Join the movement for ‘Free Range Kids’

Lenore Skenazy, branded ‘America’s Worst Mom’ after she let her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone, has now written a manifesto for less panicked parenting and more childhood freedom.

Nancy McDermott

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Topics Books

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, I let my sons stay up past their bedtime to watch movies. We had already spent several hours of guilty pleasure watching combat classics like Sahara with Humphrey Bogart and Submarine Command with William Holden. Both are still rated ‘G’, but probably only because no one has noticed how much smoking, drinking and shooting they include.

So when my eldest son begged to watch Big with Tom Hanks, it seemed like a good choice all around: no war, no death, no guns, no tanks, and no need to feel awkward about the one adult moment in the film because my son still hides his eyes during the smoochy parts and shouts: ‘Is it over yet?’ (1)

The film tells the story of Josh Baskin, a 13-year-old boy from New Jersey plunged into a grown-up body and the adult world after he wishes to be ‘big’ on a mysterious arcade machine at the fun fair. It’s one of our favourites. I can’t help but smile every time I watch Tom Hanks gnaw a piece of baby corn as if it were full-sized, and his toy-filled loft apartment always inspires my sons to gasp and exclaim: ‘That’s so cool!’

Watching it with them this time, it struck me that many of the things they love about the film have nothing to do with the story. They are things viewers would have taken for granted in the late 1980s when the film was made: things like kids walking to school, riding their bikes, or hanging out in town by themselves. My son was especially amazed to see the boys taking the bus from New Jersey to Manhattan. For him, Big is a snapshot of a world without cellphones, ‘hoovering parents’ or adult supervision, all the more intriguing because it is all incidental and not the main plot line, as it is in Home Alone.

It’s hard to believe the experience of childhood could change so much in only a few decades. Today, the same streets where Josh Baskin rode his bike to school are crowded with cars dropping off children for class each morning. The sidewalks are virtually empty. The ersatz street-game of stick ball has been replaced by the game it aspired to be: kids now play seasonal baseball with uniforms and coaches and trophies. And a child taking a trip on public transport on his own? That can become headline news. Just ask Lenore Skenazy.

Skenazy, a journalist and mother based in New York, made newspaper headlines around the world last year when she wrote about allowing her then nine-year-old son, Izzy, to find his way home alone on the New York City subway. It wasn’t the trip itself that garnered so much attention: it was the fact that Skenazy had the cheek to suggest that letting her son ride the subway was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, that most adults are not ‘predators’, and that there is no reason why a competent young person shouldn’t be allowed to travel the city on his own. It earned her the label ‘America’s Worst Mom’. However, had she met only with condemnation, that might have been the end of it. But something else happened.

It turned out that Skenazy isn’t the only parent frustrated by the ‘can’t do’ ethos pervading childhood today. Her story struck a chord with people across America and around the world. A year after she found herself on America’s Today show facing down a ‘parenting expert’ who looked at Skenazy ‘like I just asked her to smell my sock’, Skenazy has written a book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, and has started up the debate all over again.

‘The media loves this story like a dog loves not only a bone, but filet mignon in steak sauce’, she tells me – and she’s right. At one point it was possible to go to bed having watched her on Nightline, only to switch on the TV over breakfast to see her again on Good Morning America. And it’s not just in the United States. She has also chatted with radio hosts in New Zealand and media people in Brazil, Chile and Australia. ‘It is a story, dare I say it, that everyone wants to hear’, she says, ‘because I think we really do realise that something strange has happened to childhood and also to the role of parents’.

Of course, some of the interest in the Skenazy story is pure nostalgia for things like ‘pick-up’ baseball or roaming the neighbourhood in drugstore costumes on Halloween. But there are also many parents who would like to give their kids a little more freedom without necessarily recreating everything else about the 1970s. Most don’t understand how we got to where we are, and few have any idea of how to go about changing things. Free-Range Kids addresses all of these concerns and more. It’s part how-to manual, part myth-buster, and it makes a passionate case for giving kids the gift of freedom – all delivered in a funny, good-natured way that makes letting your children roam alone seem like the most straightforward thing in the world.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is comprised of ‘The 14 Free-Range Commandments’, or, as Skenazy calls them: ‘10 Commandments with four thrown in free of charge.’ These are not prescriptions but chapters tackling some of the biggest challenges parents face, whether from their own fears (‘Turn Off the News’), the problems of living in a litigious climate (‘Don’t Think Like a Lawyer’), or dealing with people who believe a fearful parent is a good parent (‘Ignore the Blamers’).

