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Book Review: Free-Range Kids

Book Review: Free-Range Kids

In an effort to get through my growing library of books I’ve decided to do a book review every 2 weeks. That should hold me accountable to making reading a priority! I love reading and I love writing, so a book review is in order.

I just finished a very witty and insightful book by Lenore Skenazy called Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. You may have heard of her. She has also been dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” after letting her 9 year old ride the subway alone in New York City.

I think she just may be one of America’s Best Moms for researching real statistics on the irrational (and sometimes rational) fears that most parents share. She gives her children the freedom to be independent, build their confidence and prove themselves capable human beings. She provides examples of how safe we actually are today and points out how we insulate and over-protect our children to the detriment of their self-sufficiency – beginning in infancy. Think baby knee pads, bumpers, toilet locks and helmets for toddlers who may toddle into the coffee table.

I agree with Skenazy that 24-hour media coverage of parents’ worst nightmares does not mean that these tragic events are remotely likely of happening to your child. Coverage of crime has gone up, not crime itself. After all, ratings drive networks. In fact, crime has actually gone down since the 1990’s and is about where it was when I was a kid growing up in the 70’s and early 80’s.

I walked to the bus stop. I walked 1/2 a mile to the elementary school for soccer practice. I rode my bike a couple of miles to my friend’s house, all alone. I was 8 or 9 years old. Those moments of freedom were empowering. I didn’t have a cell phone. Come to think of it, I didn’t even have quarters in my pocket or a bottle of water to drink. I would tough it out and make it to my destination to rehydrate and use a neighbor’s phone if I needed to call home. I think the only time I did call home was to ask if I could eat dinner at my friend’s house. My parents usually said yes.  They didn’t have to ask if my friends’ families were serving organic, free range chicken and serving them on BPA-free plates. But, I was free-range.

I remember all of the neighborhood kids having different sounding dinner bells, so each one knew when it was time to come home for dinner. Thinking about the ringing bells makes me nostalgic for my childhood. This is the same childhood I want my son to have.  I want him to have the freedom to explore. To fail. To overcome fears. To bump his head and skin his knee. To climb a tree. To fall. (Hopefully not out of the tree.)

Back to the book.  I particularly liked the chapter, or rather Commandment 9, “Be Worldly – Why Other Countries Are Laughing at zee Scaredy-Cat Americans”. Americans can be very myopic.  Recognizing that, I like to see what people in other countries do. How they live. What choices they make in regards to a lot of subjects – like home birth, breastfeeding, education, etc.  America is a very young country with less tradition, and one could argue, less experience than other countries. So I feel it is sensible to look to other developed nations before making choices where I live. Some people feel that we are losing our edge, our public bravery. ‘Land of the free’ and ‘home of the brave’ doesn’t have the power it used to have, according to a German Father quoted in the book. It was enlightening to read about the freedoms children are still given in other countries, like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. I am pretty sure those parents love their kids too even though they let them walk to the park unchaperoned and play by themselves.

My least favorite chapter was Commandment 3, “Avoid Experts: Who Knew You Were Doing Everything Wrong?…Them!” I guess it’s not fair to say it was my least favorite chapter. I am on board with her advice about not listening to experts. I didn’t like “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” either. It was given to me by a friend. The part I don’t agree with is Skenazy’s advice given by expert (I thought we weren’t supposed to listen to them) Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch.

The advice is to look for credentials, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, or listen to your doctor – an MD, that is. I am certain Barrett didn’t mean credentials like DC (Doctor of Chiropractic), since Quackwatch denounces the profession, even though more deaths occur annually due to iatrogenic causes (about 1/3 of all deaths) compared to the rare stroke followed by a cervical manipulation (which, by the way can occur by a cervical manipulation administered by an Osteopath, too – but still an infinitesimally small chance, as well.)  He also recommends that we stop Googling health advice. I happen to like Google.

But not BPA.

Let me explain.  In her book Skenazy states, as an example of trust, that the FDA has determined that chemicals in baby bottles are safe. That “BPA will not turn your boy into a girl”. But that you and I can’t hear that (rational) message because  of the “nay-saying experts who get attention and airtime.” Well, gee. I am glad they did get that air time – and that I listened. Since the writing of this book, California has banned BPA and recently the Vermont Senate just voted to ban BPA in sippy cups, water bottles, infant formula and food containers. And now their bill is headed to the house. They voted 25-1 for the ban – evidence that BPA can, in fact, mimic the hormone estrogen, and that exposure has been linked to cancer and other diseases.  Other states have or are in the process of following suit. I understand that Skenazy doesn’t want us to live in fear, but questioning the ‘powers that be’ when it comes to our health via exposure to toxic chemicals is well, healthy. I want to teach my son that he can question some authority and challenge the status quo. But, oh yeah, I forgot, “DDT is good for me.”

