About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

116 - Free-Range Kids

#116 was Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, by Lenore Skenazy (Jossey-Bass, 2009). In a nutshell, this book is brilliant and hilarious! OK, "brilliant" may be a slight overstatement, though Skenazy does have some excellent insights to offer ... but "hilarious" is dead on. The jacket flap summarizes the book's premise nicely: "How come we had so much more freedom when we were kids? How can we give our kids that freedom now? ... In this funny, fed-up book, Lenore encourages parents to let their kids be kids. She's all for helmets and car seats, but insists children do not need a security detail every time they go outside." Skenazy is an author/ columnist, a child development expert only in that she has 2 sons, but comes to the topic with unique credentials: she unleashed a firestorm of criticism with this New York Sun article a year and a half ago, and now proudly proclaims herself (even on Free-Range Kids' cover) "America's Worst Mom."

Perhaps I'm just feeling a bit hyperbolic today, but man! If this book was around ten years ago, it'd have saved my life! (Fortunately, my own kiddo and I saved ourselves anyway, but I digress.) Skenazy devotes the bulk of the text to presenting and discussing what she calls the fourteen free-range commandments. Her approach, as she explains in the introduction, is one of healthy, don't-take-yourself-too-seriously skepticism, mixed with what I like to call benign neglect:
"In less time than it takes to unlock a babyproofed toilet seat (which, admittedly, can be an awfully long time when you're at a dinner party, and everyone's wondering where you are, and you cannot get that lid up), we moms and dads have changed. Somehow, even those of us who looked forward to parenting without too much paranoia have become anxious about every possible weird, scary, awful thing that could ever, just maybe, God forbid!, happen to our kids -- from death by toilet drowning to stranger abduction to electrical outlet cover ingestion. Yes, I just read that those little plastic things you stick in the outlets to prevent baby electrocution turn out to be potential choking hazards. Just try not to worry.

"The list of potential threats just keeps growing, and of course we pay attention because we want to keep our kids safe. That's our job, right? But it's getting harder and harder -- and, for the record, pricier and pricier, and pickier and pickier -- as new safety doodads and dire warnings keep flying at us. And sometimes, like when you have to strap your kid into the stroller as if he's about to blast off to Pluto, it's driving us nuts. ...

"It's possible you picked up this book because you have a sneaking suspicion that you don't have to be quite as worried about quite as much. After all, our moms sent us outside and said, 'Come home when the street lights turn on.' Their moms sent them out on streetcars and buses. And their grandmas sent their sweet children out on slow, rusty steamers to the New World with only a couple of rubles and a hard salami.

"These were all responsible parents! Yet here in the nice, safe, scurvy-free twenty-first century, we worry about our kids riding their bikes to the library, or walking to school."
A few pages later, she suggests that our ancestors had the right idea:
"Not that the sixties, seventies, and eighties were so great, but at least our parents didn't spend all their time worrying that we were about to be abducted. And neither should we. As you'll read throughout this book, the crime rate today is just about on par with 1970 (and -- I'm already repeating myself -- down since it peaked in the early nineties.) I know it doesn't feel that way. We'll look into that later, too. But my point is: we got to explore the world on our own; we got to do things without adult assistance and make mistakes and even play on teeter-totters. (Which I never liked. But still.) Our kids deserve no less."
From here, it's on to the Fourteen Commandments. The above excerpts give you a sense of what to expect in terms of tone, as do the chapter headings/ commandments themselves:
  1. Know When to Worry: Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference
  2. Turn Off the News: Go Easy on the "Law and Order," Too
  3. Avoid Experts: Who Knew You Were Doing Everything Wrong? ... Them!
  4. Boycott Baby Knee Pads: And the Rest of the Kiddie Safety-Industrial Complex
  5. Don't Think Like a Lawyer: Some Risks Are Worth It
  6. Ignore the Blamers: They Don't Know Your Kid Like You Do
  7. Eat Chocolate: Give Halloween Back to the Trick-or-Treaters
  8. Study History: Your Ten-Year-Old Would Have Been Forging Horseshoes (or at Least Delivering Papers)
  9. Be Worldly: Why Other Countries Are Laughing at zee Scaredy-Cat Americans
  10. Get Braver: Quit Trying to Control Everything. It Doesn't Work Anyway
  11. Relax: Not Every Little Thing You Do Has That Much Impact on Your Child's Development
  12. Fail! It's the New Succeed
  13. Lock Them Out: Make Them Play -- or Else!
  14. Listen to Your Kids: They Don't Want to Be Treated Like Babies (Except the Actual Babies, of Course)
As you might suspect from the above, Skenazy has a knack for making us laugh at ourselves. Her argument is that despite what we may think and fear, today's world really isn't any more dangerous than the one we (that is, parents of current young 'uns) grew up in. While there's far more media coverage of horrific crimes against children today, from the real-life ordeals of JonBenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, and Jaycee Dugard to the fictional Law and Order and all its spinoffs (including, as Skenazy quotes TV historian Robert Thompson, "'The Law and Order for people who like to see crimes that are grossly sexually fetishized and practiced on children or vulnerable adults,'") the actual incidence has remained fairly consistent:
"The statistics cited by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children itself show that the number of children abducted and killed by strangers holds 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 infintesimally small: .00007 percent. Put yet another, even better way, by British author Warwick Cairns, who wrote the book How to Live Dangerously: if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years."
Sensational news stories are an easy target, and Free-Range Kids certainly isn't the first book to take these on. Where it stands out, though, is in moving from here to a chapter on the explosion of parenting advice books, most of which offers "advice so picky and so extreme, it's bound to make any mom self-conscious." Ah, takes me back to the days of throwing my own copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting off my pregnant belly and across the room upon reading the suggestion that once every week or so, it's OK to forget your diet and have a really indulgent treat, like ... a bagel. From here, it's a logical step to the "Baby Knee Pads" chapter, where she takes on (I kid you not) a professional babyproofer who alleges that 2 children a week die by drowning in toilets (actually, it's more like 4 a year), and a string of products she deems just plain ridiculous: knee pads to protect babies as they learn to crawl, helmets to protect toddlers from potential head trauma when they fall, and let's not forget the Baby Einstein videos.

