Thursday, June 24, 2010

Free Range Is For Chickens, Not Children

There is an article by Suzi Parker in the Woman Up section of Politics Daily which is the type of piece that is no news news. And I’ve read this writer before and I like her, so this really isn’t a slam against her. I think she was seduced by the (dare I say evil?) free range parenting movement and its founder, Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids." Skenazy likes to shock reporters into giving her coverage by tossing out a few anecdotes about parents who put babies in knee pads while crawling and journalists (particularly childless ones) think it is some huge story indicative of the how an entire generation is being ruined by overprotective parents. It ain’t so! BTW, in my many years frequenting pre-schools, mommy and me classes and parks, I have seen hundreds of babies crawling and not once have I run across a knee pad attired infant.

There are several reasons I found my Victoria Secret undies in a knot over this one. First, the idea of over-protective parents has been discussed and examined and explored until it has been rehashed more than corned beef. There isn’t a parent in America who hasn’t been accused of being overprotective. I’ve also been accused of being over permissive by allowing my child to do the exact same thing that I was accused of being overprotective for allowing them to do! Second, letting your children play in the streets, climb trees and get muddy does not make you any better a parent than the knee pad carrying ones. Different types of parents, yes, but exceptional, no. And the idea promoted by the free range movement is that these "free to be you and me" parents are superior to those who won’t let their kids play alone in the front yard.

The problem is, the free range parenting movement is about extremes. It is not concerned, thoughtful parenting. It is reacting, not acting, and parenting should be about taking positive actions towards teaching your children to be all the things that the free range movement claims it wants children to grow to be - "treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help." Parenting is not about reacting to what other parents are doing around you and protesting by allowing your kids to do whatever they want and justifying it by saying that the freedom you allow them will make them better than the other parents’ kids.

Free ranger Skenazy is the woman who created a career for herself by allowing her 9 year old son to take a NYC subway alone and jump started her freelance writing career by the brouhaha that resulted from the stunt. And in my opinion, it was a stunt. Yes, maybe her son had been begging her for weeks to allow him to do it. So what? My kid has been begging me to let her swim with sharks because as she learned in school, “They don’t really like human flesh.” You think I’m dropping her in the shark tank anytime soon? Just because your kid asks you to let them do something – take a subway, climb Everest, sail a boat around the world alone - doesn’t mean you’re being an overprotective parent by not letting them do it.

And saying no doesn’t mean you are squelching their dreams and aspirations as Parker’s article suggests. After telling my six year old shark loving girl that she wasn’t swimming with her toothy friends, we talked with her about what careers would allow her to work with sharks when she grew up, what she would have to study in order to do it and set up a time to visit more aquariums and see shark programs so that she can explore her interest further. And maybe one day when she’s bigger, i.e. 18 and out of my house, she will swim with sharks. But to let her do it as child, just because she wants to, is irresponsible, reckless and sounds to me slightly like the reaction of a parent who felt over restricted in their own childhood and now is bending over backwards not to be the same as their mean old parents. Grow up…if you don’t, your children never will.

Sure, I could have promised six year old shark loving girl that the next time we go to Hawaii she could get into one of those shark cages they lower into the water and then let the sharks come at her, but I know my child and it would scare the poop out her. She’d probably be so scared that any interest she once had in sharks would disappear in her frenzied panic to get pulled out of the water. Again, when she’s older, after she’s had more exposure to sharks and the ocean, after she’s had a chance to experience more things in life, she can make her own decision about swimming with sharks or anything else. Appropriate things at appropriate ages – someone should put that on a t-shirt and make all the free range parents wear it.

Parker’s article and the free range movement makes it seem as if the majority of parents are overprotective, knee pad toters and that those who allow their kids to strive for extraordinary goals at a young age like riding the subway alone, climbing Everest and sailing around the world, are the enlightened exception who should be emulated. In fact, both are extremes. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle…and they should. It seems rather silly to raise your children according to any movement, be it the free range or the more conservative helicopter style (where parents are hovering over their children, hand holding and protecting every move). Children should be allowed to run and play and explore. They should be encouraged to get dirty, experiment and strive for their dreams but with guidance, rules, boundaries and opportunities to make decisions and mistakes within an environment that won’t kill them before the second grade. But I think allowing kids to do too much, too soon or without restriction or supervision will result in kids who don’t have a sense of when something is appropriate and safe and when it is wise and wonderful to take the risk and forge ahead. Children need good decision making skills and being able to understand situations, take appropriate action or inaction and taking risks are all part of that. Allowing them to do anything they want, and not allowing them to do anything at all deprive them of learning those skills. To me, that’s the saddest part about this effort to divide parenting into movements – the real issues about what children need get lost in all the rhetoric.

You can read Parker’s article at:

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