A Conversation with Lenore Skenazy on Free-Range Kids

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

The author explains how rampant anxiety over children's well-being diminishes their independence.
Lenore Skenazy

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.

This article originally published on 4/22/2009

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John Brandt (not verified)

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Great article. Reminded me of the freedom I had as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. By 11 I was negotiating the NYC Transit system on a regular basis, granted not solo, and as a teenager was "out and about" the City all the time. As a kid, we were allowed free reign in increasing concentric circles from "the womb" until that umbilical was severed. It amazes me that folks today move to the suburbs and rural areas to find safer places to raise their kids, but then end up complaining because they have to drive the kids everywhere. Let 'em walk. Let 'em ride their bikes. (I'll leave out the part here about hitchhiking...probably not too safe.)

Dr. Candy Beal (not verified)

Free-Range Kids

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For the past decade I have traveled all over Russia to research their education system. In many cities there are no school attendance areas and children apply to any school they wish to attend. There are no school buses. Young children are seen all over the cities hopping onto buses, trams and trains to get to their schools. Taking responsibility for yourself and your family is a strong value in Russia.

On another note, I have worked for 42 years in middle grades education. I have wondered why we think so little of kids' ability to problem solve that we do not teach them about adolescent development so they can understand what they are going through and be empowered to make better choices academically and socially. Coindcidentally, I observed a group of adolescent boys in Pskov, Russia, meeting to try to help one another solve problems that were bothering them. They were called the Help YOurself, Yourself Club. I brought that idea back to the US and my graduate students, who are teachers of middle schoolers, began to teach their students about adolescent development. They taught Piaget (hang in there and you'll get from concrete to abstract), Erikson (it's normal to change peer groups since you are trying on different identities in each group), Charity James and her 6 polarities of living, Kohlberg and Gilligan for the different ways that boys and girls go about addressing a moral dilemma, Bloom and Maslow (your environment does make a difference in your learning), Vygotsky (listening doesn't mean learning until your internalize it and attach it to your schema and make it your own), Gardner (everyone has special gifts to be appreciated), among others. The graduate students found that their students were thrilled to learn about what was happening to them. Absences dropped, and if someone was sick, they returned hoping they hadn't missed too many adolescent development lessons. Grades rose, trips to the principal were less and behavior was greatly improved. Perhaps the best response we got was from a child in a special ed class who had learned about Multiple Intelligences. She said, "Before everyone elses thought they knew what was best for us. Now we know more about us and can choose for ourselves."

What a simple solution to break the ugly sterotypes that swirl around early adolescents and help these kids be all they can be. Grants to spread a program like this are few, but if you know the theories and work with adolescents, the sky's the limit. And, if you try it you'll find out a lot about youself, both as an adolescent and as an adult. Dr. Candy Beal, NC State University, Raleigh, NC

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