Big Media Weekend for Free-Range Kids!

Welcome readers of the New York Times, New York Post and National Post — Free-Range Kids is happy to see you! Here are the articles you may have seen in your papers: The New York Times: Why Can’t She Walk to School?. The New York Post: Childhood Stalled (about moms dragging big boys into the little girls room). And the National Post Q & A with me. 

Why all the press? Because Free-Range Kids is a movement whose time has come. We are a growing group of people who believe that when kids are allowed — expected! — to play outside, help out around the house and wrestle their way out of boredom, they grow up confident and happy. Instead of trying to Botox them full of self-esteem with trophies for losing, they get it the old-fashioned way — by actually doing stuff on their own.

That’s why it’s called “self-esteem.” Not “parent-assisted esteem.”

Naturally, all of us want to help our kids, all of us want to keep our kids safe. But only recently has “good parenting” become synonymous with “constant hovering.” Why do we think kids suddenly need that? Our children are just as competent as we were. If we could organize a kickball game, they can organize a kickball game. If we could walk to school, they can walk to school. And though it feels very hard to believe, our kids are just as safe as we were, too. Safer, actually, if you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s. Crime was going up during those years and it peaked in about 1993. Since then it has been plummeting — and not because we’re keeping kids inside. ALL VIOLENT CRIME is down in the States — including against adults. It is just a safer country, crime-wise, than it was when we were growing up.

It FEELS less safe thanks to a daily diet of child abductions on shows like CSI, and an unsatiable appetite for those same stories –whether in California or Aruba or Portugal — on CNN. On TV, kids are abducted 24/7. But as someone who once wrote to this website pointed out: If a Martian came to earth and asked, “What is life like down here?” we could answer: “Well, do you want to know how 99.99% of people live, or would you like to hear about the other .01% ?” Chances are, he (it?) would say, “The 99.99%.” But when we watch TV — especially the news — we hear about the .01%. Then we turn it off and say,  “What an awful world.”

We don’t have to think that way. Kids who get a chance to make their way in the world are doing what children have done since the dawn of time: Growing up, rather than being stunted. Colleges refer to a whole new breed of incoming students as “teacups” — students incredibly fragile, because they were kept inside all the time and handled delicately, like fine china. They’re lovely. But they break really easily.

Free-Range Kids are old-fashioned kids with sun on their faces, dirt on their pants and a story to tell instead of another trophy for showing up. They are confident, happy and ready to take on the world.

Okay, sometimes they are still glued to their video games. Or texting. God, how they text! But at least they know there is more to life than a screen and they even know how to have fun without one. Some of them even know how to make their own lunch. So thanks for joining us! The childhood you save may be your own kid’s. — Lenore

P.S. I will be speaking at the Brooklyn Book Fair today at 11. It’s at Boro Hall. If you’re around, say hi!

37 Responses

  1. A-freaking-men. I stopped watching the local news years ago.

  2. Congratulations on all this big press, Lenore! You are exactly right; it’s a movement whose time has come. Yay!

  3. Try to tell this to my wife, who won’t let our daughter play by herself indoors, much less outdoors. When I tell my daughter to “go play,” my wife considers that to be almost a form of child abuse.

  4. Love this article, Lenore. I fear we are raising a generation of harnessed children. I love that you mention the trophy for ‘showing up’. That stuff gets me. Can’t wait to chat with you on the show about ALL of this!
    Keep going, friend.

  5. I just wanted to thank you for driving this movement forward.

  6. the Rebbetzin, we stopped watching the local news years ago as well. In addition to it be sensationalist it was just poorly written.

  7. When I grew up, I walked to school — and now that I’m living in Germany, I see kids walking to school every day. I actually found the NY Times article disturbing–kids are being raised isolated from any sense of reality.

    Keep up the good work–kids need to be independent of parents.

  8. Hi Lenore,

    I’m not sure if I could let my 11 year old on the NY subway, but I am learning to let go. I agree, by hoovering we not only do our children a disservice by not allowing them to problem solve on their own, but we limit their curiosity and sense of adventure.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on my blog post “letting go” http://thedestinywithin.blogspot.com/2009/09/letting-go.html

    A

  9. I love your piece about the bahtroom! Great timing as this past week I let my 4.5 year old son go alone to the men’s room. He was so very very proud of himself. I am devoted to providing opportunities for my children to feel masterful and independent. Thank you for giving voice to so many things I believe in too.

