarding a rogue branch of free-range parenting, the free-range purists from the Internet came unhinged and unleashed their chat-room fury into the comments section of my article. How dare I confuse their vintage concept with modern day reality?

So, yeah, free-range parenting in its traditional and pragmatic sense is wonderful, but there’s a glitch in the matrix. This once well-intentioned approach to parenting has experienced a split. As such, an off-shoot has morphed into its own branch of ineffective parenting: rogue free-range parenting. While I do appreciate the original stance on independence and autonomy (especially as a welcome breath of fresh air when compared to helicopter parenting), I do not support the concept of new morphed free-range parenting as a parental strategy.

Rogue free-range parenting exists when a child's needs are provided in-excess of typical freedoms and entitlements (in either scope or sequence), typically both. It exists when the freedoms and access granted to the child accelerate them ahead in life into time-and-life experiences for which they are not designed for nor prepared for. And too much too soon produces teenagers unable or unwilling to leave the nest.

For many teens, earlier-than-needed freedoms come in the form of a ride-sharing account, an inconsistent or not-at-all curfew, permission to use, have or carry a fake ID, or a wristband to a music festival or a week of partying over spring break. These examples might sound extreme (or totally crazy), but they have become increasingly normal, as high school is taking over (experientially) as the new college.

These tangibles have become status quo and symbols of status. Ride-sharing, Fake ID, all-access wristbands. They are social capital. In the same way, I was given an allowance by my parents, many of today’s teens are provided an allowance in the form of social capital and access. The college experience delivered in advance; but like a payday advance loan, the high interest paid on the back-end will overwhelmingly outweigh the initial benefits. Adult situations granted prematurely are dangerous to our teens and damage the still-developing adolescent brain.

In the past several years there has been a substantial uptick in the number of college freshmen who return early from college. Certainly, each student’s experience is unique, and I’m not judge and jury as to whether they should return--nor devalue them for returning--as in many ways, it's not their fault. For many early-returners, home is simply the more viable option. Within a few months in an unfamiliar environment, a realization is formed: they are unable to cope with their new reality. Or they simply aren’t ready. Which leads to the important question: why?  

Common landmines for a new college student from these upbringings are professors who won’t excuse missing class; peers who won’t share their homework; roommates who prioritize around academics instead of parties; and realizing there is not standard extra credit or re-dos after back-burning long-term assessment preparation. The return home from college is undeniable evidence of the unintended consequences of free-range parenting gone rogue.

Traditionally the allure of college is newfound freedom: both intellectually and more so, socially. But parents are producing products that are more advanced than the environment they are entering. When I went to college I had significantly fewer rules and restrictions. Now our college freshmen are finding the opposite. Colleges have non-negotiable consequences regarding alcohol and behavior. Non-negotiable standards regarding intellectual property and plagiarism. Professors are not interested in why they missed a class or a test.

Systemically our children are being failed by the rogue free-range parenting systems in place at home in affluent communities. Why could we expect these children to want to live in an environment with more tangible consequences and less tangible access than the home they left. Certainly, they have already had the college experience. Unfortunately, their college experience happened in high school, thereby establishing an unquenchable thirst or unattainable bar (to pun intended) to which most college experiences will not (under healthy or lasting circumstances) provide.

Build the fence and they’ll play in the yard.  Again, this is not to promote the advent of overly sheltered kids. Parenting is crazy. It is exhausting. It is hard to say no, and excruciatingly painful to hear I hate you and be emotionally beaten down a hormonal teenager.  But more painful will be parenting them at that level for the rest of their lives, devoid of coping skills as they remain ever-grasping to the concept that you, as a parent, owe them anything beyond the roof over their head, the clothes on their back and food on their plate. The rest, as they say, is gravy; just make sure it’s organic.