I Agree With “America’s Worst Mom”

Our rampant fears have us literally policing one another’s parenting. What price do our kids pay for this overprotection?

Recently, parents in Silver Spring, Maryland, let their kids walk home from a local park without adult supervision, and at least one adult took notice. That person called the police, who picked the kids up and brought them home. The parents, fully aware their kids (6 and 10 years old) were walking on their own that day, were surprised at the police visit, and shocked that it prompted threats of a visit by Child Protective Services.

“We wouldn’t have let them do it if we didn’t think they were ready for it,” the children’s mother told the Washington Post. “They have proven they are responsible,” she went on, describing previous independent walks. “They’ve developed those skills.” Nevertheless, the parents will now have to prove to CPS that they are fit parents.

Still, these middle-class parents are better off than Deborah Harrell, the working-class Black mother arrested back in July for letting her 9-year-old daughter play unsupervised in a playground while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s. Harrell briefly lost custody of her child for that offense; the two have since been reunited but a case against Harrell is still pending. Naturally, McDonald’s fired her—because what better way to support a struggling parent than to take away her paycheck?

Did you know that a 6-year-old child could easily have worked a full day in early Victorian England? Laws regulating child labor were passed beginning in the 19th century, but most of these only limited the hours a child could work—a 9-year-old could work no more than nine hours a day at ye olde textile factory, for instance! The details of child labor are horrific—and, believe me, I’m not arguing in favor of its return—but it’s important to remember that we didn’t always think children were incapable of doing things, even hard things. Even, occasionally, dangerous things. In a much happier (and more recent) vein, kids in our some of our most beloved children’s books were not only allowed but expected to do things like walk to school, the library, or the park alone. Witness the first chapter of Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona, in which 4-year-old Ramona and 9-year-old Beatrice go the library together, no parents required.

Children have not changed. It’s childhood that has changed.

Today’s parents know this. We talk about it all the time. Usually we start out wistful: Oh, don’t you wish your kids could just roam around the neighborhood like we used to? Or, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our children could do useful sewing projects, like Laura Ingalls? And then someone will speak up as the voice of reality: Oh, but you know, it’s a different world. Can you imagine letting your kid run free now? You never know when a child molester will show up.

The facts don’t support this fear. Car accidents hurt children at a rate much, much higher than abusers do—and those who abuse children are almost never strangers.

Lenore Skenazy, dubbed the “World’s Worst Mom” by the tabloids for letting her then-9-year-old take the New York subway alone (she later rebranded herself and others who share her ideas as “free-range” parents), decries those who would call the police when they see children walking down the street without parents in sight.

“I’m happy the cops and CPS exist,” Skenazy told me in an email. “If a child is in true danger—being beaten, starved, pimped out—I very much want them to swoop in. But we don’t need them to decide if they approve of every parenting decision we make. No one thinks any parent is doing it all right (just ask your spouse) and that’s fine because kids don’t need us to make every minute optimal. We forget that kids are resilient, that parents are allowed to be human, and that the crime rate today is lower than it was in the ’70s and ’80s when most of today’s parents were allowed to go outside without a security detail.”

Let’s not pretend that all children are born into the same situations—some kids do face danger on their own streets, tragically. And some have more to fear from strangers in uniform than anyone at home (which makes this quaint “stranger danger” worksheet advising kids to seek out police officers for help painfully ironic). Being able to consider raising your kids free-range is itself a kind of privilege.

Back in the day, though, we were all free-range kids, even though the term didn’t exist yet. In a thoughtful essay I ultimately disagree with, Lisa Duggan argues that free-range childhood never existed, because we grew up among caring adults—teachers, neighbors—who kept an eye out for us. For me, though, that frame of generalized adult care is a basic component of free-range parenting; we could range freely because all the adults generally agreed it was okay.

But by the time I was in junior high, more adults seemed scared of the bad things that might happen to kids. Afternoon talk shows and evening news shows scared the bejeezus out of us with stories about Satanic Ritual Abuse—SRA hurt people to be sure, but not children, because it didn’t actually exist—and rampant stranger danger (which has always been overblown). There were enough real victims—terrible, tragic stories like those of Polly Klaas—to lend an air of legitimacy to every false report, and to haunt the nightmares of little girls and their parents. Fear of abduction soon topped the list of parental worries, even though the actual risk of stranger abduction remains vanishingly low.

It’s a little like last year when we panicked over Ebola, while so many of us forget to get vaccinated for the very easily spread flu. I think it goes further than that, though; sometimes the fear itself can make us less safe. When we live in fear of the world outside our own nuclear families and homes, we fail to connect with our children’s greatest source of security: their neighborhoods and communities. At its deepest level, parental fears can keep children from developing the skills and confidence they need to survive in the world.

In World’s Worst Mom, a new television show that premieres tomorrow night on the Discovery network, Skenazy works with terrified parents and stunted kids to help break patterns of hysteria and learned helplessness. (Some of the rules one family admitted too included “no exploring” and “no climbing.”) The problem, of course, is that by trying to protect children from anything and everything that can hurt them, parents like these raise kids unable to handle the slightest adversity on their own, college students who can’t cope with challenging roommates issues, young adults who bring their parents with them to job interviews. And some folks basically just go crazy with worry over pretty much everything.

And now we’re addicted to it, this overprotectiveness. I’m not exempting myself—even though I tend to let my 8-year-old range more freely than many other parents in my circle, I still feel the worry. Sure, the chances are one in a million, you think, but what if it’s my one?

But it can be overcome, loosening one little apron string at a time. And the payoff is enormous. When M was 7 and we had just finished reading Harriet the Spy together, he and his buddy H walked around H’s Cambridge block with pocket notebooks and pens, noticing and chronicling everything of interest—a line of ants heading into someone’s kitchen window, a man washing his car. He returned puffed with pride, swaggering with more confidence than he’s shown after any basketball or soccer game. He loves those, but loved being on his own, even in baby steps, more. It showed on his face, and it was clear the next time he asked to go exploring with a buddy, this time in our Atlanta neighborhood. It helps that he knows our neighbors, and they know him. His independence grows because he knows he has a safety net.

Self-sufficiency doesn’t automatically descend upon our kids when they turn 16, 18, or 21—it’s our job to provide them the freedom to risk and fail, their job to learn on their own what they can and can’t handle, and to develop their own instincts about when a situation or person merits caution. Not all strangers are dangerous –as Will Rogers said, most of them are just friends we haven’t met yet. What’s truly dangerous are those well-meaning parents whose protection ultimately stunts their kids’ growth. Didn’t someone smart once say that parenting is a job in which you make yourself obsolete? Maybe some of us fear-monger so we’ll always feel needed. But it’s unnecessary as well as harmful: No matter how confidently your child sails out into the world, you’ll always be their safe harbor. Don’t scare them out of their journey. 



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