Hooray for Australian Media! (And Especially The Sydney Morning Herald)

Hi Readers! The Australian media have been very keen on the Free-Range Kids story. I’ve done more than a dozen TV, radio and print interviews so far,  but it wasn’t until this morning, when I was on a drive-time radio talk show, that I finally heard the words: “Oh, I could never let my child out of my sight. I just couldn’t live with myself if something terrible happened.”

What’s amazing is that this is pretty much what I hear EVERY time I am interviewed in America. So it seems as if catastrophizing every aspect of childhood has not yet fully taken root here. Oh, yes, fear is creeping in, and so is the idea that parents can and should control every aspect of their kids’ lives. But this obsessive outlook just doesn’t seem quite as pervasive here in Australia. And trying to make sure it never is, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this wonderful, even lyrical editorial today:

Pack away the cotton wool

LENORE SKENAZY, the New York mother who let her son find his own way home when he was nine, has started a long-overdue debate in this country about the way children are overprotected by anxious parents. Paradoxically in our increasingly safe and peaceful society, anxiety about the diminishing dangers threatening everyday life is growing.

As a society, we are starting at shadows. We fear children may be at risk from crime. Though crime rates have fallen, the public perceives them as having increased. In an issues paper in July, Brent Davis and Kym Dossetor of the Australian Institute of Criminology pointed to the ANU’s 2007 Survey of Social Attitudes which found that, despite generally diminishing crime rates, 90 per cent of those surveyed believed they were rising or static.

The nature of news itself helps sustain a climate of fear: stories of child abductions or murders in distant countries are flashed instantly round the globe, heightening the appearance of a dangerous, threatening world, even though the statistical likelihood of a child becoming a crime victim is extremely small. Products and services are sold through campaigns that heighten fear. In some suburbs gated communities have been built, which in their very design imply that the normal state of mind outside the gate is fear, which can only be absent when the ordinary world is shut out.

Litigiousness adds another element. It has become regrettably common for those injured in minor accidents to sue, and for responsible authorities such as councils to seek to eliminate the possibility of injury. The fear of risk not only deprives the public of valuable amenities such as children’s playgrounds, but also reinforces the message that the public realm is a risky place, and best avoided.

Parents are particularly vulnerable to this cluster of anxieties. Ideas of nurturing go hand in hand with protecting children from danger. But if some protection is good, more is not necessarily better. Before long it becomes stifling and stultifying. It prevents children from learning to assess danger for themselves, and from thinking how to avoid it. Driving children to school rather then letting them walk, ride bicycles or catch the bus not only wastes energy, it encourages laziness and the lifestyle diseases that afflict growing numbers of the young.

Life is not perfect and cannot be made so. Certainly a small number of children are hurt each year. But by trying to eliminate risk from children’s lives, overzealous parents are stunting their development, and inhibiting the ability of the vast majority to respond to challenges.

A line I hope to internalize is this:  If some protection is good, more is not necessarily better.

Also: Life is not perfect and cannot be made so. It’s funny we need to be reminded of this…but we do! — Lenore

42 Responses

  1. Lenore, I saw you on the 7:30 Report earlier this week, prompting a great discussion with my wife about our approach to child-rearing. I now have your book on order, and look forward to reading it.

    Keep spreading the message, and thanks!

  2. I also saw you on the 7.30 Report and heard you talking on the radio yesterday afternoon. I’m desperate to get a copy of your book (if only my baby would wake up so I could go out to the shop!). My husband and I laughed at the hot-dog story and agree, the world has gone mad.

  3. What a great editorial. Why do I have a tendency to think that such an editorial has zero chance of running in this country?

    Lenore, I’m proud of you. You are really drumming up support for common-sense freedom in parenting big-time, it sounds like, you’re really making an impact. I couldn’t be happier.

    LRH

  4. Great Job!!

    (One to add to your list … Control is an illusion.)

    Enjoy your time in Australia.

  5. Very well written editorial indeed!
    Enjoy the Australian spring and the fresh attitude this piece of writing seems to reflect!

  6. A line I hope to internalize is this: If some protection is good, more is not necessarily better.

    Oooh, like condoms!

    One condom = good idea!
    Two condoms = rips and tears, very BAD idea.

  7. I hope you enjoy your visit to Australia.
    When my kids were young they went on a school holiday recreation program. They went fishing and my 9 year old daughter got a fish-hook stuck in her hand. The supervisors took her to the hospital (free public healthcare treatment by the way, sorry I couldn’t help but say that!).

