Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Free-Range Mentality . . .

There was a time when kids would walk home from school, throw their books down, and run outside to play until the street lights came on and their moms had to call them in for supper. The world was waiting to be explored by bike and roller skate and foot; trees needed to be climbed, rocks had to be checked for treasure lurking underneath, games of pretend were sprawling and epic and lasted for days and days.

I remember days like that, but even when I was a child I remember the admonitions: stay in the yard! Call when you get there! Be back before dark! The world was shrinking, growing darker around corners, full of stranger-danger, killer germs, hidden fears. What has happened to childhood?

I was recently reading a wonderful blog entry by the incomparable Roger Ebert, who, along with being a film critic with whom I usually agree, is a funny and insightful writer besides. He had just been introduced to the idea of Free-Range Kids, a growing movement based on a book by author Lenore Skenazy. She gained notoriety earlier in the year for allowing her 9-year-old to ride the subway alone, and was widely criticized and lauded for it, in separate corners. She is now speaking out about why the over-protective nanny-state we have created is actually stifling our children.

"As parents, we all want to raise children who are self-confident and independent. And we all want them to be safe. What's happened in the past generation is that our fear for their safety has overwhelmed any old-fashioned notion of the benefits of letting them knock around and make their own fun. Even make their own mistakes.
I don't blame us parents for feeling so scared. I blame the things that got us to this point:
*A litigious society that has trained us to consider every situation in light of, "What if?" and dream up worst-case scenarios.
*A kiddie safety industry that keeps warning us about remote childhood dangers so we'll run and buy their products, from baby knee pads to toddler helmets. (Yes, for real: helmets your child is supposed to wear to protect his brain while learning to walk. As if evolution hadn't already come up with that whole "skull" thing.)
*A legion of parenting magazines and advice books eager to point out the hideous and lasting effects of giving our kids the wrong food, book, toy, feedback, praise,discipline, hug, class, or rattle, so we'll buy their words of wisdom (that worry us even more).
*I even blame Sesame Street. Because if you go get the collector's DVD, "Sesame Street: Old School," featuring highlights from 1969-1974, all you'll see are delightful scenes of kids playing follow-the-leader and tag and such without any grown-ups around. And even though this show was created to model the IDEAL safe, happy childhood as envisioned by a battery of psychologists and educators, this nostalgia-fest comes with the warning: "These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups." Like a porno movie! The wimps at PBS refuse to sanction any notion that kids can play on their own anymore. So now it's modeling the NEW norm: Constant parental supervision."

Yes, the world is a dangerous place. Yes, there are people out there who might want to harm your children. But, if we teach our kids to be smart instead of scared, don't we give them a much more valuable lesson? I loved reading this story last week about the 9-year-old boy, lost on a family camping trip, who was inspired by Bear Grylls and figured out how to survive and get himself rescued. He didn't panic. He didn't curl in a ball and rock back and forth without his cell phone, GPS, and hand sanitizer. He used his brain and got himself found, hardly the worse for wear.

To say nothing of how we're controlling our kids in other ways! Statistics show us that more and more kids are being put on mood-altering drugs at a very early age; powerful drugs that can change personality and inhibit their potential for natural social and emotional development. I know there are kids today with real problems that require medication, but Ritalin is not a cure for a hyper child. That's called youth! When I was young and a kid acted like a snot or didn't want to pay attention, he had to sit in the corner or stay after school to clean the boards. He didn't get a prescription! What happened to letting kids just be kids?

I suppose I will hear from those of you who will complain that I'll feel differently when I have kids, and you may be right. But, as an adult who was raised to fear the world at large more and more, I would like to say that I will teach my kids to be smart and independant citizens of the planet, instead of ones who will sleep with a butcher knife under the mattress (like I do).

We should all be lucky enough to grow up like Calvin: a back yard half a state wide, a best friend to play with, no rules, and no coming in until it got dark out.


Melissa said...

I could not agree with you more!!! I have two kids and I'm so sick of being talked about, made snide comments to, and given the stink eye because I let my kids play in the front yard, of our cul-da-sac street, in a gated neighborhood, while i'm inside checking on them every 10-20 minutes or so......oh and they're playing with about 10 other kids.
My favorite C&H commentary is where Hobbes disappears after Calvin is given Riddlen.

Ginger said...

Good god! They could fall on the sidewalk! They could get grass stains!

Truly, we are so over-protective nowadays, we're making our kids neurotic. My sister saw a 16-year-old girl in her office (she's an ocular tech) who had a facial tic because her mother was so high-strung! She actually had to ask the mother to step out, because the girl was spasming so much she couldn't keep her eyes open!

I hope my kids play Calvinball someday.