    Lindsey
    http://www.adesignsovast.com

  10. Last year when my kids were in grade 4 and 5 I just started letrtting them walk to school together. This year one is in elementary and the other is in middle school and they are walking alone, they are so proud of themselves. They wouldnt have that sense of accomplishment if I walked those big boys to school

  11. The bathroom – ugh the bathroom. I started letting my older son go alone when he was 5. My younger when he was 4, but with his older brother.

    I was at a train station and they had to go so I stood outside and they went to the men’s room. I got chewed out by some man because “anything could happen”. They were 8.5 and 5.5 at the time. I told him to mind his own business.

    I get really annoyed when I see 10 yo boys in the ladies room. Then I feel bad for them when they are obviously really embarrassed to be there in the first place.

  12. Lenore, I’ve been going over the hypervigilant parent syndrome in my head and a couple of things strike me as interesting:
    1.) It’s almost always women who are into this crap
    2.) They’re usually *suburban* women with lots of time on their hands
    I watch a lot of Mad Men and it hit me that the hypervigilance may be a backlash against the women who still kinda suffer from The Feminine Mystique. There is still a lot of pressure on women to adopt the role of homemaker/mother but it’s not PC to come right out and say it anymore. So,why not make women afraid to leave the house and their kids? Those kids must be protected 24/7. Let’s really ramp up the fear factor and make women feel like there is a predator behind every bush in their neighborhoods. And if they *don’t* feel slavishly compelled to watch over their children, continuously upping the ante on other moms, they are considered to be “bad moms” who will be tossed out of the group. Well, who wants to be ostracized if you are a stay-at-home mom? I mean, where else are you going to go?
    It even makes sense that a lot of this domestic fear mongering comes from Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Fox is a conservative entity. Having mom back in the kitchen baking cookies while dad makes the dough is what they ultimately want, right? It’s comforting.
    Well, unless you are a working mom who can accurately assess risk, in which case, it’s a royal pain in the ass.
    Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist and maybe these people don’t even recognize what’s going on but the bottom line is that suburban women are spending their very well educated minds obsessing over bus stops and play dates (play date is an obscene word, btw. Can we abolish it?)
    If these women didn’t have all of the (non-existent) predators and hovering to occupy their days, would they be more like Betty Draper? Going out of their minds with boredom?

  13. Lenore, great article, minor quibble. The Victorians may have covered furniture legs, but there’s no evidence they do so because legs = salacious. They did so because if you cover the legs nobody can see they’re made out of cheap pine instead of more expensive and classier wood.

    Also, what playground were you standing in for that pic?

    And finally – everybody needs to go leave some comments to those articles to lower the stupid quotient. I know you can’t expect much from the comment section, ew, but we can keep trying….

  14. Oh, listen. Here’s an article in the Times about “social contagion”.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/magazine/13contagion-t.html

    It goes along nicely with what was posted way back, that having a two families send their kids out to play unsupervised caused the whole BLOCK to send their kids out to play. By going out and letting your kids be kids and talking about it and acting as though it’s normal, you’re making it seem more normal to other people, making them more likely to try it out.

  15. Have you heard about a show in Japan called “First Errand?” (Hajimete no otsukai)

    I am not really finding a lot of links for it (probably because I am not searching the Japanese language sites). A newsletter at http://www.kazarigallery.com/Text/1165994264593-0670/uploadedFiles/1171865754593-1057.pdf discusses a book based on the show. It says “Often, in Japan, when children turn three or four they are sent on an errand by their parents to go grocery shopping by themselves for the first time. The program itself is extremely elaborate, the camera operators have cameras disguised in briefcases, baskets, hats, etc and will follow these children on their successful or unsuccessful missions.”

    That is 3 or 4, not 9, not 13, not 16. Part of the endearing nature of the show is watching these children overcome (or try to overcome) their difficulty. A Forum mentioned one episode where “a little girl who brought back fish for dinner-dragging the plastic bag and the fish coming out one by one with hungry cats looking on.”

  16. Love, Love, Love the attention Free-Range Parenting is getting and glad to be a small part of it!! We need to keep the dialogue going. I’m glad to see the those in the media are still interested in discussing it. Hope it continues!!!

  17. I’m generally in favor of the whole free range thing, but I have wondered about this:

    “It is just a safer country, crime-wise, than it was when we were growing up.”

    Don’t you think there’s a possibility that increased vigilance and caution has at least CONTRIBUTED to the lower crime rate and greater safety we enjoy today verses our own more free range childhoods?

  18. Riverdaughter, as a SAHM, I disagree with your conspiracy theory. There’s actually NOT a lot of pressure to stay at home. If anything, there’s pressure to get back to work. I can’t tell you how many times a week I hear – When are you going back to work?

