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Off-Leash Kids

Weekday morning, early summer, my kids are playing outside. Not in the backyard. Not in our enclosed, danger-proof, visible-from-every-window backyard.

They’re cavorting out front. Where there are driveways, blind corners, and a teenaged neighbor with a Pontiac and a lead foot. Where there may be oleander. Or vicious dogs. Or a gun-toting, candy-dangling, meth-addled pedophile.

Maybe not. But from where I sit at this computer, I can’t see my kids. And though it makes me sound deranged, I admit this simple scenario puts me on edge. It fans a smoldering lump of fear deep in my gut. As they explore the world beyond our porch, their voices grow fainter, and the voice in my head grows louder: “Lady, you ain’t doing your job.”

Am I insane? Yes. Also no.

Journalist Lenore Skenazy says such parental paranoia is the common and natural result of sensationalistic media reports on ghastly kidnappings, gruesome murders, and freak accidents — all of which make society seem far more dangerous than it actually is. Her book Free-Range Kids argues that Americans have become so unnecessarily fearful for our children’s safety (kneepads for crawling babies? helmets for wobbly toddlers?) that we suck all the joy out of both parenthood and childhood.

Last week, a German boy was hit, and scarred, by a meteorite falling from space. “Do we all go around in meteor shields now?” she said during a phone interview. “Or do we assume that’s a one-in-a-million chance, which it is?”

Skenazy, a Manhattan mother of two, was both cheered and chided on the TV talk show circuit last year after letting her then nine-year-old son ride the subway alone. Raised in Chicago’s suburbs, she walked to school starting in first grade. Through an alley, no less. “And it wasn’t considered a daring adventure,” she said. “It was considered ‘The way you got to school.'”

Some hazards are worth worrying about: choking, drowning, lead poisoning, SIDS. But most of our safety fears are irrational. According to the Department of Justice, today’s crime rate is as low as it was in 1970, when most of us with kids were kids — and had more freedoms than our children do today. And consider this: Car wrecks are still the number-one kid killer.

“Your child is 40 times more likely to die in a car accident than to be snatched and killed by a stranger,” Skenazy said. “And yet we don’t shake, shiver, worry, and pray every time we put our children in a seatbelt, because we recognize that’s a little paranoid.”

Paranoia, she said, deprives our kids of the self-esteem that comes from life’s “I did it myself” moments. Do we want to be the people in their lives who tell them, “You’re utterly incapable,” or do we want to be the ones who say, “I know you can do it”?

Raising free-range kids, Skenazy said, is not about sending them out into the world and hoping they make it back. It’s about giving them the tools to be safe, and then trusting them to use them. A little fear is normal, she said. “My kids have heard me lecture 1,000 times on everything from strangers to condoms. And if you knew what a fanatic I am about crossing the street …!”

But planning for every tragic “what if” is not the defining characteristic of a good parent, Skenazy insisted. “Sometimes terrible things happen. I hate thinking about it and it always makes me sound cavalier, but what if your child was in a car accident and it was your fault? Of course you’d be devastated!” she said. “But, would you have been stupid for putting him in a car?”

Published inColumnsParenting

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