I can’t tell you how many times my Mom said that to me. And I can’t thank her enough for the life lessons I learned through the everyday scrapes and troubles I got into that she played no role in resolving. Tell that to your kids today and you’re likely to get a visit from child protective services.
How did the land of the free and home of the brave become the land of bubble-wrapped kids and infantilized adolescents? And what can we do about it?
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, has made doing something about it her life’s work. In this era of helicopter parents and over scheduled children, her take on the excesses of obsessive parenting and how irrational fears about childhood have empowered the nanny state is a breath of fresh air wrapped in a cautionary tale.
What’s a free-range kid? Thirty-five-years ago it was, well …. everyone. What changed? “Today parents are too afraid when they’re not in constant control of their kids.” If they’re not monitoring their children constantly, they expect them to constantly text in. As Lenore explains, “Free range kids are raised by parents and hopefully a society that doesn’t see them through the lens of ‘Oh, what terrible thing is going to happen to them’ at any given second.”
Yet sadly, free range kids today are the exception. Instead, we have what Lenore calls the “dangerization” of everything—from consumer products subject to ridiculous recalls (anything smaller than an elephant is a choking hazard) to parenting practices once considered healthy and normal (go to the corner store and buy a quart of milk.)
The result? Parents are turning kids loose in the world without a shred of street smarts, accustomed to having someone in authority shield them from all of life’s vicissitudes. And then they wonder why when their kids get to college they drink themselves into oblivion, cycle through easy hook-ups without thinking through the consequences, borrow money they can’t pay back, and come home to live on mom’s couch, entering adulthood bewildered and unprepared.
Crime in America has been trending down for the last two decades, with the exception of a few notorious dysfunctional cities like Chicago. In fact, the murder rate across America has fallen back to 1906 levels. So how did we become so fearful? “The media is showing us the worst stories from around the world 24×7,” explains Lenore. “If you’re a TV producer, these are the best ratings getters anywhere.” Spend too much time watching your local news, and you, too, will believe that, “Kids are being snatched, predators are everywhere, and the minute you take your eyes off your child, your kid is in danger.” If we get exposed to the “stranger danger” often enough, we’re bound to internalize it.
Even worse, politicians see political advantage in exaggerating and exploiting such fears. For example, a bill now making its way through the Rhode Island legislature would make it illegal for any child under 12 anywhere in the state to wait at a school bus stop without parental supervision. This includes both pick up and drop off, which means that every parent of every kid on a given bus must be present at each bus stop at 3:30pm when the child steps off the bus. And what happens to any politician who stands up and says, “Wait a minute, does this make sense?” Well, then, he’s “against the children”!
Lenore is somewhat of a collector of horror stories of government run amok. Like the mother who was arrested after she left her child in a car seat for three minutes while she ran back into her local library to retrieve her cellphone. Other parents have been arrested for letting their kids walk alone to the Post Office or pizza parlor or to go play in the park.
Even more ominously, these arrests were followed by home visits from social services to determine whether the parents deserved to keep custody of their children, complete with home inspections and intrusive interviews of the children without parents present. “Did anyone every touch you funny? Is there a gun in the house?” The reeducation classes parents are forced to attend to plea bargain their way out of stiffer sentences remind one of practices once common behind the Iron Curtain.
And if you don’t have kids, you should worry, too. As Lenore clearly explains, once people become beholden to irrational fears, they will “vote for anyone, even a tyrant, if they promise to keep their children safe.” Even more disturbing, “Once you get the government with all its power deciding that it is going to evaluate parenting, then it can do anything it wants to me and my kids and you and yours.”
But hey, it’s for the safety of the children.