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Go outside and play - really

Lenore Skenazy

Lenore Skenazy

Author Lenore Skenazy caused a firestorm two years ago when she wrote a column about how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone from Bloomingdale's. She's kind of proud of the "America's Worst Mom" tag she earned for that, because people who live in New York know it's not that out there. Kids do it all the time.

The controversy launched her blog Free Range Kids, and a new book with the same title. With bitting humor, she writes about what a nation of wimps we've turned into, not letting our kids have the freedom we had as kids to roam the neighborhood and poke around unsupervised. She makes a pretty compelling case for how none of the statistics hold up to our fears and we can be hurting our kids in the long run by not giving them the opportunity to learn self reliance.

We talked recently to the former pariah mom about why parents should go ahead and let their kids play.

You cite statistics that prove the crime rate has declined to a level not seen since 1970. Could it be the crime rates are down because kids aren't out there to be kidnapped?

If only crimes against children were down I might be inclined to agree, but the fact is crime is down against everyone and everywhere, even property theft.

You even quote Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children — the milk carton guy — saying he wants kids to run around outside again, too.

I was a little worried calling the guy. I was thinking he was going to hate me, saying the next time something awful happens to a child, it's all your fault. But in fact, he says we have to prepare kids for the outside world. You have to teach them using the same techniques you use to deal with bullying. He knows that there is safety in numbers and also that the real problem is almost never "stranger danger." It is kids hurt or abused by people they know.

But people I know grew up in tough places like Philadelphia and traversed the city as kids, but they tell me they would never in a million years let their kid loose in Philly, or St. Petersburg for that matter.

It's hard to deal with the perceptions of danger. Most planes do not land in the Pacific Ocean, but I can name the ones that did. I can rattle off the names of children on the news, too. What you can't remember are the 10,000 planes that took off safely from O'Hare today. Those things do not get attention, and the bad news is getting more attention than ever thanks to cable news.

When folks who don't know you were calling you a bad mom, did you then decide to take up this cause?

What made me decide to take up the cause was people assuming that I was deliberately putting my child in danger. I believe in car seats and safety belts and I think of myself as a cautious mom. When people were questioning my parenting I had to respond. Then I realized how much judgment and how nervous parents were about extremely remote dangers. Then I started examining where the fear comes from — obviously cable TV, but also the graphic dramas, and babyproofing is a profession now. Think about how many ridiculous fears we have let grow as just a given, like getting salmonella from raw cookie dough or the "danger" of Halloween. I talked to a researcher who combed the history of crime reports and not once in the history of Halloween has anyone poisoned candy.

The book

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, by Lenore Skenazy (225 pages, $24.95, Jossey-Bass)

Go outside and play - really 05/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 10:25am]
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