Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry by Lenore Skenazy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Free-Range Kids is a decent book. Skenazy’s style grated on me a bit after a while, but she did get me to think about ways that I can empower my kids to do more on their own and take the steps to becoming responsible adults. I think I tend to be more free-range-y than many parents I know, but I still have my worries. Mostly I think the helicoptering I do is pretty appropriate to my kids’ ages—or at least to my son’s age. He turns four next week, and while I let him play out in the un-fenced backyard by himself, there’s not much else I feel comfortable having him do on his own. Unfortunately, I do find myself setting similar limits for my eight-year-old, even though she is clearly ready to take on more responsibility. Skenazy’s book helped me realize that and start thinking of ways to ease both kids into more responsibility.

I also liked the stats she included, especially about things like abduction risk. My favorite? If you wanted your kid abducted by a stranger, you’d have to leave her outside, unattended, for 750,000 years to make it statistically likely to happen (pp. 16-17).

Her tips for keeping kids safe from the minuscule risk of abduction by a stranger were also great. My daughter and I did some role-playing last night about what she would do if someone she didn’t know asked her to help him (or her) find a lost dog, and I’m pleased to say, my daughter passed with flying colors. Now my son, who thinks of every person, animal, and streetlamp we meet as a fast friend? I think we’ll have to do a little more work before I’m sure he’s internalized the lesson, but it’s a start. Going through all of this really helped ease my fears and boost my confidence in my kids.

Mostly, though, since I recognize my own penchant for anxiety, I’m accustomed to mitigating my own fears. I worry about ticks, so the kids and I wear permethrin-treated pants and long-sleeve shirts when we go on our weekly hikes. I worry about being hit by a car while we’re on our bikes, so we carefully choose our routes and the times we’ll ride to minimize the time we have to share the narrow New England roads with drivers unaccustomed to bicyclists. I don’t let them eat raw eggs but that’s less because of the food-poisoning risk than because it turns my stomach.

So, a lot of the things Skenazy addresses are things I’ve already thought about. But the biggest barrier to me letting my kids be more free-range is fear of the judgment of other parents, which Skenazy addresses in “Commandment 6”.

Last spring on the way to the thrift store, my kids and I stopped at the kids consignment shop to pick up a batch of what they euphemistically called “no thank-yous” from among the bunch of clothes I’d brought in the week before.

When we arrived at the consignment shop, the kids were reading quietly in the back of the car. I knew that if I got them out, the 30-second trip inside to pick up my bag of clothes would turn into an hour-long stay as my children made their way through every toy piled in the back of the over-loaded store. I knew this because that’s what had happened the week before. So, noting that it was <70 degrees out and that I could keep an eye on the car through the window of the store, I gave the kids instructions to stay inside and not talk to anybody, and I jogged up to the store. I locked the car, but I didn’t even take my wallet with me.

When I got inside I butted into a conversation at the front desk to let the employees know I was there to pick up my no thank-yous and that my kids were waiting in the car, so if they could make it speedy, that would be great. One of the young women went into the back to look for my bag, and I stood there watching the parking lot through the window as an SUV pulled up and a woman got out, pausing briefly to look inside my car. I watched the woman walk inside and wait in line.

After finding out how long a wait it would be to have items considered for consignment, she said, “Oh, and by the way…someone left their kids in their car out there.”

“Oh, that’s me,” I said, smiling. “I’m just in to pick up some no thank-yous, and it’s taking a little longer than I expected.”

She just stared at me. My heart started beating faster, and I felt my cheeks grow hot.

“Look, it’s not hot outside,” I explained. “I’m watching the car through the window—I watched you pull up just now—and it’s not like I’m browsing or waiting 45 minutes to have items looked at. I’m just in here to pick up a bag of no thank-yous.”

She raised her chin a little and lifted an eyebrow. “Well, obviously you know what you’re doing is wrong!” Then she turned and started for the door.

I would like to say that I just rolled my eyes and watched her walk away. However, that’s not what I did. I followed her to the door and said, “And obviously you know it’s none of your [gosh-darn] business!” (Immediately I heard a woman behind me say, “Hey! Watch your language!” Really? For a [gosh-darn]? It’s not like I said [fudging]. And where was she when this woman was saying I was “wrong”? I still apologized for my language, though.)

