Author Urges Parents To Quit Hovering

Filed under: Health & Safety: Babies, Development/Milestones: Babies, Childcare, Books for Kids, Opinions, Health & Safety: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Health & Safety: Big Kids, Health & Safety: Tweens

Lenore Skenazy

Columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote about allowing her son Izzy to travel on the New York City Subway by himself at the age of 9, and got labeled "America's worst mom." She started the Free-Range Kids movement to silence her objectors. Credit: Joe Kolman

If "Free-Range Kids" author Lenore Skenazy endangers children -- and some people claim she does -- so does "Sesame Street."

When the first season of that venerable children's show came out on DVD in 2006, it came with a disclaimer that "early 'Sesame Street' episodes are meant for grown-ups and may not meet the needs of today's preschool child."

Why not? Because what used to be considered wholesome fun is now seen as ridiculously reckless. The DVD shows children scampering through large pipes, balancing on planks between picnic tables and generally cavorting through New York City streets.

You'll put an eye out, kid.

The world is just a much more brutal, dangerous place than it was when "Sesame Street" debuted in 1969 -- or so we think.

"The world has changed, but not for the worse," said Skenazy. "It's only our new fear of even very tiny risks that make 'Sesame Street' look like negligence on parade."

She is a champion of what might be called children's liberation -- giving kids longer leashes and, ultimately, less fear-driven lives. In an often fearful society, however, such ideas are sometimes regarded as heresy.

Skenazy found that out when she wrote a column in The New York Sun in 2008 about how she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway system by himself. Within two days, she found herself on NBC's "Today" show, MSNBC and Fox News -- fending off the label of "America's worst mom."

This led to a greater exploration of unchained childhood in her book "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts." She followed up the book with a blog that draws thousands of readers a month and plenty of press from around the globe.


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How Did We Ever Survive Childhood?
No Seat Belts/Car Seats
*Rode in the very back of my mother's wood-paneled station wagon, without seat belts, on cross-country car trips. We would put our sleeping bags back there and play cards and wave at the other cars.


*When we were only 5 or 6 years old, we would climb up against the back glass of my dad's car and he would slam on breaks so we could fall into the seat. We thought that was the most fun thing to do!

*My dad had a jeep. It had no backseats. So, for my sister and myself, he used bungee cords to strap lawn chairs into the back so we could ride in it. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 years old.
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How Did We Ever Survive Childhood?

    No Seat Belts/Car Seats
    *Rode in the very back of my mother's wood-paneled station wagon, without seat belts, on cross-country car trips. We would put our sleeping bags back there and play cards and wave at the other cars.


    *When we were only 5 or 6 years old, we would climb up against the back glass of my dad's car and he would slam on breaks so we could fall into the seat. We thought that was the most fun thing to do!

    *My dad had a jeep. It had no backseats. So, for my sister and myself, he used bungee cords to strap lawn chairs into the back so we could ride in it. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 years old.

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    No Bike Helmets/Protective Gear
    *There were no bike helmets in our neighborhood and yes, I fell off my bike, onto my face, while playing Indy Racer. Then my sister ran over the back of my neck. How I made it out of childhood in one piece, I'll never know!

    *I remember standing on the banana seat on my bike and going down a hill without any protective gear on.

    *I rode on the back my dad's motorcycle without a helmet.

    *I have tons of pictures of me and my brother riding horses with no saddle, bridles or helmets!

    *We skateboarded down the hill to my house, without looking if anything was coming -- into traffic! With shorts on and no shoes! And of course no protective gear.

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    No Child-Proofing
    *We never had any of those little plastic covers for the electrical outlets. When I was a toddler, I tried several times to get my little fingers in there! Luckily, my mom caught me every time.

    *Window blind cords were hanging free in my house -- there were no precautions taken with regard to strangle dangers.

    *There are pictures of me in a walker at about a year old or so and in the background are the stairs to the basement...no safety gate.

    *Mom cooked with the handles of pots sticking out -- a big no-no today -- and I pulled a pot of boiling water onto myself!

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    Unsupervised...
    *I was 7 when I started taking my 3 and 4-year-old sisters out in the woods with me for hours at a time. We would explore for hours, even made it to the top of the mountain (a 20 minute drive from our house).

    *My brother and I used to run/bike around our neighborhood until all hours of the night in the warm weather. My mother gave us a time to be home and that was it...no supervision, no nothing. Wouldn't even be an option today!

    *My siblings and I would explore in the woods and chase snakes with no adult supervision! My father actually taught us how to catch a snake!

    *My parents left me home alone with no supervision when I was a young teen, when they went on vacation for a week to Las Vegas.

    *I grew up in the New York area and was allowing to go to concerts at big venues like Madison Square Garden alone as a young teen; no supervision whatsoever.

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    Access to Weapons
    *Dad was a gun collector and liked to make his own bullets. He never locked his guns up, in fact I slept many nights in that room -- it was the third bedroom in our house -- so when we had company over, they got my room and I slept in the "gun room," which had a smaller bed in it. I helped my dad make bullets (yes, he was always there), and I got my first gun when I was 8 years old.

