Saturday, September 8, 2012

Semi-Free-Range Kids

So, who hasn't heard by now of Lenore Skenazy and her book "Free-Range Kids"? Ms. Skenazy single-handedly started a parenting movement after a media storm elicited from a column she wrote in the New York Sun. She was soon deemed by the media as "America's Worst Mom" (ouch). What could she have done to deserve such a title? Ms. Skenazy left her nine-year-old son alone in a New York City Bloomingdales with a subway map, a transit card, $20 for emergencies and quarters for a payphone.  

A media and mommy war insued.  Either you loved Skenazy for giving her kids the freedom to grow into independence or you crucified her for neglecting her child's safety.  And, quite quickly, Skenazy wrote her book on the topic, "Free-Range Kids:  Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry."  Nuts with worry?  That could describe me on my worst days.  As my frequent readers may have probably discerned, half of my writings are stories about being a neurotic momsie and the other half are advice on how to avoid anxiety.  So, I quickly put Skenazy's book on my public library queue. 

I was very aware of how my own anxious tendencies might impact my objectivity towards Skenazy's ideas.  I promised I would keep an open mind, and I was really excited to gain a lot of good ammunition against anxious parenting.  I overlooked the first sentence of her Introduction that makes fun of parents who use toilet baby-proofing gadgets.  I tried not to remember my recent annoyance at a house guest that destroyed our toilet-proofing thingy out of impatience to use the potty. (I mean, come on, it's not that difficult. Push the button and lift the arm.  Easy cheesy).   Skenazy is witty, clever, and an amazingly persuasive writer.  I soon realized that I totally agree with her thoughts on the media, baby videos, useless gadgets, and our tendency to be way overprotective and judgmental.  I agree that anxiety is a huge barrier to effective parenting and our children are paying the price by being dependent too long, fearful, rebellious, etc.  We really do need to stop catastrophizing, and start allowing our children some freedom to grow.

The more I read, however, the more I started to think that maybe Skenazy's book was written as a defense - a book of arguments - to convince us all that today's parents (other than her free-rangers) are completely wack-a-doo.  Skenazy comes off as irritated and critical of contemporary parenting trends, ideas, and even experts.  With each passing chapter, I sensed a building annoyance and disgust for us anxious types or any parenting wisdom derived in the last twenty years.  She suggests that, "The avalanche of expert advice . . . undermines our belief that we are equipped with enough common sense to deal with most child-rearing issues.  That battered confidence, in turn, leads us to look ever more desperately to the experts wherever we find them."

Now, she may have a point that most parents have an innate sense of how to take care of their children.  But, I know plenty of parents that don't have all the answers.  We don't always know just what to do at 3 a.m. when the baby is still screaming (I turned to "The Happiest Baby on the Block," of which Skenazy is openly not a fan.  Has she tried Karp's advice, I wonder?  It really works!).    Skenazy suggests that instead of turning to experts, we should turn to an older parent we admire.  She is right!  If someone has access to a skilled older mother who can help, that is the ideal source of advise.  But, not everyone was raised in a home where there was an admirable older parent or even a halfway decent role model.  And, even when you can ask an older adult, you may still have to weed through some strange ideas like giving your baby coffee to calm them down or putting an egg under the crib to cure colic.

Sometimes new wisdom is the best wisdom.  Science has taught us some really amazing things about child development, and I think it would be foolish to not follow the advise of good, sound research.  Shoot, if we didn't we'd still be putting babies to sleep on their tummies, in a bassinet to ride in the car, and many children would go uneducated.   We know so much more than we ever have about children's brains, learning, development, and even safety.  Why wouldn't you embrace that? 

Skenazy somewhat embraces today's scientific findings in the final section of her book that spefically deals with mommy fear after mommy fear.  In many other parts of the book, though, she clings with great nostalgia to the way things used to be.  She suggests that overprotective tendencies come from the fear that our children will be kidnapped and killed, and shares data to show that crime against children has actually decreased.  Yes, it has, praise God!  The Forum of Child and Family Statistics shows that the rate of serious violent crimes has substantially decreased since the '80's.  Well, why is that?  As my brilliant hubby pointed out to me, it is very likely that crime has decreased due to the very overprotective tendencies that Skenazy criticizes. 

Don't get me wrong.  I understand the serious negative impact overprotection can have on children.  Some children are too sheltered and should be challenged with more freedom.  Others live in the ghetto.  I think this is one of the most important caveats that Skenazy overlooks.  With the urbanization of America, many families live away from extended family (those older, trusted parents and other support systems), live in truly dangerous neighborhoods, and/or don't have a "community" that looks out for it's children.  Sadly, his is a reality of today's America.  The children I work with should by no means be out on the street after dark trick-or-treating (Skenazy has a whole chapter devoted to Halloween).  If we all lived on the Upper East Side or Suburbia, it would be easier to loosen up.  But, when you can hear gunshots at night in the neighborhood less than a mile away, you might want to limit your child's bike-riding radius.

Skenazy argues that "children are built to survive" and shares some examples of stories of children in days gone by who were sold into work at young ages, beaten for not stealing, and were married with children in their early teens.  What she fails to discuss were the high mortality rates for children in those "good ole days."  And, seriously, who thinks child labor and teen marriage is worthy of nostalgia?  Yuck.  Praise God for child labor laws.

Is this starting to sound like a rant against Free-Range Parenting?  I hope not, because I love Skenazy's fight against overanxious and overjudgemental parenting.  I firmly believe that we expect too much perfection from mothers, and the pressure can drive a momsie crazy.  I totally agree that we need to loosen the apron strings, turn off the tv, hide the parenting magazines, give our children some chores/work, and take a chill-pill (I recommend Zoloft). 

I hope to raise Semi-Free-Range Kids.  I'll keep my experts, reasonable safety precautions and supervision, and lots of playful interaction while giving up unrealistic expectations, smothering and overanxious rules, and rigid expectations.  Here's my first baby step . . . Jr. gets his first chore.  One step toward independence,. self-confidence, and a clean bedroom.

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