Well, after all that my 2.5 year-old’s favorite part of the book is from the same chapter about experts. It was the part about over-commending children for basic everyday actions. When I read this part aloud to my husband our son went into giggling fits:  ”First my Lord, you woke up and did proceed not to throw your binky across the room. Huzzah, huzzah. Then my Lord, when it was time for the day’s repast, you did splendidly wield your spoon like a big boy…”  still makes me laugh and my son still recites it with a chuckle.

Okay, if you want in on the joke (Skenazy has a terrific sense of humor) get this book and read it! Beg, borrow or steal it. Okay, don’t steal it. That’s a whole other Commandment worth abiding by. Her book offers a sensible approach to giving your child freedom along with tips on taking free-range baby steps to giant leaps and tuning out the media sensationalism that paralyzes us with fear and robs our children of the childhood we had and loved.

Did you have a free-range childhood? What are your thoughts on how over-protective we are as a society?

*Stay tuned for my next book review/report. It piggy backs this one.

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6 Comments »

  1. avatar
    Gramma Thomas Says:
    April 10th, 2010 at 2:25 pm
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    Raising three very active children, they were all given their ‘freedom’ to walk, run or bike unattended to their friends’ houses, playgrounds and school at an early age. When they were toddlers, however, I was a little more protective of them, but when they began demonstrating independent thinking and became responsible, we allowed them some freedom with ‘consequences’. They rarely abused their freedom because they knew we would implement the ‘consequences’, which basically consisted of being grounded from going to their friends’ houses and they didn’t like that. My childhood consisted of even more freedom than my own children had. We never locked our doors, ever. If someone entered our house (usually without even knocking), we always knew who they were. They were either a relative, friend, neighbor or milkman and were always welcome. After school, I played outside for hours, sometimes 1-2 miles away, until it was suppertime. I played baseball with the neighborhood kids, made treehouses, walked to the beach, went fishing, sledding and ice skated at the local bog, never once accompanied by an adult. I did all these activities when I was only 8 or 9 years old. I started babysitting when I was only 10. I only had one major injury during my childhood: a broken collarbone, and that happened when my mother accompanied me to the playground, so that doesn’t count. I foolishly decided to go down a slide headfirst. Mistake – don’t try it! Moral of the story? Parents should give their children some freedom. It teaches them independence and responsibility. If you’ve taught them right from wrong and what to do in an emergency (besides wearing clean underwear when they leave the house), they should do just fine.

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  2. avatar comment-top

    Great review! I’ve long loved the idea of free-range parenting but still need to read the book. I like the idea of having a book review deadline and might need to borrow that idea!

    I grew up totally free-range, riding my bike alone or with friends around major cities and rural areas. (I was a military kid, so we moved a lot.) I keep wondering how I want to parent vs. how I’ll feel comfortable parenting vs. how other people will let me parent. My son’s only 2.75 right now, but if I let him out of my grabbing range at a store, for instance, some stranger is right there to point him back toward me and catch my eye and make sure he’s attached to an adult. I understand and even appreciate the impulse, that others are looking out for unattended kids, but it does seem extreme to me.

    That said, since we have been inundated with all the scary stories and know what can happen to our kids (even though the crime rate is down to late ’70s/early ’80s, there were child abductions even then — as well as accidents), I’m not as casual about the idea of letting my 10-year-old bike around Seattle by himself. (I don’t have a 10-year-old yet, but thinking ahead to the future!) And you now have to ask whether you’ll get reported to CPS for doing something like that.

    Gramma Thomas: I used to go down slides headfirst! Now I’m glad I made it out OK. :)

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  3. avatar comment-top

    Great website and great review!
    My husband and I also generally enjoyed Free Range Kids – with the same qualms about BPA, etc. He actually saw Lenore Skenazy present at the Campaign For Commercial Free Childhood summit in Boston a few weeks ago. Apparently nobody should miss her live talks because she’s absolutely hilarious.

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  4. avatar comment-top

    been thinking about reading this book. now that I have an excellent review, I know I will!!

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  5. avatar comment-top

    Love your take on this book. I also wrote a review, here it is in case you’re interested:
    http://blog.matriarcade.com/2010/02/parenting-by-mob-hysteria.html
    Cheers!

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  6. avatar comment-top

    I realize the probablity of things happening to my children is generally low however having experienced first hand having to stop a man (later found to be a convicted sex offender) from trying to engage my daughter at a park to spend time with him really gave me an eye opener.

    I still encourage my kids to go out and play however I refuse to take the chance of allowing either of my kids to be a victim or worse be abducted. I believe Skenazy’s book was irresponsibly written though I got that her intent was to empower children.

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