Free-Range KidsSeptember 29, 2009
I’ve finished Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, and I’ve been trying a few things to make my kids more independent. I feel sort of like Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob: “Baby steps to the elevator. Baby steps I’m on the elevator. Baby steps…” We’ve done Walking to the Mailbox Alone and now Hanging Out at the Church Carnival With a Fistful of Game Tickets and Without Hovering Parents.
My next step will be to try Skenazy’s suggestion of starting a “walking school bus” – one parent walking a neighborhood gang of kids to school until they get the hang of it and can go on their own. My next-door neighbor and the lady a couple of doors down both have kids that go to my kids’ school. I’m going to ask them to do this bus thing with me. I’ll even volunteer to be the first parent walker.
A couple of things stood out in this book. (Beyond its exceptional hilarity, I mean. I haven’t laughed so hard while reading in ages.) The first was chapter 10, subtitled “Quit Trying to Control Everything. It Doesn’t Work Anyway.”
Control is the crux of our problem. Or the illusion of control is, rather. We think that if we just follow our kids around, poking our noses into everything they do, that nothing bad will ever happen to them. And we think that if we relinquish control for five minutes, we will suddenly become Bad Parents. And worse, our kids might be fatally harmed.
We no longer fear deadly disease (except swine flu). We no longer expect one or more of our kids to die before adulthood, something that used to be common when my grandmothers were children. Our kids are statistically safer than at any previous point in history. So, as Skenazy says:
The more safe our children became, the more we started to worry about them, because now if anything dangerous did happen to them, it would clearly be our fault. Fate has gone out the window, replaced by parental omnipotence. And it is this belief in control combined with the fear of screwing up that is driving us mad…
Think of a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, says Harvey Roy Greenberg, a Manhattan psychiatrist. That person gets up in the morning and has to arrange the pillows on his bed just so or, he worries, something terrible will happen. He has to avoid touching the doorknob or something terrible will happen. He has to eat his Grape Nuts out of the Flintstones bowl or something terrible will happen. He has all these little things he believes he has to do or – poof – the world will fall apart.
“All of this is driven by a kind of insane feeling of omnipotence,” says Greenberg. It’s a belief “that you can exert all power over all things.” And when it comes to your children, “you think you can lay down a magic carpet and conjure up spells that will guarantee your child absolute security. Good luck to that!”
So what can we do to allay our fears? I mean, besides letting them do stuff and just gutting it out? The answer is found in another part of the book that stood out to me, the chapter entitled “Strangers with Candy.”
Skenazy recounts the story of an elderly lady reading her newspaper with a magnifying glass in her doctor’s office. A small boy comes up to her and as she’s about to hand him the magnifying glass that has drawn his curiosity, his mother swoops him up and exclaims, “He has to learn fast not to talk to strangers!”
That’s not the way to keep anyone safe. And that “Don’t trust anyone!” lesson could conceivably end up making that little boy less safe (not to mention terrified of old ladies). Imagine if, against all odds – and I’m about to tell you just how long those odds are – some horrible guy does come up one day and say, “Hi, little fella. Mommy sent me to get you.” Presto – he mentioned mom, so he’s not a stranger anymore. He grabs the boy even while, just a few feet away with her back turned, a grandma sits reading her paper. Will the little boy scream, “Hey lady! Help! Put down the magnifying glass and call the police!” Or will he not say anything, because she’s a stranger, and Mommy said never to talk to them?
It’s a chilling scenario. But it’s a preventable one with some training. Skenazy outlines a cop’s lesson:
It involves literally showing kids the lures a predator could use: a bag of candy, a leash that supposedly “proves” a guy is looking for his puppy. Then he has the children practice the three things that could help them the most:
1. Throwing their hands in front of them like a stop sign.
2. Screaming at the top of their lungs, “No! Get away! You’re not my dad!” “Your voice is your most effective crime-fighting tool,” he tells them.
3. Running like hell.
By actually getting up and practicing those things, the kids feel ready for the worst… Public safety instructors liken this kind of training to the “Stop, drop, and roll” drill that kids get as part of fire safety instruction. Once again, it is extremely unlikely they’ll ever need to use it, but – it’s handy to have. And rather than creating more fear, it seems to help alleviate it. The more afraid we are of something, the more power it has over us. But the more prepared we are, the more power we get back. Training confers power.
I can vouch for that. I did two years of Krav Maga, the Israeli army’s hand-to-hand combat training, and by the end I felt like I could handle myself in any physical situation. I was less afraid, not more.
Now I feel like I have a way to make my kids safer and ease some of my worries over their growing independence. Hooray, Free-Rangers!