Take your kids to the park, and leave them there

A New York writer has caused a storm by encouraging parents to leave their kids in parks tomorrow. She tells spiked why she’s doing it.

Lenore Skenazy

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Topics Politics

Lenore Skenazy, who was branded ‘America’s Worst Mom’ after she wrote in the New York Sun about letting her nine-year-old son ride the NY subway alone, has declared this Saturday to be the first-ever ‘Take Our Children To The Park And Leave Them There’ day. She has been caught up in a maelstrom of media attention since she announced the ‘holiday’ on her Free Range Kids website last week. Here, she explains why she’s doing it.

In America, there’s a day called Take Our Children To Work Day, which is supposed to introduce children to the workplace. Well, my idea is to introduce children aged seven and up to play, and that’s why I’ve called for this Saturday to be the very first Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.

The idea behind this ‘holiday’ is simple. Most of us want our children to play outside and have fun, but this is impossible because there aren’t any other kids outside for our kids to play with. Sometimes, on beautiful days when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping, I tell my kids ‘go out and play’, and they look out the window and report back: ‘But there’s no one else outside.’ And I realise they’re telling the truth. I’m sure there are children up and down our streets looking out their windows and saying ‘there’s no one outside’.

So this is a day for children to go to the park and meet each other, and for us, the parents, to leave them to it. It could be for just 10 minutes or for half an hour – whatever you and your children are ready for. By leaving them to play with each other, they’ll have to figure out for themselves what to do with a ball or a piece of chalk.

I’m suggesting people go to their neighbourhood parks at 10am on Saturday – if we all go around the same time, then we and our kids have more of a chance of running into each other and getting to know each other. The whole point is to meet your neighbours, for your kids to make friends and then maybe they’ll say the next day: ‘Mum, it’s beautiful outside! I’m going to go down the street to Jennifer’s house.’

I keep hearing that it’s so dangerous today, that it’s not like it used to be. But one reason we parents think this way is because we used to enjoy going outside and meeting each other when we were kids, and it felt safe when everyone knew one another in the neighbourhood. Now that we’ve become increasingly used to keeping our children in a safe bubble, keeping them indoors where there are computers, televisions and constant texting, there’s nobody left outside who knows your kids. It’s actually safer and better for everyone involved if I know who your kids are and you know who my kids are. We need to re-knit the idea of a community.

A lady wrote a message on my blog today, saying: ‘So if I’m at the park and your kid falls down and hurts his arm, I’m supposed to help him?’ Her implication was that that’s not her job, but I thought ‘yes, that is your job’ – just like I would look after her kid if he fell down and broke his arm. There’s something nasty about a society that says ‘I’m here for my child and my child only, and I’m going to ignore your kids completely even if they’re in distress’. Well, I don’t think that’s the kind of neighbourhood anyone wants to live in, so I hope the Take Our Children to the Park Day will give us some hope of shaping the kind of community we all long for.

And it’s also about getting our children to play again – outdoors and with each other. Play is incredibly important for children, not just because it’s fun, but because it’s an important part of their development. When kids play with other kids, they have everything going for them – all the kinds of developments that parents could hope for. There’s creativity involved: ‘Let’s turn that tree into a jail!’ There’s communication: kids have to explain to each other the rules of the game. There’s compromise: one kid thinks the tree should be the jail, another says it should be first base, a third believes it should be the safety zone, and so on. And so they have to compromise. And in play, children also have the perfect chance of developing ‘self-regulation’ – which is the new buzzword. This refers to that ability that we attribute to maturity: to keep yourself from doing something impulsively that you know is not a good idea, to keep yourself from acting unfairly or doing something wrong.

