The kids are alright: new book argues for less parent supervision

Whenever my wife and I get together socially with other parents our age – or older – we inevitably end up talking shop about parenting. One common feature of those conversations has to do with how much more freedom and independence our parents allowed us when we were growing up than we allow our kids today. Almost without exception, the parents I meet and talk to tell the same stories that my wife and I do: that when they were younger, their parents threw open the door and let them (nay — forced them) out to play with other kids in their neighborhood. That there were no adults who scheduled these “play dates,” let alone supervise the play itself and that, amazingly, everyone turned out ok. No kidnappings, life threatening injuries or other traumas to speak of. This was certainly the case when I was growing up — in a suburban neighborhood with probably 20 or more kids around my age. During the warm weather, we played games like hide and seek, kick the can, baseball (and pickle) and touch football until dark (or dinner time). Heck, after dark we’d play flashlight tag, which is basically hide and seek with flashlights. War (played in an adjacent meadow) was always very popular. These games were totally kid run and kid initiated.It was like The Dangerous Book for Boys — only there was no instruction manual. It was just how you rolled when you were a kid in the suburbs.

Three decades later, I can’t imagine letting my girls roll out the door with destination unknown. And even when I know the destination, I find it hard to fathom letting them go play somewhere without knowing that a grown-up’s watchful eye would be on them when they got where they were headed. Frankly, though, I’m not sure how to account for the huge change between my parents’ generation and my generation. Now a new book (and blog) Free Range Kids, tries to explain that cultural change and to encourage parents to, in essence, free their kids. has done an interview with the author, Lenore Skenazy,  about the book, in which she argues that the media has basically fueled a national hysteria about child safety and child abductions when, if you look at the data, these events are no more common today as they were in the 1970s. Skenazy is an interesting character – a syndicated columnist who attracted national scorn after she wrote about allowing her 9 year old to ride the subway alone in 2008.
She raises interesting questions about child rearing, about human psychology and about how fear influences the decisions we make. After all, auto accidents are the leading cause of childhood death, but most parents are able to balance the relative risk of that activity (which is much higher than child abduction) with the reward (mobility, greater engagement with your world/community). But would that change if — parallelling the child abudction coverage –the headlines on the evening news every night were gruesomely detailed accounts of kids killed in auto accidents — wherever they happened to be in the U.S. ?

There are also some really interesting scholarly work being done on how fear influences our judgements and decision making.  In lab experiments studying reactions to the 9/11 tragedy, researchers noted that fear-inducing clips made subjects “less optimistic about their own future, the country’s future, and the world’s future.”  Food for thought.