Sunday, July 26, 2009

"It’s all this mistaken notion that if we avoid everything, we’ll avoid risk."

In the past week of summer vacation, I have permitted the following activities:

My eight-year-old stayed at home to play computer games while I and the three Littlers walked a block up to the little neighborhood market to buy cheese for dinner sandwiches that night.

My eight-year-old and six-year-old walked to the vending machines at the pool from the playground sort of next to the pool, to buy treats for themselves and their brothers after swim lessons. Then they went back again because Seg punched the wrong numbers into the vending machines and wound up with peanut butter crackers instead of a bag of Skittles. My friend M and I stayed at the playground, chatting and watching our Littlers play in the dirt and run around.

The three older boys roasted marshmallows and flung wood onto the fire, and traipsed around the woods collecting feathers and walnuts and leaves, and slept outside in a tent. I sat on a porch swing next to the fire with a bottle of Straub’s and my friend A and talked (when I wasn't bogarting their burnt marshmallows).

The two older boys and their friend rode their bicycles and scooter around and around the block and up and down the alley playing some sort of tag they made up involving Harry Potter and much loud casting of spells (their extremely common use of the Cruciatus curse might give me pause for concern...)

The three older boys ate popsicles on the front porch while I put the baby down for a nap upstairs.

The two older boys took my coupons and went and retrieved items I needed in other aisles of the grocery store while I waited for the damn fishman to give me my order.

The two older boys continued playing a game in the van (windows down but vehicle locked, of course, parked DIRECTLY in front of the coffee shop and with several people we knew sitting at the tables out front) while I ran into the coffee shop to pick up a (pre-called/ordered) latte.

None of these sound completely crazy, do they?

I mean, really REALLY beyond-the-pale crazy?

Because they are activities that have been a little tough for me. A little tough on my over-protective, overactive mothering instincts. Activities that frankly fly in the face of the helicopter parenting most of us practice (or are expected to practice) these days. While the boys were on the porch, I envisioned – I dunno – Jack the Ripper? White slavers? A slavering pedophile in a panel van looking for his puppy?

Yes, we live in the city, which means I lock my doors and car at night. I will not allow my children to play in the actual street. I am cordial but distant with strangers walking up and down the street.

But *I* grew up riding my bike where I pleased, and was pretty much left to my own devices most of the summer, and a lot of the rest of the year. (Remember this post?)

We kids ran up and down and IN the street, and we built treehouses in the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac (which incidentally backed up onto a major freeway, separated from our street by a cinder block wall and little else). We played hockey and kickball in the street ("CAR!"), and I was allowed to walk not only to my friend Roseann’s house at the end of the street, but to my friend Stacie’s house, across the previously mentioned highway (there was an overpass). I was permitted to walk down the street the other way to the pond, to fish and skate and to hang out with my friend Stephanie. I was permitted to ride my bike anywhere I could pedal it, which often included the 7-11, the movie theatre, and the ice cream store (all roughly within a mile radius).

In addition, I was sent away every single summer for weeks at a time to camp (and loved every blessed minute of it), where I had a large posse of friends I didn’t see the rest of the year; we ran around in the woods (sometimes in the middle of the night), canoed and kayaked and played in the creek; we climbed all over a ropes course and in the trees like monkeys; we camped outside, built large fires, learned to shoot a bow-and-arrow and a BB gun, and swam miles in the freezing cold pool at 5am to earn meaningless badges.

I was not only permitted but EXPECTED to walk the two long blocks to the bus stop and take a public bus three miles home from school in the winter months, when my mother didn’t drive due to snow (my older brother was with me most days, and this didn't start till I was in second grade). (One memorable snowy day, when my brother was not in school for some reason or another, I fell asleep and missed my stop. The bus driver turned around at the end of the route and drove me to my doorstep.)

I was a Free Range Kid.

Before the days of 24-hours-a-day news channels trumpeting every single missing child (and even some not really missing), before the days of Stranger Danger programs and the prominence of organized sports, before the days of your kids’ friends all living in the ‘burbs to which you must drive, I think most of us my age (39ish) were.

After reading Lenore Skenazy’s wonderful and reassuring book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, I feel like a new convert.

