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Reading Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids

Free-range-cover13 I pre-ordered Lenore Skanazy's book Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedon We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry in January and when the book was released this month, it came in the mail.

Skenazy was dubbed "America's Worst Mom" after she wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subways by himself. Her writing style is cheerful and entertaining, but what she's writing about is, to me at least, a scary subject: the near-total loss of autonomy by American children over the past 30 years. While I never rode the New York City subways until I was an adult, when I was nine, in 1971, I rode the Munich subways by myself, and so did other kids. And my habits of independence continued once I returned to the US (though Seattle had no subways for me to ride).

America is now gripped with terrible anxiety about what will happen to kids if they are not constantly under the watchful eye of a parent or some paid professional. And, as Lenore Skenazy points out, the crime statistics do not bear out the claim that this is a more dangerous era. It is not. We only behave as though it is. Skenazy discusses the issue of balancing children's freedom and safety and aims to empower parents to give their children the kind of freedom they themselves enjoyed as children.

I read her book immediately after reading a book about genocide, Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A Bysrander's Account of Mass Murder by Kazimierez Sakowicz  -- see my post, Reading Kazimierz Sakowicz -- an odd juxtaposition, to say the least. Sakowicz's eyewitness account describes the brutal murders of many children and infants. And indeed, other than natural disasters and epidemics, the main cause of large-scale deaths of children is military, political, religious, or ethnic violence. So first I read a book about genocide and then about how relatively safe children are if we let them out of our sight.

This raised, for me, an interesting question. What is all this anxiety about that Skenazy describes? Is it just a function of our fear-driven media and Americans' very shaky command of statistics? Is it a function of litigation-mad parents? Did women trade in their children's freedom for their own? Or is it a function of the rise of the suburbs and car culture? Is everyone expecting a burned turf divorce? Is this the war of the super-mothers? Where does the anxiety come from? 

It seems to me that the object of control of all this anxiety is not children, but rather their parents, specifically their mothers. And what Skenazy describes is a three-decades-long process of de-liberating their mothers by insisting that anyone too young to get a driver's license needs direct adult supervision at all times. Further, though Skenazy tries to deal with this cheerfully, there is a kind of police-state-like enforcement of this de-liberation which reminds me of what it might have been like to live in a place like the German Democratic Republic (except that you don't get shot): every one is watching you and anyone can report you to either the authorities or the media at any time. Something innocent can bring Child Protective Services or a Nancy Grace to your door at any moment.

People can and do call the cops on their neighbors for allowing a 9-year-old to leave the yard, and in this day-and-age the police take this seriously. Off-handed and inaccurate statements by children can be used to incriminate the parents. If anything about you makes the parents of your kids' playdates nervous, beware. Someone may make an example of you. (These days, you're not even supposed to let your cat outside!)

Why the de-liberation of both mother and child? Whose interest does it serve? Certainly not the children. It serves the interests of towns that don't want to pay for sidewalks. It serves the interests of rating-hungry media like CNN (known in this household as Child-abuse News Network). It serves the interests of cultural conservatives. It serves the interests of car makers if our kids have to be driven everywhere. It serves the interests of lawyers, especially divorce lawyers. It serves the interests of insurance companies. In short, there are many conflicting social forces at work.

I can easily follow her instructions for how to feel at ease letting my children have freedom. The hard part is other adults.  Skenazy titles her chapter 6 on the problem of overzealous adults "Ignore the Blamers." The hazards presented by overzealous are not just social disapproval of the other mothers of the playgroup. In upper middle class suburbia, the other mothers really do not need you, and so are capable  of terrible behavior towards you or your child if made even slightly socially uncomfortable. 

Skenazy is tough and brave and I wish she lived in my neighborhood, but she does not offer much of a solution for the problem of overzealous adults: For American mothers today, to quote Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, L'enfer, c'est les autres (Hell is other people).