Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Free-Range Kids

There are a lot of uninteresting one-cause blogs out there where strident people exorcise their own demons by beating dead hobbyhorses for the edification of the rest of us. Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids isn't one of them. It operates on a pretty simple thesis: American parents are driving themselves crazy with concern and smothering their children with illusory safety, all while America is as safe a place for children as it was in 1970. Quite simply, she's out to change the way Americans raise their kids. This interview with Salon lays out the argument pretty nicely. A few excerpts:
What are the statistics about crimes against children? What is the news that we're not hearing?

The crime rate today is equal to what it was back in 1970. In the '70s and '80s, crime was climbing. It peaked around 1993, and since then it's been going down.

If you were a child in the '70s or the '80s and were allowed to go visit your friend down the block, or ride your bike to the library, or play in the park without your parents accompanying you, your children are no less safe than you were.

But it feels so completely different, and we're told that it's completely different, and frankly, when I tell people that it's the same, nobody believes me. We're living in really safe times, and it's hard to believe.


Then there are products out there that will prevent [anything] from happening. Here is a helmet your child could wear when she starts to toddle, lest she fall over and split her head open and die, or suffer traumatic brain injury.

Kids have been toddling -- it's a whole stage we actually call toddlerhood -- ever since we started walking upright, which has been a pretty successful experiment for the human species. But now you're supposed to think that it's too dangerous for a kid to do without extra protection and without extra supervision and without this stupid thing you can buy.

There are kneepads that you're supposed to put on your kid because crawling is considered too dangerous for the knees, as if knees weren't built for crawling. That's why they're cute and dimpled and fat.

Everything that we do has a product that we can buy that's supposed to make our kids safer, as if they're born without the requisite accoutrements. Then there is something we can do as parents to be more careful, to be more protective. The assumption behind all of that is that if you are a good parent, you should be protecting your child from 100 percent of anything that could possibly go wrong, and if not, you will be blamed and Larry King will shake his finger at you.
I'm probably one of the few single young men reading Skenazy's blog, but I was a Free-Range Kid, and I'll likely have a couple myself someday. Beyond that, the child-safety hysteria is a microcosm of larger societal forces. It is fed by the same psychological quirk that cripples security planning and counterterrorism, namely that human beings are pretty terrible at internalizing probabilities, and particularly terrible at estimating probabilities of things that scare us. Really, Lenore Skenazy is the Bruce Schneier of child-rearing.


Elephantschild said...

I generally agree, except when it comes to putting my 7 year old daughter unaccompanied into the company of adult men whom I do not know and which are not trusted close relatives.

I won't let Sparkle roam in and out of neighborhood houses, which seems to be customary around here.

And she will not spend the night at a friend's house if the Dad is not a close personal friend of ours, and maybe not even then.

But otherwise, I love the premise of the blog. It's no wonder so many teens are infantilized; they're being raised to be so.

Hannah said...

I was, to some extent, a free-range kid as well. 'Tis the best way!

EC, how will Sparkle ever learn how to wear "lady shoes" (Evan :D) if she doesn't spend time in such company? :P

Elephantschild said...

::snort:: The way it's going, the only thing Sparkle will ever use "lady shoes" for is to clock people in the head!

FSN9 said...

While I generally agree with the premise of the blog, there's one important distinction between now and the 70s. When I grew up, there were kids all over the place, walking to school, playing in parks, etc. So, if there was was sicko out looking to target a kid, your chance to getting picked was relatively low because of a multitude of targets, plus there were many people to witness and call for help. Now, because of all the restrictions on children, if I do let my kid out and about in the same way I used to roam around, chances are he'll be one of the few kids in sight, and thus much more likely to get targeted if there is a sicko on the loose, and he would have far fewer people to call for help. In other words, these people trying to shelter their kids have actually made it more dangerous to use the "free range kids" method of child rearing. I hate it, but that's just how it is.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

Skenazy sort of skirts around this issue a bit. I do think it's a valid one. "Free-ranging" your kids will only work as well as it used to if everyone does it, and for more reasons than simply the number of kids out and about. We've lost the cultural habits of looking out for each others' kids. In previous generations, parents could let their kids run around in part because they could trust that the community as a whole would be looking out for them.

Other cultures have retained this; I saw a sign on the (exceeding crowded and dangerous) Mumbai commuter trains that read something like "Young children traveling the trains alone need your attention. Please watch out for them."

The presumption that commuters should take responsibility for other people's kids is utterly foreign to American sensibilities, and particularly unexpected in the heart of one of the world's biggest cities. And I like it.

FSN9 said...

A friend of mine said the same thing about Eastern Europe, although in a different context. You can rely on other people to keep your kid in line if he/she is being a ratbag. Strangers will tell them off and correct their behavior. Imagine trying to do that in USA! You'd have an outraged parent threatening to call the police... instead of apologizing for their poor parenting (as they ought to be doing). Oh, my kid has a condition, or a syndrome, or his bio-rhythms are out of sync or something. His bad manner has nothing to do with the fact that I never try to correct his bad behavior and how dare you suggest such a thing!