    *We were taught how to use a bow and arrow in the backyard! Not only dangerous for us to have access to...but also dangerous for our neighbors if we missed the target.

    *Mom kept her taser gun in the living room in the china cabinet -- "just in case."

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    Riding in the Bed of a Pick-up Truck
    *My dad used to drive a big pick-up truck on the weekends. Some Saturday afternoons, my friends and I would pile in the back and he'd drive us to the local 7-11 for a Slurpee. The truck had a rollbar, so we'd stand in the back and hold on as though we were "surfing." In retrospect it seems crazy, but everyone drove around with kids in the back of trucks then.

    *When I was 5 and my brother was 11, my dad used to let us sit on the tailgate of his truck as long as we were staying in our community. We thought it was a ride like at Six Flags or something. We'd be screaming and laughing; he'd find as many hills and pot holes as he could to make it more fun for us.

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    Babies Asleep on Bellies/No Crib
    *Putting babies to sleep on their stomach (with blankets, before they could pull them off) -- this practice is totally taboo these days due to SIDS and the fact that it's a strangling hazard!

    *My mom put all 3 of us to sleep on our bellies. She says it seems to unnatural to put a baby to sleep on it's back, but back then there was no "back to sleep." We were allowed to sleep with blankets and teddy bears and even crib bumpers.

    *I remember we were really poor and my youngest sister slept in the open drawer of a dresser for a few months when she was a baby.

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    No Sunscreen
    *No sunblock. I had second and third degree burns on my face, chest and arms when I was 12 years old. My mom let me go swimming from the time I woke up until I went to bed.

    *Every year we would visit my grandparents in Florida, and every time my poor brother (who was fair and burned easily) would be covered in Noxema and vinegar to soothe his sunburn after a long day outdoors. There wasn't a lot of attention paid to SPF numbers; sun damage was more reactive than proactive back then!

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    Exposure to Smoking
    *My parents let my sister and I travel in the smoking section of the plane all the time.

    *Both of my parents would smoke in the house, where my brother and I could freely inhale their second-hand smoke.

    *Many of our mothers smoked while pregnant; my mom's doctor told her she could have seven cigarettes a day when she was pregnant with my now 35-year-old sister in the 70's.

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    Swimming/Tubing Unsupervised
    *Every summer, my parents would drop me and my siblings off at the community pool in the morning and leave us there all day with no supervision. They would just come pick us up late in the afternoon.

    *We went swimming by ourselves with a "don't talk to strangers" instruction at age 9.

    *We rode inner tubes at least 6 miles from the house down a not-so-calm creek without life jackets. And we had to walk back barefoot in bikini bathing suits -- all before our teen years.

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Skenazy's book debunks a number of paranoid myths, the biggest being that society is more dangerous than it was when today's parents were children. The crime rate today is actually lower than it was in the '70s and '80s, the author discovered. And even officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say the threat of "stranger danger" is overblown.

In fact, they say, children should be taught to talk to strangers -- to an extent. Children may need help if they're really in danger and should know how to turn to other people for help.

"It's like we think the neighbors are psychotic pedophiles," Skenazy said. "But there's a network of humanity out there we're sealing our kids off from."

Paranoia runs rampant, she said. Some PTAs now auction off the best drop-off points in front of schools -- spots normally reserved for children with disabilities. "In other words, we'll pay for the privilege of treating our kids like invalids," Skenazy said.

Another story that made the author stop in her tracks was one about a toy recall. One child, she said, who was too young to be playing with the toy anyway, almost choked on a piece of it; hence, the recall. She bristled as she recalled an article in a parenting magazine that suggested moms carry some extra shoelaces when they take their toddlers to other people's homes -- to tie shut the other family's cabinets.

"It's like we're supposed to be baby-proofing the world, when what really keeps kids safe is 'world-proofing' them -- teaching them, for example, what not to touch," she said.

Skenazy admits she's not perfect with her two sons. She can get a little nervous herself. "I'm the arm-waving type," she admitted.

Still, Skenazy said, it's important to remember that while terrible things could happen, it's best to prepare kids for what is likely to happen. "Teach them how to cross the street," she said. What's important, she added, is affording children the dignity of risk.

While some parents find Skenazy's ideas horrifying, others find validation. With the positive reaction to her ideas, "Free-Range Kids" has become more than the title of a book. "It's like what happened in the '60s and '70s with feminism," she said. "Once you have a name, you can have a movement."

Overprotecting children doesn't really keep them safe anyway, Skenazy said. "It keeps them from growing up." College administrators even have a new name for the coddled kids coming to school: Tea cups. Beautiful, beloved children who break all too easily.

The Free-Range founder suggests people think back to their own childhoods.

"You don't remember the times your dad held your handle bars," she said. "You remember the day he let go."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.