Remarkably, Skenazy's tone doesn't come off as condescending or snarky. She does make a clear distinction between legitimate protective gear for serious hazards (life vests, car seats, bicycle and motorcycle helmets), and being so terrified of lawsuits, even as private citizens, that simple everyday pleasures -- campfires, walking to school, swinging on the monkey bars, Trick or Treating -- seem unthinkably dangerous. I'll admit to squirming a bit uncomfortably at times, remembering how I'd taken my daughter ToT'ing with (mumble) more parents than girls (6/4) in our party, and gaped horrified when Kiddo asked on the first block if she could eat an unwrapped Twizzler. The book cites a Delaware sociologist who studied Halloween crime reports dating back to 1958, and found no evidence at all of a single child being "killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating."

The book also makes an interesting point when it suggests that "[t]he more safe our children became, the more we started to worry about them." One hundred years ago, it wasn't uncommon for children to die from illnesses or serious injuries; broken collarbones and other limbs were almost ordinary. Now, however, we've eliminated so many of the hazards from our kids' worlds that we've started to believe we can keep them perfectly safe, and forget that fate may sometimes have other plans. (Paradoxically, this illusion of omnipotence can actually make our kids' lives more dangerous; half of all children who are injured at school are hit by the car of parents driving their own kids to school. If we, collectively, could relax enough to let our kids walk or take the bus, there'd be fewer cars clogging up the streets and driveways around the school, and presumably, fewer accidents.) As Skenazy reminds us, "our goal is to raise young people who can eventually get along without us ... Work on banishing the fantasy of always being in control, and ironically, you'll feel less worried." She offers a take on the classic parental fear -- allowing a child to go somewhere (in this case, an ice cream shop after the school play) on her own -- that's both funny and pragmatic:
"[T]hink of specific bad things that could happen to the girl: Is she going to overeat? Is she going to run out of the restaurant and get hit by a truck? Is she going to talk to some sleazy guy who comes over and tries to pick her up?

"Nothing worse than a tummyache will transpire from overeating, and the mom knows the girl won't up and run out into the street, so those worries are off the list. But what if, strangely enough, some guy actually does harass her daughter?

"'Say he's a gross guy,' [a psychologist] proposes. 'So she comes home and says, 'Mom, this, like, really weird guy came over, and he said dirty words.' You give her a hug and let her have an extra scoop of ice cream, and it's not that bad.'

"So now, instead of just dreading 'something terrible,' the fear is very specific and, as it turns out, not that scary after all.

"OK, OK -- what if that mom's deepest, darkest, most unshakable fear was really that the gross guy would convince her daughter to come out to his suspiciously windowless van, and that was -- the end? That's when the mom has to do three things. One: believe in her daughter's good judgment. Two: believe in the odds. (Statistically, her child is forty times more likely to die in the car ride home from Friendly's than at the hands of a murderous stranger.) And three: believe in herself. As a mom, she has undoubtedly given her girl some lessons about life and safety. She must believe she has had some effect.

"An exercise like this remidns us that we always have a chance to prepare our children for the outside world. If we say to them, all along, 'Don't go off with strangers,' (a much more helpful lesson than 'Don't talk to strangers'), they'll know not to. Remind them that you'll love them no matter what, and they won't feel embarrassed to tell you about the sleazy guy. And please do teach them not to run out into the street."
She talks more about the whole "stranger danger" bugaboo in more depth in a chapter entitled "Strangers with Candy," which comes near the end of the book. Her argument here is, we spend disproportionate amounts of time and energy worrying about the very, very slim likelihood of a child's being kidnapped and molested or killed by a stranger (statistically, kids are far more likely to die in car crashes, house fires, or by drowning, or to be molested by someone they know -- yet we don't keep our kids out of cars, homes, swimming pools, or relatives' houses) when we should be empowering our kids to protect themselves (scream, run, and get another nearby adult to help).

Can you tell that I really enjoyed this book? Yeah, I know it's a rather glowing and one-sided review; if I'd read it with a more critical eye, I could undoubtedly find and deconstruct its shortcomings. For now, though, I'll enjoy and recommend it as a welcome antidote to some of the maddening, mommier-than-thou dreck that's out there ... and while I'm at it, try to work up the courage to teach my daughter how to take the bus to Friendly's. Yes, alone.

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