About 10 years ago, when Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway home by himself, you would have thought from the reactions that she’d committed a crime. In some places, she would have. Now Skenazy is the founder of Free Range Kids, a movement to bring up safe and self-reliant children, and of the nonprofit Let Grow. Just this month, Utah became a free-range state, changing its law to protect parents from being charged with neglect for, say, letting their kids walk alone, or wait in a car for a grown-up.
As summer arrives, parents will again fret about what outdoor liberties to allow their children, as Skenazy argues that the risks of giving them some freedom are exaggerated and the advantages of that freedom are incalculable.
Q: What’s the difference between a free-range kid and a neglected kid?
A: Well, I think you know it when you see it. Most of us grew up free range and it didn’t even have that name then. It’s the kid who is taught how to cross the street both ways, knows that they have to be home by a certain time _ usually it’s when the street lights go on _ and then is given some freedom. Neglect is when you don’t give your kid food, when you beat them, you starve them, you give them drugs, you pimp them out. A neglected kid is a child who is harmed by parents who are blatantly disregarding their welfare, and a free-range kid is sort of an old-fashioned kid.
Q: We are not the nation we were 50 years ago or even 20 or 30 years ago. What are some of the forces that changed the default position of childhood, a free-range childhood, into what you are worried about now?
A: Yeah, how did we go from thinking that it was great for kids to walk outside? My mom sent me outside at 5 to walk to school. That was just the norm back then. And suddenly we hear stories about parents getting arrested for letting their 10-year-old play outside.
A woman was arrested a couple of years ago for letting her 11-year-old wait in the car for a little while, while she ran an errand. What happened is that we’ve decided now that any time a child is unsupervised, they are automatically in danger. There’s no connection between that and reality.
The crime rate was higher when we were growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, ‘80s and ‘90s than it is today, and nobody screamed at parents, “How dare you let your child walk to school?”
It’s like we’re living in “Grand Theft Auto” or something. Walking a couple of blocks in a quiet neighborhood is about as safe as you can get. It’s certainly safer than driving your kids anywhere. Driving is the No. 1 way kids die, as car passengers in crashes. And yet we fantasize that the second they step outside the house without a security detail, they’re going to be hurt.
Q: One difference when I was growing up is that when I was out until dark, virtually everybody who would have seen me knew who I was, and knew who my parents were. That’s not the case now.
A: It sounds like you might have grown up in a sort of small town, and I would think that certainly people would still know each other there. What might be different is that if you’re not outside, nobody gets to know you. We got so used to not knowing our neighbors, not saying hello, not letting our kids walk to school or play outside or go to the park that nowadays, the kids are either in a car or in the backyard or at Little League and they don’t get to know the neighborhood.
One of the things I would love schools to do is what I called the Let Grow project, where the teachers tell the kids to go home and do one thing on their own that they feel ready to do that they haven’t done yet _ after they talk to their parents and their parents agree.
It can be walk the dog, go to the bus stop on your own, or get the ingredients to make dinner and come home and make it. Any of those things are going to get your kid back outside.
We just have to renormalize the idea that kids are part of the world. They’re not just vases to be put behind glass and kept inside because they’re so delicate and so precious we don’t want anything to happen to them.
Q: We now seem to have a zero tolerance for any risk, let alone any harm to kids. How did that happen?
A: Our tolerance for risk has been eroding. And I think part of it is due to the idea that anytime something bad happens it’s because of somebody being irresponsible, not vigilant enough. As the world has become safer and more manageable in a lot of respects, we think that it is completely manageable and completely controllable.
And now we have the technological devices to keep constant tabs on literally almost everything our kids do. You can see what their grades are each day online. You can tell where they’re walking by GPSing them. RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags are used in some school districts to tell you if your child got on the bus and where they got off the bus. It’s like surveillance.
And so once you start thinking like that, you think you can control, you think you must control and you think that your child is something that has to be tracked like a FedEx package.
Q: But a parent might say, what’s wrong with me knowing where my kid is all the time? The textbook case for many parents was in 1979, the Etan Patz case, a 6-year-old New York boy. His parents gave him permission for the first time to walk the two blocks to the bus stop. He was kidnapped and murdered.
A: It is strange to me that in making an everyday decision about whether your kid can do anything on their own, the touchstone is this _ the most horrific, most anomalous story that is so outrageously awful that we remember it literally two generations later.
And we don’t make our decisions about anything else we let our kids do based on one horrible thing that happened 39 years ago. We don’t say, “I want to drive you to the dentist, but my God what if we get in a car accident? What if there’s a drunk driver out there?” Think of those people who died in a car accident 39 years ago. I don’t want to be like them _ no, we’re not going.
And we recognize that that would be weird to think that way, to always go to this one, worst-case scenario.
And I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, the idea that we can control for literally every danger, every single second, and what it generally boils down to is never letting our children out of our sight.
I’m trying to make it easy and normal to go back to (knowing that) it’s true that nothing is perfectly safe. Driving our kids is not perfectly safe. Feeding them solid food is not perfectly safe, living in a house with stairs is not perfectly safe. Sending them outside is not perfectly safe.
But it is really safe. And I want my kids to have some life other than sitting in a room looking at their iPad waiting for mom to drive them to lacrosse.
Q: Utah became the first state to have a free-range parenting law, and part of what prompted that was the case of the Meitiv family in Maryland, who had dropped their two children, 10 years old and 6 years old, at a local park to play, and then the children were walking home by themselves. People called the cops, the kids were taken into protective custody.
