It's a quiet Sunday morning when I punch in the numbers on my phone to call Lenore Skenazy, author of the New York Times bestseller Free Range Kids. It's maybe the second or third time we've talked by phone. The phone rings only once and she picks up. A cheery voice and says, "This is Lenore! This must be Megan." We chat for a few minutes about kids and about the fact our family recently moved back to New York City, then we get down to business.
Skenazy starts out telling me about "yuppy jujitsu." Yuppy jujitsu is the name she has given to the parenting philosophy that more safety is always better. In other words, our parenting culture at large believes that there can never been enough safety harnesses, warning labels and parental supervision. Yikes! But at some point, and Skenazy believes we have reached it, we enter a stage of diminishing returns. We are now crippling the independence of our children and stifling their joy. "They aren't gaining intelligence on how to do things on their own," says Skenazy.
It's been reported that parents are more unhappy parenting now than they have ever been in the past. A great deal of this has to do with the amount of control we believe we must have over our children. Let's face it, it's stressful to micromanage a 7, 8 or 10-year-old. And it's also completely unnecessary. As Skenazy sees it, we are bargaining away the health and happiness of our kids. She rattles off the statistics to me on the phone: "There is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of a child being abducted. There is a 1 in 3 chance of a child being obese and it's 1 in 2 if a child is black or Hispanic. This is not a minor problem." In other words if you want to have an impact on the health and well-being of your child, keep them away from the Twinkies, the soda and the screen time and let them outside to play.
So why are we so distracted by worry that we can't focus on the real problems? Skenazy believes parents are hypnotized by the media to believe that their children are under constant threat of abduction or harm. They are also told that if they don't constantly push their children they will fall woefully behind in school.
The idea that parents are responsible for things that a child will achieve naturally is a part of our paranoid parenting culture that makes folks overly responsible for things they don't need to be responsible for. Not even the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates for the massive over-protection of children that we see currently. They advocate for children learning personal safety as part of a natural and normal part of their development starting at age 5. Skenazy believes the same. As she says, "Free range doesn't mean running about willy-nilly. It means learning how to live responsibly and safely in the world."
Furthermore, the constant meddling of parents in their child's academic progress hasn't necessarily made for smarter, healthier kids. In fact, there are some that question whether early learning techniques are really worth the time and effort. Skenazy mentions flashcards are now being sold that "teach" children emotions, like "smiley" means happy and frown means sad. The idea is for parents to hold these up and teach baby or toddler what they mean. Last time I checked, most of our children are hard-wired to understand emotions and in time, will learn all they need to know about navigating even the most difficult ones. In this case, life, not flashcards, is the best teacher.
All our parental fear is fueled by the fact that parents are disempowered by "the experts" and it's these "experts" that end up raising our children instead of us. In past generations, parents turned to elders for guidance in child-rearing. Today's parents, faced with a void of grandmotherly advice, have taken up handbook after handbook, magazine after magazine that fuels their fears, rather than empowers them as parents.
There are too many parents that feel utterly helpless when it comes to raising their kids. In the August 2012 issue of Parenting magazine, an article can be found titled "Four Ways to Bond With My Child." Skenazy reads bits of the article over the phone to me, irate at the notion that the average parent needs to be told how to bond with their child. One of the tips on the list is to kiss the baby on the nose. "Do I really need a magazine to tell me to kiss my baby on the nose?" she yells over the phone.
Parents are the experts on their children. Parents and children know that kids need to run around, scream at the playground, throw mud, dig in dirt and explore the world at a pace that is unique and comfortable for them, not one set by an adult. Adults are present to guide children toward responsible behaviors by modeling them and through structure and discipline. It is not part of our responsibility to perpetuate fear. Children must learn the rules of life through the natural unfolding of experiences. Our children quickly become accustomed to us telling them how to do everything, utterly enveloped by the fears of mother and father. When they are older they will have little idea of how to function in a world which they believe is a fearful place, not a curious one. Furthermore, the "academic" push we place on our kids doesn't necessarily help them to mature or gain insight into their world. Instead, because it is often developmentally inappropriate, it frustrates a child, makes normal behaviors like being antsy or impatient look like medical issues and drives up anxiety in children too young to even spell the word "anxiety." It has been reported that children and teens are suffering from more depression and anxiety than ever before. One of the biggest reasons is a "decline in young people's sense of personal control over their fate."
It seems we have forgotten that there are risks in life. When we had children, they came with risks. We can't pad them from all things bad, all things scary or all things difficult and even if we could, is that the kind of child we dreamed of raising?
What kind of childhood do you wish your child to remember having? Will they remember the fun they had, the accomplishments they made and the freedom they felt? Or will they have memories of always looking over their shoulder, fearful of something dangerous about to happen? Will they remember their childhood as a time when they were stressed academically in order to meet the expectations of adults? Most of us have fond memories of playing as a child running outside, riding bikes and scampering off to a friend's house from dawn to dusk. All this in a far less safe society. Statistics show the U.S. is now safer than it has ever been. Don't our kids deserve the same great memories and fond experiences of freedom and play that we had?