Dear Bintel Brief:
I want to be a Free-Range parent, I really do. I want to let my kids have the same kind of fun I had as a child. But I am so paranoid it is ridiculous.
When I was in third, grade I used to walk a few blocks up the street to a small park where I would play for hours by myself. I now have a son in third grade, and couldn’t even imagine letting him do this by himself. I was always able to go and do almost anything I wanted from a very young age, but I can’t even begin to think about letting my kids do this.
I have three sons ages 8, 3, and 1.5. I am not a paranoid person when it comes to anything that has to do with me. I am very confident in myself. My 8-year-old is very smart and capable, but the thought of him even being outside by himself is enough to reduce me to a nerve-wracked pile of goo. I want to be able to do the things with my kids that I was able to do as a kid. I have no idea where my paranoia came from. It sure wasn’t my parents because they had no problem letting me go and do things by myself. I don’t watch much TV, because I don’t care for it, and what I do watch is just a couple of shows here and there. No news. Where is this fear coming from? How can I fight it?
SICK OF SMOTHERING
I know the feeling, I really do — the nauseous fear when you picture something tragic happening to your kid.
That’s the problem: It is so easy to picture, because as a society, we are talking about it all the time. I know you don’t watch much TV, but everyone else does, and the second you turn on CNN, there’s another abduction story. Some people have started calling it the Child-Napping Network. Switch to “Law & Order” and there’s an adorable kid being snatched from the school yard. Turn on “CSI” and there’s another one being dredged from the swamp. The Mayo Clinic did a cool study comparing two seasons’ worth of CSI crimes to two seasons’ worth of actual crimes and found the biggest discrepancy is that on TV, almost all the crimes are committed by strangers, even though in real life that is not the case. Still, that is why you are a nerve-wracked pile of goo (lovely phrase): Our society is intent on making us feel that strangers are waiting to pounce on our kids 24/7, even though — this is the shocker — our kids are NO LESS SAFE THAN WE WERE! I know, I know — it’s almost impossible to believe. But when I was researching my “Free-Range Kids” book, I dug up the stats and here they are: The crime rate rose through the ’70s and ’80s, a sad, scary fact we all lived through. But then it started going down – way down — in the early ’90s, thanks to more policing, longer jail terms, cell phones (really!) and even the greater availability of psychiatric meds. With the criminally insane feeling less insane, they become less criminal. As a result, crime across the board is back to the level of 1970. So if you were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s, your boys are actually SAFER than you were!
Remember the folks who put the kids’ pictures on the milk cartons (and didn’t bother to tell us the vast majority were runaways or kids taken by non-custodial parents in divorce cases? Drove us crazy with fear?). Anyway, they feel bad about sending out the wrong message about stranger danger now. I spoke to Ernie Allen, the head of that group — the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — and do you know what he said? “Our message to parents is you don’t have to live in fear. You don’t have to feel you have to lock your children in a room.”
To keep kids safe he actually recommends teaching them how to get along in the world — how to cross the street safely, how to ask strangers for help, how to yell back at bullies — and then to let your kids go out! The safest kid is a kid filled with self-confidence. You’ll note that the word is not “parent-assisted” confidence.
How do kids get confident enough to stand up for themselves? By doing things for themselves! Walking the dog, organizing the kickball game, biking down the street to knock on their friend’s door, instead of waiting for us to make the playdate and then drive them a few doors down as if they’re under enemy fire.
You want your kids to have the kind of childhood you did — the kind you thank your lucky stars (and parents!) for. You can. Kids as young as 8 are spending an average of 6 hours a day staring at a screen now. With your encouragement, your 8-year-old can click “Off,” go outside and climb a tree.
He may come back dirty and a little sunburned. He may even have a few scrapes. But he’ll remind you of you, and smell like summer.
Lenore Skenazy, a former columnist for the New York Daily News and the New York Sun, now writes a syndicated newspaper column and hosts a topical humor contest that runs in The Week magazine. She is the author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry” (Jossey-Bass), published in April, and “Who’s The Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know – But Can’t Remember Right Now” (Penguin), published in June.
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