Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy: Bringing Some Sanity Back to Parenting Debates

by on June 5, 2009 · 140 comments

free-range-coverWhen it comes to theories about how to best raise kids, I’m a big believer in what might be referred to “a resiliency approach” to child-rearing.  That is, instead of endlessly coddling our children and hovering over them like “helicopter parents,” as so many parents do today, I believe it makes more sense to instill some core values and common sense principles and then give them some breathing room to live life and learn lessons from it.  Yes, that includes making mistakes.  And, oh yes, your little darlings might actually gets some bump and bruises along the way — or at least have their egos bruised in the process.  But this is how kids learn lessons and become responsible adults and citizens.  Wrapping them in bubble wrap and filling their heads without nothing but fear about the outside would will ultimately lead to the opposite: sheltered, immature, irresponsible, and unprepared young adults — many of whom expect someone else (the government, their college, their employer, or still their parents!) to be there to take care of them well into their 20’s or even 30’s.  Again, you gotta let kids live a little and learn from their experiences.

This explains why I find Lenore Skenazy’s new book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, to be such a breath of fresh air.  [Here’s her blog of the same name.] She argues that “if we try to prevent every possible danger of difficult in our child’s everyday life, that child never gets a chance to grow up.” (p. 5) As she told Salon recently:

You want kids to feel like the world isn’t so dangerous. You want to teach them how to cross the street safely. You want to teach them that you never go off with a stranger. You teach them what to do in an emergency, and then you assume that generally emergencies don’t happen, but they’re prepared if they do. Then, you let them go out.

The fun of childhood is not holding your mom’s hand. The fun of childhood is when you don’t have to hold your mom’s hand, when you’ve done something that you can feel proud of. To take all those possibilities away from our kids seems like saying: “I’m giving you the greatest gift of all, I’m giving you safety. Oh, and by the way I’m taking away your childhood and any sense of self-confidence or pride. I hope you don’t mind.”

Exactly right, in my opinion. Again, let kids live and learn from it.  Teach lessons but then encourage ‘learning by doing’ and let them understand these things for themselves.  That is resiliency theory in a nutshell.

When writing about Gever Tulley’s brilliant “Tinkering School” in this post last year, I noted how I have already started teaching my kids how to use various tools even though they are both under the age of 8.  One of my safety-obsessed yuppie friends stopped by one day to get something and saw my kids playing with hammers, nails, and saws and he thought I was nuts.  But it is he who is nuts for shielding his kids to the joys of learning to build something with their own hands (and for denying them the skills to actually do some honest-to-God manual labor when they get older)!  Have my kids hammered their thumbs on occasion? Yep.  Have they cut or poked their fingers? Check.  But you know what? They bounced back and learned how to be more careful. It’s not like I put a nail gun or power saw in their hands and let them go at it!  But there will be a day that they will be competent enough to know how to use such tools properly, especially because I drill some basic lessons into them each time we pull out those tools. Without me even saying so anymore, they already put on their safety goggles and take other common sense precautions before they use such tools.

Why is it that things have gotten so out of whack, with parents instilling so much fear in their kids about the world?  Skenazy rightly notes that the fundamental problem is that “a lot of parents today are really bad at assessing risk.” (p. 5)  Parents today suffer from “extravagant worry,” she notes. “Extravagant in that it inflates remote possibilities into looming threats that we think we have to watch out for.” (p. 93) “Worrying,” she argues, “has become our national pastime.” (p. 94) “What has changed over the past generation or so is than now people worry… about every activity, even ones that used to be considered simple and pleasant,” she says. (p. 42). Camping, ball games, bike rides, walking to school, etc., are increasingly going out of style. “Millions of moms and almost (but not quite as many) dads now see the world as so fraught with danger that they can’t possibly let their children explore it.” (p. 5)  “And the result is a lot of people so busy preparing for the hideous and unpredictable future that they think nothing of trampling the safe and happy present.” (p. 44)

This has spawned the rise of what Skenazy refers to as the “Just In Case” and “Total Control” mentalities that exist among many parents throughout society today. Many modern parents seem to believe that with just enough safety locks, knee pads, toilet locks, stair gates, and so on, they can keep their kids perfectly safe from all the harms of the world —  both real or (more likely) imagined. Alas, Skenazy argues, “Control is a figment of our imagination. Seeking it only make us more anxious.” (p. 92)  Worse yet, after wrapping those kids in all that bubble wrap, a lot of these same parents force nonsense on them like Baby Einstein videos and Mozart tapes at very young ages hoping that will make those kids geniuses in later life.  It’s more likely they’ll grow up to be Ted Kaczynski.

