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Go outside and play — really

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 Bloomingdales. 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.

I talked recently to the author in a phone conversation interrupted by interview requests from NPR and other national news agencies seemingly swooning over this advice from the former pariah mom urging us to pay attention to common sense and go ahead and let the kids play — really — because times have never been safer.

You cite a lot of statistics that prove the crime rate has dramatically 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.

One reason is that parents remember as kids the creepy guy following them to the donut shop or the bullies on the street. Are even bad experiences important?

I think experiences are important. . . . I'm not saying we expose them, like those chicken pox parties, to toughen them up by exposing then to flashers, but to a certain extent a little bit risk is not damning them for life.

When folks who don't even 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 had deliberately put my child in danger or I was la-dee-da didn't care. 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. There was a dad in Texas who took out life insurance on his son and poisoned his own son's Pixie stick. He was thinking no one will suspect me because this happens all the time. But it turns out razor blades in apples never happened. Stranger poisoning never happened.

So why don't police say that? They always tell us to check the candy and only go to houses we know

Because they are hearing the same rumors. Nobody will ever criticize you for saying please watch your kids, even though there hasn't been a case of a child getting poisoned on Halloween ever in the history of America.

No one I've talked to says they could take a fourth grader and a friend and leave them at an ice cream shop for half an hour.

Try this exercise. Imagine the situation and what you are worried about. . . . Are you worried some creep is going to say 'Please come out to my van and see the puppy I found'? If you have trained your child, they will not go off with strangers. So that just leaves you worried they'll be dragged out of their hair and no one will say "Um, stop"? If you actually break down what your fears are one by one, you see none of these things is going to happen.

What's wrong with keeping an eye on your kid?

There's a difference between knowing where they are, checking in now and then and not letting them go down the street without an escort.

One of the great things about childhood is when you do get to explore the outside world on your own for the first time. That's an exciting moment in childhood to ride a bike or go to an ice cream store with a friend alone. By taking it away, that's like I'm going to take your vacation for you, or kiss that first boy for you.

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at (727) 893-8595 or [email protected]

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

Go outside and play — really 05/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 11, 2009 10:09am]
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