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Are you raising a free-range kid?

Do you let your 8-year old roam the neighborhood unaccompanied? Walk to school without an adult? Lick raw cookie dough off the egg beaters? My answers are no, no and no. Why is that? I did all of these things when I was a kid, and I bet you did, too. I just finished reading a fantastic book that delves into modern-day parental fears and this over-the-top culture of 'keeping our kids safe.' Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy (the only parenting book I've ever read cover to cover) is making me think really hard about my fears as a parent and why I have them.

I've long been afraid of the man in the van that could at any moment pull up to our driveway and snatch my children away forever. Back in 1999 there were 115 child abductions by strangers, half of which ended in murder. Child abductions have been on the decline since then (by about 38%) so the chances of that ever happening are so minuscule that they barely register. So why the fear? Lenore points out a few things that contribute to parental fear:

  • The 24-hour news cycle, which promotes the worst in society. One former TV news producer says, "I can tell you that news is all about fear. Sometimes, the first criteria we used when judging a story involving children or families was, 'Is it scary enough?'"
  • The many CSI-type television dramas, which love to come up with the most horrific crimes against children because those shows boost ratings.
  • The What to Expect When You're Expecting books and other books by parenting 'experts', which mostly set you up to fail because you can't possibly live up to all of the do's and don't's.
  • The myriad safety products like baby knee pads, helmets for children learning to walk and bath mats that tell you when the water is too hot (because it's so hard to tell by feeling it with your hand). There are so many safety products out there that you start believing that everything in your house is a hazard!

So we parents become so over-protective that we don't give our kids a whole lot of room to explore and take risks (mild ones preferably) and develop confidence and independence. We teach them to be afraid of strangers, when in reality, most people are really good. We don't let them out of our sight in the woods, so kids start to fear it (aka nature deficit disorder). I'm tired of being afraid for my kids, and I'm starting to see that it's a gross overreaction.

The other day Renee let her 8-year old walk by herself to my house for a playdate. It's about a 7-minute walk, down a quiet residential street past 15 houses. I was so impressed, and her daughter took it in stride. It's made me start looking for opportunities to let my own kids exert their independence. If I equip them with common sense and teach them what to do in case they need help (without freaking them out) why shouldn't they have the same freedoms I enjoyed as a child? I want them to explore their environment, to enjoy it, to not fear it.

Do you want this for your kids? Are you already giving it to them? Do you feel like you've fallen into the fear trap?

I highly recommend Free-Range Kids. It's funny, informative and eye-opening. Lenore's blog is also chock-full of great stories, commiseration and support.


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