Saturday, June 12, 2010

Free-Range Kids, Part I: This is a Great Book!

by Lenore Skenazy

“About a year ago, I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone for the first time. I knew he was ready, so I let him go. Then I wrote a column about it for the New York Sun. I had no idea what was about to hit me.”
What hit was a barrage of TV interviews and a general brouhaha. “The media dubbed me ‘America’s Worst Mom.’” And she got a lot of hate mail. But she also got a lot of mail from people who were intrigued by this new-old idea of giving older kids a little freedom. So Skenazy, who is a journalist, wrote a book.

And lest you think that Skenazy is recommending we allow our kids to, in the words of one of her fan letters, “run wild and stay out of our hair,” here are some examples of the kind of overprotection that she is addressing. A mother flips out because her 10-year-old daughter was left “alone” at a party in an ice cream parlor with her middle-school friends and their parents (page 3). A suburban mother won’t let her daughter go to the mailbox (!) by herself because “there’s just too much that could happen” (page 5). A man in New Jersey won’t let his son play basketball in his own driveway (page 6). A grammar school in Chicago warns kids about the dangers of hula hoops. The kids are forbidden to swing the hoops around their necks or arms or roll them around the playground (page 44). These examples, and others like them, introduced me to a whole world of nonsense that I had heard a lot of generalities about, but seldom encountered in such specifics. It is this kind of extremity that Skenazy is suggesting we abandon – not those ordinary measures to protect our kids that are part of good parenting. But more detail about this later.

The first part of the book contains The Fourteen Free-Range Commandments, with titles like Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference; Avoid Experts; Boycott Baby Knee Pads; and Don’t Think Like A Lawyer. Yes, there is some repetition, but not as much as you would expect. Turns out the phenomenon of overprotected kids has many factors feeding into it, such as our litigation culture, sensational TV crime shows, perfectionism and competition among parents, and what Skenazy calls “the Kiddie-Safety Industrial Complex.” All these things appeal directly to a parent’s emotions. Once you have heard about something horrible that could happen to a child, you feel you must take steps to prevent it happening to your child. Your emotions do not care if the odds that it might happen are infitesimal. The most horrible fates tend to be very, very rare, but they also have a way of gripping the mind with imagined tragedy. In the words of one of Skenazy’s sources, “The public assumes that any risk to any individual is 100 percent risk to them” (page 7).

Skenazy answers our less realistic fears with facts and statistics. For example, the chances of any one child in the U.S. being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are .00007 percent. A child is forty times more likely to die in a car crash than to be kidnapped and murdered by a stranger, twenty times more likely to drown, ten times more likely to die in a house fire, and (sadly) eighty or ninety times more likely to be molested by someone they know than by a stranger (page 184). So, applying the same logic we use when trying to avoid kidnapping, we should not allow our children to ride in a car, swim, stay inside after school, or have contact with our friends or relatives.

Of course, if you feel you cannot trust the friend or relative, DEFINITELY don’t let them alone around your child! That is common sense. But that’s really what this book is about … using common sense instead of making extreme, inflexible rules based on unlikely scenarios. Some parents might say, “OK, so the odds of X or Y happening are small. But why not take the extra precautions just to be SURE it doesn’t happen?” The answer is that the act of taking precautions out of proportion to the actual danger, itself can do other kinds of damage. For example, using a mirror that allows you to look back at your baby in the car seat while driving (which I do!), causes you to take your eyes off the road more often, increasing the likelihood of an accident. This is an example of one precaution increasing one risk. But an even stronger argument is that using a lot of unnecessary and disproportionate precautions, all throughout childhood, is virtually guaranteed to make your kids more fearful, less adept and competent in the adult world, bored, and resentful. Skenazy reprints a letter:

I’m fifteen right now and get pretty much no freedom. I’m limited to what’s inside the house and the backyard. I can’t even go as far as the sidewalk – I might be “abducted or killed.” I used to walk to a bus stop, but my dad said it was too dangerous, so he started driving me there (it’s a five-minute walk), and eventually he just started driving me to school. Today, after playing video games for two hours or so, I went downstairs and realized that the only things I could do there were eat and watch TV.

While trying to protect from stranger danger, this child’s parents have neglected one of the main tasks of parenting: to help their child develop competence, independence, skills (apprenticeship, anyone?) and a work ethic. The restrictions they put on him or her might be appropriate for a war zone, or a completely lawless country. In fact, as Skenazy points out in her conclusion, the patronizing restriction of older children to just the home sphere is parallel to the restriction many suburban wives experienced in the 1950’s and 60’s, described in The Feminine Mystique. Not to mention that the only activities available to this poor kid are the ones that cause obesity!

The second part of Skenazy’s book is an index of various commonly feared dangers, with a brief discussion about the actual likelihood of each, and what precautions are reasonable. Topics include metal baseball bats, choking, germs, online predators, water and toddlers, SIDS, and the supposed dangers of not breastfeeding your babies. (Kidnapping and Halloween each get an entire chapter of their own.)

Thus ends Part I of my review, which is supposed to have been a sympathetic summary of Free-Range Kids’ arguments. In Part II, I will discuss some of the weaknesses of the book.

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