    I got a phone call was told all was under control. I was home with a baby and had no car but there were no drama and no need for a panicked trip home. They had all the signed forms they needed to get her to see the doctor, She was delivered back to me with a great story of the drama and a fish-hook for a souvenir.

    No one sued anyone, or stopped the fishing activity or got into a tizz over it. Another time one of my kids fell of a low walkway over a dry stream bed on one of these activities. The youngster got a cast which was signed by all the other kids went she went back to the next days activities.

    Scrapes, scraps, the occasional broken arm; from my childhood there was always some-one in the school with something to show for their adventures.

  8. What a great blog! I cringe when I see parents at the shops, who literally have their child on a leash! I don’t have children of my own yet! My father-in-law is a retired paediatrician, who argues that kids should get their hands dirty, and run around without shoes on. He says it helps strengthen their immune system. If they climb up a tree and get hurt, they learn about their own limitations! I used public transport without an adult from the age of 12 and I believe it (among other things) made it easier for me to adjust when I moved out of home for the first time (I lived four hours drive from my parents house) to go to university. I could write so much about this topic… Great blog! I’ll keep an eye out for the book!

  9. sorry, should say ‘no need for a panicked trip across town to the hospital.
    and
    ‘when she went back to the next day’s activities’

  10. I was struck by this point from the editorial: “The fear of risk … also reinforces the message that the public realm is a risky place, and best avoided.” As we withdraw from our communities we make them less safe and so we get into a vicious cycle. Very sad.

    @Uly – “Safety is like condoms” that made me laugh🙂

  11. watch out for teh Frontline crew, especially Mike Moore and Martin DiStasio and their ilk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cwfne1aYA3g

  12. There’s one thing about these stories that always bothers me. When these parents talk, it’s about them.

    “How would you feel if something horrible happened to your kid?”
    I couldn’t live with myself if something happened.”

    And so on.

    Now, I’m not a parent–I’m a “fun uncle” who plays with kids. So my concepts of being a parent are, perhaps, a bit out-of-whack. But it made me think of a story that one of my roomate’s nieces recently brought up.

    When they were young kids, my roomate and I would invite the kids over to go swimming–we had access to a swimming pool and none of her sisters did. I went and got arm floaties and things like that for the kids and I’d play with them in the pool and keep an eye on five or six kids.

    Well, sure enough, one of the kids decided that the floaties were uncomfortable. So she took them off and hopped back in the pool and immediately sank to the bottom. Well, needless to say, I was a bit worried. I reached down and pulled her back up and made sure she was okay. I helped her put her floaties back on and then put her back in the pool.

    At first, I was worried about her drowning. Then I was worried that she’d be afraid of the water. Ultimately, neither thing occurred.

    But never once was I worried about myself. I wasn’t worried what people might think about me. I was concerned for the kid.

    If I hear a parent say something like that, I can understand it. I wouldn’t want my kid to drown. But I don’t hear that. I hear, “I’d feel horrible if my kid were to drown!”

    Again, I’m not a parent. The advantage of being the “fun uncle” is that I don’t have to deal with the kids 24/7. I might pick them up on a Saturday afternoon and have them back at their folks for dinner. So maybe I have this idealized sense of being a parent.

    But I always thought it should be about the kid’s feelings, not the parent’s.

  13. @Larine: Child leashes are actually quite practical. I can’t let my toddler run around because kids that age will do things like spot a penny in the crosswalk and run out to get it while traffic is moving (yes, this happened, and thank God she was wearing her harness so she couldn’t go more than a few feet!). OTOH, tethering her by holding her hand restricts her to my arm’s reach with one hand always up in the air, and if she slips on something she suddenly has all of her weight hanging from that one arm. A sturdy nylon chest harness with a 5-foot leash attached lets her roam around poking at things to her heart’s content, especially if I move slowly. I can attach the other end of the leash to my belt to be completely hands free. In addition, if she slips, I can grab the back of the harness, not her arm–I saved her from going face-first into an icy puddle once this way. And when she has the inevitable meltdown that leaves her wanting to sit in the crosswalk and wail for half an hour, I can pick her up by the back of the harness and carry her across the street without missing a step, which has the added benefit of bumping her out of her mood because she likes “flying” like Supergirl.

    I think leashes are excellent trainers for a free-range kid. They give a small child an appreciable amount of freedom while restricting her ability to get into trouble she does not yet have the common sense to avoid. I have seen a similar concept in paintings hundreds of years old; IIRC they were called “leading-strings” back then, presumably because the little kid was always out ahead leading the person holding the strings like an eager puppy.

