Dealing with sick kids for the last few weeks was exhausting but I did manage to read a very interesting book while I nursed my ungrateful, germy children back to health. It’s called Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy. Skenazy became the poster child for “bad” parenting a few years ago when she allowed her then 9 year old son to ride the subway by himself. The backlash and support she received led her to question how this generation of parents is raising children.
The premise of the book is that we’ve been groomed by the media and other parents to be consumed with fear when it comes to our children. We’re convinced that there’s a stranger on every street corner waiting to abduct our kid and that anything short of remaining in our homes and high-fenced backyards is dangerous. Our good intentions have led us to try to protect our kids from any discomfort whatsoever. Whether it’s toddler knee-pads or “second winner” trophies, we are living in an age of childhood bubble wrap.
When our first child was born, my husband and I were total wrecks. As we were leaving the hospital, my husband flipped off and cursed another driver because he was ‘driving like a maniac’ in the parking lot. That drive home (an entire mile) felt like an eternity. We used a diaper wipe warmer (it was winter) and we had the entire house baby proofed before our son was old enough to roll over. I worried about every fever, examined his poop way too much and agonized over if his head was the right shape.
I like to think we’ve relaxed some since then, thanks in part to having our second child. I don’t even remember the drive home from the hospital with her and she wasn’t coddled nearly as much as her brother. So far, she’s turned out fine (probably because of that).
But as I read this book, I realized that I have indeed bought into the belief that the world is more dangerous than not and that protecting our kids means not exposing them to anything dangerous (like the world). I have some good reasons for not wanting my kids to be too “free-range”. I will probably always drive them to school and I really don’t want to go camping. First, we don’t have enough sidewalks in our neighborhood to make walking to school safe. Second, we had a mama bear and her cub come into our camp years ago when we were camping. Those bears ate all our chips and oreos, which we were trusting enough to leave out on the picnic table during the night. Hairy thieves.
As totally reasonable as these fears are, I have others that are senseless. Like my fear of tsunamis and the way I plan our escape route when we vacation on the beach. Or my fear of ants and how there’s a certain park I hate to go to because I’m sure that a yet-to-be-discovered species of piranha-ants is going to consume me and my children.
This book helped me to reexamine my beliefs about which activities are appropriate for children. For example, whenever I see a group of girl tweens walking along the street, I wonder which one will be the first to get pregnant because clearly, walking home from Circle K is a gateway to teen sex. One minute they’re sucking on their pixie sticks and the next they’re in the backseat of a car with a young Matt Dillon lookalike. When I was a kid, my mom would send me to Circle K with a note that said, “Please allow my daughter to purchase a pack of Salem Lights.” To make the 20 minute trek more enticing, she’d give me an extra quarter to buy something for myself. I’d stretch the 20 minute walk into 40 by kicking every rock in my path and then I’d spend another 20 minutes deciding between pop rocks and bubble gum. Eventually, I’d hand my mom’s note to the cashier. He/She would barely glance at me before handing me a pack of smokes and my Bazooka. While I did have teen sex, it wasn’t because I was seduced by a Matt Dillon lookalike on the way home from a convenience store (I wish) and by the time I was old enough to want smokes of my own, cashiers weren’t taking notes from mommy anymore.
Skenazy’s book painted a pretty picture of childhood in the 70s and 80s that didn’t mirror my own. It’s true that most of us who grew up in those decades could walk to school, play in parks unsupervised and pal around with the neighborhood kids. It was idyllic…except when it wasn’t. The walk to the school bus stop was when I got bullied the most, the neighborhood park was my first introduction to syringes and used condoms and a group of neighborhood kids poured sand down a kitten’s throat. Yes, we were allowed to do more stuff without helicopter parents but I’m not exactly in a hurry to recreate my childhood for my own kids. Sometimes, the boogeyman is real.
Yet I also completely agree with what Skenazy says about the fear level of today’s parents. We watch Dateline, the evening news and CSI and we’re convinced that children are abducted by strangers on a constant basis. But the statistics tell a different story. Skenazy writes:
“…if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years.”
If only statistics raised children. The reality is, no one wants their kid to be that 1 in 1.5 million. I’ve played the lottery expecting to win with worse odds but I’m a dreamer. The key, I guess, is to not let those dreams (nightmares) get in the way of exposing our kids to the kinds of physical and emotional bumps and bruises that build character and confidence. In reality, it’s not strangers we need to worry about. It’s people right under our noses that have the best opportunity and cover to hurt our children.
I was not a confident child. I was smart, I was sweet and I was creative but I was far from confident. I was the perfect victim for those who wished to do me harm. I was polite and deferred to adults. I picked up early what it meant to be ashamed and I knew how to keep my mouth shut about those things. I believed that grownups knew better than me in every circumstance. I didn’t truly find my voice until I was 40.
I don’t blame my parents for anything that happened to me as a child. They cared very much about my well being but like a lot of parents, they trusted the wrong people. It wasn’t total strangers who hurt me. It was people that should’ve been on their radar. No matter how much we respect our parents, we all have something that we want to do differently. I’m trying to teach my kids that adults don’t deserve respect just because they’re adults. If any adult, I don’t care who it is, does or says something to you that makes you feel uncomfortable, listen to that feeling inside that tells you it’s not ok. And tell me and your dad. That’s what I’m teaching my kids.
I can’t wash away all my fears with promising statistics but I can mirror confidence by not expecting the worse to always happen. Confidence is power. It’s also what makes a kid think they can jump off the roof into the swimming pool (which my little brother did when he was house sitting for us one year) but if confidence also empowers my kid to say, “Get away from me!” at a critical moment, I’ve done something right.
And because there’s nothing cuter than a piglet eating potato chips…