Thursday, October 1, 2009
Free Range Kids - Book Talk
How many parents do you know who won't allow (or teach) their children to cook or to play unsupervised in the front yard? How many parents are so afraid of their child(ren) being snatched by a stranger that the kids are kept within sight at all times? How many times have you told your children not to talk to strangers? How likely is it that these precautions will keep your kids safe?
I promised a post on Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry soon, so here it is. I saw the author on the Today show last spring (or Dr. Phil or something), then I saw the book at the library a couple of weeks ago and then I saw on Simple Kids blog that they were going to discuss the book this week. So I picked it up from the library on Saturday. I really wish I'd taken notes as I read because there was so much I wanted to discuss.
The author, Lenore Skenazy, is a syndicated columnist who wrote an article last spring about the day she let her son find his own way home from a New York department store with a subway map and $20. I admit, the thought of leaving my own nine year old alone in a huge city and saying "find your own way home" scares me silly, but her nine year lives in New York, had been on the subway countless times and could take care of himself. And he was so proud of his accomplishment.
After reading this book, I've realized that she is not insisting that we all drop our preteens in the wilderness (or city) and let them fend for themselves. She is advocating returning to a belief that children can accomplish things instead of not allowing them to do anything for fear that something could happen to them. Actually, it reminds me of the scene in Finding Nemo when Marlin tells Dory that he promised Nemo that nothing would ever happen to him. Dory says "Well that's silly. If nothing ever happens to him, well, nothing will ever happen to him." Or something like that (actually, Ellen, perhaps I've stumbled on the reason there is no Finding Nemo II).
Simple Kids has a list of 5 Positive Character Traits Encouraged by Free-Range Parents that will help explain the book.
The book is broken into two parts: the first part is 14 commandments of free-range parenting; the second is a guide to things you may be worried about and why your worries are or are not valid.
The commandments include things like "Eat Chocolate" at Halloween because there is no documented case ever of a person putting poison or razor blades into candy or apples and handing them out to trick-or-treaters. There are cases of kids being poisoned or harmed at Halloween but those were all cases where a parent or relative used the cover of Halloween to do something to their own child. But because of rumors of this kind of thing, we don't allow children to trick-or-treat alone, we don't accept home baked goods as treats, and some parents even x-ray their children's haul. All this to prevent something that has never happened.
I think my favorite chapter is "Ignore The Blamers" - about ignoring other parents who know better than you do. Like the mom who yelled at me in the grocery store parking lot that my daughter was going to get sick because she wasn't wearing a coat. There was an unexpected light snow at the time, but I had to go to get something from the store while I was out (we live 15 miles from the closest town and I don't leave the house that often to save on gas). I didn't have a coat with me, and the walk from the car to the store was only about 10 yards. I'm sure she thought my daughter would catch pneumonia in the time it would take me to grab the items I needed for dinner. The implication, though, is that I can't take care of my child, and that this stranger knows better than me what I should be doing (does she also know that going out in the cold doesn't cause illness?).
My parents got a lot of flack when we were kids for being "overprotective." We weren't allowed to watch certain tv shows or movies until we were older (like Golden Girls and Who's the Boss?), we weren't allowed to hang out at the mall alone, and I wasn't allowed to date until I was sixteen (I don't think my brothers were interested in dating until later, so it wasn't an issue). I've watched some of the things that we weren't allowed to see as kids, and I still think they aren't appropriate for young kids. Even today, there are a lot of shows that are suggestive, show kids mouthing off to their parents and simply aren't written with the development of young brains in mind. I wasn't allowed to hang out at the mall with my friends because it was 45 minutes away and we knew kids who shoplifted when they were unsupervised. I was allowed to hang out in the woods alone for hours, though, which many other kids my age were not. I also know that not dating until I was sixteen was the best thing for me ( and would probably have been a good idea for other girls I knew). I might even tack on the stipulation for my own daughter that she can't date anyone two years ahead of her in school. We'll see.
I also get flack for not being independent because my parents were protective (which is what free-range parenting is all about - raising independent kids), but as mentioned, I played in the woods alone (or with my brothers) for hours. I knew how to cook a full meal for a family of six when I was ten, and was also caring for three younger brothers while my parents were just out of earshot. I babysat often as a teenager, often for families we didn't know well. When I was in high school, I twice went to Washington, DC on school trips and spent times wandering the city without a chaperon (we were perfectly safe and learned to navigate the Metro easily). I went away to college where I learned to ride the train and walk through the city because I didn't have a car. At twenty-four, I moved nearly 500 miles from my family to be with the man I love in a city where I didn't know anyone else or even have a job lined up. Many of these things (minus the moving away) are things that a lot of kids are not allowed to do anymore because something might happen - and it's not like I grew up in the fifties.
The most interesting part of the book for me, though, was all the facts and figures about child abduction. Did you know that your child is 40 times more likely die as a passenger in a car accident than to be abducted by a stranger? Did you know that the majority of the children on the milk cartons were abducted by parents or someone else they know? Did you know that children are more likely to be molested by a relative or family friend than by a stranger?
Do you tell your kids not to talk to strangers? What if a stranger walks up, says "your mom told me to come get you" and your kid goes with them because this person isn't a stranger anymore, while all the while someone they don't know is sitting nearby and could help them? Everyone you don't know isn't a creep and some of the people you do know are.
According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, it really doesn't make sense to tell kids not to talk to strangers. This teaches kids to be afraid of everyone they don't know. It's better to teach kids not to go off with strangers, even if they have candy, puppies or say they were sent by mom. And that children have the right to call attention to themselves if they feel threatened - scream, yell, kick, fight back, ask for help from another adult and resist. (This chapter is "Strangers With Candy" from the second half of the book - it's on page 180 if you want to skip right to it. It takes about ten minutes to read, at most.)
There are some things about the book that I had issues with but it was mostly minor. The author talks a lot about not reading parenting books by experts because they don't know your kid better than you - but she wrote a parenting book and expects you to listen to her. And the commandments "Study History" and "Be Worldly" remind us that childhood has been different than now throughout history and is different in other cultures. She lists examples such as children as young as six being sent away from their families to do hard labor in the nineteenth century or children in Liberian villages today who have little or nothing to do with their parents (who are working) and spend all day with other children. I understand her point (I think) but I don't think I care how independent a six year old gets by having an apprenticeship, I believe there is a purpose to childhood (studies show that play is necessary to learning). And I think that having little to no relationship with your parents is kind of sad. I believe having strong family relationships is good for society.
This book is a quick read, and provides facts and figures on many of the supposed dangers that we fear. I knew some of it, but didn't have the figures on hand to back me up. So read the book, visit the Simple Kids Book Talk to check out other bloggers thoughts (links in the comment section), and the Free Range Kids site, and let me know what you think.