American parenting: are we worrying about the right things?

If you pay any attention to the news, the past month has been a particularly scary one. From terrorist attacks in Paris to a shooting rampage at a Christmas party in California, there appears to be nowhere you can go and be safe.

Is this true? Are we living in a particularly dangerous moment? People who study the actual numbers say no.

I have been reading a book called Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. You may have heard of her. Skenazy rose to sudden fame in 2009, becoming known as “America’s Worst Mom,” when she allowed her nine year old son to ride the NYC subway by himself. Since then, Skenazy, a journalist, has made it her mission to get American parents to stop worrying so much and let their kids do some things. She started the movement, Free Range Kids, to provide us all a reality check on what is actually dangerous.

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Now before you imagine Skenazy as some laissez-faire hippie parent, let me note that she is actually very concerned with safety. Her favorite gift to bring to a baby shower is a fire extinguisher. She is a champion of helmets, seat belts, and lifeguards. Skenazy does not let her kids run wild, doing whatever they choose with their not-yet-developed frontal cortexes. No, she lets her kids take calculated risks–and her brilliance is in the calculations.

Skenazy takes a hard look at statistics, rather than the evening news, to help her decide what she is going to let her kids do. She is a fount of common sense. I have found her book to be a very helpful antidote to our current parenting trends. Did you know that violent crime has been steadily decreasing since 1991? Again and again, she reminds us that the two leading causes of death in children are 1) car accidents and 2) drowning. Not abduction by strangers or Halloween candy! In fact, she says

The biggest fear on Halloween, of course, is that somehow, your nice, quiet neighbors–the ones you never got to know but somehow managed to live next to in peace and harmony the other 364 days of the year–have been waiting, like kids for Christmas, for this one day to murder local children. Murdering them on another day just wouldn’t be satisfying, I guess, which is why they’ve shown such remarkable restraint. But a child homicide on Halloween–it just feels right.

You can begin to see why I like this book so much. It has that perfect combination of humor and wisdom that is my heart language. She explores what she calls the “kiddie safety-industrial complex.” She delightfully titled a chapter, “Playdates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference.”

Have you wondered if you’ve been letting fear drive too much of your parenting? If you want to know what the real risks to your kids are and how to prepare them for those, I highly recommend this book. I wish I could give it to every parent I know for Christmas. Look around the world, children are far more capable than we give them credit for in America. They can have much, much richer lives than we currently allow.

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Skenazy makes the point that one of the most fundamental jobs of parents is to help our kids become confident, competent adults. And to do this, we need to let them out of the house and out of our sight sometimes. To mature, kids need to be allowed to take calculated risks. It is our job to do the calculating–thinking through what is truly, statistically dangerous–and then send them off. It is also our job to give them skills since we are not actually able to keep them safe all the time. (Here’s how you dial 911. Here’s what you do if a stranger tries to get you in their car. If someone touches you or makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to tell Mommy or Daddy.)

I do want to note that this book best addresses white parents. Skenazy does not delve into the well documented, increased dangers of being an African American in our society, and so I would not presume to offer her counsel to black families.

For many of us white, middle and upper class parents, our biggest fear is that our child will be abducted by a stranger. That is our bogeyman. We have simply seen too many stories and too many milk cartons. Skenazy gives us a reality check,

That fear…bears no relation to reality. The statistics cited by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children itself show that the number of children abducted and killed by strangers holds pretty steady over the years–about 1 in 1.5 million. Put another way, the chances of any one American child being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are almost infinitesimally small: .00007 percent. Put yet another, even better way, by British author Warwick Cairns, who wrote the book How to Live Dangerously: if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years.

Okay, then!

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. That’s fine, Laura. Yes, the chances are teensy that my child will get kidnapped. But what if he ends up in that tiny percent? It’s unlikely, but I cannot take that risk.

I get that. None of us wants to become the rare statistic. The question, though, is: what are the costs to designing your whole life around a microscopic chance of danger? And is it wise to let fear drive your family life?

To me, the costs look significant. Not only do we keep our kids tethered to us like infants, but we fail to teach them independence. And we rob them of the joy of depending on themselves and finding out that they are up to it. Children want to do things on their own. Have we not all had toddlers who shouted “By myself!” every time we tried to help them put on their shoes or get their juice? Children can do so much. We need to let them.

Even as a person whose husband did perilously fall on the wrong side of a statistic, I am not willing to let fear drive my family. I want my kids to grow up brave and confident. In measured, sensible ways, I am going to look for opportunities to let them venture out on their own. I already let them walk (the one block) to and from school without me. Perhaps the next step is to send them to get me a cup of coffee at my favorite shop six blocks away. The future is looking bright already!

What about you? Are there current parental practices and fears that you question? Or ones that you think are well-founded? Are there “adventures” you want to let your kids try?

© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2015.

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One thought on “American parenting: are we worrying about the right things?

  1. Holly Webster

    Laura: there is an excellent book by Jessica Lahey called “The Gift of Failure” which speaks to the helicopter parent generation in other dimensions. I highly recommend it.
    Holly Webster 🙂
    [your Salt Lake City cousin-in-law -through your father’s side!]

    Like

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