Free range

Overprotecting our kids is driving us, and them, nuts

To learn more about Free Range Kids, visit author Lenore Skenazy’s blog
Tim Hauserman wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children, published by University of Nevada Press.

It began with a subway ride. New York writer Lenore Skenazy thought it was perfectly safe for her 9-year-old son to ride the subway alone. The firestorm began when she wrote an article about it for the New York Sun. Before you could say, “boo!” she was being grilled on the national morning shows by appalled parenting experts, who quickly declared her “America’s Worst Mom.” Skenazy fought back by writing a book, Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

“I became, to my shock, the face of a new movement: the free-range movement,” writes Skenazy. “At least that’s the name I gave it. It’s a movement dedicated to fighting the other big movement of our time, helicopter parenting.”

Now, tens of thousands of parents read her blog focusing on raising “free range kids.” The free range premise is simple: We need to stop overprotecting our kids. It is driving us nuts with worry and making them unable to handle the challenges of life once they leave our cozy nests.

While many parents talk about wanting their kids to have the free and happy childhoods they had, they worry that the world is more dangerous now. According to Skenazy, however, what has changed is not the level of safety, but the parental level of worrying. In fact, the crime rate is lower than it was when today’s parents were kids.

“When parents say, ‘I’d love to let my kids have the same kind of childhood I had, but times have changed,’ they’re not making a rational argument,” writes Skenazy. “The problem is that we parents feel that childhood is more dangerous. Any risk is seen as too much risk. And the only thing these parents don’t seem to realize is that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters any risk. … Safety is good, but if we try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in our child’s everyday life, that child never gets a chance to grow up.”

Nancy McNair, a Tahoe area elementary school teacher for 29 years has found that “more inventive, thinking children” develop when parents allow their kids to play freely, while those who do everything for their kids and are with them every minute end up with children who have trouble setting boundaries when they are eventually on their own. In other words, if kids have to think for themselves, they learn how to think, and if kids don’t have to make decisions for themselves, they don’t learn how to make decisions.


What has driven today’s parents to this hysterical level of fear? It starts with the media.

We get local news grinding us down day after day with murders, mayhem and neighbors killing and stuffing children in suitcases, and “ripped from the headlines” crime shows that are ubiquitous. It’s easy to see why parents think there is a boogie man around every corner. Even though, in real life, child abductions are incredibly rare, less than one in a million, the nation seems to be obsessed with the possibility it could happen to them. The Free Range blog recently posted a story of a woman who takes a picture of both of her kids every morning before they leave the house. Why? So if they are abducted the police will have a picture of what clothes they are wearing.

In addition to violence, another mainstay of American media is the “parenting expert.” Skenazy thinks we spend way too much time listening to them, even though some may consider Skenazy herself to be one of them. They tell us everything we need to do to raise our kids right, and by “right” they mean growing up to be highly successful people who go to Harvard to become brain surgeons and help the homeless in their spare time. If our children don’t meet the lofty, nearly impossible goals society has taught us to expect for our kids, it is our fault for not taking the experts’ advice.

Rebecca Gordon from Tahoe City noticed this trend when she opened her day care center 10 years ago. “Parents worry about their parenting skills much more than our parents did,” she says. They read tons of books about how to parent and want “to be a perfect parent so much, that they never want to stay no to their kids.”

Parents have fought back against excessive worrying by turning to the kid-safety industrial complex that turns out every sort of child safety gadget imaginable to keep little Johnnie or Maggie safe at all times. There are toilet lid locks, helmets for toddlers and every type of monitoring device you can imagine. Are they prisoners that have to be accounted for continuously? Should we give them ankle bracelets? Perhaps parents should be asking themselves which is more dangerous, not keeping a constant vigilance on their child in the back seat with a newfangled special child-watching device, or the guy in the other lane who just fell asleep and is headed in your direction? Skenazy wonders what a parent is to do when they discover that those electric plug thingies designed to keep a kid from sticking his tongue in a socket are also declared by parental experts to be a choking hazard.

“In order to sell $1.7 billion worth of products to parents and make child raising an extremely pricey—not to mention nerve-racking-proposition, businesses have to convince parents that minor dangers are major,” writes Skenazy. “Which is exactly what has happened. Forget the fact that 300,000 years of human evolution have made human children pretty sturdy and parents pretty competent at raising them. We have entered an era that says you cannot trust yourself. Trust a product instead.”

While parents believe they can’t trust themselves, they believe they can’t trust anyone else, either. In the eyes of the truly paranoid, every male who is not safely in the clutches of some motherly type is a potential molester. A proposal was made in Britain to prohibit any unaccompanied male from sitting next to children on airplanes. But don’t feel bad, guys, apparently little old ladies are under fire, as well. At a church, also in England (a hotbed of worry, apparently), a group of volunteer ladies meet once a month to quilt blankets as a church fundraiser. There was no bathroom in the quilting room, so the ladies had to venture into the adjoining school to relieve themselves. Since the ladies would then be using the same restroom as the kiddos, the church decided they had to go through a background check before they could use the bathroom. In a victory for common sense, the ladies politely said, to paraphrase, “Screw you, we will just take our needles and go home” … and the church backed down.

In another report from the Free Range Blog, an over-concerned local school district has come up with a new fail-safe way to deliver children to their parents. The parent drives up to the front of a long line, where a teacher with a walkie-talkie greets them (probably while checking the vehicle for adequate safety devices). After receiving proper documentation, she calls into the school and lets them know that “Johnnie’s Mom is here.” Then another teacher opens the locked door and, holding tightly to the child, walks them out to the car. What should be a two-minute process to pick up a child has become a 30-minute inquisition.

Scary stories

Perhaps the best example of the battle of the free range vs. helicopter parents is the sanitization of Halloween. It begins with the urban myth of a razor blade, which after being sneaked inside a piece of candy, deviously waits for an unsuspecting 7-year-old sugar addict to come along. Joel Best, professor of criminal justice at University of Delaware, studied crime reports back to 1958 and found: “The bottom line is that I cannot find any evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.” But the fear is still out there to the point that x-ray machines have been installed as a public service to inspect candy. Aren’t x-rays more dangerous then candy? And wouldn’t homecooked treats be healthier than those safely wrapped-up high fructose corn syrup specials? It all comes back to that insidious little killjoy phrase, “Better safe than sorry.”

Controlling the candy is just the start of the Halloween revolution. “Some grown-ups even dictate costume choices,” writes Skenazy. “Many Halloween parties at schools and community centers now come with the caveat, ‘No scary costumes please.’ For God’s sake, isn’t scaring the kids the point of the holiday?” Parents and community groups urge children to go out during the day because you know it could be scary in the dark. Do we think that kids can go through their entire lives without ever being out in the dark?

Another part of the problem is society has become so litigious that everyone is either afraid to do anything because they may get sued, or ready on a moment’s notice to sue someone if everything doesn’t turn out the way they want it.

“We have become ‘worst case parents,’ worrying all the time, right down to preparing the legal battle we’ll pitch if we don’t get what we want, or if our kids don’t, or even if, heaven forbid, a tongue tip gets scorched by a smoldering s’more,” writes Skenazy.

This need to protect yourself is especially prevalent in our schools, to the point that “schools are afraid of being sued, so many have dropped recess rather than have to monitor everybody every minute,” Skenazy continues. “Normal childhood has become just too risky to permit.” She adds, “fear, no matter how far-fetched, usually does win. It wins because there is no way to totally discount it. Just because your house didn’t burn down doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. The problem is, if you picture the very worst outcome of every very safe endeavor, there is no way you can enjoy life. All you can do is smother it.”