Friday, December 4, 2009

Free Range and Certified Organic!

I wonder, who else but me would read a book on parenting when I'm not one, not planning to be one, and not studying the topic for school? I don't know how I found Lenore Skenazy's blog Free Range Kids, but I became a fan immediately, relating as it did to something that's been bothering me for a while.

I'm talking about the school buses. Have you been behind one lately? When I was kid, I grew up on a relatively small suburban street. There was a whole passel of kids on my block, and we had a bus stop. The school would tell us every year whose house had it, and all the kids would walk over and wait together. The process was reversed at the end of the day: the bus would stop at one of our houses and everyone would walk three or four doors down to their own home.

No more. Now, the bus crawls along like an inchworm, stopping at this house, then the house two doors down, then the house next door. It's not just in the suburbs. Last year, I was waiting behind a bus to turn right onto a busy street. The light changed, the bus pulled forward, then slammed to a stop, blocking all the traffic on all sides of the intersection. As I was waiting for my heart rate to slow, the doors hissed open and the bus disgorged a single girl, about 11 or 12, with a crossing guard who escorted her safely across the street. In case you're having a hard time visualizing all of this, the girl lived basically right across the street from where we were stopped at the light. She was old enough to cross (in a crosswalk) on her own AND she had a guard, yet the bus driver still felt the need to escort her even closer to her home.

Lenore Skenazy sees this as a symptom of a widespread problem affecting the way children are raised in this country. Her book cites a variety of changes in a single generation. Kids, for the most part, don't walk to school at all, or even wait for the bus. They don't play outside. They don't do much of anything that's not highly organized and supervised, even into their teen years. Her book, Free Range Kids, traces the sources of this madness (hint: it rhymes with "Cable Mews") and offers suggestions for parents on how to break out of this mindset. She addresses the fear of kidnapping by strangers (about as likely as your kid getting hit with an asteroid, and about as easily avoided), the fear of poisoned Halloween candy (I thought everyone knew that was a complete fiction, but I guess not) and the fear of rough play (legitimate, but sometimes getting minor injuries like scrapes and bruises is a key part of learning and development).

Her book is written in a conversational tone, and includes mostly anecdotal tales rather than hard evidence. It's more like, "My friend let both of her kids quit sports and they turned out great!" rather than "A study by Harvard College surveyed ten thousand kids over thirty years and found no significant correlation between participation in sports and success later in life." It's an enjoyable read, even if you're not planning children anytime soon, or ever. It brings up a lot of interesting issues about society and points out how infantilizing children and young adults harms us all. Read anything about childhoods, even 75 years ago, and you'll see that oftentimes, people didn't have much of one. Look at yearbooks from the World War II era at your local historical society, for example. You'll often see early graduation ceremonies because half of the class was going off to war. My own grandfather left school at age 16 to join the navy. He came back, married my grandmother, had my father the next year and finished building his own house a couple of years later.

I'm certainly not trying to say that things were better back then, and neither is Skenazy. But the point is that 16-year-olds are certainly developmentally capable of walking to a friend's house alone, or camping in the woods by themselves for a weekend. Yet, Skenazy uncovered numerous examples of kids who weren't allowed to do that sort of thing. She found a six-year old who wasn't allowed to go to the mailbox by herself. She found warning labels on DVDs of Sesame Street videos from the 1970s, because of the kids playing at construction sites.

I guess the main criticism I have of the book is its narrow audience. The over-protected kids we're discussing are most likely middle-class and up. It neglects the fact that, sadly, some kids really AREN'T safe going to the mailbox alone in poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods. And there are also a lot of parents out there who neglect their kids. Some of them just don't care. The kids who live next door to my parents, for example, have been more or less ignored since they were old enough to walk. They've wandered out into the street and spend hours outside completely unsupervised every day. They're four and six now, but this has been going on for a long, long while.

I think the book would have been better had Skenazy acknowledged other realities a bit more. I think both problems are different sides of the same coin. Skenazy pointed out how these days, motherhood is not just something you do, it's something you are. Society judges you as a person on how well your kids come out, how you raise them, and even whether you have them at all, and it judges you harshly. Some people who would have preferred to 'be' something else feel pressured into it anyway and wind up becoming indifferent parents. Other people pour all of their effort into every little detail, approaching it as if the smallest mis-step will doom the entire enterprise. And refuse to let a six-year-old go get the mail in a safe, quiet neighborhood.