The Return of Free-Range Childhoods
Lenore Skenazy believes that when adults step back, kids step up. And she’s spent the past fifteen years advocating for the return of free-range childhoods.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in suburban Chicago. Like everyone I’ve spoken to over the age of thirty-five, I played outside as a child—jumping rope and drawing with chalk. We knocked on our neighbours’ doors to find out if our friends were home so they could come out to play. We rode our bikes to the library and walked to school from about the age of five. And I realise that this is totally foreign to kids today.
I’ve spent the past fifteen years wondering how childhood changed so dramatically. How did we take away the freedom of kids and mums simultaneously? How did we replace it with something very expensive in terms of time and money that’s more boring and less fulfilling for both generations? Yet, we think it’s better because we’ve been sold the idea that it’s safer.
What was happening in your life before you launched Let Grow?
About fifteen years ago, my son was nine and started asking my husband and me to take him someplace he had never been before and let him find his way home by subway. We eventually said yes. So, one Sunday, we took him to Bloomingdale’s in New York—which is a big department store—and sure enough, he took the subway home.
I worked as a freelance writer, so I wrote an article about it. The story blew up and was covered by almost every channel—both right- and left-wing media. I realised it hit a nerve so I decided to start the Free-Range Kids blog.
The blog was my way of saying: I believe in safety and I’m actually a nervous person—I have an instinct that makes me want to helicopter. But I also think kids are smarter and safer than our culture can conceive.
I ran the blog for many years. I travelled the world giving parenting lectures, and wrote a book called Free-Range Kids. Then, about five years ago, I was approached to start Let Grow.
What is Let Grow?
It’s a not-for-profit dedicated to creating behavioural change in parents. Once a parent lets their kid run an errand or play in the park alone, things change. The parent sees their kid come back safe and proud and realises their kid is blossoming and they don’t need to be with them all the time.
Let Grow has a great mission statement—tell us more about it.
It’s about making it easy, normal and legal to give kids the independence they need to grow up and become confident, capable, happy adults. What we’re seeing is a lot of anxiety and depression in young people. Whether they’re at college or in the workforce—they feel incompetent, overwhelmed, anxious and sad. And that’s worrying.
We think part of the reason young people feel that way is because they didn’t have enough independence as kids. They never had enough opportunities to learn that when something goes wrong, it will be okay—you’ll figure it out. Or even not figure it out, but it will be behind you at some point.
If you grow up being told you need to have somebody with you all the time because really bad things could happen, all you’re doing is making sure nothing ever happens.
So, Let Grow is dedicated to pushing parents to let go. And we get schools to do these Let Grow activities. For example, kids have to do something independently, like go to the ice-cream store. The parent doesn’t have a say in it because all the kids are doing it—the behaviour is normalised.
The legal part of our mission statement is about recognising the childhood independence laws we’ve helped pass in four states in the US. Those laws acknowledge that it’s not neglectful to take your eyes off your kid. Neglect is if you leave your child in serious and obvious danger.
Do you think helicopter parenting is Western-born?
Western as in America and Australia? Yes, I think it is. I think we now have smaller families with fewer children and two incomes. Marketers have taught us that if we feel worried about our children, we can buy something that will make sure they never get hurt.
Then, the media plays another role. It dominates our world and tells us that children are getting snatched off the street by slobbering strangers. Movies and TV reinforce this idea, giving us an extreme obsession with stranger danger. But I’m a reporter and can tell you, the crime statistics in the US peaked in the ’90s and then came down again. If your kid is growing up today, they’re safer from crime than you were growing up. But nobody believes that.
So, we pay for our children to go to expensive adult-run activities. Because the alternative is letting them play with other kids outside where it might not be ‘safe’. And parents have been convinced that not only are these activities safer, but kids also need these classes or things to succeed. Everything parents do becomes about getting ahead and being safe.
Do you feel the findings and research about kids in America are similar to other parts of the world?
I feel they’re similar to countries like Australia, England and Canada. I know of a woman from Australia who was investigated for letting her kid wait in the car a few minutes, alone, while they paid for something in a shop. This obsession with the idea that taking your eyes off your kid endangers them is belied by statistics. We think you’re a good mum if you take your kids into the shop with you but a bad mum if you let them sit in the car reading a book while you pick up the rotisserie chicken. There is a delusion in the Western world that any good parent will never let their kid be unsupervised because the world is dangerous.