  14. Way to change the world!

    One day they will erect a statue of Lenore down under, or name a downtown play park filled with dangerous play gear after her. “Leave-em-there Lenore’s Lovely Land for Little Ones”? It could happen and it should.

  15. Yay Lenore, I am another of those who saw your intv on the 7.30 Report. A delight to have you here in Oz. Enjoy.

  16. Take the time to listen to this interview. She explains so well what the media has done to our thinking patterns in just a single generation.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/video/2010/09/29/3025418.htm

  17. I hope you’re enjoying your time in Australia.

    Kids are going to get hurt. My son has all sorts of scrapes and bruises on his legs. I always thought that bumps and bruises were part of being a boy. When I was a kid and got a bloody knee, I went to the school nurse, my mother, or my friends’ mothers for a band-aid and was sent back out to play. There were no incident report forms that my parents had to sign. My parents knew that bumps and scrapes are part of childhood. The thought of my parents suing the parents of a friend over a skinned knee is preposterous, at least it was when I grew up (late ’60s/early ’70s).

    My son went to the School Age Center on the base where I work until last month. There were a few times when my son cut himself and required a band-aid. I had to fill out an incident report because the staff put a band-aid on his scrape. When I made a comment about how I know that my son is a real boy because he skinned his knee, the administrator told me that the staff has to fill out incident reports because some parents get upset when their kids “get hurt” at the center. This past summer there was a problem with bees and the kids were advised to wear shoes outdoors. My son went barefoot, stepped on a bee, and got stung. When I picked him up, I had to sign an incident report. While I was signing the report, I turned to my son and said, “I guess next time you’ll wear your sandals on the grass.” I got a look from the staff people that said, “That poor child has such an unsympathetic mother.” There’s a reason the School of Hard Knocks has that name.

  18. Even though helicopter parenting has spread like a virus throughout the world, I don’t see this parenting trend becoming as extreme in Australia as it is in the US. Americans would never hold to the line, “life is not perfect and can not be made to be so.” It’s just not in our nature. We have long had the mindset that every single aspect of our lives can be improved upon and controlled. Products are always coming out as “new! improved!”. For heaven’s sake, we feel like if we just take our vitamins and exercise we may be able to cheat death somehow.

  19. If you want a playground, here is a playground!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Kilda,_South_Australia
    and I found this page which has a couple of good shots of St Kilda Playground which is in my city.

    My kids loved this, and all those lucky enough to go there still do (and the adults). Check out the slide and the flying fox, The maze, fort and pirate ship are fantastic.

    Any lawyer who tries to put a stop to this can face the wrath of all the parents. I say class-action sue the lawyers on behalf of kids no longer able to have FUN.

  20. (btw I think there is a height limit on some of the equipment; and there are little things for little kids.)

    And what do the kids say? 🙂

    from wikipedia
    “St Kilda’s adventure playground covers 4 hectares along the seafront and is one of South Australia’s best known. The playground has a constructed shipwreck, wooden castle, huge slides, a spiral slide inside a hill, flying foxes and numerous other pieces of play equipment, with South Australian children naming it in 2002 as the best adventure park in the state.”

    (It is free, too.)

  21. Oh, I like the idea of sueing the lawyers. This would be fun for the City Museum in St. Louis – a good friend of mine welded a lot of the perhaps-dangerous-but-definitely-fun crawl-thru activities for kids at that wonderful insitiution – which has a list of all the lawyers that have sued over minor scrapes and sprains next to the entrance fee schedule.

  22. Go Oz! Great editorial. And Sandra, that playground looks like tons of fun (and beautiful, besides).

  23. This is what frustrates me. I’m an Australian who got married to a US citizen and is now living in America and will one day be an American citizen. I grew up with a semi-free range childhood like a lot of Australian children.

    However, in America, all the things I let my kids do that I was allowed to do are “abusive”. My mother in law simply refuses to let my kids play in her back yard without shoes. I’ve fought her saying I grew up barefoot, and she says “don’t you care about the boys? There are PRICKLES in the grass.” I tell her that yes I know there are and that prickles existed when I was a kid too and we knew how to avoid them, or how to pull them out. I told her I’m raising boys, not sissies. But she comes out with “it’s my yard, my rules.” Needless to say they don’t play there a lot unless my in-laws are babysitting. And she wraps blankets round my babies in the middle of summer. In Mississippi. And then wonders why the baby is crying. Maybe because he’s HOT?

    It’s insane what American’s consider as “abuse” and quite frankly it’s ridiculous and it drives me nuts. Apparently because I want to let my kids be kids, I’m an abusive and lazy mom.

