Sunday, January 15, 2012

READING: Free-Range Kids

This week's read:

I'm not a big fan of parenting books...or parenting blogs...or parenting advice in general. But I stumbled across Lenore Skenazy's story a few weeks ago and immediately added her book to my library request list. (You can request books and movies on our library's website and they'll mail them to you, like magical free Netflix!)

This is her story: A year or two or three ago, she let her nine-year-old ride the subway home from Bloomingdale's. Alone. She wrote a column about his experience, Ann Curry ripped her a new one, and she was subsequently labeled "America's Worst Mom." (Really? This, from the same cable news stations who run 24-hour coverage of Casey Anthony?)

The self-righteous refrain was, of course, what if something happened?! But armed with surprising statistics, Skenazy points out that the odds of "something" happening are really, really, really slim. The odds of being abducted and killed by a stranger? 1 in 1.5 million. The chances of being killed at school? 0.0003%. And no one in recorded history has actually been poisoned by Halloween candy.

Yet parents will go to extremes to prevent the unthinkable from happening -- driving their kids to the bus stop, X-raying candy, enforcing zero-tolerance policies at school. (Don't get me started on the last one -- my niece was suspended last year for drawing a cartoon of her friend getting crushed by an anvil. Like she was plotting a secret anvil attack.)

But Skenazy argues that the mantra of "better safe than sorry" is actually hurting our kids. In trying to prevent one-in-a-million tragedies from affecting them, we chip away at their freedom, their confidence, their self-reliance. We keep them from exploring nature (there could be pedophiles in the woods!). We tether them to cell phones. We don't let them cook meals, walk to the bus stop, or see a movie without a parent hovering nearby.

For me, the most interesting tidbit was the evolutionary explanation for our paralyzing fear of the unlikely. For the entire course of human history, up until about 50 years ago, anything you saw was an immediate physical threat. If you saw a mountain lion, there was a mountain lion, and you'd better run. But with the advent of television, we could see things (shark attacks! plane crashes! CSI!) that weren't actually real. But our hard-wiring hasn't completely caught up with technology, so when we see a kidnapping on TV, we assume our kid is next. When we see a body in a freezer on CSI, we assume the world is full of sickos. We still process things we see as an immediate physical threat -- even if it's just looped footage on Nancy Grace.

I love nerdy little explanations like that.

I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about all the things I loved about this book, but to sum it up:

  1. I'm so glad my mom used to let me and my friends play by the creek all summer even though the combination of woods and water and all the things potentially lurking therein probably gave her several panic attacks;
  2. I'm totally letting my kids walk to school (although I'm secretly glad it's only a block from our house);
  3. To anyone who gave me a judgy 'tude when I didn't warm my kids' bottles or wipes, I just want to say nyah-nyah-nyah
  4. Every parent should switch off Fox News for one day and read this book instead. It's good for the sanity.

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