Thursday, February 23, 2017

Making Myself Redundant: On Raising Free-Range Kids

I have long been a fan of journalist-turned-activist Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free-Range Kids. She advocates giving our kids more freedom to roam, try things out, and even screw up from time to time. Her book is a fascinating exploration of what has led to denying our children the very freedoms we 1970's kids were given, and took for granted. It's also laugh-out-loud funny.
Free-range in a cemetery!
We decided benefit of finding Easter eggs outweighed risk of zombies.

Skenazy became somewhat famous about ten years ago when she allowed her 9-year-old to ride the NYC subway by himself. Before you freak out and call her 'America's Worst Mom,' as others have, know that Skenazy and her family live in NYC, ride the subway all the time, and the 9-year-old in question was itching to ride it all by himself. So Skenazy discussed it with her husband, and they decided to let him give it a try. Armed with a transit map, quarters for a pay phone and some extra money in case he needed it, the young man departed from Bloomingdale's in Mid-town and an hour later, arrived back at their home in Queens, feeling quite pleased with himself.

She wrote about the event a month later in her column in the New York Post, and a firestorm ensued. People were OUTRAGED and called her all kinds of terrible things, like 'worst mom in America.' (If only Skenazy were the worst mom in America.... Wouldn't that be great?)

So shocked was she by the outrage that she started a movement. She's on talk shows now and even had her own TV show (which I have not seen) in which she encourages helicopter parents to let their kids do crazy stuff like cut their own food (because if mom doesn't cut it for them, they might choke!)

One of the things I like about the book is, despite Skenazy's biting humor, she doesn't shame parents for their fears and worries. She explains how we got to where we feel like a 10-year-old can't cross the street by himself. She cites the media (of course), parenting books (while noting the irony that hers is, in fact, a parenting book) and lawyers (double of course) as just a few of the culprits who fill us with anxiety about the safety of our kids. 


It's an interesting thing, this idea of turning our kids loose. In our Boston suburb, the vast majority of parents are unwilling to do it. Supervision, playdates and scheduled activities are the name of the game in this town, which, by the way, has been consistently named one of the best places to live in America. Great schools, close to the city with decent public transportation, and.... wait for it... very, very safe. The crime rate in our town (especially violent crime) is, mercifully, extremely low. We feel really blessed to have moved here during the recession, thus making it affordable for us. (That's the only negative--it's expensive. Great schools, the T and low crime doesn't come cheap.)

Yet rather than all the neighborhood kids taking advantage of this safety and filling the streets with games of kickball, our neighborhood is usually crickets in the afternoon. Practically no one is out playing, if they are, there is almost always a parent or babysitter close at hand. (That is, except for my child, who is running around in camo pretending to shoot imaginary Nazis with a hockey stick.)

My firstborn, also aged 9, is a very independent, adventurous sort of person. He likes freedom. And really, he's quite responsible, so I've been turning him loose for a while. When he was five, I let him scamper off ahead of me to the local park while I strapped his brother into the stroller and searched the house for my shoes. He'd typically arrive 5 to as late as 20 minutes ahead of me, playing with the kids at the school's aftercare program (where there was adult supervision.) A kind elderly neighbor once followed him there, sure that he had run away without my knowledge. When he saw me following behind, I assured him that the bigger little was rogue with my blessing.

Last year, he walked home from the barber shop alone. It's a good 15 minute walk from our house. He had gone with my husband on a Saturday morning, and after his haircut didn't want to wait for his father's, so my husband texted me that he was heading home on his own and to text back when he arrived. So off trotted our boy. A few minutes later, I got a call from his former preschool teacher, who lives on the barber shop route. "I saw your big little out walking by himself!," said she, in anxious tones. "He looks like he knows where he's going, and is crossing the street safely, but I wanted to make sure you knew he was out on his own!"

I thanked her kindly for her concern and assured her that he was, indeed, out with the blessing of both his parents. In fact, as we were talking, he arrived on the doorstep, still slurping on the lollipop he'd received from barber. (He was probably at the greatest risk of falling and impaling the roof of his mouth with the lollipop stick, but that's another story.)

I am very thankful for kindly neighbors and former preschool teachers. (I'm also thankful they talk to me directly rather than call the cops, as other parents of free-range kids have experienced.) That's the kind of nice community I live in, and I thank God for it. But I do think it's interesting that we're so afraid of letting our kids walk around in broad daylight by themselves. Is there risk involved? Could they be hit by a car or snatched by a nefarious stranger? Yes, they could, though Skenazy makes a strong case for the gross exaggeration of the latter.

Truly, bad things can happen. Very bad things, but here's the rub: do we not see that NOT letting our kids spread their wings a little is, in itself, a bad thing? 

When we had kids, my husband and I decided that our job, in a practical sense, was to make our children independent of us. 
To make ourselves redundant. 

Yes, walking around alone is taking a risk--for all of us, child or adult. But we take risks all the time. We make risk assessments quite literally all the time. We decide the benefits of car transport are worth the risk of an accident, that the health benefits of exercise are worth the risk of an injury, that the pleasure of eating a donut is worth the risk of... well, eating a donut.

In keeping our kids indoors and/or constantly supervised, the risks include, but are not limited to, a profound lack of confidence in their own abilities, compromised health and motor skills from lack of outdoor play, and a want of general life skills they need to survive and thrive on their own. I have read copious articles about today's college kids hovered over by overprotective parents. I thought it was exaggeration, but many of my friends with children that age tell me otherwise. Crazy stories of legal adults who cannot function without the most basic aid from their parents. They can speak two foreign languages and milked a yak on an educational trip to Nepal, but they can't pick their own courses or cook a meal. 

