Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Free Children?

Lenore Skenazy is a writer who I have followed throughout the years, having read her column faithfully in the New York Daily News when it ran there. She writes about life in the city as a parent and working mom, and I have always found something to relate to in her essays. She is a good writer with a great sense of humor with whom I always manage to find common ground when it comes to parenting, marriage, or living in the Metropolitan area.

Her latest book, Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), sounds like a book that I would like to read. Rather, it sounds like a book I SHOULD read because as anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a worrier of the first order. If worrying were an art, well, I’d be Michelangelo. In the book, Skenazy contends that we should stop worrying about our kids, stop holding them “captive,” and start letting them live. Let them discover the world. In her case, that means allowing her nine-year-old to take the subway by himself. In my case, that means allowing my eleven-year-old to walk three houses up the street to play with a friend. Baby steps, people, baby steps. I visited her Amazon page to read more about the book and was impressed with her sixty-six five-star reviews and complete lack of one-star reviews. She almost had me.

Until “Take Your Children to the Park…and Leave Them There” day.

While publicizing the book, Skenazy put forth the premise that kids should be allowed to go to the park and play, an argument that I actually agree with. She contends that children spend too much time indoors and argues that nobody is really allowed to go outside and play anymore. All reasonable. All true. Today’s parents, myself included, spend too much time thinking about what our kids should be doing, managing their time to the very last second, without allowing them to do anything but bend to our social will. These days, when child #2 asks me if he can play in the woods behind our house, my answer is, “Not without a friend! Stay together! And make sure you check yourself for ticks when you get back in! Oh, and don’t forget to wear sunscreen! How many brussel sprouts do you want with your grilled chicken?” as opposed to, “Sure! Have a good time! Don’t come back until I call you for dinner! We’re having all the foods you love!”

What I don’t agree with is the age that Skenazy thinks is the best time to try out the theory that kids should go and play and meet other children, all without the watchful eyes of their parents: seven or eight. Seven or eight? Those are ages that I just can’t get behind.

Believe me, I know children at the tender age of seven or eight who appear very mature, more mature than I sometimes am. Downright adult-like. But in reality, they aren’t. They are little kids who might have enviable communication skills or a higher level of maturity than say, some forty-year-olds but they are still children who live in a world that is populated by many wonderful and kind people but some not-so-great people. Some of these not-so-great people are even other children. I have had the pleasure of sitting beside a playground the last several weeks at child #2‘s Little League games and I eavesdrop on the shenanigans that go on while children are playing, and sometimes, these shenanigans are not terribly positive. Back in the day, we would have called them “character-building,” but in today’s “everyone’s a winner!” world, they are just downright mean.

Yes, I know: it’s all part of growing up. But the idea of dropping a seven-year-old at the park, particularly one in New York City where Skenazy lives, doesn’t seem safe. I think I could get behind a twelve-year-old being allowed to roam free, but when I (hopefully) get there, we’ll need a lot of xanax to keep me mellow as the newly-anointed “independent” child goes off to explore the world.

I think Skenazy ultimately has the right idea but to me, but we differ on the execution and the details. She’s right that we over-manage everything about children’s lives and that we need to back off. We put too much pressure on them to achieve in school and give them anxieties about life and their future that they just don’t deserve, in my opinion. But when it comes to freedom, we need to stress to them—and by “them,” I mean children over seven—that that freedom comes with responsibility. That responsibility includes being safe, being kind to others, and being respectful of everyone you encounter. And knowing when to involve an adult. I think there’s a happy medium between Skenazy’s world where children I consider too young can rule the world and my world, where my kids who have their learner’s permits still have to text their mom when they arrive at the library, just a ten-minute walk away.

What do you think, Stiletto readers?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. I have to lean toward your opinion - that there must be a happy medium. I agree we need to "mother" our children less, or rather "mother" differently by letting our kids out of our sight once in a while. But seven or eight does seem a bit young. It's one thing if you live in a nice suburban neighborhood where they can walk down the street by themselves - but to leave them in a park? I'd suggest maybe waiting until 11 years old -- middle school age perhaps.

  2. Like you, Maggie, I think I arrive at these "separation" milestones later than most. I related to your three-doors-down anxiety. Letting my kids use a public restroom without me was a big deal. My oldest is nine, and I still won't let her ride her bike around the block unless I'm there. I'm playing odds, I think. The risk of something bad (okay, that's a euphemism for a kidnapper) happening is really small, but if I'm there, the risk is zero. It's taking me a long time to let out the leash.

    There's no way I'd like my daughters play alone at a park at this age. Everybody has a different boundary. The people whose nine-year-olds are at the park alone are irresponsible in my view, and I recognize that I'm over-protective in theirs.

    (heart palpitations) Parenting is hard! I guess we all just do the best we can.

  3. I'm with you, Maggie. You might get away with it in a small town where everyone knows everyone and an adult will stop a stranger trying to take your child, but in a big city? Most adults don't know you or your children, so if someone walks up to a kid and they walk away together, why would they stop them? For all they know that's you or your nanny picking up the kid. Nope, 7 or 8 is way too young. I'm thinking 25 or 30 is better =).

  4. This post speaks to me because just yesterday I put my 12-yr-old daughter on a plane with her Destination Imagination team-mates and two adult coaches to compete at global finals in TN. We got her a pay-as-you-go cell phone to take so she can call us whenever she wants to. I know it's time to let out the reins--she's mature, smart, kind, and all that--but it's hard. My "no duh" insight for the day: Different kids are ready for different levels of responsibility at different ages. She might be ready, but I'm not sure I am!

  5. Gee--it looks like I'm not alone and for that I'm grateful! Barbara, I'm glad you agree. Rachel, wait until you have to send your son into a men's room alone...there's not enough xanax in the world to keep you calm until he emerges. Zita, I have seen guys hassle young girls in this town, so it's not just the big city. I took off after some guy (a few years back) who was making lewd comments to a couple of high school girls as they walked home from school (yes, just me, my "Mom" jeans, and my 15-pound terrier) who were thoroughly freaked out. This was way before my own kids started walking to school and I was really skeeved by the whole thing happening in our sleepy little town. Laura, I'm with you on the cell phone--if it gives you peace of mind, so be it. Sending your child off to Tennessee is big stuff! (Our district winners just left yetserday by bus...god bless the parents who go with them.) 25 or 30 years old sounds about right for any of these milestones!

  6. Wow. All I can say is WOW. I have a 7 year old and there's no way in H E double toothpicks I'd ever drop him off at a park and leave. NO WAY!

    I'm wouldn't even let him walk to a friend's house alone. I agree with the author's premise that we need to have our kids play outdoors more, let them stretch their limits, spread their wings, etc, but safety has to come first always, and in these times, there are crazies out there our children need to be protected.

    No need to be a helicopter parent, but a smart one is a requirement.