“Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone” — Pink Floyd
The Just William stories, (Richmal Crompton, 1922), see our eponymous hero, William (age 11), roving his village without a care in the world, accompanied by other packs of children doing the same thing, with hardly an adult in sight. Perhaps more alarming still to the modern reader, contemporary children’s fiction classic Swallows & Amazons (Arthur Ransome, 1930), featured groups of children aged 7 to 12 sailing boats on a lake all day every day, by themselves. They were even allowed to set up camp and sleep overnight on an island on their own.
Were parents in the 1920s negligent beyond belief? Or are we damaging our children by trying to keep them too safe?
“My years as an injury prevention researcher have left me well aware of things that can go wrong and how to prevent them from happening,” Dr. Mariana Brussoni wrote in the Canada’s National Post. “But because I have a doctorate in developmental psychology, I am also concerned that we are keeping our kids too safe.”
Lenore Skenazy is the founder of Let Grow, a parenting movement which seeks to reintroduce independence and risk into children’s lives to better foster their development.
Skenazy promotes “future-proofing” which aims to build strength through exposing children a string of minor difficulties and anxieties as children. The goal is to prepare them for the stresses of adulthood by empowering them to take on challenges successfully and on their own.
A newspaper columnist at the New York Post for well over a decade, in 2008 Skenazy sparked a media firestorm when she allowed her then 9-year old to ride the subway alone and wrote about it for her column. She received a storm of criticism for what was perceived as negligence. The resultant backlash and outpouring of support kick-started a national “free range kids” movement against helicopter parenting.
That movement blossomed into an organization. The Free Range Kids movement then morphed into a full-time outfit, branded under the new name Let Grow, with Lenore at its head.
Check out their mission here.
She tours the country giving talks, attending media events and lobbying for less government restriction on how children are raised. A large part of her work is both raising awareness of the fact that Child Protective Services (CPS) are being called for increasingly trivial aspects of life (like the case where the police were called on a parent for letting her children play outside in their backyard without supervision).
The foundation educates parents on how to foster an environment which will allow their kids to succeed. She also fights back against rules which prohibit parents from letting their children play freely. These initiatives range from encouraging parents to let children do one thing on their own, to pushing who towns to make “Let Grow Proclamations,” declaring support for unsupervised childhood activities.
We caught up with her in Austin, Texas, where she was in town to speak to the state legislature about a new bill to protect the rights of children to be unsupervised. Lenore says children will become more anxious, fearful and incompetent the more they are coddled by nervous parents.
Counter-intuitively she believes that the less protection we give our children the stronger they are likely to be.
Fear of the Fearful
Skenazy’s campaign has been very successful. She coined the term “free range parenting,” and there is a national pushback now against the alternative. But it’s going so well she has created a new problem quite by accident. Now she gets calls from people who would love to send their children outside and who aren’t afraid of the children getting hurt, but who are afraid of other parents or the government harassing them.
Now she is back on the road, out to reassure parents that it’s legal and ok to let your children play outside and participate in what they perceive may be mildly risky activities. A minor tumble on a swing, for example, teaches them about how to balance and importantly, how to evaluate risk for themselves. Just as she rails against the alleged risks of kidnapping because of a handful of high profile incidents (crime is at a 50-year low), she criticizes those who see a flood of Stasi-esque neighborhood watch snitches waiting to rat out insufficiently attentive parents at the drop of a hat. This simply isn’t the case, she says. Most people are decent, law-abiding, non-combative and want to stay out of trouble. Like with everything, it’s a small minority ruining it for the rest of us.
How Did This Happen?
So whose fault is all this?
Lenore says there are four reasons she normally talks about, but two she’s more interested in now.
Firstly, the media puts out a lot of scary stories about ‘stranger danger’. “We blame the media because the media is to blame,” she tells me. The story of a kidnapped young girl, possibly trafficked into sex slavery or murdered, hits every one of the psychological triggers required for a good story. There’s a reason the sudden and terrifying disappearance of Madeline McCann from her parents holiday villa in Portugal is the only thing many Americans know about the country. She notes how the blood libel in the Middle Ages was spread by the printing press. Simon of Trent, a Christian boy whose alleged murder by Jews sparked pogroms in the area became famous since the media was able to spread the story about his death rapidly. Soon other towns and cities began circulating their own tales of woe, for the medieval equivalent of clicks.
The second issue is our litigious society. Lenore recently shared a video of a child who fell out of a car in their car seat, in an incident in which the mother is potentially being prosecuted for negligence. Accidents are no longer a thing, in any given case, the public wants someone to be liable. “When will we stop prosecuting parents for accidents and start realizing to err is human, not criminal?” she wrote on her Twitter page.
The third issue is the craving for experts to tell you you’re wrong. Since we constantly look to lists telling us what to do, we figure parenting must be the same. So we digest our advice on the internet about how to parent and do that. The flip side is there is always another study saying something else. The replication crisis in psychology also means we should take studies and experts with a pinch of salt.
The fourth is socio-economic. Family dynamics have shifted to favor dual-income smaller households. That means a lot more care, attention, and money being focused on each child. Since child-rearing is a huge industry, companies are incentivized to exaggerate risks in order to sell products. You end up with absurdities like leashes for children as companies vie for attention in a saturated marketplace.
In addition to those four, which she regards as mainstream, Lenore is currently intrigued by two other factors.
The first is relating to technology. In the past we couldn’t know what someone was up to when they were out of our sight. If a child wandered off and didn’t come back until tea time, there was simply no way of knowing what they were up to. Now of course we can add a GPS tracker to their phone and follow along their progress throughout the day. This omniscience brings a false sense of power. If we know what is going on, we should be able to do something about it.
But we actually can’t.
Technology has made it much harder to let go of problems which are outside our zone of control.
Secondly, following the mass adoption of psychotherapy, theories by thinkers such as Sigmund Freud have entered the mainstream. It is now commonplace to believe that everyone is traumatized by something in their past, and that by limiting trauma we can protect our children in the future. In fact, Lenore argues, the opposite is the case. Children are not fragile, but are anti-fragile, and become stronger as a result of successful encounters with age-appropriate stressful situations.
What Can You Do?
If you have children, letting them play and risk exploration on their own (within reason obviously), seems to be optimal for development according to much of current research. Of course, you should make up your own mind what is best for your child. If you don’t have children, minding your own business and not calling the police on anyone for what you see as their sub-optimal parenting is the best thing you can do.
We will leave you with this poem on the importance of weathering trials to build character.
The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.
The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.
Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees,
The further sky, the greater length,
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Where thickest lies the forest growth
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.