The chapter on baby-safety, ‘Boycott Baby Knee Pads’, is typical. It opens with a vignette about James Hirtenstein, a professional baby proofer who featured on the CBS channel’s Early Show. He was advising parents to buy a device called a ‘toilet lock’ because ‘on average two children a week die in toilets’ (!!). The chances are that, for many parents, the very mention of the words ‘toddler’, ‘toilet’ and ‘death’ in the same sentence would make them, understandably, want to lock their toilets. With chains. Forever. Fortunately, Skenazy actually goes through the trouble of looking into the story. And she finds that, actually, around four children a year drown in toilets. And while that is horrible and tragic, the truth is that it is highly, highly unlikely it will happen to your kid. It’s probably not going to happen to anyone you know or are likely to know, in spite of what entrepreneurial baby-proofers like Hirtenstein tell us (2).

The beauty of Skenazy’s work is not just that it’s reassuring for parents or for anxious house guests who haven’t worked out that it’s only by holding the three buttons down on the toilet lock while pushing it in that the lid opens. Rather, it is that Skenazy has tipped us off to the fearmongers’ chief modus operandi: find a minor danger and convince parents that it’s a major concern. Both in the book’s first part and in its encyclopedic second part, titled ‘Safe or Not?’, Skenazy blows the lid off all manner of worries, such as child abduction, poison Halloween candy, the perils of eating raw cookie dough, and lead in Chinese toys. It’s chock full of examples, inspiration and ammunition to throw back at the experts, doom-mongers and busybodies striving to make kids’ lives safer but duller.

What you won’t find in Free-Range Kids is a guide to the ‘Free-Range Parenting Lifestyle’. There is no such thing. Sure, we need to ‘go Free-Range’ but it’s not really about us. Skenazy’s focus is firmly on children. Nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter titled ‘Listen to your Kids: They Don’t Want to be Treated Like Babies’. ‘When parents don’t trust their kids to cross the street or go where they say they’re going or buy groceries by themselves because everyone else out there is so untrustworthy, kids hear the simultaneous translation “we don’t trust you”. Trusting our kids, it turns out, really means trusting each other. Parents, teachers, relatives and mentors who do believe in us have an impact beyond measure.’ (3)

One such adult in Skenazy’s life was Mrs MacDougal, her seventh-grade social studies teacher and the person to whom her book is dedicated. Mrs Mac asked young Lenore to accompany her on a trip to visit a dilapidated one-room schoolhouse that she was thinking of buying so that her students could experience what it was like ‘in the olden days’. It would mean skipping school, staying over night in a hotel, and lots of driving. ‘Mrs Mac’, Skenazy protested, ‘I don’t have a license’. ‘Do you have a learner’s permit?’, responded Mrs Mac. ‘Yes.’ ‘Then let’s go!’ (4)

The sly question at the heart of the film Big is whether, given the opportunity, we would go back to being kids again. ‘No’, Josh’s grown-up girlfriend Susan decides. ‘It was hard enough the first time.’ And yet, by the end of the film, we’re also sure we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Tucking in my own sleepy boys, I wondered what they would have to look back on one day: whether it would be the things they did or the things they weren’t allowed to do. For the Mrs Macs of the world, Lenore Skenazy among them, the answer is straightforward. Grab a copy of Free-Range Kids – and let’s go!

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had without Going Nuts with Worry by Lenore Skenazy is published by Jossey Bass. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Big may be one of the last family films with characters who smoke

(2) Free-Range Kids, page 32

(3) Free-Range Kids, pp 144, 141

(4) Free-Range Kids, page 141

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