STATS ARTICLES 2009
Land of the free, home of the scared: An interview with Lenore Skenazy
Trevor Butterworth, September 2, 2009
What if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger and held overnight? How long would you have to leave him or her outside and unattended for that to actually happen? When journalist and author Lenore Skenazy asked people to take a guess, the answers showed a country increasingly, and irrationally, consumed by fear.
With “Free Range Kids,” Lenore Skenazy took aim at an ‘all-at-risk, all-the-time’ attitude to childhood that has spawned McCarthyite fears of abductors lurking behind every bush (if not under every bed) and a preoccupation with risk so actuarial it has spun childhood in a vast web of regulation and hitherto unimagined safety products. But, perhaps most powerful of all, she has reminded many parents that they are depriving their children of the childhood they, themselves, had, which, if not quite bathed in the crisp, wholesome light of a Norman Rockwell painting, was somehow a less fearsome, and more commonsensical place – somewhere that toddlers could crawl without kneepads and helmets, children could walk to and from school, and even play together, unsupervised, in their gardens or yards.
“I think that we’re living through the equivalent of the Salem witch trials,” says Skenazy. “There is such hysteria about children being outside for five minutes, 10 minutes by themselves,” she says, “they’ll never be seen again!” A native of Chicago, who grew up playing outdoors in suburban cul-de-sac, Skenazy, 49, has been a columnist and reporter in New York for many years, and identifies herself as “a total kneejerk Jewish liberal” who has drawn the line at pointless regulation, something which, she concedes, makes her sound libertarian in the stratification of American political allegiances.
"We think we’ve put the hocus pocus of Salem behind us she says, “but we still see everything in terms of causality. Something is controlling things, and we need to control things, and if we only get the right chicken bone! Except now we call it the right law.” She despairs of the recent Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in which Congress tackled the risk of lead to children and ended up mandating that every possible product made for children aged up to 12 be tested no matter what it is or how unlikely it might be that children could extract the lead from a bike. One appalling consequence of the law is that books for children published before 1984, when printing ink contained lead, are being pulped.
Skenazy talks rapidly over a glutted pastrami sandwich (the regular meat, not the ersatz reduced-fat stuff, she earlier warned the waitress) at New York’s Second Avenue Deli. I, unwittingly, have managed to order an even larger and more frightening confection of meat. This is not my first time to meet or even talk to the waif-like scourge of the risk averse – STATS was a source in her story about letting her nine-year old son, Izzy, ride the New York Subway and cross-town bus on his own – a feat so counter-intuitive to so many people in the U.S., it turned her into a media star and earned her the soubriquet “the world’s worst mom.” (It should be noted that Izzy had been agitating for such a trip and not that she simply abandoned him in the city and told him in some sort of malign, horror movie cackle, to make his own way home, if he could.)
The column - and the outsize response - begat a blog; the blog begat the book, Free Range Kids; and, if Skenazy has her way, the book will begat a movement to liberate children and parents alike from a ravenous culture of fear.
Parents, she explains, are increasingly thinking about childhood “defensively – in terms of 'if something should happen,'” while school districts plot out the myriad ways they could be sued if a child falls and breaks an arm. The result is that childhood is now in lockdown, and subject to ever more stringent defensive reactions to banal occurrences, such as the evacuation of a school bus full of 10-year olds in Massachusetts after a single peanut was spotted on the floor.
“But there is also the fear that is compounded by the media,” says Skenazy, “that our kids are, literally, in danger from predators every second of the day.” She had recently blogged about a reader who had wanted to go to her daughter’s kindergarten class party but couldn’t, because she had not had a criminal background check. “Then all these other people wrote to me that the same thing happened to them. And there are people who wrote to me who were teachers, who said ‘they wouldn’t let me in to see my kids even thought I’m an accredited teacher in another district and I had my ID with me.’”
Behind the rules, says Skenazy, is the idea that the only people who really want to be around children are pedophiles. “That’s the assumption until proven otherwise.” (The mother in question was finally allowed to go to her daughter’s party - but only on the condition that she stayed in the back and did not interact with any of the other children.)
The sense that we were, collectively, losing perspective, hit Skenazy several years ago, when a friend told her about an incident in a supermarket. She had been waiting in line with her two children when another mother asked her to look after her child while she picked up a forgotten food item.
Her friend’s response was, “yes, of course,” but her reaction later was “could you believe what she did? I could have taken that baby, run off with him, and she would have never seen him again!”