Is there research to prove that idea?
A professor at the University of California did a study where they gave people many different scenarios around a four-year-old child being left in a car for half an hour. They told the first group the kid was in the car because the mum was dropping off a book at the library and got hit by a car and was unconscious for half an hour. Then they told the second group that the kid was in the car because the mum was exercising. And then there were a bunch of other scenarios, but the last one was that the kid was in the car because the mum was meeting her lover. The researchers asked these groups: how much danger is that child in?
And it wasn’t exactly like this, but basically, the mum who got hit by a car—her kid was in the least amount of danger at around a five out of ten. From there, the rate of perceived danger increased. So, the child of the exercising mum might have been rated a six or seven. But the mum who was with her lover, her kid got a ten for danger. So, what they really showed in this study is that we aren’t judging danger; we’re judging the mother.
What does that tell us?
It tells us that the more we hate the mother, the more danger we perceive the kid to be in. And it has now gotten to a point where we think any mum who would trust their kids to be independent is a selfish hussy who shouldn’t have kids. That’s why people are calling the cops to say: I saw a kid walking to the playground alone or running an errand alone. And that’s a problem.
Parents are not allowed to be rational; they are only allowed to have hysterical fantasies of danger. We live in a society where the most-scared parent is valorised.
Why is mixed-age play important?
Until very recently, kids played in mixed-age groups throughout human history. Older kids threw balls to five-year-olds and learnt to adapt their play for younger kids. And younger kids had to learn not to throw a tantrum if they got out in a game. And all of that helps develop many skills like empathy, generosity and even creativity.
When you put same-aged kids in a group together, all we learn is who’s the fastest or who’s the slowest. Activities and playtime become just like school—it’s curricular because somebody is telling you what to do, how to do it and how it will be scored.
And I’ve learnt from anthropologists that the school model has become stuck and normalised. We almost can’t imagine kids learning from each other. How could a five-year-old learn from a nine-year-old? They don’t have a PhD.
And parents have been told in magazines, books and the media that they need to fill in white space in their child’s life. But really, kids can learn just by being in the kitchen making spaghetti sauce with a parent. Parents don’t need to try and become regular teachers in their own home. Kids just need the freedom to figure things out on their own and observe.
What does conflict between siblings or other children teach a child?
It teaches that conflict is inevitable, and when a parent doesn’t instantly step in to solve it, it teaches the child how to resolve a fight. Obviously, sometimes a parent needs to step in. But for the most part, kids are quite capable of solving their problems. We do ourselves and our kids a favour by not always being there.
Is it ever too late to help a child develop independence and confidence?
I don’t think it’s ever too late, but it’s like learning a language as an adult instead of as a child: it’s harder. The window of time for a child to learn to take minor risks—like climbing a tree or whatever—is closing before the kids can take the ‘risk’. We are waiting too long to let kids have independence. Why not try and get it earlier when it’s natural and our brain is ready for it, instead of waiting until it’s harder?
How can parents navigate their fear and learn to let go?
The first thing to remember is that you are one influence in your kid’s life, but you are not the only influence. In a culture that tells parents one wrong move could screw up their children forever, it’s important to remember this, or the burden can flatten you. The idea that we are walking a thin tightrope is what’s driving us crazy. And it's an idea that's perpetuated from pregnancy, where mothers are given so many things to worry about.
In my lectures, I used to provide the example of the What to Expect When You’re Expecting book. It’s the worst book. It literally says something like: put down that fork; each bite is an opportunity to build a better baby. Well, I drank cherry soda and ate white bread and chocolate when I was pregnant, so my kids mustn’t be the best, according to that book. And it’s that attitude that has parents hovering around their kids and being overprotective. Parents need to realise there is another world waiting for them on the other side of this wall of fear that our culture has put up. But you have to break through it.
What has Let Grow taught you about children and parents?
That we are the same species. The idea that this generation of kids needs the most help, the most protection, and the most expensive products and programs just isn’t true. And there’s no one way to raise a child. Parents in Guatemala or outback Australia raise their kids differently.
What do you wish every parent knew about their child?
They are not ‘less’. They’re not less safe, less intelligent or less creative. In fact, they’re no different to how you were.