Monday, May 11, 2009

Free Range Kids

Some time ago, a woman made national news headlines when she wrote about allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway alone. Lenore Skenazy, a writer, gave her son a map, some cash, and some subway tokens, dropped him off some distance away, and challenged him to find his way home on his own. It was something her son had been wanting to try, and she felt something he would be able to handle. He made it home fine, by the way.

Her philosophy is this - kids today have far less freedom than kids who grew up pre-1990, and it's creating a generation of people who are incapable of the simplest tasks, incapable of figuring out on their own how to solve a problem. She blames an overabundance of national news that makes it seem as though our world is far more dangerous place now, and the 24-hour news cycle that bombards us with all sorts of horrible things that are happening to people around the world.

In reality, she says, crime statistics point to a crime rate that is as low now as it was in 1970. We are as safe now as we were then, despite all of the horrors we hear about daily!

It's an interesting movement, one that I am apt to subscribe to. I believe our job as parents is to prepare our children for the world, little by little. How else to do this than by giving them increasing amounts of freedom concurrent with their proving they can handle it, and with our teaching them how to handle various situations as well.

I have personally witnessed the degradation of freedom afforded to kids during this time in our history. Many of the people who commented on Ms. Skenazy's website have said that they, as kids, had all sorts of freedom, from taking public transit all over the large cities in which they lived, to flying alone across country to see relatives. They all consider themselves stronger, more independent people as a result. They cite hours spent exploring with friends, getting into and out of trouble, learning by experience. To be sure, some of them commented on predators they encountered along the way but most seemed to feel that they were able to handle those situations better and with some common sense because of the independence they'd been given from an early age. They learned to rely on their instincts and they knew what to do.

As a kid, I rode my bike all over my neighborhood in suburban Maryland. I was out of the house from morning until night, playing with my friends in various yards. We had tremendous freedom and lots of time and imagination. None of the parents I knew had the time or desire to personally supervise us. When I was very young, we lived in an apartment complex just outside of Washington, D.C. and my mother often sent me down the street to collect the mail or take the rent check to the office. My sister and I knew how to walk to the High's store and buy milk if our mom needed it. To be sure, she watched us from the balcony of the apartment, and she always knew roughly where we were. But for kids, It is independence that is unheard of today.

Today, I know people who have a twelve-year-old son who wasn't allowed to ride his bike out of their cul-de-sac until a year ago. I know many, many people who won't allow their kids to play alone in their own yard unsupervised, or take the bus for fear of putting their kids' safety in someone else's hands. In the context of how we lived years ago, this seems crazy! Yet somehow we've gotten to this point where helicopter parenting has so gradually become the norm, that we don't even realize it might be a bad thing.

And the problem, too, is, even if I allow my kids to play freely, to ride their bikes out of my sight when they get a bit older, who will they play with? Because no one I know would ever allow their kids to do the same. And what about law enforcement, which doesn't seem to know quite what to do with a kid found wandering by themselves, since it's so unheard of anymore? Are we headed toward a time when we aren't allowed to let our kids have any freedom, or when legislators decide to enact laws determining an appropriate legal age? It's not out of the realm. A law is making its way through the NC legislature right now that dictates when it is and is not okay to leave your child in a car unsupervised. In many ways, legislators are acting like the helicopter parents that this movement ultimately targets - it doesn't trust us as individuals to make the right decision and so it attempts, more and more, to limit our freedom.

As I said, it's an interesting movement, one I plan on following in the coming weeks and months in an effort to, as always, do the best I can to prepare my kids for the world. I'm not saying I'm completely on board with it - the idea of letting young kids go makes me as nervous as any parent, and I would never forgive myself if anything bad were to happen. But as Dory said to Marlin in the incredibly popular Finding Nemo (that I've seen too many times to count), it's a funny thing to not want to let anything happen to your kids. You can't foresee every bad thing that could happen and there's no way you can protect against all of the possibilities. Besides, If nothing ever happened, what fun would that be anyway?

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