A: I never blame parents for being helicopters because we are always talking about the Etan Patz case and the anomalous case of Elizabeth Smart or something that is very scary. And so I’m not surprised that parents end up clutching their children very tightly in a way that they were never clutched as kids. And when you do let them free range, as the Meitiv family did, it starts to look weird.
I listened to the 911 call from the man who saw the kids outside, and it’s like he’s not sure why he’s calling, but he knows that maybe he’s supposed to because he calls and he says, “There’s two kids outside. I don’t know them. They look fine.” And the 911 (operator) says, “Are they disturbed? Are they lost?”
“No, no, they’re great, they’re smiling, they were talking to me and my dog.”
“Well, is there anything wrong?”
“No, but I feel like they’re kids and I should call.”
So I love the idea of community and caring, but I don’t want us to be translating that into “I must get the authorities involved” or “This is not how I would raise my kids and therefore the parents must be punished.” I don’t see how that helps anyone.
Those people who write to me because they know I’m interested in this topic of childhood freedom and parental freedom too. Some of them say, “I’m not worried about my kid getting snatched. I’m worried about somebody calling 911 and opening an investigation on me.” I don’t want those parents to have to worry that simply by being old-fashioned parents, instilling a sense of responsibility and joy in their kids, that they could possibly end up arrested.
Q: There is in some people’s mind a difference between choice and necessity when it comes to leaving your kids alone, making them latch-key kids. The Atlantic magazine pointed out that this gap is particularly pronounced when it comes to parents of color, and that dissonance between how white middle-class parents are regarded when it comes to free-range parenting versus poorer parents and parents of color who may not have any choice.
A: Well, that is very true. This (African American) woman named Debra Harrell was a single mom down in South Carolina, working at McDonald’s. And normally her daughter, age 9, during the summer would come and sit at McDonald’s with her and play on a laptop. That’s how she whiled away the hours while the mom was doing her job.
So the house is burglarized and away goes the laptop. And the girl says to her mom, “How about instead of going into the McDonald’s with nothing to do, I go to the sprinkler park near us instead?” And the mom thought, “OK, that’s a great idea.”
The girl has a cellphone, she goes and plays in the sprinkler park. She’s there for the third day doing this, and some lady says little girl, Where is your mother? And she says, She’s working. And the woman picks up her phone and dials 911 and the cops come and they take the little girl away for 17 days, away from Debra Harrell. And they throw Debra in jail for a night and then the next day they interrogate Debra. And the cop is making it sound like, so you threw her in the alligator pit, which is obviously not true.
In the end everything turned out alright, but whether you’re free ranging by choice or by necessity, what’s great about a free-range kids law is that it protects everyone, everyone who loves their kids and makes a rational decision out of choice. If this is a decision that is not putting the child in real peril, there’s no reason a parent shouldn’t be allowed to choose, by necessity or by desire, to give their kids some independence and that includes coming home with a latchkey.
The idea that that’s negligence, when it’s simply trusting your kid, at age 8, 9 or 10, to do something on their own _ that’s a big difference.
Q: Should there be a national law or national standard that defines what this is?
A: Yes, I would like to see a law that says that unless a parent exhibits blatant disregard for their child’s safety and well-being, they are allowed to make their decisions for their kids. It encompasses all the things we’re talking about: the parents who want their kids to get some fresh air, to play, to make a fort in the woods, to ride their bikes, to go to the library, and the parents who say, “Look, I can’t be home until 6:30, so come home and do your homework and if you can make yourself a snack.”
And I think that that would help all parents, working parents and those who aren’t.
Q: Kids do like their computers and they like their phones and they like sitting still and doing that. Is it hard to get them to let go of those devices and go do something?
A: I think it is but one of the cofounders of Let Grow is a professor named Peter Gray. He cites an interesting study that was asked of children online. It said, would you rather stay online and play whatever game you’re playing, or be outside playing with friends? And I don’t remember the exact percent but it was over 80 percent who wished that they could be outside with a friend.
That has always been the greatest magnet for kids. But if you look outside and there are no kids to play with, of course you’ll stay inside, because there is some other place to play _ there is online.
And I’m not against online games, I’m not against computers, I’m not against phones. But I do know that when kids are outside, coming up with something to do, deciding if the ball was in or out _ there’s so much fun and growth, social, emotional growth to be had through free play that they don’t get if they’re supervised. And I don’t think they get as much of it if they’re online.
The other day I was giving a talk to a bunch of educators and administrators in the school and I asked, “What’s something that you loved doing that you don’t let your own kids do?” And everybody was telling me stories of the time that they got lost, they had to hitchhike home, of the time that this went wrong or that went wrong and everybody concluded with, “But we didn’t tell our parents.”
This is what resilience is based on. This is what your grown-up life is based on, knowing that you’re the kid who handled that. Why do we remember these stories? Why are they so important to us? They’re foundational. They tell us that something can go wrong and we can figure out how to make it go right again, and it gives you this confidence to go forward
And we keep taking this out of our kids’ lives and saying, “I’ll be there. Oh honey, did you hurt yourself? Let me help you. Oh look, I brought an entire bag of first aid, and a cast, and a medevac in my pack here.”
It’s so unfair to children, because it’s taking away their childhood and giving it to us.
Patt Morrison is a longtime writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.