It used to be that kids roamed the streets with their friends unsupervised. That includes many of the adults who now hover over their children’s every move. The culture around raising children has changed. So, too, has the state’s interactions with parents who let their kids practice more independence. Jarrett Skorup speaks with Free Range Kids author and Let Grow advocate Lenore Skenazy for the Overton Window podcast.
Skenazy became famous after a column she wrote for the New York Sun about letting her nine year-old son ride the New York subway unsupervised. Some dubbed her as America’s Worst Mom.
“After being on all these shows and getting that nickname, I started a blog called Free Range Kids,” Skenazy says. It’s been a popular place for parents to share stories about raising their progeny to be independent and the struggles they face along the way.
“It’s just strange to me that the freedom that I grew up with that nobody gave a second thought to — and I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so I was riding my bike to the library and walking to school at age five — and somehow that had evaporated,” Skenazy says.
Her readers were concerned that following her advice would lead to an investigation from their state’s child services. Neglect laws are broad and people call the police if they see unsupervised kids.
She’s also worried about single mothers who work hard and can trust their kids to take care of themselves for a little while when mom is working extra hours. “That shouldn’t be illegal either. That’s not neglect. That’s making due without a lot of extra money,” Skenazy says.
“We have to make sure that the laws protect the parents who trust their kids with some independence,” Skenazy says.
She finds that broad cultural changes in media, technology and even in parental expectations have led to a world where parents feel the need for constant monitoring. “Helicopter parents is something imposed on the parents because I don’t think parents all became paranoid,” Skenazy says.
The Free Range Kids woman found that even she was doing it. She walked her own kids to school because it was the norm for parents at her school, without reflecting that norms were different in her time. “It was just the norm. You go with the flow,” Skenazy says.
Skenazy says parents ask themselves constantly, “What if something terrible happened to them?” The norm now seems to be defined by fear over children’s safety.
“The idea that childhood has to be perfect or that parents have to be perfect because, if they’re not, they’re putting their children in horrible danger is the Overton Window that we have to shut,” Skenazy says
“There’s something called the mean world concept,” Skenazy says. “It’s almost Halloween right now. There will be thousands of articles telling you stuff you don’t have to do. That you should check your child’s candy for poison. How many children have been poisoned by a stranger’s candy? It’s zero.”
She cites the work of sociologist Joel Best who had been tracking news stories going back to the 1950s and was unable to find an instance of a child poisoned by Halloween candy passed out by strangers. Yet news media still proclaim the dangers of Halloween candy.
“It’s really hard to disengage an urban myth once it’s gotten its teeth into us,” Skenazy says.
Technology also allows parents to have more control over their children. Watches track where children are, allow for communication, and let parents listen to what their kids are doing. “They are supposed to provide you peace of mind, but actually I think they’ve done the opposite for parents,” Skenazy says.
“Just as this idea of safety has changed, the idea of what’s good for kids has gone from giving them some independence to always having them in a structured activity,” Skenazy says.
This demand for structured activity stretches across the economic spectrum. “That became the new standard,” Skenazy says.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have rattled the cultural norms around constant supervision. She cites a survey of 1,600 parents and kids about what they did in this time. Children had more unstructured time, were playing more, getting along better, and taking up new hobbies.
“It turns out that when kids have some free time and they’re bored and it’s not all online, they discover their real interests,” Skenazy says. “And I think that’s fantastic for them.”
Skorup tells Skenazy a personal story about how his three year-old daughter tried to join her older siblings at a park. A police officer found her by herself, and when Skorup caught up, told him that he needed to worry about the chance that his daughter could have been kidnapped.
Skenazy mentions that kids run a greater risk of being hurt in a fire at home than of being kidnapped. Children would have to be outside for 750,000 years for it to be likely that they would be kidnapped, she says.
While a neighbor calling the police when seeing an unsupervised child may be innocuous, sometimes it is not. Skenazy has some horror stories on her site. This is why she’s been advocating to change neglect laws around the country.
“In most states, the neglect laws are broad and ambiguous,” Skenazy says. “The laws allow a lot of discretion on the part of authorities. We are trying to make the law narrower.”
She’s seen success. Utah was the first state to revisit its neglect laws. Skenazy says that larger families, more trust and even shared faith in Latter-Day Saint communities plays a part in that. “As we’ve lost the need for that kind of faith, whether it’s in God or our neighborhood or our kids or all three, we’ve started to think it’s all on us,” she says.
Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Connecticut, Virginia and Montana have also passed Skenazy’s recommended laws.
“It’s clearly not a partisan issue,” Skenazy says. “It’s an issue of people realizing that the government shouldn’t be involved in family decisions unless those decisions are egregious and put a child in danger.”
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