When I was in my early twenties I went to the house of a family friend with toddlers and felt as though I had stepped into an alternate universe.  Everywhere I turned I was stepping over a gate.  There were plastic protectors on every corner in the house.  It took my fifteen minutes to figure out how to unlock the toilet.  Were these precautions really necessary?  Then I became a parent.

The list of potential hazards to infants and children can drive a parent insane.  As my 8 month old daughter becomes increasingly mobile, my husband and I scour every square inch of our home looking for dangers she might encounter.  Baby gates? Check.  Outlet covers?  Check.  Cabinet locks? Check. Toilet locks?  Check.  Our poor beagle is not allowed to move lest he bump into the baby.  The very thought of Tess touching a toy that has been in another child’s mouth can send me into a panic attack.  I even find myself wondering if it’s possible to rubberize her nursery.

I often fret about the range of potential dangers she might face when I return to work and she starts daycare.  These dangers will rise exponentially when she starts kindergarten.  And high school.  And (gulp) college or university.  Excuse me as I start hyperventilating into my brown paper bag.

Last week I decided I need to get a grip and reached for a copy of Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids to help me put these dangers in perspective.  Skenazy sparked international debate a couple of years ago when she allowed her nine year old son to ride the New York City subway unchaperoned.  She was chastised by everyone from leading parenting experts to child safety activists to those ladies on the View.

Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry is her answer to those who have dubbed her “the worst mother in America.”  She applauds parents for identifying the potential dangers to their child’s safety but urges them to react proportionately to the actual risk involved.  For example, she suggests it is not necessary to toss every plastic toy the child acquired before “BPA free” was advertised on packaging.  She insists there is no record of any neighbour poisoning halloween candy.  She also eases paranoia by offering reassuring statistics regarding every parent’s worst nightmare: child abductions.

Tess and Watson: letting go of germs resulted in a beautiful friendship

Skenazy has produced a self-help book for all of us ‘type A’, over-controlling personalities who have come face-to-face with the uncontrollable environment brought by parenthood.  She laughingly points out the foibles of well-meaning parents who won’t let their nine year old roast a marshmallow by campfire or let their fifteen year old walk to school.  She is the grand defender of recess, teeter totters and snowball fights.  She may have converted more than a few helicopter parents, saving childhood for many otherwise over-protected kids.

But allow me to think critically before I get so caught up in raising a free range kid that I let my 8 month old play in traffic.  There are, after all, some glaring holes in Skenazy’s argument.  For example, she argues that (if you live in the US) the odds of your child perishing to an unknown kidnapper are about one in 1.5 million and the rates have been decreasing since the early 1990s.  However, I noticed that this is roughly the time frame when parents started locking their children indoors en masse.  She does not acknowledge that the two trends could be linked: that decreases in the rate of violent crime against children may be directly attributable to paranoid parents (and if this is the case perhaps parents aren’t so paranoid after all).  At times she offers more venting than explanation and her logic is lost in a rant.  At one point she makes an unnecessary and ineffective remark about Germany’s propensity for initiating world wars that I find tarnishes her credibility.

Nonetheless, the “Free Range Kids Movement” is a breath of fresh air for today’s families, inundated with inconsistent and judgmental advice.  From the moment we announce we’re expecting we are flooded with horror stories about so-and-so’s child choking on the end of their shoelace or nearly strangling themselves with their blanket or getting mauled by the family pet.  We try to educate ourselves on these dangers so we can prevent them but wind up lost in a sea of concerned (if uninformed) parents on Google and Yahoo.com.  Next thing we know we’re part of the mob hysteria.

I pledge to be mindful of the free range movement.  I won’t pull my daughter away from the sandbox if she’s playing with a sneezing child.  I will allow her to become frustrated and solve a problem on her own.  I will let her walk to school when the time comes (and I pledge that time will come well before high school).  If I don’t, she will never grow into the strong independent woman I so desperately want her to become.

Trust your kids and, by extension, trust the way you raised them.  The fact that this is a novel premise for a book on child rearing is a testament to our collective need to let go.

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