The following has been reprinted with permission from sections of Lenore Skenazy’s blog, FreeRangeKids. She is also the author of Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.
About a year ago, I let my 9-year-old ride the subway by himself. He’d been asking us — my husband and me — to please take him someplace and let him find his way home by himself. So my husband and I discussed this. Our boy knows how to read a map, he speaks the language and we’re New Yorkers. We’re on the subway all the time.
That’s how it came to be that one sunny Sunday, after lunch at McDonald’s, I took him to Bloomingdales…and left him in the handbag department.
I didn’t leave him unprepared, of course! I gave him a map, a MetroCard, quarters for the phone and $20 for emergencies. Bloomingdale’s sits on top of a subway station on our local line, and it’s always crowded with shoppers. I believed he’d be safe. I believed he could figure out his way. And if he needed to ask someone for directions — which it turns out he did — I even believed the person would not think, “Gee, I was about to go home with my nice, new Bloomingdale’s shirt. But now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”
Long story short: He got home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence. I wrote a little column about his adventure and two days later I was on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News defending myself as NOT “America’s Worst Mom.”
The notion was that I had deliberately put my son in harm’s way (possibly to “prove” something) and I was just incredibly lucky that he made it home. One NPR caller asked why I had given my son “one day of fun” even though he would probably end up dead by nightfall.
Yes, that’s what it took for me to learn just what a hot-button this is — this issue of whether good parents ever let their kids out of their sight. But even as the anchors were having a field day with the story, many of the cameramen and make up people were pulling me aside to say that THEY had been allowed to get around by themselves as kids– and boy were they glad. They relished the memories!
Had the world really become so much more dangerous in just one generation? Yes — in most people’s estimation. But no — not according to the evidence. Over at the think tank STATS.org, where they examine the way the media use statistics, researchers have found that the number of kids getting abducted by strangers actually holds very steady over the years. In 2006, that number was 115, and 40% of them were killed.
Any kid killed is a horrible tragedy. It makes my stomach plunge to even think about it. But when the numbers are about 50 kids in a country of 300 million, it’s also a very random, rare event. It is far more rare, for instance, than dying from a fall off the bed or other furniture. So should we, for safety’s sake, all start sleeping on the floor?
Well, upon reading that, I’m sure that some people will. But — let’s hope it doesn’t catch on. It’s crazy to limit our lives based on fear of a wildy remote danger. And yet, as I started speaking to people about kid safety in the last few days, I heard things that strike me as completely bizarre. One dad in an upscale suburb of New York, for instance, “lets” his 11-year-old walk one block to her best friend’s house –but she has to call the minute she arrives safely.
As if she’s been dodging sniper fire.
Another mom castigated me for my irresponsibility and proudly said that she doesn’t even let her daughter go to the mailbox in her upscale Atlanta neighborhood. There’s just too much “opportunity” for the girl to be snatched and killed. To her, I’m the crazy mom.
People who want me arrested for child abuse were sure that my son had dodged drug dealers, bullies, child molesters and psychopaths on that afternoon subway ride home by himself.
Believe me, if I lived in a city like that, I’d evacuate. But crime wise, New York City is actually on par with Provo, Utah — very safe.
Not that facts make any difference. Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe. At the same time, they’re also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods — or even took public transportation — they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing.
Our parents were watching Dallas and Dynasty, where the biggest crime was big hair. Today’s parents are drowning in bad news that comes to us instantaneously from around the world. We hear about abductions in Portugal and Aruba. I can instantly name you five girls who met ghastly ends — Caylee, Maddie, Natalee, Jon Benet, Jaycee — but our parents could never do that.
When your brain is saturated with horrifying stories like those, it is hard to focus on the millions of children NOT murdered. We don’t know THEIR names. We know the ones who are GONE. So when we try to decide, “Gee, is it safe for my child to walk to school?” we flash on the stories we have heard. Also — one interesting brain fact: The most memorable stories come to mind first. And whatever comes to mind first we usually think of as the most common. That’s just human nature, but it’s also wrong.
Anyway, in addition to all these gruesome images, we also live in crazy lawsuit time. That means that we have gotten used to schools and park districts banning things with even the tiniest chance of causing an accident that might cause a parent to sue. So our playgrounds are stripped of merry-go-rounds and slides that are higher than a worm. And we get so used to all these “safety” precautions (which are actually lawsuit precautions) that we start thinking of everyday childhood as inherently unsafe.
