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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4 Replies to “Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy”

  1. 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. 🙂

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    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.)

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  2. 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!

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    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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