    However, I do think there is something to the idea that intelligent women, when they become stay-at-home moms, tend to invest their self-worth into their value as a successful parent, and to become competitive at it, just as they were competitive in academics or in their careers, and that can account for some of the over-vigalence and overstructuring and such. More women seem to be choosing (of their own free will, I believe, not from social pressure) to stay at home now than in my childhood, and many more of these stay-at-home mom’s have B.A.’s and M.A.’s (myself included) than did the stay-at-home mom’s when I was a child.

  19. This site has been keeping me sane since I found it a couple weeks ago. I had been constantly questioning my choices, feeling guilty about what I was choosing to let my kids do…. even to just let my 4 year old ride her bike half a block down the street. I’d also had my decisions questioned by other people.

    The other day I was in Target, pushing a cart with my 1 year old, while my 4 year old walked behind. I was thinking to myself how her new shoes weren’t broken in yet because I could hear her funny footsteps behind me. Just then a man approached me and asked if it was my daughter behind me. I told him she was, and he said, “You’d better keep a closer eye on her… there are a lot of perverts around, you know.”

    I just gave him a blank stare. I wanted to tell him that he was wrong, but then I was wondering if he was giving me a warning about himself! Because, when I looked back at her, she was within arms reach of me. And the whole time she couldn’t have been more than six feet away because I could hear her walking the whole time! It sent me into a whirlwind of questioning myself until I got home and got to read some more of your posts and got a bit of sanity back. Thanks!

  20. Congrats on all the great press Free Range Kids is getting, Lenore!

    Although I don’t–thank God–see examples in my neighborhood (at least not very often!) of the kind of behavior and over-controls you describe so well, I do believe that this trend is very real and is, as you’ve nicely pointed out, closely linked to media saturation.

    As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my kids are now young adults, so these issues are behind me (with new ones popping up all the time), but I do remember just a few years ago wrestling with many of these issues and friends and family members with younger ones speak of them also.

    One resource that helped keep me sane when I was a younger mother was “Mothering Magazine”. I didn’t agree with all of its positions, of course, but found the attitudes of its writers and subscribers refreshingly practical and down to earth–and this despite its unapologetic embrace of ‘attachment parenting’. I guess its approach (and mine) could be described as ‘freely and fiercely attached when young, then let them go–again and again–when the time comes’.

    What we seem to be seeing a lot of today is parents unable to let go, to differentiate their child and his and her abilities to make their way in the world from the parent’s own fears and anxieties…And why would a mother today, esp one young and over exposed to the news, be adept at distinguishing her own anxieties from those ‘in the air’ and on the news with media and news coverage being so omnipresent and sensationalized?

    Keep up the great work!

  21. More women seem to be choosing (of their own free will, I believe, not from social pressure) to stay at home now than in my childhood, and many more of these stay-at-home mom’s have B.A.’s and M.A.’s (myself included) than did the stay-at-home mom’s when I was a child.

    Are they choosing freely? When one person’s wages just about equal money for gas and childcare, it’s not much of a “choice” to decide to skip the hassle and stay home. And when people make these decisions about which partner should stay home, it’s no surprise that the lower-paid partner (usually the woman) is the one who ends up quitting her job.

    Then you add in the fact that women are disproportionately expected to take care of their ailing and aging parents. They can stay home and do that, or they can pay more than their wages to do so (and childcare, and transportation costs). Some choice.

  22. I have to echo Karli’s statement:

    “This site has been keeping me sane since I found it a couple weeks ago.”

    I was a “maverick” allowing my kids to – gasp! – DO things. This site and many of the readers, commentators, and articles have helped me see I am not crazy for letting my children do things they want to do – that there are other parents and other children and families like mine.

    I am glad you are getting more press Lenore – and I hope the momentum builds!

  23. I was talking to a friend in another city. She says her 3rd grader and kindergartener ride their bikes to school with a group of other kids. It’s about 8/10 of a mile.

    I said “that’s great!” and she told me I was the first person to say that — apparently most people are shocked and question her sanity. But, she knew that I would be supportive! Go Free-Range!

  24. My wife and I do not have children yet but plan to. We spend a lot of time watching our friends with their children, learning how we do and don’t want to do things. I am grateful for this blog here, Lenore. I grew up in the 80’s as a free-ranger. My brother and I had a key to the house, came home on the bus, made our own dinner because mom and dad worked so late. We had a blast. We got hurt and did some dumb things along the way but worked out alright in the end. I read your blog almost everyday and often tell my friends and church about it, hoping others will go this route as well.

