In PDX we have a monthly parenting magazine; Metro Parent. It usually has good articles but one piece in particular captured and has held my attention since April – Free-Range Parenting: Letting Go So Kids Can Grow – read it here.
The gist of the piece is that kids can go outside on their own and still be safe. AND not only will kids still be safe but they’ll also be better prepared to deal with the world, build up confidence and quite possibly have a happier childhood. It opens with a story of Emily,who at age five, made a deal with her parents that she could go to the park (200 ft away from their home) on her own. The article goes on to cover the book Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy.
Supposedly Skenazy wrote the book after writing a column for The New York Sun on “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone.” In Skenazy’s words, “Two days later I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, FoxNews and all manner of talk radio with a new title under my smiling face: “America’s Worst Mom?”” Wow.
Check out this video below for an intro to the book.
As we’ve been an unschooling / Free School family I’m used to criticism about my parenting decisions, so I’m not shocked that Skenazy was targeted. It’s not ok (according to mainstream parents) when you suggest a parenting style outside the norm. Still, I’m surprised people got SO mad and upset.
The article really made me think and has been on my mind almost continually since April. Why? Because I’m not exactly a free-range parent. It’s an odd turn of events to realize this because…
- We unschool so Cedar gets more freedoms than many kids his age – food freedom, educational freedom, etc.
- I’m a huge nature / outdoor adventure advocate and think kids belong outside more often than not.
- I don’t believe in arbitrary rules for kids – I believe in rules that make sense from a safety standpoint but think that many rules enforced on kids are overrated. Yes I believe in helmets and baby proofing but I’m not the sort of parent who thinks a set bedtime or saying, “Because I said so” makes sense.
The above said, I don’t allow Cedar total outdoor freedom. He’s outside a lot because in my opinion kids need to be outside, but he’s out there with adults often. We go out to the park or on a walk or he’ll go biking with his dad or he goes out with his pals at the Free School or at camp but he doesn’t go outside on his own much.
In New Mexico when he was three to six years old he did go outside often on his own because we lived in student family housing for the university I attended. Lots of kids, a safe park area, etc. He was always out running around. He had a set check-in time, but otherwise he was on the go alone. In Washington the same, I’d let him head out with his pals but not let him go very far.
Currently we’re in Portland and we’re living in a neighborhood without too many great places to play. We moved here to be closer to his school but that’s at a cost of green spaces. There are sidewalks but we have to walk a little ways to get to the neighborhood park. Since we’ve moved here Cedar doesn’t go out on his own very much. At nine he should be outside on his own – a lot.
When I was a kid I spent almost no time inside at all. I almost never had an adult with me outside as a kid – I’d ride my bike for miles, climb tall trees and even hit the local swimming pool on my own or with friends. My pals and I would stay out until late at night even.
Now, I know very few kids who play outside with their parents and almost none who go out on their own nowadays.
Why the shift?
Skenazy writes that the shift may be because adults think, “Times have changed.” And she goes on to say…
“They’re right of course — nothing stays the same. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, crime was on the rise. It went up and up until it peaked around 1990. The strange thing, though, is that since then, it’s been going back down. Dramatically. Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to Dept. of Justice statistics. So — unbelievable as it seems — if you were playing outside as a kid in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!
It doesn’t feel that way (at ALL), because when our parents were raising us, there was no CSI. Law & Order was something you believed in, not something on the air 8 nights a week, made to look depressingly real. The other day I got a letter from a guy in an old Brooklyn neighborhood where they shoot a lot of Law & Order scenes. On TV, it’s always the backdrop for a rape or murder. In real life, he said, it’s a safe, quiet safe neighborhood — and therein lies the tale: There’s a big disconnect between the horrors on TV and the reality we live in.”
She’s not wrong. Stranger danger makes the news while car accidents (MUCH more likely to happen) don’t.
What’s wrong with safety?
Nothing is wrong with safety, but the more I think about free-range parenting the more I think that kids are being overly protected. At the free-range blog Skenazy sums it up nicely, saying, “Do you ever…let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk to school? Make dinner? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free-Range Kid! Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts — safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail.”
By overly protecting kids we’re raising kids who aren’t brave or confident. Here’s a perfect example. At age nine I thought nothing of going outside on my own. Nothing. Today, my son wanted to stay home from camp because my boyfriend Dave’s daughters are here. Dave thinks it’s perfectly acceptable that his kids can sit inside all day and play video games or watch TV or read or whatever because, “They need a break – it’s summer.” I DO NOT agree. Yeah a break is good but it’s summer. Kids belong outside. Kids need exercise. Kids do not belong inside on their butt all day. Period.
I told Cedar, “Well, you can stay home from camp for the day, but you have to go outside a few times to play.” He said, “On my own” I said “Yeah, I’m working, that’s why you go to camp – because during the summer for most of the day I’m working and can’t go outside with you, and kids should be outside” – OMG you’d think I’d suggested he kill someone.
- Cedar: “I want someone to go with me!”
- Me: “You’re old enough to go outside on your own.”
- Cedar: “NO”
- Me: “Well, fine get your shoes on, I’m taking you to camp.”
- Cedar: VERY reluctantly, “Okay, I’ll go outside by myself.”
Do you realize how insane this is?!
INSANE. And worse it’s my fault. In any case I managed to send Cedar off outside. He didn’t get kidnapped, I didn’t worry and he got some scooter riding in.
I’m lucky because I know kids belong outside; playing. We do get out. Many kids don’t get out at all even with adults. However, I’m not so smart in that I’ve been going along with Cedar when he goes outside. That’s good for me actually, because I like being outside, but it’s not good for him. Plus sometimes, like today, I do need to work and can’t get outside.
I’m worried we’re raising a bunch of kids who won’t grow up to take risks. Kids who think it’s okay to be inside all day long. Kids who are losing out on a lot of fun. It’s really sad. My goal this summer is to read the book Free-Range Kids and to send Cedar out more often all on his own.
Read another opinion on free-range kids.
What do you think? Are we making a mistake by being overly concerned with strangers and dangers? OR are you already raising free-range kids?