  24. Katy-Anne
    I am wondering, if you have to give up your Australian citizenship, will you (and your family) ever be able to come back to Australia to live?

  25. My children’s mother is raising them to be scared of their own shadows. I thought it was just a function of her being an immigrant, feeling unsure & out-of-place in American life. But maybe it really is a general vaporous sickness, infecting The Home Of The Brave. Good post.

  26. Just wanted to say thank.. I’ve been raising a free-ranged kid for 16 years now. She’s been cooking since she was old enough to move a chair to the stove and not because I neglected her but because she was simply taught the safety rules and let loose in a world she would one day have to live in.
    Critical thinking and reasoning have been the top two lessons I’ve tried to instill and I glad to see others are doing the same.

    we need more of them!

  27. Sandra B. With the immigration laws, even if I don’t give up my Australian citizenship, I’d not be able to bring my family back to Australia to live.🙂

  28. Congrats on your big, exciting trip down under! It sounds like they’re mostly still sane down there.

    I was thinking about what we could do about the misinterpreted crime data, where everyone seems to think we live in dangerous times. What if we started pressuring news agencies to report the statistics that go along with the crimes that are in the news everyday? You know, after the child abduction crime report, say how many that is for this year, how that compares to last year and where it falls in the overall crime data?

    Unfortunately, where I live we only have a public TV station that gets its news from elsewhere. Anyone in a big city want to start? Of should we just start with CNN? You’d probably want to propose something more specific than what I just said. 🙂

  29. Thank you for spreading this long overdue message of common sense here in Australia. I saw your interview on 7.30 Report and was so impressed that I’m going to buy your book … and I don’t even have kids.

  30. Hi Lenore, just saw your interview on 7.30 report (replayed on ABC News 24 in Australia today around 12:50pm 2 October Aussie time) and just wanted to write and say wow, you’re right on – I remember riding my bike around as a kid with a group of other kids, visiting playgrounds without parents in tow and just don’t see this any more. Parents are pushed through peer pressure to moth-ball their kids. Time we all got on with our lives again.

  31. Katy Anne
    Re immigration laws. That’s harsh. Seems wrong you can only be a visitor to the country of your birth and ditto kids.😦

  32. My mom went berry picking this summer, in a neighborhood in our small Canadian city. A nice, safe, upper middle income, part of town. The berry trees surround a playground that I would have killed to live close to when I was a kid.

    She was there for THREE hours on a Saturday afternoon. It was a nice warm but not crazy hot day. Guess how many kids she saw?

    Yup. Zero.

    In the last 3 or 4 years that we have been berry picking there a few times each summer, usually on Saturdays we have seen only one or two kids at a time, and only with at least one parent along, even though there are 20 or so houses that back on to the playground, and have gates in thier back yards specifically to allow access to the park!!

    It makes me sad. And mad!

  33. Thanks Lenore, I have been conversations with parents
    to allow their children more freedom and they look at me as if I am nuts!
    My first memory of letting my daughter go. She is 2 and playing in the backyard by herself. She gets on the play equipment and can’t get of. eventually she falls off, upside down. She cries, runs towards the back door. Halfway there she gets distracted by something else, stops crying and gets back to play!
    I watched the whole time, holding my breath!
    And I have been doing this ever since. Worry at times, but never show her that I am. She is now 24 and somewhere in Europe, travelling by herself.
    I realized that not showing their worry (and they did!) was one of the greatest gifts my parents gave us.
    All of my siblings(very large family!) moved out of home by 16, 17 ( either for tertiary education or jobs)not because we had to, but because we knew we were ready to to face the world by ourselves.
    Most of us have parented our children the same and this next generation, now in their 20’s started part-time jobs at 15,and most moved out of home by 18-19.
    They balance travelling the world with study at Uni and part-time jobs.

  34. As an educator with a preschool I have to tell you the dangers of the child leashes. A child does not learn about his body’s equilibrium and self control. He learns to walk learning forward. He doesn’t know how to stop himself from running into the street and guess what? At seven when he’s too big for the leash, he will still run into the street. Give him freedom, let him learn purposeful movement and control of his body and he will be smarter (body brain connections) and more in control and ready for independence.

  35. Kate – My kids wear leashes sometimes so I’m curious about dangers. But the ones you’ve mention don’t make much sense to me. Do you know of any research?

    My kids have never walked leaning forwards. Even if they did I can’t see how a kid could actually fail to learn about body equilibrium unless they *only* walked with a leash and were always pulling on it.