I stood there shaking, angry with myself for losing my cool, irate at that woman for judging me like that, and also terrified that she was going to call the police or talk to my kids or something. When the saleswoman came back and said she couldn’t find my bag and would I mind waiting longer, I just told her to keep the clothes, that I couldn’t wait anymore. I got into the car with my kids, who were still reading quietly, and drove to the thrift store, still shaking, still sure I was going to see a police cruiser with flashing lights behind me. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong (except for swearing at a self-righteous but well-meaning stranger), but the fear of being confronted by the police about it drove me to distraction. (The police never showed up, by the way.)

I’m glad that the woman was looking out for my kids. I’m glad she mentioned it at the store. If I’d left my head lights on, I would hope she’d alert the store, too, so I could turn them off and not kill my battery. It’s the sign of a healthy community for people to look out for each other like that. But when I owned up to leaving my kids in the car, I wish she could have chalked it up to differences in parenting styles and left it at that. Despite this woman’s assertion, I do not think I was in the wrong leaving my kids in the car like that. Heck, my parents once left my little brother and I (I was 10, he was 3) in the car when they took our sister into the emergency room, and that took HOURS. I wouldn’t leave my kids for that long, but my brother and I were fine, if bored. I’ve not, however, ever left my kids in the car again, even for a short time. I even feel nervous leaving them in there while I pump gas, and I’m standing right next to the car when I do that. I’ve also never been back to that consignment shop.

If that’s what it feels like to have a confrontation with a self-righteous parent about leaving my three-year-old and his seven-year-old sister in our car while I stared at them through a window ten yards away the entire time, I can only guess at what Lenore Skenazy felt in the midst of the crapstorm in which she found herself after admitting to letting her nine-year-old ride the subway by himself.

So, there’s what passes as my review of Free-Range Kids. The book didn’t blow my mind, but I’m glad I read it. It’s given me a lot to think about, a little less to worry about, and maybe even a little more courage to own up to my free-range-y choices to other parents. Now if only I can do something about my potty-mouth…

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  1. Wow, C.J.! That was more a review of your brush with “a different parenting style” than a book review. On this subject, I can’t imagine where to begin. It’s my hot button. In fact, I admit to being on the leading edge of free-range parenting…

    I began giving my daughter free range experiences at 6. By 8, I expected her to know how to cross a busy highway (legally and safely) and how to react when strangers approach her. By 4th grade, she was allowed to walk to school on the other side of town. (This was not endorsed by my wife, and my daughter never chose to walk the entire distance). My daughter is now 12. I expect that by 14 or 15, she will take the train and subway into the city with a friend (about 30 miles from our suburb). As shocking as this sounds, I was doing it at 7 years old in the 1960s (Yes!!); often to look after my grandmother who lived in a high rise.

    It seems that everyone claims “Times have changed”. No Siree, they haven’t! They only seem that way. Today–just as back then–danger is more likely to come from people you know than from strangers.

    Throughout the process, I watched for signs that she was learning to sense vulnerable or uncomfortable situations, and especially how to completely avoid potentially dangerous situations. Recognizing the very real possibility for temporary separation at a shopping mall or amusement park, we have rehearsed various scenarios. We have even discussed the uncomfortable situation of seeking help in the middle of a busy area. (Don’t trust a friendly stranger or even a uniformed staff member. Instead, approach a mother with small children—even if you have to walk up to a car stopped at a light. Appeal to her sympathy by explaining that you are lost and don’t feel safe talking with anyone else).

    Just before my daughter’s 9th birthday, we were at a large Target store with an 11 year old neighbor. (I will refer to my daughter as ‘J’). It was a few days before Christmas and the huge entrance was open to the cold weather with a policeman at each wide opening. They were stationed for both public safety and to deter shoplifters. As we through the store, the girls (8 and 11 years old) complained about my choice of aisles. They preferred to check out toys, food and magazines. I handed ‘J’ my phone and told her where I would be. We had already arranged a meeting point on previous visits, in case of separation. In retrospect, I should not have given J my only phone, because her friend already had one.

