Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book review: Free Range Kids

The last book I read on my reading binge last week was Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry by Lenore Skenazy. I definitely liked it. The style was really enjoyable to read (if I'm going to spend my time reading a book, I demand a good style) and very matter-of-fact. Skenazy expresses at various times the wish that you're reading the book with a cup of coffee or smooshed out on the table, and I liked that. It felt like a conversation.

I also mostly agreed with her ideas. Skenazy was called "America's Worst Mother" for allowing her elementary-school son to ride the New York subway by himself and writing an article about it. When I heard her explain it, it really didn't sound so bad. Her son had ridden the subway with her tons of times and just wanted a chance to try it by himself -- for a short distance -- in a familiar area -- in the daytime. Fifty years ago, no one would have given that sort of thing a second thought!

But what about crime? Well, Skenazy has statistics for that. Crime has gone down a ton since the nineties, and is at levels similar to the seventies. So the objection, "Well, when we were kids, that was fine, but no way kids can do that nowadays," doesn't really hold water.

Lest she seem careless, she does include a section on what to fear and what not to fear. Child abduction is something not to fear. Sensationalized news stories and graphic fictional shows give us the impression that it happens all the time, but Skenazy tells us our child is more likely to be struck by lightning. Twice. On a Tuesday. Or something like that (I had to give the book back to the library). Are there things you can do to avoid abduction? Yes, teach kids not to go off with strangers. But never letting your child go out of your sight till they're 18 isn't necessary.

Something you should be afraid of is water. Drowning is a big killer of kids! So she urges supervising children around water and teaching them about water safety at the earliest possible age. She also talks about car safety and choking.

So, the likely objection people would raise is this: Sure, the chance of something bad happening in x situation (say, letting my kid play in the front yard while I'm indoors) is vanishingly small. But there is a risk, and I don't take risks with my child's safety. I can just make them come inside if I have to be inside. We should never, ever, take the smallest risk with our kids.

Skenazy's answer is, there's a risk on both sides of the equation. If you let your child play outside, there is a vanishingly small risk that he will be hit by a meteor or abducted by a random passerby. But if you bring him inside all the time, there is a large risk that he will play video games instead of playing outside. This can cause obesity. More importantly, he will think he is incapable of being outside by himself. He will fail to learn the independence he will eventually need.

So Skenazy isn't being cavalier about risk. Instead, she's taking calculated risks for a clear benefit -- teaching her children to be independent and confident. In fact, she says that the risk-avoidance of today's modern parents shares some of the characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder: parents check and double-check any conceivable safety risk because it makes them feel they are doing something and helps alleviate their constant fear. We live in fear that something could happen to our kids, and we make ourselves feel better by keeping them indoors, throwing away their Halloween candy (do you know there has NEVER been a report of tainted Halloween candy? EVER?) and double-checking every single thing they do. It's no way to live.

Now, I haven't really dealt with this on any large scale. Skenazy describes New York parents who won't let their children do anything -- to the point of freaking out if kids on a playdate leave the other parent's house (with the parent along!) or making long lists of safety regulations based on imaginary scenarios that never happen. (An example she gave was the "bus safety dad" who told all the kids not to buckle the waist straps on their backpacks. Why? The child might be too slow getting off the bus, and the bus driver might not notice and close the door on their backpack, and the child would be too panicky to remove the strap, so they would be dragged for blocks along the road by their backpack! Has this ever happened? Of course not!)

So she advises such parents to start slow. Let the children bake a cake on their own, messing it up if necessary. Let them answer the phone (and show them how). Let them walk home from the bus stop instead of picking them up. Let them ride their bikes the whole way around the block. (I got fired once for letting the eight-year-old I was nannying do that, in a safe area. It just seemed okay to me, and I did shadow him the first time he did it to make sure.)

But if you and your kids are ready and confident, she sees no reason to stop children from walking to the park, picking up a few groceries, or riding public transit alone. It depends on their age and maturity level, but she says you know best what your kids are capable of doing. Unfortunately, the world is full of nosey Nellies who will panic at seeing a 10-year-old unattended. There was a time when a 10-year-old could babysit his younger siblings, and now it's considered a shock to see one a block from home without a parent! So she gives advice for dealing with well-meaning strangers and even police who try to stop kids from going out by themselves, even including a "Free-Range License" which states, "I am a Free-Range Kid. I have permission to be here, and my mom knows where I am. You can call her at ___________."

