Photo by Lisa Jay

Birdy and I have been feeding our neighbours chickens this week.  It’s been a fun experience, but I’ve also found that I’ve become a little paranoid about how I am going to catch them and get them back in the coop if they ever escape.  In an uncanny coincidence, Sydney received a visit from Lenore Skenazy – a New York based columnist and author who advocates Free Range Parenting.  She’s been tagged “America’s worst Mom” after she let her nine year old son catch the subway home by himself and wrote a column about it.  Since then she’s written the book, Free-range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry.

According to The Australian, Skenazy’s main point is that she “wants parents to think about the benefits, rather than just the costs, of letting children take risks”.  She argues that we do too many things with them and for them.  She says kids should be allowed to walk to school by themselves, ride their bikes or go to the park without their parents following them around.  I mean when I was young we were all free-range kids.  Everybody walked to school and rode their bikes to their friends’ houses and made their own way home before it got dark.

I think there are two main causes behind the shift in attitude.  One is a community change and the other is about the media and perception.  When we were young there were always people around, neighbours knew each other and the default position was that most people could be trusted. With more people commuting and more families having two parents working, (or being single parent families) there just aren’t as many people around in the community looking out for our kids.  And there aren’t as many kids around because so many of them are in daycare or after school care.  So it doesn’t feel safe for kids to walk around if the streets and parks are empty.  Also, a new study from the University of Western Australia has found that parents’ fears are limiting their child’s physical activity and independence.  They found that even though the chance of a child being abducted, robbed or assaulted hasn’t increased substantially over the past 50 years, (the abductions that do happen are usually in the context of a custody dispute) parents are more anxious, because the few abductions that happen receive so much press coverage.  They also found that parents are worried about how other parents perceive them.  In actual fact, we should be more worried about our kids being inactive or overweight or socially inept because that’s a much more realistic threat to their wellbeing.

So I did a little experiment yesterday.  We were at our local shopping centre, a very small local place with about 10 or 20 shops.  And there was a reptile show on.  Birdy wanted to watch it, but we were in a hurry.  So I said to her, “You stay here I’m going into the fruit shop and I’ll be back in a minute.”  I knew she wouldn’t move, but if she did she would have known exactly where to find me.  So I left her there for a minute while I grabbed some bananas.  My logical brain told me that the chance of somebody stealing her in the exact minute that I was gone was next to nothing.  And what I learnt from that little experiment was this.  I wasn’t actually worried about anything happening to Birdy.  I knew she’d still be sitting there when I got back. But I was worried about what the other parents would think of me.  And that’s one of the points that Lenore Skenazy is making, that as parents we should worry less about what other parents think and more about what’s good for our child.

So am I a fan of the free-range kids movement?  Well I think Skenazy has a point, but she also goes a little too far to prove her point.  This year she started Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day to encourage parents to leave their kids to play unsupervised.  But you don’t need to abandon your kids to allow them to play independently.  You just need to step back a bit, and not jump in at the first sign of trouble, so they learn to negotiate their own problems.  Every time I see a parent hanging onto their 2 year old as they go down the slide I find myself thinking, “Just let go, what’s the worst thing that can happen?”  And there’s no doubt that even very small kids get more satisfaction out of the experience when they climb up themselves, slide down by themselves, go flying off the end land on their bottoms and then look at you and say, “See I don’t need any help Mum, I can do it myself!’

BTW,  I’ll probably consider letting Birdy catch a train on her own when she’s 25! 

What do you think about the idea of Free Range Kids?  Do you let your kids go to the park or walk to school by themselves?  What age is it OK to start doing that?  Did you have a lot of freedom as a child to ride your bike around, explore the neighbourhood, visit your friends and find your own way home?  Are children over-supervised and wrapped in cotton wool or is the world less safe these days?

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