    Minutes later, my wife called with a shopping reminder. She asked J to “give the phone to Daddy”. When J explained that Dad was elsewhere in the store, my wife became extremely agitated. “Find Daddy now, and give him the phone”, she whispered in that deep voice that everyone understands as a Specter of doom. Walking to the end of the aisle, J found me almost immediately. “Mom wants to talk with you and she is not happy…Does this mean that we have to go home?”

    My wife read me the riot act. “Are you out of your mind? She is EIGHT?! How dare you allow her to roam a big store on her own!” Of course, she was not alone. There were police at the doors. We had already discussed a meeting place. And she was not 4 years old. But to a mother beyond reason, none of this mattered. She insisted that I bring the older friend home and then return for a very serious discussion of family safety, the Bogeyman, earthquakes and other potential calamities.

    As I was leaving the store, I noticed a Time Magazine cover story, “The Case Against Over-Parenting. On the cover was young child, helplessly suspended by marionette strings. Of course, the child was helpless because of the strings and not because they lacked the capacity to make safe and informed decisions. Cognizant of the coming inquisition, I purchased the magazine. Even before entering my car, I found a key argument in my defense: The author explained that if a child reaches 6 or 7 years old without experiencing the freedom to wander around a store on her own (or at least NOT tethered to mommy at the knee), she will be unprepared for college, unprepared for danger, unsure of her boundaries and her ability to defend them, etc. etc.

    EXACTLY! Dangers are real and I certainly don’t want to minimize the real potential for calamity. But at what point is a child ready for each level of freedom. Is there no expectation that they will fall and get up? Is the Bogeyman such a big threat that we send our kids off to a university without ever having to drive through the night and find a hotel? Without ever transferring at an airport? I have come to realize that my feelings on this issue are very different than most parents. Subject to a child’s willingness and appropriate preparedness, I believe that…

    o a 7 or 8 year old is ready to wander around a store (and perhaps a mall, but not a very large amusement park)
    o a 10 year old is can safely walk or cycle across town. A 12 year old can switch airplanes without constant supervision by airline staff
    o a 17 year old can drive across the country with friends making decisions about where to stay (including how to pay their bills or show appreciation to their hosts).

    Again, I acknowledge that my beliefs are at the extreme and I am not setting out Ellery’s guidelines for other parents. But when a parent reports a school bus driver for allowing a 3rd grader to get off with a friend, when they clearly know each other and they are on the same route, I cringe. Just how naïve do you think that your 3rd grader is? Is your neighborhood that dangerous? Can they not call you and then walk the last two blocks to your home?

    Just my 2c on the issue. Don’t be surprised if your “Book review” and my response get incorporated into my own Blog later this week!



    1. I look forward to seeing what you post about this on your blog, Ellery!

      The thing that gets me is that people in general seem to assume that they know better what’s right for other people’s kids than that child’s parents. It really annoys me. Just because someone disagrees with me doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It doesn’t even mean they’re wrong, for that matter (although if someone has to be wrong, I prefer it’s not me).


  2. I leave my kid in the car all the time, and sometimes even with the tongue-in-cheek warning, “Don’t let anyone steal you!” Like you, it’s where I can see the car (mostly) and for quick errands. I can’t say I’ve ever been in your unfortunate position, but I can say my language would likely not have been much better than yours. I actually applaud you standing up to Ms. Judgy, and while we all wish we can do it while keeping our cool, sometimes losing it works too. Hopefully you left her with the lesson that perhaps her judging was far more wrong than you leaving your kids in the car. 🙂


    1. My spouse once came home from the liquor store and told me that he’d let our daughter (then four) sleep in the car while he went in to buy beer. He wasn’t sure if he ought to, but a guy he didn’t know and this guy’s boyfriend assured him it was fine. “Just crack a window,” they said. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with his choice (or his reasoning), but it’s nice to know that not everyone is out to judge parents harshly for their choices. (I’m also glad to hear that you leave your kid in the car.)


  3. I enjoy Skenazy’s blog, and what she’s all about, but I’m not sure I want to read 200+ pages of how to be a free range parent. I’ll take it in small, weekly doses of a few paragraphs please!


    1. I’ve not seen her blog. I just saw the book in the “parenting” section of our library while waiting for my son to finally be done playing with the puppets. I’ll have to check it out, though. I do think I would prefer the small doses. Her stats are great, but they’re a little numbing to try to absorb all at once.


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