by Harriet Heath, PhD
Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Llenore Skenazy, (2010).
This book is for parents who want to be able to let their children be free to roam the neighborhood, city or forest, but can’t. The parents can’t act, the author argues, because they are afraid for their children. This fear, the argument continues, is fueled by elements in the environment. One element is the media with the news and evening horror shows continuously depicting children being abducted. Such scenes improve the programs’ ratings and raise parents level of fear. Another source of the fear comes from the experts who are ever ready to describe new sources of eminent danger. And then there are the manufacturers of all kinds of child equipment that will protect the child whether needed or not. Following the discussion of each, the author offers steps parents can take to lay the fear to rest and give their children freedom.
The next ten chapters offer suggestions of how parents can deal with their fears. One way is to think differently. Don’t think of everything that can go wrong, what if? Only think of the major issues like needing a helmet when bike riding. Another way is to be ready to respond firmly to the blamers, or ignore them altogether. The author encourages parents to gain a perspective by thinking about what children can do by looking at what children have done down through history and still do in most parts of the world.
Then her advice becomes very specific. Parents need to be braver and not try to control everything. They should relax and at times allow themselves to fail and even let their children fail. Towards the end of the first part of this book the author advices to lock the children out while listening to them, an interesting contradictory set of advices. The chapter on locking them out discusses the positive results of free play, like neighborhood games where the children make up the rules and what makes a good toy. Listening to children for this author is hearing their demands for freedom and their tiredness of being bored. Again with each chapter there are steps parents can take to allow their children more freedom.
The book moves on with a chapter listing 27 experiences or situations that arouse fear in parents. With each is an evaluation of the seriousness of the event, including statistics supporting the evidence. For instance, drowning is the second leading cause of death for kids and 75 percent of the pool drownings occur at home. The odds are fifty million to one of getting salmonella from eating raw cookie dough. The list makes a good place to check in as to what to really worry about. It is interesting to note the situations that are not listed about which there is great controversy such as the edict that babies sleep alone and the problem of bullies. (Bullies are mentioned regarding walking home but how about the neighborhood bully when kids are locked out.)
The next to last chapter is an interesting summation of the book’s approach to how parents can over come their fear so that their children can be free ranging. The chapter deals with strangers and parents’ fear their children will be abducted. As usual the author gives statistics. About one child in 1.5 million are abducted which she points out is not soothing to know if your child is the one. And that is the kind of thinking the author has been identifying and suggesting alternatives. The way to make the fear go away, she recommends is to train children to deal with that 1 in 1.5 million. Train them to throw their hands in front of their faces as a sign to stop, if someone approaches that they don’t want to. Second train them to yell, scream, kick making suck a racket no one could ignore. Lastly to run. run as fast as you can. Children who have practiced these behaviors are better equipped, feel more secure and their parents too.
Dealing with strangers as presented here is a summation of how the author is advising parents to over come their fears and let their children be free ranging. Analyzing this approach the author is suggesting: parents should recognize their fears. They should analyze the possibility of the situation arising and the potential seriousness of it. Third parents should train their children to deal with it and/or take preventive steps such as putting a high fence with locked gate around the swimming pool.
Throughout the book there is this underlying theme of the role of parents. Parents are to love their children, teach them and then trust them. Teaching implies realizing what the children don’t know about a situation or don’t have the skills for handling. This is not the method of throwing the kids in the water with the idea they’ll learn how to swim. They are to have the necessary knowledge and skills. She tells the story of a nine year old visiting his cousin. They spent their summer building a raft and outfitting it for a cruise down the river. Their ability to build the raft and outfit demonstrated their knowledge and skills. The cousin’s dad helped the boys load the raft onto the truck and drove them down to the river. Once afloat the boys quickly found their homemade paddles inadequate to managing the raft. They were relieved to realize the dad/uncle had tied a rope onto the raft and was following their course down the river. At a conveneint loading spot their cruise was over. They were successful. They had gone down the fiver. They were also glad to come ashore. The dad had realized what the boys had no knowledge of namely the current of the river. The boys had their experience of freedom with the safety of a rope. The bind for parents is when is having the rope coddling and when is it the wise thing to do.
If I were writing this book I would add to the list of possible dangers bullying that can be part of the game and the neighborhood bully. Learning about the neighborhood bully usually comes easily if parents listen to their children talk about the games they are playing and how the decisions are being made. Bullying that is part of the game is when the cops capture the villains and tie them up or some such scene. Often it is the younger children that get caught or the children who so desperately want to play that they won’t complain about what is done to them. I have no statistics but I’ve seen it happen even on monitored school grounds. Observing play and listening to children often reveals the play that is not conducive to cooperative, collaborative, caring social skills.
The last chapter is a summation starting with the assumption that we are a society fearing the independence of our children. The author then summarizes the steps to over coming that fear.
Two side comments need to be made. One is that in the writer’s efforts to get us to chuckle at our foibles makes the book teeter to being another treatise laughing at and putting down parents. The parents she describes are trying to do their best for their children even though they seem so ridiculous in retrospect.
The other comment that the book raises is, in this day of fake news and made-up truths, who are parents to listen to, who to turn to for factual information and reliable advice? The book under cuts many sources of supposedly good information, parenting experts, books on child rearing. I found only three sourced the author recommends, her book of course, pediatricians and older women who have been parents. I am old enough to remember when pediatricians were giving women, who chose to breast feed, advice on how and when to feed their babies that was counterproductive to establishing their milk supply. The moms either failed with breast feeding or ignored the advice. For several years the advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics has been no screens for babies under two. This changed with the realization that babies and their geographically distant grandparents were having all sorts of fun getting to know each other virtually. So going back to the predicament raised, where can parents go for reliable truthful information? As parents turn more and more to the internet for all kinds of child rearing advice, the question is a profound one. One that this book has once again raised.
This book is a useful guide for parents who want to give their children that carefree childhood that they themselves remember or remember their parents talking about. It is a how to do it book.
Harriet Heath, PhD, copyright 2019