Lenore Skenazy is passionate about her cause: Giving children — and their parents – freedom. For the kids, it’s the freedom to play outside without grown-ups, to make mistakes, to climb trees, to walk to school alone, to frolic. For their parents, it’s giving them the confidence to let go of irrational fears that make them to want to place their children under lock and key or 24/7 surveillance. Or both. (from Picket Fence Post.)

The zeal with which I am now actively trying to develop my children’s independence must necessarily (and wisely) be tempered by a number of factors. For example:

- Their ages –would I send the three-year-old to the vending machine alone? I WOULD NOT.

- By their personalities and common sense - Would I leave the six-year-old home alone for half an hour? I actually might, since my six-year-old is the most responsible of all my children – it might depend on where I was going, and how he felt about it.

- And by MY common sense: Would I drive my twelve-year-old to the local mall, along with a friend, and leave them in charge of three younger siblings, including a three-year-old? Boy, for all my zeal and independence-building, I sure would not. (I have an eight-year-old and a three-year-old. I would not trust them at a large public shopping mall with anyone but me, and sometimes I even wonder about me.)

Skenazy allowed her then-nine-year-old to ride the subway alone. For this feat of mothering confidence, she was interviewed all over national TV and vilified by lots and lots of plastic talking heads in the media. She discusses this reaction in her book, and she then goes on to discuss why we have become such a fearful and overprotective society. She backs up her strong opinions with solid empirical evidence, citing, among others, David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and several prominent NY pediatricians (her own included). She cites numbers at a dizzying speed, debunking many of our long-held and weirdly cherished beliefs re: stranger kidnapping, online predators, cell phone use by children, and the need for toilet locks (I personally gave up toilet locks when I couldn't get one open at an, er, critical moment. Thank God we have two bathrooms). Her tone is friendly but firm; her writing style would seem most at home in a mommy blog (I don’t think that’s an insult, is it?).

I may be a little bit in love with her and her ideas, and if we lived in the same city, I would so find her and make her be my (enabling and supportive) mommy friend.

Would I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone? Perhaps, if he’d grown up in NYC and was used to riding the subway with me and it was daytime and he didn’t have to switch trains...see how it goes? You have to use your parenting instincts and skills to make the best decision for you and for your child.

But you also must stretch a little, take a few chances – let them spread their wings and attempt a solo flight. Because eventually (dear God, I hope and pray) they grow up and move out and must do their own laundry, and believe it or not, little Junior needs to know how to turn on the stove and live in his own place and ride the subway to work at some point.

*Lenore Skenazy


MsCellania said...

What our parents let us do might now be bconsidered child abuse. Are things really all that more dangerous? I think not. But the news makes one think so. So--quit watching the news?
I don't know. I am way overprotective. Mine cook their own eggs and other stuff. We all pee, bathe, sleep, whatever with doors wide open. But let them trot out, alone, in the world? Nah, not so much (but then, I do have one on the autism spectrum, so That Changes Everything).
And I updated the Blog! Don't faint. I guess I've gone Semi-Annual.

MsCellania said...

Oh, waitaminnit - we don't do EVERYTHING with doors wide open! Geesh!

Caro said...

We lived in the middle of nowhere when I was a kid so I didn't have anywhere to ride my bike to.

We live a mile from school but there are no sidewalks for half of it. Did I mention people drive like maniacs around here?

Yeah, I'm fearful. Maybe I should read the book. :-)

I have let my 10-year old stay home alone for very short stretches of time to teach responsibility. But I am as nervous as a hooker in church the whole time.

Ah well, baby steps.

Amelia Plum said...

I do need to read that book. When I think of all that I was able to do at my son's age with no guidance whatsoever, it's quite the dichotomy. I got Into the Forest at half price books - that's on my to read list as well.

BabelBabe said...

Caro - The author talks about that and of course you have to use common sense. But she actually has a section at the end of each chapter labeled "Baby Steps" to help us along.

Beth said...

I just read this book too. I now allow my oldest to walk 2 blocks to his friend's house by himself. He and the 4 year old are now allowed to walk ahead of the baby and me and get to the playround way ahead. He and his brother go to the snack bar at the lake by themselves while I stay on the beach. And I think it's time for him to walk to school and back by himself this year (lots of crossing guards). Baby steps.

