Would you let your 9-year-old son ride the New York City Subway system alone? Columnist Lenore Skenazy did, and then she wrote about the experience in the New York Sun. What followed was a storm of media attention and a mix of accolades and accusations from parents everywhere. A new movement also grew from Skenazy’s bold move: It’s called free-range parenting.
Almost as a backlash to the overbearing, over-scheduling “helicopter” parent, free-range parenting is based on the notion “that we can give our children the same kind of freedom we had [as kids] without going nuts with worry,” Skenazy says. “When you let children out, all the good things happen - the self-confidence, happiness, and self-sufficiency that come from letting our kids do some things on their own,” she says.
Sounds great, but even non “hovering” moms wouldn’t dream of doing what Skenazy did.
Liz Jereski, a mother of two living in Los Angeles, says simple requests from her 5-year-old son bring into question how much autonomy she can safely allow him. Recently, Jereski’s son wanted to race her downstairs in their apartment building. “I would take the elevator and he would take the stairs,” she says of the game her son proposed. “And I’ll think it’s fine, but then I think, no it’s not fine, because he’ll be out of my sight and something could happen. There’s a little voice telling you, ‘You know better and you shouldn’t do that.’”
There was a time when letting young children walk to school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, if you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and earlier, of course), you probably remember going out to play after school and being expected to return home only when the street lights turned on. But as more families had both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary. What resulted was a shift in our culture that requires kids to be under constant adult surveillance.
“Kids today in all settings are very scheduled and very supervised,” says Richard Gallagher, PhD, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center. “You rarely find kids today engaging in pick-up softball games or other kinds of activities where they plan things and work it out themselves.”
Gallagher says the heavy emphasis on scheduling and supervision has caused children to lose the ability to entertain themselves without TV, computers, or video games.
Aside from our work schedules, fear often dictates what we will and won’t allow our children to do. Most of us perceive these to be dangerous times, with the threat of child abduction, abuse, or worse on the rise. It would be flat-out unsafe, bordering on criminally negligent, is a common refrain, to allow our children the same freedoms we had to roam our neighborhoods unsupervised. But Skenazy learned while researching her book, Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, that’s just not so.
As it turns out, we’re living in about the safest time in history, she says. But if you pay attention to 24-hour cable news, which brings us the worst stories from around the world, you’ll likely believe otherwise.
“That’s why I can tell you about the 4-year-old who was kidnapped in Portugal and the name of a 20-year-old on vacation in Aruba who was never seen again,” Skenazy says. “I mean, these things are so unusual and so anomalous, and yet we know them like we know our own family history because they take over our TVs and take over our brain.”
In fact, crime rates in this country were on the rise during the 1970s and '80s and peaked in 1993. Since then, crime has declined by 50% or more, Skenazy writes in her book. That means if you were a kid in the '70s or '80s, your children are actually safer today than you were when your parents allowed you to walk to school on your own.
Crime rates may be down, says Lesa Semaya, a New York City mother of three, but you won’t catch her sending her 10-year-old son to ride the subway alone. “I think it’s one thing to give your kid freedom, it’s another to let him take the subway. There are crazy people in this world,” Semaya says. “It’s not that I don’t trust my kids, but I don’t trust everyone else.”
There’s a Reason it’s Called Self-Esteem
Good parents today, we seem to feel, carefully plan their children’s lives in an effort to prepare them for the future. The question is: How much is doing too much for our kids?
“It’s like 10 is the new 2,” Skenazy says. “Anything you would have been doing for your toddler is being replicated when they are 9, 10, and 11.”
In an effort to keep them safe, boost their self-confidence, and make sure they get into an Ivy League college, we shuttle them from soccer practice, to Mandarin Chinese lessons, to karate, to violin. We make sure that every kid who participates in Little League, win or lose, gets a trophy at the end of the season, lest any child’s feelings are hurt.
But the truth is that self-esteem comes from attempting something that’s a little difficult and either succeeding or failing and trying again until you do succeed.
“The message you get if your parents do everything from driving you to school to waiting at the bus stop to doing your science fair project is ‘I love you so much, but I don’t think you can do this,’” Skenazy says. “That’s why they call it self-confidence, not parent-assisted confidence.”
Yet Jereski says it’s hard to know where to draw the line. “I very much want him to learn how to be independent and make his own decisions and give him the freedom to do that,” she says of her son. “I’m trying to find that balance, but you have to be careful with your children. You’re responsible, and there are unforeseen things.”
To Free-Range or Not to Free-Range?
Many parents have interpreted “free-range” to mean completely hands-off. But Skenazy says that’s not what free-range parenting is about. It is a decision to give your child freedom and responsibility while preparing him for it. Some experts seem to think there is a real upside to stepping back and letting kids do more on their own.
“When parents do provide their kids with more responsibility, kids mature more quickly and I do think that they feel more accomplished,” Gallagher says.
The key is making sure that the activities your children engage in on their own are appropriate given their age and skill level. Gallagher suggests that parents ask themselves the following questions before allowing their children to venture off on their own:
- Does my child have the disposition to handle the activity?
- Can he or she follow rules?
- Does my child know what to do in case there is a problem?
- Does my child know from whom it is safe to ask for help?
- Does my child have a sense of how to reach out to parents, use a phone, distinguish between police officers and other people?
Also critical to a successful adventure (not to mention reduced anxiety for you as a parent) is to make sure that your child is fully trained for the task at hand.
Before Skenazy allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone, she prepared him. “I taught him how to take the subway, made sure he could read a map, and understood uptown and downtown,” she says.
“I totally agree that you need to prepare your children,” Semaya says. “But you help to prepare your child to present his book report, not to take a subway alone in New York City at the age of nine. It’s one thing to give your kid freedom, it’s another to let him out on the town alone. I don’t think that’s being over protective.”
The bottom line, Gallagher says, is that any extreme with regard to parenting is inappropriate. Parenting is really a question of balance; balancing the amount of supervision kids have and giving them some freedom to try new things.
“Let them face some consequences of their own actions that won’t harm them, but will teach them some lessons,” Gallagher says.