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The argument for Free Range Kids

Topics: Participation and Learning | 4 comments

Lenore Skenazy has founded a movement to encourage greater freedom - and time spent outdoors - for today’s over-protected children.

What is a Free-Range Kid? According to New Yorker Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the Free-Range Kids movement, it is a child “who gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help.”

And why is this movement necessary? Says Skenazy on her website, “I founded the Free-Range Kids movement in part to be one small voice saying, ‘Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don’t have to be quite so terrified!’ It’s an attempt to figure out how we got so much more worried for our kids in just one generation, and to separate the real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell.”

Skenazy laments the modern trend in parenting which demands that children are constantly supervised by adults and allowing them do things by themselves is equated with carelessness. She was dubbed the “America’s Worst Mom” after allowing her nine year old son to travel on the subway by himself, despite him being equipped with a map, a travel pass, telephone coins and $20 for emergencies.

A culture of fear

“Fear is almost a virus,” Skenazy says, “and I live in the country that creates the fear—through TV, pop culture, products and trends—that your child is not safe unless you are watching 24 hours a day.”

She says TV dramas build the sense of fear through stories of children being murdered and abducted by strangers, and the images from these shows stay implanted in the adult mind.

“The brain is like Google,” she says. “It does not quote statistics. Instead, when you ask it ‘Is such and such safe?’ what pops up is the image stored in your brain; a picture of the saddest possible thing we can imagine.”

Yet, as Skenazy explains, the incidence of children being abducted or worse is so rare that the fear is totally out of proportion.

“You can’t live your life worrying about it, any more that you should worry about standing under a tree for fear it will fall on you.”

The consequences of over-protectiveness towards children are not inconsequential.

“If you don’t allow children to have time on their own, you are harming them,” she says.

‘We tend to think of safety as something we should get more and more of. We only see the downside and the risks of kids doing things by themselves, as if no price is paid when you drive your kids everywhere and keep them inside, whereas in fact a lot is lost.

“Uber safety comes at its own price. It is not just gaining safety, it is losing the chance your kids have to gain the qualities that parents want.”

Why free play matters

Skenazy cites the many advantages of children being allowed to play freely with their friends, such as gaining skills in social decision-making, problem-solving, compromise, and communication. She also argues for the importance of play in developing self-regulation.

“Kids love playing so much that they will abide by the rules of the game, such as waiting their turn, which is the very quality that makes you able to sit still and pay attention at school.

“Unsupervised play is so important for maturity. To optimise childhood, children need some time on their own and some time with others. They also need to have time being bored so they can come up with something to do.”

Telling the story of her own son amusing himself for an hour using a plastic cup like a volleyball, she says that kids are simpler than we think and more easily amused than we’re told.

Nature play

Skenazy also says there is a problem with playgrounds.

“Families have moved to suburbs which have playgrounds and then they are not being used because children are not allowed outside. Older kids used to teach younger kids how to play games. That’s not happening anymore. Children are inside doing homework, or on screens, or in supervised activity.

“Kids are so unfamiliar with time outside and how to amuse themselves. Kids need time outside in order to get good at being outside so that it feels good to be outside.

“Nature is certainly one of the places we belong. Children who spend time outdoors in nature are calmer, happier, have better eyesight and are less depressed,” she says.

Lenore Skenazy does not want to blame parents for the current situation. She says fear is culturally determined and a generation ago the fear was of communists and comic books. Now, it is of paedophiles and murderers.

“Messages come at you from every angle, and if anything bad happens anywhere in the world, it is portrayed as relevant and pressing to everywhere, so that current parents will be more nervous that any parent in history,” she says.

“We are in the midst of predator panic.

“We are also in a marketplace that thinks if we worry parents, we can sell them anything, like the toddler knee-pads and helmets, and the ‘walking wings’ which are advertised as helping a child gain confidence with walking.

“But a child gains confidence when someone is not holding onto them. That’s why we call it ‘self-confidence,’ not ‘parent-assisted confidence’.”

Letting go of ‘uber safety’

So what is the solution, as she sees it?

“You break the spell by seeing with your own eyes that your kids are more competent than you thought,” she says, “and by recognising the downside of uber safety.”

She will be bringing this message to life in her new reality television show entitled “World’s Worst Mom” on the Discovery Channel/TLC International, which will be called “Bubble Wrap Kids” in Canada. In this show, children will be allowed to ‘free-range’ under the eye of a camera lens while nervous parents watch on video link at home.

With her new show plus her website, Lenore Skenazy is passionate about urging parents across the world to allow their kids some freedom and independence. As she said in a 2011 interview with the American Journal of Play, “part of my job as a parent is to worry, and the other part is to shut up and let my kids go on the overnight. The alternative is to have them ride with training wheels forever.”



  • PInuccia says:

    It is a very good article and I like the label “free range kids”. My experience tells me that in the space of three generations we have gone from complete freedom for children to a state of paranoid control.

    • Saif says:

      Here is my rsonaeing for not allowing an eight year old child to ride the subway alone:(1) While the child is unlikely to encounter anyone who means him harm, it is not at all possible to reasonably ensure that he won’t.(2) The subway is not his neighborhood, and he will therefore be in the company of strangers who are less likely to be watching out for him and who will be unable to recognize whether or not an adult in his presence is known to him.(3) A very young teenager is likely capable of a decent amount of self defense and even if not able to fend off an abductor, could probably raise quite a ruckus. Not so with an eight year old who is likely no match for even the weakest adult.(4) It is absurd to think that a child who is not allowed to ride the subway alone at age eight is therefore going to be raised as a fearful, overly protected child. I think we should be capable of saying that it is absurd to call this woman America’s Worst Mom without having to swing the pendulum to the other end and assert that people are overprotective and on their way to raising fearful brats just because they don’t allow children under ten to roam public transit.

  • Victoria Walks says:

    This is a great article that tackles an issue that goes to the heart of what is/not a healthy community — the ability of children to walk, play in and navigate their heighbourhoods alone. Here is a link to another article (in The Age) on Lenore

  • Helena says:

    I looked into this remembering my Grandfather’s stories of sailing, ice skating, and driving out of province (!) all without adult supervision. He was very self sufficient and a very strong and loving person. Though he grew up in the Great Depression and life was difficult, the free range kind of childhood he had (typical at that time) no doubt shaped him into the men he eventually became. My childhood was very sheltered, inside for weeks on end in summer for fear we’d be abducted. I didn’t even ride the bus until I was at university. I decided I didn’t want that for my children. Thanks, Lenore.

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