Do you remember the media hubbub from a couple years back, when a woman labeled by some as “America’s Worst Mom” let her kid ride the NYC subway all by himself? I thought so.
I chatted with Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids one recent Sunday afternoon as she made chicken soup from scratch—and no. Sadly, I didn’t think to ask if the chicken was free-range.
On April 1, 2008, Lenore wrote a column for The New York Sun: “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone.” She never imagined that it would land her on just about every talk show under the sun. Ever since then, she’s been taking hits and garnering praise as the bold leader of the free-range parenting movement.
She’s painted as a renegade in the media, but the woman I got to know over the phone seemed more like your average, concerned mom, just doing her best to stay sane like the rest of us. The only difference? She thinks the anxiety parents face today is out of control, detrimental, and largely out of place. And she’s doing her best to fight fear with fact, as seen in her book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.
Lenore certainly has some avid detractors. But to me, her message rings true.
The purpose and principles of free-range
I asked Lenore to quickly define the parenting style she’s helped champion, and the well-worn line rolled off her tongue. She called it “an old-fashioned approach to parenting that lets us give our kids the freedom we had.”
More explanation can be found on her website: “…we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail. Most of us grew up Free Range and lived to tell the tale. Our kids deserve no less.”
Her parenting approach, by the way, isn’t based on a hunch. Or nostalgia or laziness. It happens to be backed by a lot of research, which can be found throughout her book. Lenore points to the crime rate as a prime example. It’s much lower today across the board than in the 1970’s, yet kids have less freedom and parents more fear than ever.
Free-range, but not necessarily organic
Lenore has two boys, now 11 and 13 years old. I asked her if she was free-range from the start, when her first son was born. Her very honest answer surprised me.
“No, not at all!” She explained that while she’s an advocate for free-range parenting, she isn’t always able to put everything into practice. She recalled an incident from when her oldest son was one. He was in his car seat, with Lenore and her mother-in-law sitting by him, and her husband driving. “The boy was crying. My mother-in-law said to give him a bottle. I was like, ‘No! I can’t give him a bottle! What if the nipple lodges in his throat?’” She laughed, recalling how in that moment, she trusted all the baby books she’d read, rather than the common sense of her mother-in-law, who’d raised three kids.
Lenore acknowledged, “It’s hard to take a step back from the culture.” But there was something that came much more easily to her than it does to most people: “Trusting strangers more.” Lenore credits this trust to 20 years as a reporter in New York City. “I’m always talking to people in different neighborhoods from all different backgrounds. And everyone’s been great. I really do trust people… and I always felt like if you go into a Starbucks and you have to go to the bathroom, you can ask someone to watch your child.”
She realizes that this is radical stuff to many parents today. Because to so many of us, a stranger is “a predator until proven otherwise.” Luckily, according to Lenore, actual statistics don’t support this bummer of a belief.
What worries the anti-worry guru?
Based on what I’d read about Lenore, I knew there were a lot of things she didn’t worry about: her young son riding the subway alone, for starters. So I wondered, what does the free-range generalissimo worry about?
Lenore sighed, and the list began. “I’m worried right now that my sons aren’t reading enough.” She also worries about their level of communication or lack thereof—especially in regards to one of her sons in particular. “I asked him, ‘what’d you do on your camping trip?’ and he said, ‘Stuff.’”
She admitted, “I worry about their dependence on electronic amusement. Should they not be on the computer? Are they eating too much junk food? Are they nice to their friends? Do they have friends?”
Lenore paused and remarked, “The idea that I’m not a worrier cracks up me and my sister. We are such worriers.”
“I don’t come from pioneer woman, cavalier background,” Lenore continued. “I grew up with a stay-at-home mom.” Yet, she pointed out that her “child-focused” home environment never neared the “level of paranoia about the world that has been foisted on parents today.”
Keeping free-range kids safe
Lenore may be a legend among free-range parents, but she’s very concerned about safety. When her youngest son turned ten, he had a football-themed party. The sole item in the goody bag? A mouth guard.