    Your logic applies to other areas than just child-rearing as well. H1N1, terrorism, and other realities of our day where we need perspective. Thanks and keep it up!

  25. Lenore,
    Great to see the success you’re having. You may recall we met a few years ago in a 9/11-related story about tattoos.

    Here in NYC, around mid-October, you can always tell when your neighborhood’s children (the ones who you’ve been watching from afar in the local playground), are in middle school. At age 10+ years, they are flush with pride at being able to negotiate the public transportation system on their own, now that they take the bus or subway to school every day. Traveling with their friends, they get to mix and mingle in the adult world. It’s a thrill to see them reach this milestone and I always mention their composure when I see their parents, who sometimes are taken aback that another adult would perceive the difference that they are themselves only beginning to notice.

    Janet L. Falk

  26. The bathroom one is a tricky one (and the changing rooms at the swimming pool even moreso). I must admit to a huge fear of letting my son (now 6yo) go into the men’s toilet on his own. We usually manage to compromise by him going to the disabled toilet which is a single toilet with a door to the outside. Last (Australian) Summer I took him into the women’s changing rooms at the pool and got the feeling then that he was probably getting a bit old for this (could see some of the teenage girls in there seemed a bit uncomfortable with his presence and he was also glancing around mroe than he used to). He is pretty hopeless at getting dressed on his own so thinking he will probably have to either get dressed behind his towel in the public area or else just go home wet. If I had another son, rather than a daughter, I would probably let the two of them go in there together reasoning that there is safety in numbers.

  27. I have been thinking about this “suburbs” thing ever since reading the article about the kid in Corvallis getting “lost”… both there (where I grew up) and where I live now (Northern Idaho), free range isn’t in the news because… its not news. Its normal.

    We also don’t really have “suburbs” the was I hear them portrayed on this site. We don’t have major cities, we just have smaller and larger towns with fields and woods in between. The largest (and only) city in Idaho is 300,000 people. So I’m wondering – anyone else in the West see helicopter-parenting as a “back East” phenomenon?

    I love this site, it gives me great ideas about how to encourage my kids to be independent, but I don’t “get it” when people talk about car lines at school or having 911 called for a kid walking down the street. Did I just get lucky enough to live in 2 very low-key towns, or is it a regional thing?

  28. I started to let… no… let me rephrase that… my son would dart into the boys’ room from the time he was 3 and no, I wouldn’t follow. I just waited. Now, at 7, he normally waits for me and his sisters to come out of the girls’ but not always. Its normal for him, but oh boy the looks I get when out in public with him. “(name), we’re meeting (location). You wait for us there. Don’t move from there.” Do you know how many times he’s been intercepted by “worried” adults?
    Just recently, our youngest, not quite 3, disappeared in a store we sometimes go to in one of the local Asian malls. The other two were also being obnoxious and more and I told them to go find youngest and daddy. Who does the store clerk bring the kids to? Not to dad, who told me to relax, keep on shopping, and get what we need. Oh noh. Bring the kids to mommy and give her holy heccubus for not being on the ball. One parent (me) was staying within 10 feet of where we last saw the youngest. DH went to the toy section to track all 3 of them down. Even through the language barrier, I was being told off, yet he was praised for looking for them? WTH! The older two had caught up with the youngest when she was with the clerk and they brought the two of them to me proud that they had found their sister. While the clerk was berating me in the pidgin engrish she spoke, the three of them took off again. DH showed up within 20 feet and I gave him the update through our unspoken language (1, 2, 3 fingers or 0 in the air) and he went and corralled the kids. What am I supposed to do? I use a cane part time and can’t go chasing off after the kids in three different directions at once. It was less than 10 minutes and I wasn’t ready to freak yet, besides, I could hear the older two even over the back to school panic shop everyone was doing there. And yes, youngest had found a toy in the toy section…

  29. There is really nothing new on this site. However as is often the case, it is the presentation which makes it seem new, and for that I love it. I have used the term “free range kids” to strangers who obviously have never heard of this and you can tell they know exactly what I am talking about.

    I think one way the goals of this site can be met is to first understand why helicoptering happens. Many young parents are obsessed with “doing” and “helping” to prevent mistakes. They must be convinced that we must require our children to take risks, learn from failures. They must also learn to organize things themselves. In other words, allowing them to do things is not passive, it is something we need to teach. When we teach a kid to ride a bike the most critical moment is when we let go. The sense of fulfilment is nailing that skill is clear when you see their faces. Teaching is about setting up the system of self discovery.