Here in my own neighborhood, the disease of panicky parenting clearly has not set in. A gang of kids from about 12 down to 3 is always playing in the street. Sometimes there's a parent on one of the stoops. The rest of the time, presumably they're keeping an eye out the window. The kids aren't a nuisance -- they just ride their bikes, pogo sticks, and scooters up and down the block till the street lights come on. They seem to enjoy themselves, and they're certainly not playing computer games or watching TV all day.

But occasionally I do see a bit of it. A few weeks ago, when I was still working, I was hanging around with the baby on the church grounds. It's a nice little garden that fronts on the parish school, and isn't near the street. The baby started wandering away from me while I was grading. I was curious to see how far he would feel comfortable going (he goes back and forth between clinging like a barnacle to my legs and dashing for the street without a backward glance) so I stayed put. He went about 30 feet away and stood near the door of the school, picking tiny flowers off the bushes.

Part of me wanted to go hover over him, because I know that's standard practice. But I stood (or rather sat) my ground because I wanted him to be comfortable not having someone hang over him, and because I knew there was nothing dangerous near him. But every single parent who went into that school was shocked. "Where's your mother?!" they would ask him, looking everywhere but where I was, right in view on my bench. I would wave and they would move on, still exclaiming, "I thought he was here all by himself!" But finally, one mom just scooped him up and carried him into the school! I dashed after her and reclaimed my bewildered kid. She had thought he had been left out there by accident.

I took Marko back to my bench and stood him up near me again. But he burst into tears and refused to go play anymore. He had to be held. He had felt safe 30 feet from me, in my sight, and it had turned out that it wasn't safe, because a stranger had picked him up and taken him away from me. That confidence he had had was gone. It made me sad.

My mom, too, has had an obstacle to free-range parenting herself on the Army post where she lives. She likes to let the younger kids (seven and five, and sometimes the almost-three-year-old) play in the front yard while she homeschools the oldest and watches the younger ones from the window. People were really nice about it and would talk to the kids as they played. But there may have been a complaint, because soon there was an order handed down from above: "Children must be seven years old to play alone outside. Children under seven must be supervised by an adult who is outside with them."

It disappointed the kids not to have that excitement of being grown-up and getting to play outside by themselves. It also made my mom's job a lot harder, having to worry about what to do with the younger kids during homeschooling time. And there's no real reason for it, because it's an Army post. You need a host of paperwork to even be allowed on base in the first place! My five-year-old sister is quite capable, especially with her brothers around, of understanding the instruction to stay in the yard and not go anywhere. If one of them were hurt, another could easily run and get Mom, 20 feet away. But this order, handed down by someone who doesn't know the kids, keeps parents from making their own decisions about what their kids are and aren't ready for.

That just makes me mad.

I do think this book helps the situation. Skenazy gives 14 commandments that help parents trust their kids a little more while still keeping them safe. She also recommends worrying less.

So what didn't I like? Well, she's kind of down on parenting books. It seems a silly attitude, especially because her readers must be okay with them, since they're reading one! She basically says they are just trying to make you into an uber-parent, telling you that if you do everything right your child will turn out better. The example she used, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, supposedly will make parents feel bad because if they don't respond to tantrums in the prescribed way, their children will end up in therapy. And that's not at all the point of that book -- it's about getting better cooperation out of your toddler now and making parents' lives easier. Like I've mentioned before, not everything you do for your kids is about forming the adult they will someday become -- some of it is about dealing with the child you actually have now.

I admit it -- I'm a parenting book addict. I know that some are ridiculous or put a huge amount of pressure on parents. But some are a really useful resource when you're looking for ideas to add to your parenting toolbag. So I couldn't help but leap to their defense.

Other than that, I thought it was a great book and am interested in letting my child grow up a little bit free-range. In our neighborhood, that should be pretty easy!


CatholicMommy said...

Great review! I'll look for this at our library next time we go.

Katie said...

Do you ever read Betty Duffy's blog? She just did a series of posts related to this topic. Here's the first one (of four, I think?):

Katie said...

Oh, another book on the subject (well, it has a chapter devoted to the subject): Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.

Sorry - I've been on a parenting-book kick lately, too. I'll definitely add Free Range Kids to the list!

Sheila said...

I also would recommend The Idle Parent (review coming soon) and 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.

Freedom for kids!

Enbrethiliel said...


I think it's getting harder and harder, no matter where you are in the world, to raise free-range children.

There is a curmudgeonly old columnist I read who remembers the freedom of his childhood in the 1950s. Hunting, fishing, canoeing, biking, pick-up basketball--all without any adult supervision whatsoever--in his rural hometown. I don't know if children growing up in the same place today still get that much trust from the adults in the community, but the implication I got from his column is that they don't.

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