Episode 147 - Kids On The Range
Published February 19, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Lenore Skenazy. Childhood has changed these days. So has parenthood. We're bombarded by messages constantly, warning of danger, stalkers, kidnappers. Playgrounds are unsafe. Kids are no longer allowed any unsupervised activities. Halloween trick'or'treating has been replaced by chaperoned parties. And yet there is a growing movement of resistance. On this episode we're joined by author Lenore Skenazy to talk about the philosophy of Free Range Kids, and what has been lost in the childhood of today. Recorded 2/15/2015.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Lenore's Free Range Kids site
Book Lenore to speak via her site
World's Worst Mom on Discovery Life channel
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #147. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Lenore Skenazy. Lenore, thanks for joining us.
Lenore Skenazy: Thank you Mike.
MJ: For the benefit of our listeners, could you tell us a little bit about your background?
LS: [Hums the theme to Jeopardy] Yes! I’m the founder of the book, blog, and movement called Free Range Kids. I live in New York City, I have two sons, a husband, and a blog. Oh! And a TV show. That’s right, I have a TV show called World’s Worst Mom, which is on the new television network, Discovery Life.
MJ: For those that don’t know, what is Free Range Kids?
LS: Free Range Kids is basically a belief that our children are not in constant danger. Once you believe that, once you open your eyes to the fact that kids are not in constant danger from creeps, bullies, germs, men, sleepovers, an unwashed grape, an inorganic grape even, then you can start realizing that a lot of the helicoptering that we’re doing both as parents and politically over kids is unnecessary. We can let them walk home from school, we can let them play outside, we shouldn’t arrest moms who let their kids wait in the car while they go and pick up a pizza, we shouldn’t arrest dads who let their kids walk home from the park. So, it’s not political in that it’s right or left, but it’s political in that we don’t think that a hysterical government should hoist paranoia upon parents and make that the only way that parents are allowed to raise their kids.
MJ: Definitely. Matt and I both should confess that we’re both sympathetic to that view, we’ve talked about it a little bit on our show.
MJ: But I should say up front, neither Matt nor I have kids.
LS: And it’s not because you’ve done anything to the ones you had! [Laughs]
MJ: Exactly. [Laughs] That we know of any way… But certainly a lot of our friends are now parents and as a bystander to some of that helicoptering, it seems like a whole next level of crazy.
LS: Right, but the thing I think you’ll realize if you have kids, or even just to notice and sympathize with parents today, is that I don’t blame any parents for being totally scared every single second they have their kids, because if you look at what’s out there in terms of the message that we get about our kids, it is a constant drumbeat of fear. You read the Dr. Oz book called YOU: Having a Baby, there’s a page in there that actually tells moms that they should start reading to their child in the womb not just to build a healthy bond between them and their baby and vice versa but also to help with brain development, which is just so weird. I mean, you’re already being told that you’re slipping up if you’re not reading The Three Little Pigs to this fetus that’s floating around in you as if the fetus has any idea what a little pig is, or a house, or the difference between a straw house and a brick house. It just makes no sense. And as if they aren’t hearing you all day long anyhow, and as if when you were under water you could hear a story. It just doesn’t make any sense. But that’s the kind of weird thing that you just start swimming in as a parent. Then when the baby comes out, there are now monitors being sold--not just by one company but by a bunch of companies--that you can strap on to your baby as she sleeps in the crib in your house that register the heart rate, the position of your baby, the temperature of your baby… One of them even measures the blood oxygen of your child, which you might need to know if your child was in neonatal intensive care. But it’s being marketed to the parents of children who, thank God, are healthy and were brought home from the hospital with no discernable problems. So, if you’re being told that your child, who is asleep in a crib in your home, is in such danger that you should act as if they’re in intensive care, I’m not surprised that parents are crazed. They’re getting a message that even when they’re asleep and peaceful, they are in grave danger unless you’re spending every single second monitoring the output to your iPhone. So, it doesn’t surprise me that the parents look crazy because the culture is crazy.