  30. When my sons were 2 and 5, my husband was deployed to Iraq for a year. My parents lived 7 hours away by car, and we would go visit them frequently. We stopped at rest areas so we could all use the bathroom, and my sons didn’t want to go in the ladies room with me. They both knew how to use a urinal, and the older one could keep an eye on his brother, so I let them go. The first time it was a little nerve-wracking, but I told them to wait outside the bathrooms for me, and they did. They’ve been using the men’s room ever since (they are now 11 and 8) and they’ve never seen anything even remotely creepy.

  31. My son has been going into men’s bathrooms by himself since he was 4. I used to wait outside, but now that he’s 6, we just send him in and tell him where to meet us. It never even occurred to me that there might be a problem with this until I read this site! I guess now I’ll be less confused about why I sometimes see much older boys in the women’s bathroom.

    The bathroom-related skill we’re working on now is how to find the restroom in a new place (look for signs, ask someone who works there). I send my kids (both 6) off to find bathrooms in restaurants and stores, since pretty soon they won’t have me with them all the time and they’ll need that skill. It’s funny to think of finding the restroom by yourself as a sign of independence, but the first time my kids did they were very proud of themselves!

  32. how to tell it’s time for the pendulum to shift: I was at Target yesterday, talking to a neighbor who happened to be next to me in line. my 7-year-old daughter suddenly darted out of line, saying, “I gotta go.” as she ran towards the restrooms. I shrugged, said, “guess she needs to go.” I was surprised that my friend nodded. “It’s cool. Free range kids–I’m all about that. Hope mine are that brave at that age.”

    I don’t live in NYC … I’m here in the Midwest, shopping at a suburban big box. If the change is coming here, it’s coming everywhere.

  33. Been reading your blog for many months and have just started on your book.

    It’s funny to think that so many have concerns about what could potentially happen to their KIDS by sending them into the bathroom by themselves. I am a father (100% creep free — honest!) of two boys, 4 and 7. The only worry I have — mainly about sending the 4 year old in by himself — is about offending the ADULTS in the bathroom! (The 4 year old still has trouble with turning away or walking away from the urinal/toilet with his pants and underwear still down around his knees and his naughty bits hanging out, before he pulls up his pants). Here’s hoping the backlash among the masses against helicopter parenting comes sooner than later. Keep fighting the good fight, Lenore.

  34. Thank you so much for all your work and common sense on this! Both are much needed. I read the New York Times piece with outrage and dismay. I’m a mom of a free-range kid in a very safe small town who was often questioned when my daughter started walking and biking to school — at 10! As a scout leader, I had to fight off the well-meaning moms who wanted to drive the kids the few short blocks to meetings, rather than have them walk with me. God forbid they should have the slightest bit of unstructured time to explore their town and just be out having fun together.

    We’ve truly reached a point of dis-ease and unbalance when a culture of (largely unfounded) fear dominates and robs all of us of community, independence, health, perspective, fun, and the knowledge of our cities and towns and how to function within them.

    Suz Lipman, founder, http://www.slowfamilyonline.com.

  35. I told my middle child (age3) that he could NOT drop his pants and pee where ever he wanted to at the park, and showed him where we were supposed to potty.

    At a town festival, he went to the potties as he was supposed to, but he deadbolted the main door and was trapped inside for 20 minutes because he couldn’t get the door to unlock. It was the women’s restroom, of course, because it never dawned on me that my little boy should use the men’s room. Not to mention no one on the premises had the key to unlock the deadbolt!

    He finally sprung the lock, and the concerned looky loos gave him a popsicle to alleviate his trauma.

    I was very self conscious, because I gave him free rein to just go and go play in the park we visit all the time and participate in the festival geared toward young children.

    However, I don’t regret giving my young son the freedom to enjoy all the park had to offer. He learned a valuable lesson, as did I. I watched him go into the restroom from afar. I waited for him to come out, and went to check on him when he did not.

    You cannot anticipate every problem that will occur in your child’s life. And the ones that do occur, they usually turn out fine.

    My son ate his popsicle and was more than ready to hit the bouncy house and enjoy his day.

  36. Lenore,
    I am going to use your phrase, “self esteem, not parent-assisted esteem,” when I talk to parents and teachers about my role as a volunteer master naturalist in which I take kids into the woods for nature hikes. I will give you credit for it, though.
    Leonard

  37. Love this! You really need a Facebook Fan Page. I keep telling people about this, and getting looks of total disbelief. It’s like they think I’m a “dangerous” parent for being anything less than ultra-cautious.

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