Currently, I am reading a non-fiction work entitled: Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy.
No, I do not have children, so this is indeed a strange book for me to be reading. I picked it up at a Tedx event a few months ago, and I bought it because 1) I cannot walk near a place where books are sold without purchasing at least one, and 2) flipping through it, I flashed back to memories of my own mother treating me like I needed to be wrapped in bubble wrap, and the memories made me laugh. For these two reasons alone, I purchased this book.
Before reading, I expected to be amused; I expected to be reminded of the goods and bads of my childhood. I never expected to be stressed. Or worried. But reading through these chapters, I have experienced both emotions.
Even though I have no children of my own, I have been absolutely caught off guard by this work. My assumptions about myself as a laid back individual have been completely undermined. Apparently, if I did ever have children, there is a high probability that I would have turned into a helicopter parent.
Some questions that prompted my thinking:
1) Would you let your eight year old walk to school by himself? With a friend?
2) Would you drop off your ten year old and her friend at the local ice cream store and be back to pick her up in an hour?
3) Would you let your children out of the house at 2 pm to go play in the neighborhood and then be willing to not hear from them until they come home at 5 pm? Would you let them go without cell phones?
4) Would you let your 15 year old drive a car, even with you in it, on the highway? At night? In the rain?
(I don’t know how my mom ever had the guts to let me behind the wheel!).
Author Lenore Skenazy writes about these issues, drawing examples from research about why many parents today have become absolutely paranoid, and what the results are for their children when that happens. In her introduction, she writes, “Fear is like oxygen. We don’t even notice it’s there, but boy do we breathe it in” (xix). Her chapter titles ring true, poking holes in the fabric of our demented viewpoints. From, Chapter 1: Know When to Worry (Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference) to Chapter 9: Be Worldly (Why Other Countries are Laughing at zee Scaredy-Cat Americans), each chapter provides a much needed reality check to readers.
The most poignent chapter for me so far has been Chapter 2: Turn Off the News (Go Easy on the “Law and Order,” too). I watch shows like Law and Order, CSI: Miami, Bones, White Collar and NCIS on a regular basis. I never realized how much those graphic images might be influencing my current and future behavior. I have realized that I have been so culturally conditioned by fear, success, and my own privileged life that even the thought of imaginary children exploring a city by themseleves makes my heart beat and my teeth grind.
Skenazy writes: “In his book The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner explains that once an image gets into that “reptilian” part of the brain, not only can you not shake it, you can’t extricate it from all the other images and feelings jostling around in there either….So it [your brain] hasn’t figured out yet how to separate the freal from the manufactured. Especially whatever’s manufactured by Jerry Bruckheimer.
Thus the fight-or-flight, feel-it-in-your-guts reptilian brain treats the Dark Knight and a commercial for Dexter and the nightly news as one and the same. So when we are faced with a situation we think might be risky and we are trying to figure out what to do, it starts rummaging through all the horrible stuff it has seen and comes to the conclusion, ‘Jeez Louise! Look what can happen! run for your life!'” (14).
Even though I will definitely continue watching Bones simply because I cannot stand The Bachelor(ette), at least now I will be aware of what my mind takes into consideration during risk assessment moments. Perhaps I need to read more statistics like this one: “the chances of any one American child being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are almost infinitesimally small: .00007 percent”(16). Whew.
Another issue that Skenazy discusses, perhaps even more poignently than her point about societally conditioned fear, is the American parental idea that their children should face no harm, which leads to the idea that their children should not struggle. As a teacher, I can identify with this issue, because I see it all the time from parents of my students, who, with all of the best intentions, fight their children’s battles for them, often without being asked by thier child to do so. Billy comes in to my class embarrassed because his mom called me the other night to harangue me about why he earned a C on a test. Or Cindy’s mom emails me to inquire about Cindy’s current average, while Cindy could care less about her grade in my class. With all the best intentions, these parents are separating their children from taking charge of their own learning which is perhaps the most important step in education. In her book, Skenazy draws upon the perfect metaphor to describe this larger parental attitude:
“[M]y point is that society has spent the last twenty years or so trying to convince us parents that our job is to make life into one big smoothie for our kids: no lumps, no bumps, just sweet perfection served up daily. The goal is to raise kids who go from colic to college without ever experiencing any frustration at all.
Smoothie mode begins at birth and explains the rash (so to speak) of baby wipe warmers. These gadgeds are a baby shower basic, dispensing wipes as warm as the washcloths in Japanese restaurants. The question is,Do we really want to raise kids so addicted to ease that they are traumatized by tha room-temperature wipe?” (xii).
So, with new understanding, I hereby promise, if I ever become a parent, I will always boycott the baby wipe warmers and remember that an independent child is a safe child.
Skenazy, Leonore. Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.