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Hey, parents, leave those kids alone!
Amy Douthett , July 17, 2009
Parents, at least in the West, have never had it so good when it comes to raising children: childbirth is safer and the life of an infant has never been less nasty, brutish or short. So what went wrong - why can't parents enjoy having kids?

Free Range Kids : Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
by Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom”
Jossey-Bass, 256 pages,

“It is a curious fact that the young woman of to-day, faced with the arrival of her first baby, has little simple literature to which she can turn for help and guidance in bringing up her child.” So begins The Care of Young Babies by Dr. John Gibbens, published in Britain in 1940, and passed down to me by my grandmother. It’s a problem that sounds both quaint and enviable. Of the books that that do exist, “few stress the fact that bringing up a baby is, or should be, a grand job,” says Dr. Gibbens. “And most babies can be brought up easily and straight-forwardly.”

Easy? Straight-forward? Grand? Maybe in the olden days, when all they had to worry about was an escalating war, rationing, carpet bombing, and the prospect of shipping their children off to live with strangers in the countryside as part of Britain’s wartime urban evacuation effort. Some 70 years after Dr. Gibbens published his gentle guide, the market has been flooded with so much literature on the subject, that there is now a small but steadily growing crop of parenting books about how to raise your child without, er, parenting books. Thankfully, the irony of this is not lost on Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free Range Kids” a fun, fact-filled refutation of much of today’s parenting ‘wisdom.’

Skenazy shot to startled stardom when she allowed her nine-year old son to ride the subway alone, then wrote about it in her column in the New York Sun. Cue lights, camera, daytime talk shows. Skenazy was branded “America’s Worst Mom,” a title she now sports proudly, and one that has inspired her efforts to persuade other parents to give their children a taste of the freedom they had growing up “without going nuts with worry.”

Her central thesis is this: life is good, people are mostly good, and kids are both hardy and more capable than we think. In fact, she explains, we’re living in what is “factually, statistically, and luckily for us, one of the safest periods for children in the history of the world.” The problem is that everywhere we look, we’re told otherwise. Which is why, perversely, in the safest of times, we’ve become the most neurotic parenting generation in history. We’re afraid of everything, with no filters, no sense of scale, and in no particular order: food allergies, strangers, poisonous plants, bumped heads, open toilets, rogue toys, Halloween candy, abduction, germs. We’re afraid we might not be perfect. We’re afraid our kids might fail. Skenazy gets it. Then she breaks it down. Her goal is twofold: take away the fear, then let the kids outside again, without the helicoptering parents hovering in the background.

It’s not an easy task. Have you seen the 11 o’clock news lately? Heard about the latest toy recall? Read about nitrates in carrots? Seen the warning labels on baby snacks? Googled, well, anything? No wonder we’re terrified. To illustrate the real odds of much-hyped dangers, Skenazy takes on the most popular stand-bys of parenting paranoia from abduction to poisoned Halloween candy, and gives you the real odds. Then she instructs parents to stop watching Law and Order, and get on with their lives.

“Free Range Kids” is in essence a self-help book, but one that is suffused with humor and backed up with a lot of striking statistical evidence. Skenazy has come up with 14 commandments for today’s beleaguered parents—“Turn off the News” and “Boycott Baby Knee Pads” being two excellent examples—with practical suggestions at the end of each chapter, and insightful posts from her website sent in by real parents and kids. Whether she’s examining the history of childhood, parenting in other cultures, the perceived dangers of the great outdoors, or the nonsensical promises of educational toys, Skenazy’s incredulous tone and engaging writing helps the reader to see the funny side of the fear.

Of course, there is an underlying seriousness and real sadness of the changes she describes. Like the fact that “from 1997 to 2002, the amount of time the average six- to eight-year-old spends on creative play has declined by about a third.” Or her story about a group of kids in Chicago sitting through a lecture on the dangers of hula hoops. Or that fact that schools across the country are cutting shop class, sports and, in some cases, recess, rather than face the risk of lawsuits from zealous parents. (“An elementary school in Attleboro, Massachusetts, has gone so far as to outlaw the game of tag because, as the principal said, ‘accidents can happen.’”) 

While “Free Range Kids” is aimed primarily at parents of school-age kids, it’s accessible to all ages and stages. I have a 10-month old son, so Skenazy’s lampooning of the 1.7 billion dollar baby proofing industry was a particular delight to read. Skenazy can hardly contain her glee when examining today’s latest gadgets, from kneepads and gloves for crawling babies and helmets for toddlers, to easy grip baby soap, which she suggests might be “good in baby prison.” Her tip at the end of this chapter is “Walk through the baby safety department of a store with your oldest living relative asking, “Which of these things did you need?” I threw out my toilet lid locks after reading Skenazy’s breakdown of the statistical dangers of the open bowl, and then calculating the odds of a visitor to my home being forced to pee in the sink. Also, I couldn’t open them.

If anything, the book could have used one last ruthless edit. The “A-to-Z Review of Everything You Might Be Worried About,” while entertaining in parts, is neither comprehensive nor necessary. It feels like an editor’s suggested repository for all the little gems of worry that wouldn’t easily fit into the previous chapters. And there’s some repetition too as Skenazy hammers home her key messages. However, since the average parent of today’s over-scheduled child is unlikely to have time read this in one sitting, this may be a positive point.

“Children just used to be a part of life,” observes like-minded parenting blogger, Nancy McDermott mournfully. Maybe—if Skenazy and others manage to wrest control back from the fear mongering parenting experts—they might just be that again. Maybe one day we will even recapture the essence of Dr. Gibbens’ view of parenthood—that “all this can be the greatest of fun.”

Amy Douthett is a mom and freelance writer


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