Friday, November 27, 2009

Free-Range Kids

Last year, the Woodland Park parents took part in sex educator Amy Lang’s workshop on “Birds and Bees and Kids.” When she got to the topic of sexual abuse, she started by saying, “First of all, I want you to all forget about the whole stranger danger thing.” She went on to point out that strangers account for a tiny fraction of adult abuse of children and that the risk of creating a debilitating fear of unknown people (which is, obviously, most of the world) is a much greater concern.

I came away from the workshop with a ton of good information, but the call to abandon “stranger danger” is what really stuck with me. According to Lang, the best way we can protect our kids from abuse isn’t to make them afraid of strangers, but rather to provide them with accurate, age-appropriate information so that they know to say, “Stop!” when that overly-friendly uncle or neighbor cross a line. From a statistical perspective, that is overwhelmingly where the real danger of abuse lies: with people your child already knows.

In the long run, we protect our children with information, skills and experience, not our physical presence, and the older they get, the more true this is. In fact, the tendency to hover – or “helicopter” – can often make our children less safe when they ultimately find themselves on their own as this anecdote  illustrates so well:

Parent educator Jean Ward tells a story about a preschool mother who didn’t let her daughter out of her sight. She obsessively followed “Sophie” everywhere, but was especially attentive on the playground. Jean tried to persuade this mother to give Sophie more space, but she wouldn’t hear it. When it came time for kindergarten, the mother reluctantly let her daughter go that first day. A couple hours later the school nurse called. Sophie had fallen from the climbing structure and needed a ride to the doctor.

When the parent later reported this to Jean, she said, “My daughter broke her arm because I wasn’t there.”

And Jean answered, “Your daughter broke her arm because you were always there.”

I’ve recently discovered journalist and author Lenore Skenazy, who came to the world’s attention a while back when she wrote a column for the New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old ride the subway on his own, putting her at the middle of a firestorm. While some called her “the worst mother in the world,” she pointed out that far more children die every year from falling out of bed, than at the hands of strangers. Her point, and one that I support intellectually (while I must confess to lingering emotional reservations that I’m working to overcome) is that we are vastly over-estimating the danger of the world outside our homes and that, in fact, from an objective perspective, it’s no more dangerous now than it ever was.

Trends in parenting, like everything else, tend to swing like a pendulum, and there is little doubt that is has gone way too far in the direction of over-protective, over-involved parenting in this post-9/11 era. I’m happy to see it starting to swing back, with a little help from educators like Amy Lang and Lenore Skenazy.

Here’s a CBS piece from this morning on Skenazy and her “Free-Range Kids” movement. 

Bookmark and Share


Jon said...

Great article Tom, I couldn’t agree more. Because these stories get reported over and over on Fox, CNN, MSNBC, etc. people tend to think that it is happening all the time.

Eternal Lizdom said...

It's a fine line. I work hard to carefully walk the line to teach my kids to protect themselves. Reading De Gavin's "Protecting the Gift" has helped a lot. As a survivor, I'm particularly sensitive and have to stop myself to make sure I'm not having an emotional reaction based on my own experience... like Jon's comment about the media making it seem like it's happening all the time. Riled me up. Because the fact is that children are being molested and even raped- all the time. In all honesty, it isn't reported enough because it hasn't stopped. But fear tactics of the media doesn't stop it. Ignoring it doesn't stop it. Empowerment, confidence, communication.

It's so hard to find the right balance.

Unknown said...

I learned of the myth of stranger danger in college and I have been informing parents of it ever since (usually in relation to sexual abuse.)

I will look this article up that she wrote about her 9 year old riding the subway. That definitely scares me a little. I know that children could do it, I mean, they are so intelligent, but I don't know if I would want to put them out there in the world like that at such a young age. I like protecting. They only get to be young and innocent once. No need to rush that process.