“Free Range Kids” is the outgrowth of a simple incident most mothers nowadays would never think of letting child do: rise the subway across a major metropolitan area by themselves. When New York City journalist Lenore Skenazy permitted her 9 year old son Izzy to do such a thing back in 2008, she had no idea how famous she was to become. The Today Show, MSNBC, and Fox News all contacted her to find out just why she would even think of exposing her son to potential pedophiles, thieves, and molesters on the subway. Not that there are any decent people that ride the New York City subway – there are – but to the helicopter parents of America, what Skenazy did was totally unthinkable. So much in fact that because of her “risky” decision has led to her being labeled “The Worst Mother in America.”
Coddling and overprotecting children is a recent trend, according to Skenazy, who grew up as a child during the 1970’s. While she is entirely correct in saying that, “Free Range Kids” also documents the paranoia that so many mothers live with. Mothers live with it far more than fathers do, since mothers tend to be more watchful and spend more time with their children each day, whether they work or not. Young, impressionable first time mothers who regularly watch the news each day, along with all kinds of reality shows and legal shows like “Law and Order” start thinking that pedophiles lurk around every street and building corner waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting child. Even though the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows statistical data of only one in every 1.5 million kids experiencing such a traumatic event, many mothers think that the same thing is going to happen to their child. Naturally, mothers who are that paranoid are going to start appearing paranoid about every other misfortune happening to their child, even though children are resilient and can take the bruises and scrapes that those of several decades ago lived with. Skenazy is not afraid to mention how kids were quite free to play outside in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which were happy times for children, playing games during recess on the school playground (something not allowed today lest the child fall, get a cut, and the mother sue the school for the injury) and being what they are supposed to be, children, and not miniature adults. The overprotection of mothers disallowing their children from natural play has led to lack of real exercise (organized sports do not count since the coach usually spends more time talking to the kids than the kids actually playing on the field) and a serious obesity problem in the nation. While Skenazy does not mention this fact until page 132, the reader quickly picks up the hints several chapters earlier when the author discusses the sedentary lifestyles that so many mothers force their children into.
Skenazy organizes her book along 14 different commandments which are supposed to help the mother of young children in leading them to have greater freedom. At the end of each chapter, she provides suggestions for taking baby steps to freedom, to medium sized steps, to a giant step to allow the child to actually do something that is considered an achievement. With helicopter parenting comes the counterproductive practice of the parent doing everything for the child, when certain things can be successfully accomplished by the child alone. Some of the commandments worth noting are: “Avoid parenting experts” to “Get brave and do not control every aspect of your child’s life” which provide subtle clues as to why so many parents wind up failing their children at an early age. As a mother herself, Skenazy is not afraid to point out that what really worries mothers the most is not what harm might befall the child, but what her peers will think of her when something does go wrong. Maybe it is because women by nature are so critical of each other, but in reality, a mother need not disclose to other mothers just how she raises her child, or what happens to her child. Skenazy warns against mothers using their children as a justification for their own esteem (in lay terms, this refers to “I am a better mother than you are”). The author even manages to squeeze in the childfree viewpoint near the end of her book, criticizing mothers who think their toddler is going to grow up and cure cancer, while the mothers are busy over-scheduling their child for classes in Arabic, advanced piano, and squash at the tender age of five years old. The final chapter of the book, which is a non-commandment one, contains common sense for all parents to consider when raising a child. Common sense should prevail, not paranoia, lest the child grow up thinking in the same manner as the mother and never taking any risks in life which can lead to living like a hermit.
Skenazy conveys her message to parents easily and in a humorous manner. Not only is the book a page turner, but she throws in a good measure of her own unique and sometimes dark humor in “Free Range Kids.” Skenazy also operates a blog bearing the same title as her book which can be considered an expansion of her book, containing further anecdotes on why children should be allowed to roam and explore the world around them.
Both parents and non-parents alike will find this book entertaining to read but more importantly, will find themselves agreeing with what Skenazy has to say about child rearing when it comes to permitting children to experience both the little and big adventures which make up the childhood of decades ago.