So Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, the Silver Spring, Md., “free-range” parents who let their 10- and 6-year-olds walk unaccompanied by a parent, were cleared of neglect in one case.
The whole “free-range parents” and “free-range kids” terminology has been tossed around for quite some time now. What exactly does it all mean? It was started by Lenore Skenazy, who, in 2008, let her 9-year-old ride the New York subway solo. She wrote a column about it that received a lot of attention. She started FreeRangeKids.com soon after. That was the beginnings of a movement that many people still don’t agree with, while others seek it out.
I spoke with Skenazy about what it is, how it’s changed and what’s next. [Her comments have been edited for space.]
What is free-range parenting, exactly? What I’ve been fighting against for the last seven years is a culture that believes children are in constant danger. When I started the blog and put my little mission statement up there, it was that I believed in car seats [and more], but that we don’t need a security detail every moment when [our children] leave the house.
I’ve come to realize that we’re afraid for our children every single second of every single day. There are twin fears stalking American parents: that their children will be kidnapped and murdered, or that they won’t get into Harvard.
Okay, so I knew about the first fear as part of the movement, but that Harvard thing is interesting. Explain: Once you recognize those two fears, you see the culture in a whole new way. Because every moment we don’t spend with our children is one where we think they are in danger one way or another. Predators or falling behind. Either they can’t have any time on their own because we think they’ll be in literal danger, or because we’re wasting valuable teachable moments. Even if it looks like you’re wasting time as a kid, playing is the opposite of wasting time. [And that’s how they learn.]
I learned it gradually as people enlightened me. I realized I could let [my children] quit their music lessons because they weren’t getting anything out of them and also it struck me that they should spend their time figuring out what they love.
What changed in our lives where we all pretty much went from being free-range kids ourselves to being the opposite of that as parents? First is that we live in a hyper media culture. The one story that always reliably sells is child danger. It’s like a carnival ride. It’s both terrifying and entertaining at the same time. That’s not to say we’re horrible people. Just that we’re human and those stories hit every button. Turn on the TV, and if you’re seeing this 24/7, it feels like it’s happening 24/7. So if you ask your brain ‘Is my kid safe walking outside or to the bus?’ you think of tragedies that happened. But the fact is they are also the least common, least likely thing to happen.
We’re [also] scared because we live in a litigious culture. You start thinking like a lawyer. Which means looking at every activity or product through the lens of risk and you lose the perspective of what is a real danger and what isn’t.
We’re scared because we live in an “expert” culture and [those experts] tell us what we’re doing wrong. It causes regret and makes us always think ‘Is this going to hurt them?’ and ‘Am I doing it right or wrong?’
And there’s the marketplace, which knows there is no easier dollar to extract from humanity than the dollar from a new parent. [Skenazy mentions things like child GPS systems, an app where you can track your child’s temperature throughout the day even if you’re not together, or a product called the Owlet, a sock-like apparatus that attaches to the baby and tracks breathing and oxygen levels.]
So what is your goal? People are worried if they let their kids outside, they will be harassed like the Meitivs are. Just like Nancy Grace dwells on predators, I dwell on government interfering. But only because I want to change the laws. If we think this is bad, and I think the public is pretty fed up with the idea that someone from [Child Protective Services] loves your children more than you do, we can make change.
How has this all changed since you first sent your 9-year-old on the subway? There’s a lot more discussion about childhood freedom. Where it went and how we can get it back. I think the thing that I brought to public attention is this government angle. The idea that helicopter parenting was becoming law of the land, rather than just a choice. And that’s changed. There’s constant attention to this now in public and it’s a more fevered pitch. I just think that everybody gets now what I’m saying. For two years in a row after I started this site, I was voted as the most controversial mommy blogger by Babble. I’m not that controversial anymore. I read a lot of articles and everyone sounds like me.
Are there parameters for free-rangers? I think parents are the best judge of that. Certainly there are entire continents who send their children at age 7 to school alone. The idea is we do know what’s best for our kids. My parameter is that unless a child is in obvious immediate and grave danger, we’re allowed to teach our kids the same lessons our parents taught us: Cross the street safely. You can talk to strangers, but don’t go off with strangers.
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