    As for running into the road – how is it any different than a kid who is stopped from doing so by a hand? My kids are learning to stop at the curb when we’re out whether they’re wearing leashes or not. It’s a skill they need, so it’s one I’m teaching. Also, I have no intention of having them wear one until they’re seven! Just as few parents on this forum are likely to expect their kids to hold their hand all the time when they’re seven. The sooner I can safely get them off the leashes the better as far as I’m concerned. I’m looking to give them and me more freedom.

    The dangers I see with leashes are more to do with strangulation from the leash and unnecessarily annoying other people on the sidewalk since the leash, as with dog leashes, makes it impossible for people to pass between you. Also, it’s a good way for one kid to pull the other one down. But that’s just a learning curve. I hope.

  36. I wish Australian media was always so supportive of the concept of free range, but they do their bit to support the oogie-boogie man.

    Still, thanks for coming and making them think and write about this stuff Lenore.

  37. Hi Lenore,

    I’m a Sydney mum – saw you on q and a last night and thought you were great! I love your message and good luck with your mission! Couple of things that have made me laugh (quietly) lately – when I see people not letting their kids eat a potato chip that has fallen on a (relatively) clean looking surface e.g. brick pavers – and a mum I saw at a quite nice, clean seeming public toilet layering the toilet seat with toilet paper to protect her child’s bottom. What!!? Hello!! Talk about hard work and somewhat unnecessary – many of us seem to have survived contact with ordinarily clean toilet seats and dropped chips, biscuits etc. Let’s lighten up!

  38. Welcome to Australia.
    When I was 9, I walked to school. It was a 20 minute walk. I came home and was in the house alone until my parents came home from work. Apart from a few sneaky Coco Pops snacks, it didn’t do me any harm. And, as a teenager, me and my mate roamed the streets and went down to the beach. The thing is: back then, loads of people were outside. So it was safer. Now we keep our kids inside, which makes the streets empty. I went for a walk on the weekend and saw hardly a soul. Certainly no kids. The only time we had problems when I was a kid was me and my mate being approached by a man in a car, asking us to go to the sand dunes with him. We said no and walked away. Then reported it to our parents. I love your work. Glad to see such a common sense approach.

  39. […] her Australian media tour, it’s reassuring to read her reflections on Australian attitudes: “The Australian media have been very keen on the Free-Range Kids story. I’ve done more […]

  40. My household really enjoyed seeing your interview on the 7.30 Report. My son was mesmerised, and insisted he wanted to be a free range kid too. Perhaps things are not as bad here (in Australia) as they are in the US, but we are pretty close to it , I think. Our kids are quite cushioned, and we are often paranoid. What’s really sad is that our streets are empty in many suburbs and we don’t really know our neighbours and our neighbour’s children — our kids mostly don’t go out of the house to play freely in the street. Playing freely in your own suburban street is a pretty normal thing to do, and we no longer have that. We’ve lost the sort of community we had when we were children. Our kids don’t talk to other adults, even their neighbours, and grow up having pretty limited experiences of life.

    I watched you on Q&A too, which was interesting, and will be getting your book as well.

    I’ve really had to rethink some issues about my own son and how reasonable my own protection of him has been. As a result of this, he will soon be starting to use public transport to get himself to school in the morning (how basic is that!).

    Thanks, Lenore. Do come to Australia again.

  41. Our 7 and 9 year old are allowed to ride around the streets of our quiet neighbourhood with some of the other kids- once there was a big stack,

    Miss 9 came down a steep pedestrian lane between 2 houses too fast, got the terminal wobbles, and got some large scrapes on her hands and knees- 2 kids came to get me, 1 stayed with her. We patched her up, gave her a cuddle, and off they went again. None of them have stacked seriously since.

    Once they got lost, they worked it out…and got home safely. We talked about what to do if you get lost when they got home, but they knew already.

    They have great fun, we have rules- always wear helmets, always stay together, follow the road rules, always check driveways before passing them, no riding from dusk on, no going into the National Park without an adult.

    Sadly Miss 12 next door is not allowed out of our cul-de-sac, this makes me sad, but I am not sure I can convince her parents to think otherwise.

  42. recently read a comment by an Australian psychologist decrying the generation of ‘helicopter’ parents and general over-protective parenting … decided to follow a few links and discovered the same fellow had previously written articles unequivocally critical of parents allowing the children to be exposed to risk!

    seems he was drumming up business – creating the fear then criticising those who took him at face value. the only word i have for him is ‘scum’ … as some of you have mentioned here, it’s not usually the parents who create the restrictions, but the broader community such as child care workers, schools, insurance companies, local councils, and attention-seeking professionals and journalists.

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