Free-range parenting isn’t a free-for-all for kids. She explained that, of course, “You’re responsible for them. You teach them how to cross the street. You teach them to be where they say they’re going to be.”
Lenore stated her belief that, no matter how many people are placed on the sex offender registry, “It’s safest to teach your kids to say no to whatever creeps them out,” and to make sure they know that they can always tell you. Lenore emphasized that it’s absolutely crucial to say to them, “I won’t be mad at you.”
“It’s incredibly important to keep the line of communication open. That’s going to help them a lot more than telling them don’t talk to strangers and keeping them inside… Besides, most sexual predators are people they know.”
According to Lenore, the most important message to kids isn’t “Don’t talk to strangers,” but, “You’re allowed to say no and you should tell.”
The goal, she says, is to build confidence in kids. “The confidence to say no—to predators or bullies—comes from doing things in the real world and feeling pretty good about yourself.”
Nothing to fear but fear-mongering?
I’ve often wondered, in regards to myself and other parents I know, “Why we are so scared?” So I asked Lenore to explain the forces undermining parental confidence today, and why the free-range mentality doesn’t come naturally for most.
This is Lenore’s hot button issue, and I could tell by the way her voice changed—slightly higher and faster—when she responded. This is clearly an area she’s studied in-depth, and in her educated opinion, it boils down to “media saturation” and the “safety industrial complex.” Profit-driven messages are messing with our vulnerable parental minds.
The Law and Order phenomenon, she explained, sears graphic images and story-lines of victimization into our brains on a near-daily basis. Coincidentally, Law and Order went on the air in 1990, in the period when parental and general fear was soaring to new, paranoid heights. Our parents simply weren’t bombarded with terrifying and disturbing stories and imagery of sexual and physical violence in the way that we are today, which helps explain our more fearful, mistrusting mindsets.
Lenore said that when you follow the trail of fear, it leads directly to a giant dollar sign. “It all comes from the money to be made via advertising on TV or money made in selling products.” Parental fear is profit-driven, from TV ads to “class-action lawsuits about a drop of lead in Barbie’s eye.” Take a closer look at all the protective measures that at first seem instinctual, “and there is money behind it.”
Lenore highlighted a few products that may seem innocuous at first glance: knee pads, infrared baby monitors, and bath water thermometers. She noted that their very existence and widespread availability have heavy implications for parents. The message: You aren’t capable of keeping your kids safe without the help of products from more knowledgeable companies and experts. For that reason, it can be very hard to walk away from Babies ‘R Us feeling remotely confident as a parent, unless you spend a lot of money.
She explained that the knee pads imply that your baby isn’t safe even when doing a fundamental activity like crawling. The bath water thermometer suggests that “you’re about to scald your child.” The infrared monitor tells us, “At no time is your child is safe and sound.” Lenore pointed out that until recently, when your baby was asleep, you could take a break and “breathe a sigh of relief.” Parents today are afraid to let down their guard for even a minute, and it’s exhausting.
Lenore sees these products and their relentless proliferation and promotion as posing a fundamental question: “Don’t you care enough to save your child?” Of course, our instinct as parents is to say yes. And we spend a lot of money in order to do so. But no purchase is ever enough to take away the fear that has been planted.
My jaw dropped when Lenore told me about perhaps the worst fear-based money-maker she’s ever seen–an ad for a GPS device that’s also a 911 phone. In this short commercial, a kid is lured away from his bus stop by a remote control car. The next thing you see is the kid in the trunk of a strange man’s car, followed by a highly suggestive scene in a dark alley. If you watch closely enough at the end, when a SWAT team arrives to rescue the boy, you’ll notice that the stranger is pulling up his pants. I wish I were kidding. Honestly, I’d hoped Lenore was exaggerating. She wasn’t. See for yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you, and don’t take their misleading stat at face value:
Yikes. No wonder fear is so rampant, Lenore commented, despite the fact that crime is down, child abduction is rare, and that when abuse and kidnapping does happen, it’s usually at the hands of an acquaintance or estranged parent.
