Remember the mom who let her 9-year-old take the subway home and was blasted as the “world’s worst mom” after she wrote a column about it in the New York Sun? That outrage prompted writer Lenore Skenazy to write a book, a blog and start a movement called Free Range Kids.
We have fondness for free-range chickens, living a happier life and finding their way on their own, Skenazy notes, but we have judgment and actual laws against parents doing something crazy like letting their kids walk home two blocks from the bus stop or dropping them off at the movies with a friend unattended. “In a world where the rights of chickens to roam freely are championed, it’s time to liberate the kids,” the Wall Street Journal noted upon the publication of her first book in 2010.
She has now updated that book to note that Utah, Texas and Oklahoma have passed laws to shield parents from doing crazy things like letting their kids walk home from school. A chapter on anxiety notes how the self-confidence kids get from doing things on their own can help alleviate anxiety for both themselves and their parents. And there’s a call to educators, with a free curriculum guide to assign age-appropriate projects to learn resilience.
There’s also a new nonprofit she co-founded called Let Grow, which promotes childhood independence and gives educators, camp counselors and parents free curriculum guides on the topic.
The reason for the movement includes cases like the 2015 story of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Maryland, who faced an investigation for neglect after allowing their children, ages 6 and 10, to walk about a mile home by themselves from a park. Someone called the police when they saw the kids, and officers met them at the house and called child services to investigate.
The Free Range Kids movement started in 2008 after Skenazy let her then-9-year-old son Izzy ride the New York City subway alone, and then wrote about it in her newspaper column. He was proud of himself and she was dismayed by the appalled reactions she got. The editor of the New York Sun told Skenazy he estimates it is the second most widely reprinted newspaper piece after another Sun classic, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”
The outrage it spawned opened her eyes to the growing paranoia that is modern parenting. Kids who get no sleepovers, no waiting at the bus stop, no riding a bike to school and no walking anywhere alone because they can’t be out of your sight for one second.
Let Grow, co-founded by evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, said this over-protection may feel like good parenting, but it is actually harmful to children and can lead to anxiety for the kids as well as the parents who don’t trust them to do simple tasks.
“Don’t baby-proof the world, world-proof your baby,” Skenazy writes.
Fear flies in the face of statistics. All crime is down. The violent crime rate has dropped 70 percent since the 1990s, so today’s kids are living in a much safer environment than their parents, who had free range of their neighborhoods. The book notes that 50 years ago a majority of children walked to school. Today it is only one in 10.
And notice how few children you see outside playing unsupervised these days.
“Children have been sucked off lawns like yard trimmings,” Skenazy writes.
A new “Call to Educators” chapter in the book offers free curriculum downloads and suggests independence assignments from class, which can make it easier for nervous parents to allow if the teacher thinks it’s a good idea. It includes things like taking a bike ride alone, baking a cake by themselves or running an errand without an adult in tow.
The end of each chapter gives parents some challenges such as crossing the street without holding hands, letting a 6-year-old ride a bike around the block out of sight or dropping a third grader and friend off at an ice cream shop by themselves.
There is money to be made in keeping parents afraid, Skenazy notes with her typical wit, imagining a TV announcer saying, “Here’s what didn’t happen to you today, but it could so we’ll keep you in fear.”
Fear means ratings, and sells things like baby knee pads. But at what cost?
“A child who can fend for themselves is a lot safer than one forever coddled, " Skenazy says.
In the new chapter on anxiety, Skenazy cites studies on the rising anxiety in children and one that found exercises in independence like shopping alone or taking care of a pet helped kids alleviate anxiety in general by boosting self-confidence.
Another challenge: Admit to your friends and other moms that you left your school-age kid home for a bit while you ran an errand. The peer pressure among parents to be seen as perfect is another hurdle Let Grow is aiming to knock down.
In a world where chickens are championed to roam freely, Skenazy says, “Our children deserve no less.”