Fatal road-traffic injury rates per 100 000 children,
Unintentional injury mortality rate according to the principal external cause of death in the US between 1989–98
To Skenazy, her friend was not only hallucinating danger, she was doing something even more perplexing, she was imagining herself as a kidnapper. “Don’t you think that that woman looked at you, saw you with two children, saw you with a loaded grocery cart?” Skenazy responded. “You weren’t just loitering there - you would have had to take your two children and hers. Your children wouldn’t say, ‘why are we taking that other woman’s baby? No one in the store would say, ‘why is she taking that woman’s baby?’ You would have to find your car in that huge lot, and no-one would stop you? You want another kid? You don’t even have a third car seat!”
Skenazy kept pushing her friend, who she describes as extremely smart, to think logically. What would she have done after she crossed state lines? How would she have dealt with three hungry, confused kids? “It was so insane,” she says, “but it turned on a switch: why are we thinking this way?” (For the record, they are still friends.)
As she has continued to blog and promote the book, Skenazy has been inundated with readers reporting a nation increasingly consumed with risk aversion. “I didn’t even know how wild our country was until I started the blog,” she says. “Every day somebody writes to me about something I didn’t realize was happening.” Libraries are refusing admission to children under the age of 18, unless accompanied by their parents, she says. School buses are now dropping each child directly to their doors, or will not allow a child off the bus unless he or she is met by a parent, and some parents are driving their kids from the garage to the street.
“I’m not saying there is no danger in the world, but we live in really safe times, and statistically they are as safe as they were in 1970,” she says. Noting that crime rates climbed in the 70s and 80s before falling in the 1990s, she points out that “if you were outside as a kid anytime in the 70s and 80s, your kids are safer – not just safe, but safer - than you were.” The chance of any child being abducted and killed by a stranger is roughly one in 1.5 million (the odds vary slightly depending on the number of abductions per year relative to the number of children).
And yet, whenever she points this out she is constantly reminded “but what if that one is yours?” It’s as if people cannot imagine being part of the 1,499,999,” she says. “They only see the one – they only see the one on the milk carton, they see one on TV, and they see the one sitting in front of themselves with the cutesy eyes, and they don’t want it to be them.”
It was odd; instead of real numbers rescuing parents from the false sense risk, they actually worked against rational thinking. No matter how big the denominator, people still focused on the number one – which, naturally, stood for their child.
Perhaps the problem needed to be approached from a different angle, she thought. What if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger and held overnight? How long would you have to leave him outside, and unattended for that to be likely to happen? When she asked people to take a guess, the most she ever heard was three months. Some people ventured a day, an hour, and even - implausibly - ten minutes.
Skenazy turned to Warwick Cairns, the British author of “About the Size of It: The Common Sense Approach to Measuring Things” and “How to Live Dangerously” (“a prolonged, statistically-based plea to stop living in our beige world of risk-minimalization,” as the Times of London put it).
Cairns, who did graduate work in English literature at Yale with legendary critic Harold Bloom and, among a series of diverting segues to becoming a champion of numerical thinking, dug wells on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, had calculated these very odds for British children. It would be easy to run the numbers for American kids.
The answer to Skenazy’s question was… 750,000 years. By reframing the way the risk was framed, she took the focus away from one, and placed it on what the chance was in real time – and 750,000 years is a far more arresting and reassuring number than one in 1.5 million.
Still, despite being America’s leading tribune for rational thinking about risk, Skenazy admits that she is hardly Spock-like in ratiocinative serenity. “I can’t say I’m totally immune to what I call the “kiddie safety industrial complex,” she says. “When my kids were little, I bought a baby monitor and I thought – later – why did I buy the baby monitor? I was in a one bedroom apartment, I can hear them cry! But when these things exist you either think that, ‘well, it must be for a good reason, so maybe I need it’ – or you take a step back and [think] ‘what is being forced upon us and is it really necessary?”
She attributes her diminished sense of nervousness in part to laziness: she just couldn’t be bothered reading every single piece of information dissecting the infinitude of the risks facing a child. “Rather than reading every single piece of information about whether my child can touch a plastic pony, I go - ‘I touched a plastic pony, and I’m here today.’”
“I haven’t seen horrible diseases sweeping the country as a result of any child rearing technique that we’ve been using, whether it’s drinking baby formula or using a sippy cup,“ she says. “So, rather than worry about these, I worry about cars. They are the number one way children are killed.”
Read Amy Douthett's review of Free Range Kids for STATS