Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Case for Letting Children Have Freedom

English: Times Square
English: Times Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mother of two, earned the nickname “America’s Worst Mom” after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her younger son, then 9, to ride the subway alone.

The criticism she endured, including a threat of arrest for child endangerment, intensified her desire to encourage parents to give their children the freedom they need to develop self-confidence and resilience.

One result was the publication in 2009 of her book “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).” A second results is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part TV series, “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy rescues children from parents’ overprotectiveness by guiding the children through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing the parents how well the children do.

Parents who subscribe to Ms.Skenazy’s approach include Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Washington. The couple made news recently after allowing their children – Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6 – to walk home alone from a local park. The children were stopped by the police, and the family is now under investigation by a social agency.

In the first episode of “World’s Worst Mom,” 10-year-old Sam’s mother won’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“ Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”) or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”

In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The publicity given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.

But Peter Gray, a psychologists at Boston College, said: “The actual rate of strangers abducting or molesting children is very small. It’s more likely to happen at the hands of a relative or family friend. The statistics show no increase in childhood dangers. If anything, there’s been a decrease.”

Experts say there is no more crime against children by strangers today – and probably significantly less –than when I was growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, a time when I walked to school alone and played outdoors with friends unsupervised by adults. “The world is not perfect – it never was – but we used to trust our children in it, and they learned to be resourceful,” Ms.Skenazy said. “The message these anxious parents are giving to their children is ‘I love you, but I don’t believe you’re as competent as I am.’”

Dr.Gray, author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” said, “If children are not allowed to take routine risks, they’ll be less likely to be able to handle real risks when they do occur.”

His college’s counseling office has seen a doubling in emergency calls in the last five years, “mainly for problems kids used to solve on their own,” like being called a bad name by a roommate.

In the past, children made up their own games and acquired important skills in the process. “In pickup games,” Dr. Gray said, “children make the rules, negotiate, and figure out what’s fair to keep everyone happy. They develop creativity, empathy and the ability to read the minds of other players.”

Dr. Gray links the rise in childhood depression and anxiety to the decline in free play among young children. “Young people today are less likely to have a sense of control over their own lives and more likely to feel they are the victims of circumstances,” he said.

Children today spend many more hours indoors than in years past, which in part accounts for the rise in childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. As Ms. Skenazy put it, “if parents truly believe children must be supervised every second of the day, then they can’t walk to school, play in the park, or wake up Saturday morning, get on their bikes and go have an adventure.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, January 31, 2015

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