For those of you out of the Free Range loop, Lenore Skenazy is a journalist who came to the forefront a few years ago when she wrote a column for the now defunct New York Sun about letting her then 9 year old son ride the subway alone. She meant it as a basic human interest story, but much to her surprise she was promptly branded the worst mom in America for, as some said, putting her child’s life in danger. (Her son made the trip with no difficulties and arrived home enormously proud of himself.)
After that, Skenazy wrote the book “Free Range Kids” , and her blog of the same name follows the ever-expanding culture of fear surrounding perceived dangers to our children and encourages a more level-headed, realistic approach to parenting. She has her haters who waste no opportunity to vent in the comments section on her blog but many supporters as well, and she is often consulted in articles or interviews that revolve around parenting and safety.
Last week, though, the self-appointed mommy police (and they are legion) went ballistic at Skenazy’s most recent breach of accepted parental norms = rabid fear of all perceived dangers no matter how statistically insignificant. In an article in the Huffington Post, Skenazy announced she was offering a “class” for kids on Wednesdays in Central Park. She would not be there, of course. The kids would be on their own for about two hours, with Skenazy in a nearby Starbucks, cell phone charged and ready in case of an actual emergency.
Cue the shrieking harbingers of doom.
I won’t go into all the reactions here. You can check them out for yourself on the Anderson Cooper Live Facebook page if you’re up for a major dose of parental paranoia and fear-mongering.
No, instead I am going to tell you about something that happened in Central Park the day before Skenazy’s ”I Won’t Supervise Your Kids” class began.
Once a week we spend hours in the park at Wayfinders. Wayfinders is also a class that meets in Central Park, though it involves instructors as well as kids. The morning session is for kids ages 7-9, and the afternoon session is for kids 10 & up. Ben attends the afternoon session (yes, he’s not technically old enough, but he’s ‘grandfathered in’, having started Wayfinders before they broke it into two groups). Foam-sword wielding children swarm all over the place, playing games while instructors blow shofar-like horns and dictate rules of engagement.
Last week, after the morning session finished, a lot of the kids and their parents stayed on as the afternoon session got underway. This happens every week; it’s a great way to take advantage of nice weather while the kids play and the parents hang out and chat.
Around 1pm or so, a parent came up to a small group of us, clearly upset, and told us she could not find her 8 year old daughter and would we help locate her. She and two boys from the morning class were exploring and their parents were unable to locate them. We asked where the kids had last been seen and offered our assurances that they had probably just gotten carried away in their exploring. Then we split up and went looking.
Within about 7 minutes one of the search party found the kids happily playing by a small lake on the eastern side of the park. Word got around by cell phone and the children, somewhat confused by the fuss, were quickly reunited with their relieved parents.
First let me say that I completely understand the anxiety of a parent who cannot locate their child. Even if our brain says that everything is probably fine, it is an awful feeling. What I am writing here is in no way blaming the parents.
That said, I couldn’t help but wonder. What if, instead of staying right there keeping constant watch over the kids, we’d all been in a nearby Starbucks, having told the children we’d be back to pick them up at, say, 1:30 and making sure someone had a watch so they wouldn’t lose track of time? Those three kids would have gone exploring and returned on their own, and no parent would have suffered the anxiety of having “lost” their child. The kids told me that they knew how to get back to the top of the hill and were not lost. They’d simply gone farther than intended and hadn’t alerted the parents beforehand. Parents who, had they not been on constant kid watch, would have been none the wiser with kids none the worse for wear.
It’s important to understand this. The kids were safe. It was only the perception of the parents that introduced the element of fear. A perception created by the belief that we must have our children in our line of vision at all times, and that if we don’t it means they are lost or in some danger.
Again, I’m not blaming the parents. It is very, very difficult to live in our fear-ridden society today and not be affected by it. Which is why Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range movement is so vital. Why her “I Won’t Supervise Your Kids” class is not crazy, but a reminder that despite what the media would have us believe, our kids are much safer than we were as kids and more capable than we like to give them credit for.
Maybe we should all relax, go have a coffee, and let the children play.