So I think there is a strong argument for being a little more free-range. Does this mean you need to send your 9-year-old on the subway? Or even on his own to the barber shop? Of course not. What level of independence your children have should take into consideration the many factors of your situation, but let's not let our own fear be the driving factor. Let's consider the whole picture--risks AND benefits, not just the imaginary child-snatcher around the corner.

I really don't want to be insensitive to fear--I have a couple of friends who have lost children to accidents, and it's awful. But I don't think we should allow fear to override rational assessment of risk to benefit. Fear shouldn't rule us, or our kids.

Recently, I decided to redouble my efforts to make myself redundant. Maybe I'll blog about that some more, but in the meantime, what do you think? Am I cray cray? The worst mom in Massachusetts? Let's discuss!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ready, Steady, Cook! Using a Cook Up to Simplify Meal Planning

I've long been committed to avoiding processed food, making things from scratch and buying local. But by the time I prepped three meals a day for my family of four and the odd snack here and there, I felt like I was spending half my day in the kitchen. It was ridiculous.

Something had to change.

Lack of time is often a reason cited for not cooking at home, and I can appreciate why. It is time consuming to shop, chop and cook. And then there's the clean up... oy. But peeps, it's worth it! You can cook a great dinner for a fraction of what it would cost in a restaurant, and you know what's in it. You can control what goes into the pot and how much. Yes, it takes time, but there are ways to cook at home that won't require you chained to the sink well into the evening. One way is...

The cook up! Also called 'batch cooking,' and maybe a few other words I can't mention on my family blog, the cook up will take you some time, but only on the front end. It involves making different things all at once, then mixing and matching those foods to create a variety of meals you can have throughout the week.

Here's how it works in my house:

  • Plan to make a soup or salad, at least two vegetables, and at least two protein sources. 
  • Clean out the fridge and determine what needs to be used up, then shop for whatever else is needed.
  • Block off about two to three hours when you won't be distracted and gather all your ingredients and equipment (pots, pans, etc.) Try to reuse as many items as possible to make clean up easier.
  • Make sure you have plenty of leftover dishes for all your yummies.
  • Cook the items that need the longest cook time first, then work down from there. 
Last Monday morning I did a cook up for the week. I planned to roast several different root vegetables, saute onions, peppers and broccoli, prep carrots and broccoli for a stir fry, cook chicken breast and ground beef, make a pot of rice and and a stir fry sauce. I budgeted two hours and targeted using only one cutting board, a knife, vegetable peeler, large saute pan and a roasting pan.

(I posted this on Instagram (@momsatthebarre) and most people were interested in whether or not I actually only used one cutting board, a knife, vegetable peeler, large saute pan and a roasting pan. Stay tuned for THAT...)

Here's how it went:

I started by preheating the oven for roasting. I washed four small sweet potatoes, pricked them with a fork and put them in the oven to bake whole on the roasting pan, which I had covered in aluminum foil.

While the potatoes were baking, I peeled a butternut squash and chopped it into cubes. I tossed the cubes in olive oil and sprinkled them with salt. I pushed the sweet potatoes to one side of the roasting pan and tossed the squash on the pan. 

Then I peeled the parsnips, another sweet potato and the beets, and halved the acorn squash and scooped out the seeds. I chopped each vegetable separately, tossed them in oil and sprinkled with salt and roasted them--again, separately so I can use them how I want later. I did use another roasting pan here, but I covered it in foil, so clean up was easy.

Next, I chopped up a few onions and some garlic and sauteed them in oil. I took out about half the onions and set them aside, then I added a bell pepper to the pan. While those were cooking, I chopped the broccoli stalks and added those to the pan. Finally, I added the florets and cooked them until they were just barely done. (This way, when I reheat the vegetables later, the broccoli won't be overdone.) 

I also chopped up some carrots and broccoli and left them raw. 

Finally, I cut up the chicken. I did this last so I wouldn't have to wash the cutting board before using it on the vegetables. I cooked the chicken in the saute pan, then I browned the ground beef. I made a gravy of sorts with the pan juices, which took all of two minutes. 

While the meats were cooking, I mixed up the stir fry sauce, started some rice in the rice cooker and put the soup together in the slow cooker. I made the soup with the butternut squash. I put the roasted squash, the onions/garlic I had set aside, and some chicken broth I had made yesterday. I'll add cream later and puree with a stick blender later. (I LOVE my stick blender, by the way. I have a Cuisinart model. The blade detaches and can go in the dishwasher! Score!)

So how did I to use these delights?

I made a stir fry, a shepherd's pie, a lentil stew, quesadillas, and a frittata. We had the soup as a side dish a few times. Last night I made some fish and we had what vegetables remained. 

This cook up took about two and a half hours, including clean up. That's longer than I had planned, but I decided to assemble the soup. I also made a little mini pie with an apple that one of the little darlings had bitten into and left to die. Clean up took maybe ten minutes, tops. I planned this one pretty well so I was able to reuse the same equipment. Yay!

I can't take credit for this idea--I've read about it in a few different places. For me, it's been great, especially when my husband is traveling for work, which is often. My early attempts were not great successes (translation: HUGE mess at the end), but after a few tries, I've gotten more efficient. Each time, I learn something new. This time I wish I had made more of some of the vegetables. I used up most of them early in the week and had to make more, which was a pain.

Ah well, live and learn.

If you're a fan of the cook up, or want to be, give me a shout! I'd love to hear what works and what doesn't. Happy cooking!