Saturday, June 12, 2010

Free-Range Kids, Part 2: And Here Are Its Shortcomings

Free-Range Commandments 8 and 9 are “Study History: Your Ten-Year-Old Would Have Been Forging Horseshoes (or at Least Delivering Papers),” and “Be Worldly: Why Other Countries Are Laughing at zee Scardey-Cat Americans.”

In many ways, these two chapters provide a lot of helpful perspective. For example, Mark Twain started work as an apprentice printer when he was 11 or 12. Herman Melville went off on a whaling ship (a very hard life) at the age of 16, abandoned ship, and was captured by cannibals. Ben Franklin began his apprenticeship with his older brother when he was twelve. “In colonial America, especially in colonial New England, it was not uncommon to send off children who were very young – six, seven, eight, nine – to live with other families as servants” (page 70). Today, Skenazy points out, in most cities a kid cannot even get a job delivering papers. Cities are too spread out for bicycle delivery, and newspapers are worried about liability (page 71).

The point is well taken. The benefits of kids going to work - especially before the Industrial Age made hours longer and work unskilled, repetitive, and brutal – were that the kids were learning actual skills, with lots and lots of mentoring and practice. “Adults and children worked together, and there wasn’t such a huge gulf between them. Children were expected to rise to the adulthood all around them, not stew in adorable incompetence” (72 – 73). That is why those who did great achievements, often were ready to do so in their 20s, an age when many of us today don’t have any skills or experience yet.

Those are the benefits. However. The Cinderella story reminds us that the fate of a kid sent to be a servant in someone else’s home was not always the cheeriest. Colonial kids got the benefits of learning adult skills; they also got beatings, deprivation, pneumonia, etc. Skenazy’s point is not that their existence was ideal, merely that they survived to become competent and often compassionate adults. And if they could survive that, then our kids can survive learning to do a few things on their own.

My quibble is that Skenazy does not make this point very loudly. A sympathetic reader can infer that she is not recommending we send our six-year-olds to live in another state, but she does not actually say so.

It gets worse in the next chapter. Skenazy cites a range of practices found in other cultures, some of which are good for the kids, others not so much. Examples of good-for-you cultural practices: siblings and cousins playing together in a big field all day while their moms work (Liberia), or walking to the local chestnut tree to pick chestnuts (Germany). Not-so-good: “In more than one culture … the mother’s job is to reject the child so that the child has no choice but to join the group of youngsters who take care of each other and keep themselves occupied so their parents can work. The adored small child must suffer the trauma of growing into an object of contempt” (page 80 - 81). Gosh, surely there are ways to teach our children independence without subjecting them to rejection and contempt. But Skenazy assures us that “it just happens to work really well in about half the world.” In the polygamous Liberian family described, “the dad barely knew [his children’s] names” (page 81).

Once again, I believe Skenazy’s point is not that we should reject our kids and minimize their personal contact with their fathers. I believe her point is simply that kids can survive, and even thrive, with a lot less supervision than we think they “need.” However, that point remains latent. It comes off sounding as if Skenazy is actually recommending that we reject our kids because it will be so good for them.

This raises the whole question of what supervision is for. There are, after all, reasons to keep our kids close to us other than safety: to have fun, to express affection, to teach and mentor them. To observe their habits, likes, reactions and faults, so that we can encourage, correct, and guide them. We want children who have good character, and this takes a lot of face time and training so that they learn to have self-discipline, respect authority (in their case, primarily us), be considerate of others, etc. For a book-long development of this point, see the book or web site Raising Godly Tomatoes.

However, the kind of never-letting-the-kids-out-of-our-sight that Skenazy rightly deplores has as its main goal the kids’ physical safety. It is the classic mistake of paying too much attention to the body and not enough to the soul. The parents described in Free Range Kids keep close tabs on their kids because they’re worried about germs, skin cancer, kidnapping, bumps and bruises, not because they’re worried that their kid might have a habit of pride, rebellion or selfishness that is growing unchecked. Skenazy rightly points out that physical overprotection can be bad for the child’s soul (though she does not use that word). Unfortunately, she ends up implying that the children’s souls will be just fine with minimal input from their parents. This is just not true. Benign neglect is certainly much better for the child than obsessive overprotection, but better than both is an approach that involves lots of input and mentoring from parents combined with lots of opportunities for kids to learn adult skills, play on their own, and explore.

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.