Lenore pointed out that whenever something does happen to a child, from a bump on the head to something more serious, parents are attacked or blamed to the fullest extent possible. She lamented, “We’re so afraid these days. Fate used to be part of the bargain. Now, anything that happens to the kid isn’t blamed on fate, it’s blamed on the parent. ‘Why did they let her eat that grape? How did they break their arm?’ It’s all traced back to negligence on parents. We’re blaming them because we’re scared and if we can distance ourselves from that parent’s disaster, it gives us a sense of control.”
Lenore added, “Our litigious society makes it seem like everything that happens has cause or blame.” In other words, there are no accidents anymore. It’s always somebody’s fault.
“Everything is now seen in terms of cause and effect. If we turn our backs for a second, then we will be blamed.” As a result, we’re always looking for possible ways our kids could be hurt, and willing to spend money on products—previously non-existent or considered unnecessary—claiming to protect them.
It’s hard to be a confident, free-range parent today because our commercial culture is constantly feeding our fears.
Sheltered kids lack coping skills
Lenore explained that today, some college administrators refer to incoming freshman as tea cups, “because they’re so delicate.” Sure, they’re “beautiful and perfectly made” but take them out of their protected display case and they break. They don’t stand up to everyday wear and tear, because they’ve always been shielded.
Lenore noted that college students are using mental health services in record numbers. “More college kids are depressed now than during the Depression,” she said.
“The point is,” she continued, “self reliance doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Sometimes you have to figure out your own route home because you missed the bus and can’t get a hold of your mom.” Unfortunately, most kids are bailed out and don’t get the chance to build confidence by overcoming obstacles.
How to worry less? See adversity as opportunity
I asked Lenore what she’d say to a parent who wants to stop worrying, but can’t let go. She said that parents need to take the pressure off of themselves. When her best friend read her book, she told Lenore how much she appreciated “whole chapters telling you to relax.” The fact is, Lenore explained, “Not everything you do has a big impact on your child’s development.”
“It’s a big relief when you realize it’s not all up to you. Not every synapse is up to you to connect in the brain. Not every day has to be perfect. They’re going to fail and that’s probably good in the long run.”
Lenore believes that when adversity strikes, we as parents have the opportunity to say, “Okay this is the punch, and now we learn how to roll with it… Life isn’t going to be perfect. The sooner they realize it, the better they can handle it.”
As for a specific strategy to get nervous parents started, Lenore suggests leaving your cell phone home for a day, giving your child the opportunity to problem-solve on his or her own. (More concrete free-range parenting ideas can be found in the FAQ section at Free-Range Kids.)
It’s a wide, enriching world for free-range kids
I asked Lenore to think of an incident—something her kids said or did—that affirmed her free-range parenting style. I wondered if she’d seen behavior that let her know that the freedoms she’d given them were fruitful investments in their character.
She thought for a minute, and then perked up. She explained that her youngest son takes the subway to school and transfers in Manhattan. Along the way, her son has befriended, as Lenore put it, “the guy who gives out free newspapers.”
The man’s a fixture at her son’s stop. “The guy has been through some hard times,” Lenore said, adding that he’s likely been “homeless or incarcerated… and doesn’t want to see my son go the same route.” This man has not only become a friendly acquaintance of her son, he’s become interested in and invested in her son’s future.
In fact, this man wrote her son a letter, amounting to a pep talk on paper, urging him to stay the course in life. He also gave her son a book about John F. Kennedy, meant to inspire.
Lenore shared her feelings on the unusual relationship. “It made me proud that he [Lenore’s son] connected with another person, that the person is looking after him… and that the man feels good about it.” Lenore, the seasoned reporter, couldn’t help but add, “And it makes me happy that my son reads the newspaper.”
Lenore is delighted to see that her son is “not writing people off because they’re a different color or poor or hard up.” It’s just one of many lessons he’s free to learn.