Lenore Skenazy began the “Free-Range Kids” movement two years ago, when she boldly permitted her nine-year-old to take the New York subway and bus home alone. Through her blog, book, Twitter page and Youtube channel, Skenazy encourages parents to let go of their cooped up children because, she believes, the world is not as scary as we think.
Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts — safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail.– Lenore Skenazy
Her rationalization comes from reviewing violent crime statistics and the realization that child abduction is relatively rare. Is she right? Are parents freaking out unnecessarily and keeping their children locked up out of irrational fear? Skenazy is not alone; there are many books recently published on the topic of free-play in childhood, with titles such as “If Your Kid Eats This Book, Everything Will Still Be Okay” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.” In the meantime, the welfare and safety of children continues to be a hot topic; all you have to do is scroll through the many topics covered under ‘Safety’ on the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics. So who should we believe, Skenazy or professional organizations?
While Skenazy believes children should be independent and allowed to live a little, there are many children who already are living a little. Outside of suburbia, many children manoeuver their environment on their own; going to school and fetching groceries at the neighborhood store alone, largely out of necessity and not because their parents have signed on to the new fad of “Free-Rangers”. But do these practices make it alright?
Children, especially pre-teens, are not developmentally capable of taking care of themself, of using judgment and complex planning efficiently and effectively. Their brains, and bodies are not yet ready for them to face the challenges of an adult-created and adult-run world. For instance, say Skenazy instructed her son to take the ABC train and the XYZ bus home, but there was a freak accident in the subway that shut down the ABC route and created a diversion. Would he then be able to rationalize what his alternate steps should be? Or would he be a teary-eyed, lost 9-year-old, in the middle of New York city?
While I agree with some of what Skenazy proposes, I disagree as well. Yes, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children because of such factors as increasing pressures to perform academically and their parents’ financial constraints. Yes, too many children are spending too many hours in front of the television and jeopardizing their health.
Free-Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy decides not to tickle Elmo since he’s teaching kids to just sit there like lumps.
At the same time, safety guidelines exist for a reason. In the United States, the number 1 cause of death in children is accidents; vehicular accidents, drowning, fire, falls, and poisoning. Many of these could have been prevented by supervision from caregivers.
The bottom line is that children should be allowed to do the work of childhood; play. But at the same time, it should be age-appropriate and guided by caregivers. Increasing independence with age is important in teaching mastery of the environment and challenging the increasing neurological development in children. Let children out of the chicken coop, but keep an eye out!