It’s like that old experiment where kids were left in a room and were told they could eat one marshmallow immediately or, if they waited for the researcher to come back, they could have two. Supposedly, the kids who could wait were the ones who would go on to rule the world… Well, how do you get that kind of impulse control in the first place? You get it when a bunch of kids are playing and one says ‘now it’s my turn’ and the other kids say ‘no, it’s not – go to the back of the line’. When kids are playing together all this stuff becomes internalised. But when my kid is playing with me and he misses the ball and wants to have another go, then I just say okay, because I’m his mum I give him another chance. But that’s not the same kind of experience that he’ll get when he’s playing with other children.

I’m expecting a lot of parents and kids to participate tomorrow – lots of people have left messages on my blog saying ‘count me in!’ and ‘this sounds great!’. But on other blogs and in some newspapers and television shows people are calling me ‘bizarre’, ‘crazy’ and ‘criminal’. A famous lawyer interviewed on the TV station WABC on Wednesday said that what I am proposing would get any parent locked up. But actually, it is not illegal. According to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, there is no specified age at which a kid can be left outside (or inside, for that matter) unsupervised. You only get locked up if you are actually putting your child in danger. If you keep your child in the home with no food and a lot of drugs, for instance, that’s negligent. Letting your kid play with other kids in the park while you go get a cup of coffee for 10 minutes is not.

My critics are ramping up the rhetoric against me because, in this day and age, it’s apparently a radical idea to suggest that what kids really need is an old-fashioned childhood! My critics don’t like to hear anyone suggesting that the protections we’ve been providing for our kids may not be as necessary as we think they are, and may, in fact, be hurting kids in the long run.

A lot of people think that if you turn your back on your child for even just a minute, you are endangering the child. One woman wrote a note on my site saying that she’d been sitting on her lawn reading a book with her children playing around her when a neighbour walked by and said: ‘Put down your book! Your kids could be snatched at any moment!’ That’s the kind of parenting that we are demanding of mums and dads these days.

One of the reasons I think ‘stranger danger’ caught on as a concept is simply because it rhymes. In truth, the idea is at odds with reality. Ninety per cent of child abuse is committed by people that the children know well. And, in fact, if your kids are out in the real world and are approached, God forbid, by somebody scary, then the safest thing they can do is run to another stranger and say ‘I’m going to stand by you until that man leaves’ or ‘call 911, that guy has a gun!’. You have to teach your kids that they can talk to strangers, but they can never go off with strangers, or with anyone that you have not pre-approved. That’s an easier lesson for kids to understand and it’s a more helpful one. Because if you simply say ‘don’t talk to strangers’, you’ve removed all the people in the neighbourhood who could actually help them in a time of danger.

The fear of predators is so enormous here in the United States, but in truth we are enjoying a great period of safety compared to when my generation was growing up. The crime rates were higher in the 1970s and 1980s when most of today’s parents of young children were growing up, and crime has been going down since the early 1990s.

The American polling company Gallup did a survey in 2009 in which 73 per cent of respondents said crime was worse than the previous year. Well, guess what? In 2009, at least here in New York City, we had the lowest murder rate record ever. So naturally, when I say it’s safe for our kids to go out and play on their own, people don’t believe me because every time they turn on the television some child is being abducted – 24/7 on TV you can witness worst-case scenarios, but that doesn’t mean it’s happening 24/7 in America.

So can you bring back a sense of trust, of community and play in just one day? No, but it’s a start. I think of the Take Our Children To The Park And Leave Them There Day as an ice-breaker for childhood. We’ve swept children off the streets because of our fears and anxieties, but I say it’s time we start reclaiming childhood for our kids.

Lenore Skenazy was talking to Nathalie Rothschild. Skenazy is the author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) and runs the Free Range Kids website – visit it here.

Previously on spiked

Nancy McDermott interviewed Lenore Skenazy, talked to the woman treated like a criminal for leaving her kids at the mall and urged parents to trust their own, and not experts’, judgement. Ann Furedi praised a new book detailing state-meddling in parents’ affairs. Jennie Bristow reviewed the grisly memoirs of Ayelet Waldman, a ‘bad mother’. Helene Guldberg attacked a report arguing that time-stretched parents are producing damaged children. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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