But if Skenazy is right in arguing that most parents now behave as if “normal childhood has just become too risky to permit,” think of the long-term consequences that has on kids.  Such a relentlessly fear-based mentality breeds distrust, even loathing, of the outside world and all others in it.  Moreover, as I mentioned at the outset, excessive coddling makes it impossible to learn life lessons and build resiliency and responsibility into youngster such that they can go on to become productive citizens.

Skenazy also has some common sense thoughts on the over-hyped issue of Internet sexual predation. As she told Salon:

The world online turns out to be not very different from the world offline. There are some really seedy neighborhoods where you wouldn’t want your kids hanging out, especially if they were wearing high-heeled shoes and fishnets stockings at night. If your kids don’t go there, then your kids are not going to be stalked by predators just looking up prom pictures on Facebook.

Again, exactly right.  And yet, as I have pointed out here before, an irrational “techno-panic” has taken place in recent years over this issue even though the research just doesn’t back up the claim that predators are lurking on every cyber-corner.  Moreover, there’s not a stalker or a child abductor hanging out on every real world corner either. As she notes in the book, “the number of children abducted and killed by strangers [has held] pretty steady over the years — about 1 in 1.5 million. Put another way, the chances of any one American child being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are almost infinitesimally small: .00007 percent.” (p. 16)  And yet, parents today are practically paralyzed by the fear that if they let their kids out of their sight for even a millisecond, they will be snatched.

Skenazy blames sensationalized news coverage for much of this, and I tend to agree.  Even though there are many other tragic ways young kids die each year — and do so in far greater numbers — the media tends to focus on the freakishly rare missing child or abduction scenario until they have whipped up a full-blown public panic.  Incidentally, when those exceedingly rare abductions do take place, it is almost never at the hands of a complete stranger. Generally speaking, abductions by strangers “represent an extremely small portion of all missing children [cases].”  That conclusion was a central finding of the 2002 National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), a study conducted by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  Instead, it’s known acquaintances and family members that represent the overwhelming portion of offenders. As psychologist Anna C. Salter, author of Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, points out, “[Sex offenders] are part of our communities, part of our network of friends, worse yet, sometimes part of our families.” Same goes for the abductions. In the vast majority of cases, it is relatives or parties close to the family (say, a disgruntled nanny) who snatches the child.  In other words, instead of being obsessed about letting your kids ride their bike around the neighborhood or play in the center of the mall, parents should be far more concerned with those they marry, date, or employ!!

In any event, read Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids.  It is beautifully written and immensely enjoyable. She is an insanely gifted writer that will keep you thinking and laughing at the same time.  That’s a rare gift, and her book is a much-needed gift to over-worried parents everywhere.  Read this book, stop worrying, and then tell you kid to go outside and play!


P.S. Quick closing rant… Can I just tell you how much I hate the scumbag trial lawyers who have made it impossible for my kids to experience the joys of diving boards at the local pool.  Steve Moore of The Wall Street Journal, who takes his kids to the same McLean pool my kids go to, explains how some greedy leeches lawyers have made it impossible for pools like ours to keep high-dive board around like we had growing up.  Maybe we should just ban pools altogether while we’re at it.  Fence-off all the lakes and streams, too.  After all, kids could drown!!

Incidentally, this reminds me of the most sensible thing every written about online child safety. In 2002, a blue-ribbon panel of experts was convened by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to study how best to protect children in our new, interactive, “always-on” multimedia world.  Under the leadership of former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, the group produced a massive report that outlined a sweeping array of methods and technological controls for dealing with potentially objectionable media content or online dangers. Ultimately, however, the experts used a compelling metaphor to explain why education and sensible mentoring was the most important tool on which parents and policymakers should rely:

Technology-in the form of fences around pools, pool alarms, and locks-can help protect children from drowning in swimming pools. However, teaching a child to swim-and when to avoid pools-is a far safer approach than relying on locks, fences, and alarms to prevent him or her from drowning. Does this mean that parents should not buy fences, alarms, or locks? Of course not-because they do provide some benefit. But parents cannot rely exclusively on those devices to keep their children safe from drowning, and most parents recognize that a child who knows how to swim is less likely to be harmed than one who does not. Furthermore, teaching a child to swim and to exercise good judgment about bodies of water to avoid has applicability and relevance far beyond swimming pools-as any parent who takes a child to the beach can testify. (p. 187)

A child who knows how to swim is less likely to be harmed than one who does not.”  We could apply that lesson to just about everything in this world.  Teach your children well, and then let them live and learn.  And swim!

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