by Tom Henderson
September 29th 2009
If "Free-Range Kids" author Lenore Skenazy endangers children -- and some people claim she does -- so does "Sesame Street."
When the first season of that venerable children's show came out on DVD in 2006, it came with a disclaimer that "early 'Sesame Street' episodes are meant for grown-ups and may not meet the needs of today's preschool child."
Why not? Because what used to be considered wholesome fun is now seen as ridiculously reckless. The DVD shows children scampering through large pipes, balancing on planks between picnic tables and generally cavorting through New York City streets.
You'll put an eye out, kid.
The world is just a much more brutal, dangerous place than it was when "Sesame Street" debuted in 1969 -- or so we think.
"The world has changed, but not for the worse," said Skenazy. "It's only our new fear of even very tiny risks that make 'Sesame Street' look like negligence on parade."
She is a champion of what might be called children's liberation -- giving kids longer leashes and, ultimately, less fear-driven lives. In an often fearful society, however, such ideas are sometimes regarded as heresy.
Skenazy found that out when she wrote a column in The New York Sun in 2008 about how she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway system by himself. Within two days, she found herself on NBC's "Today" show, MSNBC and Fox News -- fending off the label of "America's worst mom."
This led to a greater exploration of unchained childhood in her book "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts." She followed up the book with a blog that draws thousands of readers a month and plenty of press from around the globe.
Skenazy's book debunks a number of paranoid myths, the biggest being that society is more dangerous than it was when today's parents were children. The crime rate today is actually lower than it was in the '70s and '80s, the author discovered. And even officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say the threat of "stranger danger" is overblown.
In fact, they say, children should be taught to talk to strangers -- to an extent. Children may need help if they're really in danger and should know how to turn to other people for help.
"It's like we think the neighbors are psychotic pedophiles," Skenazy said. "But there's a network of humanity out there we're sealing our kids off from."
Paranoia runs rampant, she said. Some PTAs now auction off the best drop-off points in front of schools -- spots normally reserved for children with disabilities. "In other words, we'll pay for the privilege of treating our kids like invalids," Skenazy said.
Another story that made the author stop in her tracks was one about a toy recall. One child, she said, who was too young to be playing with the toy anyway, almost choked on a piece of it; hence, the recall. She bristled as she recalled an article in a parenting magazine that suggested moms carry some extra shoelaces when they take their toddlers to other people's homes -- to tie shut the other family's cabinets.
"It's like we're supposed to be baby-proofing the world, when what really keeps kids safe is 'world-proofing' them -- teaching them, for example, what not to touch," she said.
Skenazy admits she's not perfect with her two sons. She can get a little nervous herself. "I'm the arm-waving type," she admitted.
Still, Skenazy said, it's important to remember that while terrible things could happen, it's best to prepare kids for what is likely to happen. "Teach them how to cross the street," she said. What's important, she added, is affording children the dignity of risk.
While some parents find Skenazy's ideas horrifying, others find validation. With the positive reaction to her ideas, "Free-Range Kids" has become more than the title of a book. "It's like what happened in the '60s and '70s with feminism," she said. "Once you have a name, you can have a movement."
Overprotecting children doesn't really keep them safe anyway, Skenazy said. "It keeps them from growing up." College administrators even have a new name for the coddled kids coming to school: Tea cups. Beautiful, beloved children who break all too easily.
The Free-Range founder suggests people think back to their own childhoods.
"You don't remember the times your dad held your handle bars," she said. "You remember the day he let go."
Lenore Skenazy on Free Range Parenting - Watch a funny movie here