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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Conversation with Lenore Skenazy on Free-Range Kids

The author explains how rampant anxiety over children's well-being diminishes their independence.
By Chris Colin

Lenore Skenazy

Credit: Courtesy of Lenore Skenazy

A little more than a year ago, Lenore Skenazy took her nine-year-old son, Izzy, to a Manhattan Bloomingdale's, deposited him in First-Floor Handbags, and left. Izzy had been begging his mother to let him take the subway home by himself, and Skenazy finally decided he was ready. It turns out he was.

"My son got home, and he was ecstatic with independence," Skenazy wrote soon after in her New York Sun column -- one that set off an international firestorm over how much freedom children should be afforded. Some hailed Skenazy for standing up to a culture of paranoia that stifles kids' independence. Others accused her of no less than child abuse.

Skenazy fired back with Free-Range Kids, a movement of parents seeking to unshackle their offspring; a popular blog, and -- as of this week -- a sharp, well-researched, and witty book arguing that our fearful restrictions on kids’ freedom harms them more than protects them. Statistically, our children are far safer than breathless television news reports on abductions and assorted domestic hazards would have us believe.

Skenazy recently spoke with Edutopia.org about the hysteria over kids' well-being and the corollary obsession with whether they're thriving in general -- a subject with implications for educators as well as parents.

Edutopia.org: How did the Free-Range Kids movement come about?

Lenore Skenazy: After I got all this attention for letting my son take the subway by himself, I started looking into how something I considered safe and simple could be considered worldwide news. And I started to see that there are a lot more restrictions on kids than I'd realized.

In Chappaqua, New York, for example, school buses won't drop a child off after school at their own bus stop unless there's a preordained adult waiting for them. If there isn't, they take the kid right back to school, so you have to drive over there to get him. And considering that statistics show a child is 40 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than be snatched from the bus stop, it started to seem that we're raising our kids in a society with a lot of hysteria.

The movement is not to negate the necessity of car seats or helmets or even a sensible walking plan to school. But it is to say that the world hasn't become less safe than when we were growing up.

What's the education component to Free-Range Kids?

Parallel to our fear for their physical safety is this idea that our kids need more enrichment; from the start, we're playing Mozart to them in the womb. My younger son is in fifth grade, and whenever he hasn't done every bit of his homework, he's given Recess Academy -- translation: no recess. This means his entire day is spent inside, as if being deprived of your parsimonious 15 minutes of running around with friends will make you a better student.

So I think this paranoia about kids thriving seeps into the educational system at times. In the 1980s, there was this idea that our kids were falling behind, and since then, schools have been whittling away at things considered less than academic -- without realizing until recently that those things are complementary.

Do you hear from teachers?

I hear from a lot of teachers. Often, they're complaining about parents and say things like, "God, they won't let us do anything" or "Can't they let the kids walk into the classroom on their own?"

A sixth-grade teacher in New York got in touch because of a project she had her kids do: She read them my essay about Izzy taking the subway and then asked them to do something they hadn't done before, something their parents couldn't help with.

A bunch of kids made fried eggs for the first time. My favorite was a girl who walked to the grocery, bought ingredients with her allowance, and came home and baked a cake. She said, "All the way there, it looked like people were glaring at me. But the weird thing is, as I was walking home, people didn't look mad anymore. It was fun!"

Other kids had similar experiences -- it was scary at first, but by the return trip, they'd already acclimated. It was a revelation for them.

It's a great assignment. It encourages a little independence. What's a kid's favorite sentence? "I did it myself." They'll say, "Look, I made this box myself." "I rode my bike myself." It's not, "Look, I baked a parent-assisted cake." No, it's, "I did it myself." That's a great thing to give kids.

Chris Colin writes the On the Job column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ted Wells's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this article! We shouldn't spoon-feed, we should simply point to the kitchen.

Kids can do more than many give them credit for. Sadly, when adults help too much we dilute their problem solving abilities, or worse, their creativity and sense of power. Years of this can lead to children who don't attempt to fix things or can't problem solve - that's adult work, they assume.

We must step back and release them to the world. My example is watching how 3rd graders run bottle and can recycling at my school (I teach 4th grade at Park School in Brookline, MA) and 4th graders run paper recycling. They roam the building alone in groups of 2 or 3 at recess twice a week and do such helpful work for the school ... and world. They collect 700 pounds of paper a week. Hundreds of bottles/cans. Occasionally they break a few rules, but for the most part they're free and powerful and productive and learning!

