Just finished Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. It is a quick read and a compelling manifesto. Skenazy has ample data (for example, that the rate of crimes against children has actually plummeted since we were kids) and colorful anecdotes to illustrate her basic premise that children of this era would benefit greatly from more independence and less oversight.
I took two messages away from the book. The first is that we ought not be so arrogant as to think that we as parents have that much impact on our children. Of course good parenting is important, but, fundamentally, our children are who they are when they are born. We should both let ourselves off of the hook and take ourselves down from the pedestal. We can wreak on our children less damage and less improvement – less formation, over all – than most of us think we can. How we parent is not going to shape them into the unabomber or into Abraham Lincoln. This is reminiscent of my father’s quote that he always believed parenting is at least 95% nature and 5% nurture. I share that belief.
The second message is that to really trust our children, to let go of them a little bit, we have to trust our parenting. Ceasing constant supervision and helicoptering is a gesture of trust. Only those who are confident in their childrens’ attitudes and instincts will be comfortable letting out the raveling string. To trust your children is, at the most basic level, to trust yourself and to let go of them. And, of course, we all struggle mightily with both.
The book reminded me of an experience in sixth grade. We had to have a note from our parents saying we were allowed to skate without helmets at school (can you imagine this today? helmets for all!). I asked my mother to write a note but for some reason the task was handed over to Dad. He penned a handwritten note that began, verbatim (I will never forget this):
Recognizing that risk is an inherent part of life …
I was mortified. Appalled. I cried and begged to get a regular note that just said OK Lindsey can skate without a damned helmet. He would not let me. I survived it. And I laugh about it to this day. And I think he was making, in his own way, the same point that Skenazy makes.
A few passages:
The whole Free-Range idea is that the twin notions of constant supervision and perfect parenting are not necessary. Obsessing about every emotional, intellectual, and psychological boost we could give our kids is not necessary. Even being 100 percent Free Range is not necessary. Our kids are not solely formed by our input, nor will they be irreparably harmed by our bumbling oh-so-humanly along.
The people who show us they believe in us are the wind beneath our wings. The black holes are the people who don’t. If you think back on the big turning points in your life, good and bad, you will find all those people standing there, directing traffic. At some point, the ones who believe in us trust us to cross the street. And to drive with just a learner’s permit.
We have to learn to remind the other parents who think we’re being careless when we loosen our grip that we are actually trying to teach our children how to get along in the world, and that we believe this is our job. A child who can fend for himself is a lot safer than one forever coddled, because the coddled child will not have Mom and Dad around all the time, even though they act as if he will…And on top of all this, we have to teach our kids the tools they need to go Free Range. Teach them about bike safety and bad guys and traffic signals and how to ask for help and how to handle disappointment and what to do if they ever get lost and all the things parents have always had to teach their kids. Or at least they did until recently, when they decided they could just do everything for them instead.