If you buy the DVD “Sesame Street: Old School” you’ll see kids having the world’s best time. It’s a collection of Sesame Street highlights from its first years, 1969 — 1974, and it shows kids playing Follow the Leader through a vacant lot, climbing through a giant pipe, balancing on a piece of wood, laughing as they wind their way through some sheets on the line to dry. Of course they’re happy: This was public television trying to model ideal childhood for pre-schoolers. It was put on the air after countless psychologists and child specialists signed off on it. But at the very beginning of the DVD, before you see any of this, there’s a warning:
“For adult viewing only.”
In just one generation, what was considered a normal, happy, HEALTHY childhood has become considered WILDLY dangerous. Litigiously dangerous.
We’re swimming in fear soup — fear of lawsuits, fear of injury, fear of abductions, fear of blame. (People love to blame parents for not being “responsible” enough.)
They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world. As a result, they batten down the hatches.
And then there are those who don’t.
I’m relieved to report that plenty of letters poured in with exactly the opposite viewpoint. There were more of these, in fact, than the naysayers. Parents from all over the country wrote, “Bravo!” “You’re not a bad mom!” And, “Good for you and good for your son!”
I loved getting these emails and hearing what these parents (and grandparents and friends and relatives) let their little loved ones do, but plenty of them also mentioned the dubious reactions of the other people in their community — sometimes even the other person in their bed.
So I started this site for anyone who thinks that kids need a little more freedom and would like to connect to people who feel the same way.
We are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence.
Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.
It just takes some time on the parents’ part. For us in the city, Free-Range means teaching our kids how to take public transportation. But in the ‘burbs it involves teaching them how to ride their bikes. And in either place, we also teach kids how to be safe in the very unlikely event they encounter someone creepy.
I interviewed Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. You know — the folks who put the kids’ pictures on the milk cartons (and failed to mention the vast majority were runaways or taken by the non-custodial parent in a divorce case. Oh well.)
Anyway, when I said that I think “stranger danger” is way overblown, Allen — to my great surprise — totally agreed! “Our message is exactly the one you’re trying to convey,” said he. “We have been trying to debunk the myth of ‘stranger danger.’”
What do we both suggest? Teach your kids TO talk to strangers. That way, if they’re ever creeped out by someone in the proverbial white van, they can run to the man across the street, raking his leaves, and say, “Help! I’m being followed!” Or they can run into a shop and say, “Call the police!” Or, “Can I please borrow your phone?”
Confident kids who feel at home in the world are SAFER than coddled kids who have been taught they are dainty prey without mom or dad by their side. When Allen interviewed children who had escaped potential abductions, here’s what they had in common: They stood up for themselves. They kicked, screamed, bit, and ran.
So teach your kids to do that. Same way you teach them to, “Stop, drop and roll” in the unlikely even they ever find themselves on fire. And then — send them out to build that muscle called confidence.
“Our message to parents is you don’t have to live in fear. You don’t have to feel you have to lock your children in a room.”
That’s not me talking. That’s the guy who put the pictures on the milk cartons.
What can you do to liberate your kids without going crazy with worry? Besides reading my book, of course? Well, I do give a lot of tips in it, and I’ll give a few of them here.
- Warn your family beforehand, then turn off your cell phone for a day. Better still, leave it on the nightstand so you won’t be tempted to press, “On.” Why? Mostly because one morning my 10-year-old called to ask me, “Mom? Can I have another piece of banana bread?” And I realized: Our kids are getting used to us making ALL their decisions. Even the banana bread ones. Time to stop treating them like toddlers. (At least, once they actually AREN’T toddlers.)
- When you’re standing around with a bunch of other parents all waiting for soccer to start, or school to open, or the bus to come pick them up, volunteer to watch all the kids yourself. Give the other parents a little break. This way you are creating community. It’s your way of saying we’re all in this together and we can help each other out. It’s also a way of saying, “Look, I don’t think anything so horrible is about to happen here at this bus stop that we need five adults to fight for the lives of five or six children.”
If the other parents are too nervous to accept your kind offer, flip it around. Ask them to watch your kid! This creates a sense of shared responsibility, too. And gives you time to go to Starbucks.
- Get a little perspective on this strange, scared parenting era we are living in by visiting a baby superstore with your oldest living relative. (Yes, always best if they’re living.) Go around looking at all the things like baby knee pads and infra-red video baby monitors asking, “Which of these things did YOU need when you were raising us?” (Be prepared for a little scorn.)
- Visit my website! Freerangekids.com. You’ll find lots of stories of people gradually letting their kids go — and then coming back safe and sound.
Good luck to all us parents — and kids!
So here’s to Free Range Kids, raised by Free Range Parents willing to take some heat. I hope this web site encourages us all to think outside the house.