Paula said...

Mine are grown now, but the questions haven't changed all that much. I feel like I had a good balance of freedom and controll with my boys, but it's never easy.

I on the other hand, played with freaking lawn darts. And rode a bike without a helmet. Oh wait, I got a terrible concussion when I fell off my bike.

Anyway, you're thinking these things through and not just throwing your kids out there. That, to me, makes all the difference in the world.

Lenore said...

Hey -- I wish you lived where I live, too! Free-Range parents don't have to have their kids do everything exactly the same at the same age. It would be fun, though, to hang out! -- Lenore Skenazy (Ms. Free-Range Kids)

Mary said...

Thank you for this.

My kids have just gone back to school and these past holidays I gave them a lot more freedom riding their bikes to the shops etc (the boys are 10 and 13). And it was fine.

Mind you I do live in an area where Free Range Parenting is not too hard...if I was in the city I am not convinced I would be quite so Free Range!

Kristin said...

My husband and I talk about this all of the time. We have a 2.5 year old, so obviously we're not letting him do pretty much anything while not in direct eyesight of one of us, but we talk about the future.

We both definitely grew up as free range kids and want our child to have the same experience. However, I grew up in a small town, and we now live in a much larger city, in a sort of "transitional" neighborhood. So that concerns me a little bit.

Despite that, I think I will be the more permissive parent. My husband grew up in a different country where kids were expected to do a lot on their own (he lived in a huge city and hitchhiked to school with his friends from age 10 onwards!!!) and he loved that freedom. But he sees that experience as real cultural difference; that kids are valued or treated differently where he grew up and everyone looked out for everyone else's kids. He doesn't feel the same way about how children are raised in America. The whole it takes a village thing, I guess. It will be interesting to see how we deal with this as Will grows up. I have to read this book!

BabelBabe said...

she discusses the cultural differences in the book; it was fascinating to me. It's a fast, good read. And I need to own a copy. It changed my life. Really. Maybe only in small ways, but definitely gave me back-up for some of the half-arsed parenting ideas I hold dear....

Lesley said...

This sounds like a fascinating book - thanks for sharing! I don't have children but this is a topic that frequently comes up among my girlfriends who are mothers - how differently parents treat their children today versus when we were kids. I'll have to let them know about this book.

Duyvken said...

So fantastic Babelbabe!
The reason Mr Duyvken and I let the kids go a little free range (within reason dictated by their ages, etc) is partly because childhood shouold be filled with scrapes and bruises and developing relationships and friendships that aren't refereed by a parent all the time but also because risk-taking and learning to manage risk is an important part of childhood development. It worries me that if I don't lengthen the leash slowly and steadily as they are growing up that when they are suddenly out in the world at 16 or 18 that they won't have the skills they need to navigate their way through. I think I would LOVE this book and look forward to borrowing it from teh library. We're just going with out guts (probably not the best way to manage it :-)) and giving them responsibility and independence where we can so I'd enjoy getting some more ideas and input.

Bearette said...

LOL - it really does depend on a number of factors - I'm thinking, is it the 1/9 train? or the A/C/E? and are they staying in Manhattan or going to another borough? And what day of the week is it? etc. I think I would not let them ride the NY subway without an adult till they were 12, though, and I would want them to be with at least one other friend the first time. Then again, I was babysitting when I was 12!

Debi said...

My favorite parenting book "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" says: Better a broken arm than a broken spirit." In other words, always let the kid go one rung higher on the ladder (real or metaphorical) than you are comfortable with him going.

Samantha said...

Did you mention this book before or did I see it somewhere else? Either way I have wanted to read it. You see, this is why I love coming here as you have an excellent penchant for discussing stuff which interests me too! I am always quoting statistics to other mums about crime rates between now and then, trying to put some rationality into the argument (we can always use some rationality - especially me). I use to walk home from school across a road then busy golf course at the age of eight or nine - it would take a lot for me to be able to let my eldest girl do that now - though I would love to let her go a lot more free-range. Like you said, baby steps. I like to complain about my parent's "parenting style" but in this regard they had it alot more right than I do!