Here’s a lovely little letter I just received that ended thusly:
….People like you that just send their kids out for the vultures of the world because you THINK you are doing them a favor, are horrible, lazy, undeserving so-called parents. What a shame that God would bless you with something for which you show such little disregard.
And you have a nice day, too!
What occasioned such a screed? I’m “America’s Worst Mom.” (Feel free to Google it.) I got that title after I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone and wrote a newspaper column about it. Two days later I was on The Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR (you know something’s hit a nerve when they BOTH pounce), explaining that I love my kids and want them to be safe. I just don’t think children need a security detail every time they leave the home.
That idea turned out to be so controversial that I started my blog Free-Range Kids to figure out: Why? Why is letting kids make their own forts, fun, play-dates, snacks and mistakes suddenly considered too hard or dangerous?
Turns out that, for a lot of reasons, we have recently lost faith in our kids and our communities. Let’s talk about faith in our kids first.
Walk into a Babies R Us store (a store that did not exist when babies were most of us — the first one opened in 1996). There you will find 10,000 different items, many devoted to safety. There are baby knee pads, as if today’s kids can’t crawl safely, and “Walking Wings” — a harness you put around your baby that has two strings attached. You use those to pull him up like a marionette when he’s learning to walk.
This gadget promises “fewer falls,” as if falls are too much for a toddler to handle. The marketplace knows that if it can plant a worry in parents’ minds, it can always sell a product or service to assuage it. Ka-ching! That’s one big reason we are being conditioned to believe our kids can’t do anything safely or successfully on their own: There’s money to be made “helping” them.
At the same time, we have come to distrust society, too. The 24-hour news cycle tells us that our kids are in constant danger. In news-land (as well as in TV-drama-land) every adult is a threat.
Real world consequences ripple forth. I’ve heard of day care centers where parents are instructed not to hold the door open even for the parent and baby right behind them — you never know who’s out to snatch a kid or blow the place up! Meantime, one of the big parenting magazines told a reader she had every right not to let her child sleep over at the home of a girl living with her divorced father. A man alone with two girls? It’s just too dangerous! Don’t trust anyone!
The outdoors has become “dangerized” too. Only one child in ten walks to school anymore and part of the reason is this everyone’s-out-to-get-your-kids panic. A Mayo Clinic study found that nearly three out of four parents are worried about their kids being abducted — even though crime today is at a level not seen since before the advent of color TV.
That’s right, the crime rate is lower today than when most of us parents were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. It just doesn’t feel that way, with all the terrible stories you see on TV. (Or, being Montessori parents, the terrible stories you read in the paper.) And here I must add that people sometimes think crime is down now because kids are constantly supervised. But crime is down against adults, too, and they are not helicoptered.
Flogged with fear, we end up hovering over our kids, even though what they REALLY need is a chance to grow and become part of the world. It’s a basic drive we’ve been thwarting.
Think back to your most own most powerful childhood memories. I’ll bet most of them do not involve a time your mom was sitting there right next to you. I’ll bet you flash on a time you did something hard or even scary on your own. Those moments become the building blocks of who we are: “I’m the kid who got the cat out of the tree.” “I made up the game we played all summer.” “I got lost on the way to the library, cried, and then found my way home after dark!”
Kids are naturally curious and striving for competence. Give them love and guidance — that’s our job — but then stand back and they will amaze you.
They probably already do.
Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog, “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. A public speaker, she has lectured everywhere from Microsoft Headquarters to the Sydney Opera House (book her!) She’s also a frequent guest on talk shows and has written for everyone from The Daily News (where she was a reporter for 14 years) to Mad Magazine. Yep. The Mad Magazine. The holiday she invented, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” is now celebrated around the world. A graduate of Yale and Columbia, she lives in New York City with her husband and teen sons who are half-Free-Range and half Facebook addicts. Then again, so is she.