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!


  1. Stephanie, I think you and Julian are doing it just right! Actually, neighbors who look out for the little one are a part of the invisible safety net that helps you do that--but I applaud you for recognizing his independent nature and maturity and ability and need to be on his own. Fear should not rule us--it creates weak children. He has to encounter the world on his own terms--bit by bit--as you are doing. Was he PERFECTLY safe--no--but he wasn't perfectly safe with his Dad either--I can think of tons of things that could go wrong even in the company of one of you (hey, Im a writer) but I can also think of thousands of ways your dear one can learn about life, grow in confidence, in a good way by experiencing bits of freedom. Bravo to you and Julian!

    1. Thank you, Joan. That means a lot, especially coming from you! xoxo

  2. I just read your blog post, friend, and I am cheering loudly. I have been abandoning my firstborn, wailing, to the wilds of his preschool classroom because they have succeeded where I have not: in encouraging his independence. He now puts on his shoes and his coat without parental help, and going down the slide no longer requires two mama hands. He is majorly testing my limits in this and is trying to control things by claiming he will miss me, miss Sam, miss Pippy, is sick, etc., so that he doesn't have to go. But I know - know!- that he must have opportunity to get this independence that you write about, or I am doing him a huge, huge disservice down the road. (Also, he is a happy, chatty little clam when I pick him up, and he loudly declares his love for school, so I'm not just being mean). Thanks for the encouragement. I needed that this morning!!

    1. Yes, friend, it's particularly hard for parents of very skittish children like yours--mine WANTS to be independent! But it's extra hard when you have to give them a nudge out the door! I'm so glad he's enjoying it--everyone is growing, right?!

  3. I'm actually a bit sad that my children don't go to school in our neighborhood. I was looking forward to having them walk there together! The school they're in now is a 10 minute drive, so unfortunately not walkable. This area is unfortunately not very walkable--it's a 10 minute walk in any direction to just get out of the neighborhood--so I do at least try to let them free-range it around the neighborhood. I've heard of parents getting their very young children cell phones, "just in case." I'm certainly not going to though!

    1. Our local school isn't walkable, either. I so wish we could walk to school, but alas... They closed the neighborhood school back in the early 1980's. I drive my kids in the morning and they take the bus in the afternoon. We do have a good pair of walkie talkies that we use to communicate if they're not too far afield, but usually we don't use them. We're dog sitting this week, so we give them the walkie talkies if they're walking him in the dark.

  4. Great post! I tried to organize my 9 year old's friends to have them walk home from school together in a buddy system. But I had no takers from her circle of 4 additional girls. I must admit to being surprised! I've also tried to encourage said 9 year old to go to the library on her own (she doesn't even need to cross any streets!) and she hasn't taken me up on it yet. I shall persevere!

    1. That's too bad the buddy plan hasn't worked out! On the free-range kids website, she suggests asking the children to identify something they'd like to do on their own. It could be going somewhere alone or with friends, cooking/baking something by herself, planning a meal, whatever. Maybe putting the ball in her court will help?

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