Kim Breuninger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I still remember the day a parent chastised me for letting my 9 and 11 year children ride their bikes half a mile to swim practice, alone! At their age I would leave my house in the morning and not come home until dark, or I needed food and couldn't find it at a friends house. How can we expect kids today to problem solve or be independent if we are attached to their hip. At a recent professional development session I asked my participants how many had built a tree fort, built a dam to see what happened or dissected a frog (outside of biology class). Almost all hands went up yet when I asked how many of their students had- almost all said they didn't think many had the same opportunity. No parent wants to take a chance with their child/children but shouldn't reasonable limits be set instead of fear governing most of their decisions? Problem solving was a natural extension of growing up and helped us learn. Maybe we wouldn't have to depend on schools doing so much if we could let kids be kids. Learn socialization on the playgound and dirt baseball diamonds or fall and learn how to keep it from happening again.

Kids are incredible- let's not get in their way.

Barbara Roether's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As A teacher and parent I am delighted that there is a now a movement dedicated to letting children and young people reclaim their mobility and self determination.It is almost impossible to teach students who have such limited experience of themselves. As a city dweller, my son has also been riding busses since he was 10, with no problems ever. He has noticed poor and dispossessed people, and raving lunatics and has learned that the world is full of difference. Thank God. I teach at a Montessori School and must say that these are the values that Montessori figured out a hundred years ago. Teaching street smarts and good judgeemnt make kids safer, not paranoid parents. The narccisism of the adults in these kids lives, thinking its all about them is disgusting.

Mary Koch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bravo to Lenore Skenazy for giving a voice to all of us parents who make a conscious choice every day to be a guide on the side, and let our children take calculated risks, sometimes falter, but ultimately soar.

Becka's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that children today have too little independence, however, I think it is important to take into account that we do live in a different world. Just 20 years ago most neighborhoods had stronger community, adults knew the children and the children knew the adults. Most European communities do not make an accurate comparison because they are far less transient with families having lived in the same town, even the same house for generations. Some neighborhoods have more crime, sex offenders, gangs etc. while others less.

The real challenge is not for parents to "just let go", but for us to build communities that are safe for kids. That is one of the things I enjoyed about living in co-housing. My four year old son, who longed just like a teenager for independence, could walk down the courtyard to the kids' playroom or to a friend's house. We knew every person in the community, had meetings and meals with them. Every house was a safe house, and watchful eyes were at every corner making sure the children were safe.

I guess Lenore's point is that the world is safer than we think. While child abduction rates are lower than auto accidents, no one wants to be the parent of the 1 in a million child that is missing. I think it is important for us to build community, in any way that works, before we send grade school kids out into the world on their own.

Laura Chesebro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's not just about freedom to have fun but also the freedom to be responsible. When I was in fifth grade students were nominated by teachers to work in the office. I would answer phones, take messages, and call to teachers on the intercom. I am a teacher now and I don't believe any of the schools I've worked at would give the same opportunity to a 10 year old. This job made me feel responsible and important. It gave me the drive and courage to seek out greater responsibilities.

Audrey Fine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Recently, my 12 year old daughter returned to the car from running an errand to the newsagent. She observed, with some distress, that because of "stranger danger" thinking, she has now become nervous about every male she passes in the street. This realisation upset her, as she realised it was unecessary and needed a more blalnced attitude.

jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes and nobody wants children to die in a bus or auto accident (which is more prevelant).

VJ's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The society is paranoid. Too much minor management of hyper parenting of kids is happening which leads to the kids being totally dependent, scared, inability to take initiatives, lead etc. I don't understand why such hue and cry is made over this when millions of kids in other parts of the world use public transport to travel. I used to travel 35 miles each way daily and always traveled public transport - trains, buses but was taught my parents not to hitch hike.
We need to teach the kids the ability to avoid strangers, talk, avoid wrong situations and make this is a better place to live in.

kannie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The connection between kids and parents has internal conflict. When children grow, they have more and more desire to remove this regard, parents are trying as long as possible to keep it. Parents want to protect young people from the dangers in life, to share their experience, caution, and the young want to buy their own experience, even at the cost of losses and want to know themselves world. This internal conflict is able to cause many problems, the problems of independence are beginning to emerge quite early, in fact, from the birth of a child.

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