MB: Mike and I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s; I can’t speak for Mike, but I know with my parents--I left the house in the morning and I didn’t come back until the lights came on. How do you think we got to this point where parents have gotten so crazed and so “Oh my God! I can’t let Timmy outside! There’s a child molester behind every tree!”
LS: Right, which, for the record, there isn’t. [Laughs] This is what I wrote my book on and I go around the country, and sometimes the world, giving speeches on it and so I’m going to traipse us really fast through what I think are the four reasons that parents today are so much more afraid than our parents were, even though right now the crime rate today is lower than when you were growing up. It never matters when I say that--either people don’t believe me or they don’t feel it. So, I have them look it up themselves. Look it up while we’re talking; feel free to google the FBI statistics and you’ll see that crime is going down. But it doesn’t feel that way, and so why not? The first one is the obvious reason. What do we always blame for everything?
MB: The internet maybe?
LS: I don’t know, maybe we don’t all blame this, maybe some people still blame the Bush Administration. [Laughs] I blame the media; most of us just blame the media automatically because the media is to blame. You can turn on the television right now, although your generation probably doesn’t even turn on the TV anymore--you can turn on the internet right now and flip through a couple of websites or a couple of Youtube channels and soon you will see some child in horrible danger. If it’s not the news, it’s Law and Order. If it’s not Law and Order, it’s one of the other “entertainment shows,” which shows us that really entertaining thing, which is a child being dragged off the street and raped and murdered. So, if you start seeing television 24/7 presenting you a child in danger, it starts feeling like children are endangered 24/7. Television works on us the same way that commercials work on us. They keep showing us the same thing--you see a million ads for a Snickers bar and you go “Gosh, I’m hungry. What should I eat? How about a Snickers?” Children are born to us and then we care about them, and into this normal level of concern comes this tsunami of new things to worry about, and images that just burn their way into our brain. Our brains work like google. If I am trying to decide “Gee, can I let my kid wait at the bus stop by herself?” She’s maybe twelve, or maybe he’s six. I ask my brain that question and up pops the picture of Etan Patz, who was 6-years-old, he’s back in the news now; he was taken from his bus stop in New York City and never seen again. Or Jaycee Dugard, who was taken in California and held captive for 18 years. These stories pop to the top of our brain search because they are so rare that we can focus on them. We have a picture, we know the story, we know the circumstances. What our brain can’t bring up in the google search is the tens of millions of children who waited on the bus stop over these past 33 years since Etan Patz and have not been taken from the bus stop. So, in a way, our google search really serves us ill because we feel like it’s the most relevant. It’s the top thing in our search, Etan Patz or Jaycee Dugard, but it’s the most rare. We start getting this disconnect between reality and fear, and the fear is going to win because the fear has pictures and it’s at the top of the search. So, the media puts those images in our brain and they are there forevermore. Reason #2 I feel we are more afraid than our parents were is that we live in a society consumed with risk, we just think about risk all the time. I feel like it’s partially because we live in a litigious society and we all started acting, or at least seeing, like lawyers. You go around the nation today and if you go to a playground--where do you guys live?
MB: Outside of Chicago, in one of Chicago’s suburbs.
LS: Oh, that’s where I grew up; I grew up in Wilmette.
MB: We’re in Naperville.
LS: Oh, okay. I guess I should try this--I have a feeling that if I went back to Wilmette and went to my local park, which had the horrible name of Locust Park--why would anyone go there?--but the real menace there was the merry-go-round. There are very few merry-go-rounds left in America because they are seen through the lense of risk. “A kid could fall off, let’s get rid of it. What if we get sued?” Similarly, teeter totters have mostly evaporated from the playgrounds of America for the same reason, we’re seeing them through this lense of risk. Now, I think it’s in Richland, Washington, there’s a school district that has determined that as it renovates all the playgrounds in the school district, they will get rid of the swings.
MB: I heard that.
LS: Yeah, because they say “Children hurt themselves on swings, it’s the most dangerous item on the playground.” Yeah, and when you get rid of swings, the most dangerous thing is going to be the slides. Then when you get rid of the slides, the most dangerous thing is going to be those little things on springs that you go back and forth on. “A kid could fall off! A kid could break his back! They could fall forward and be sprung! Who knows, an eagle could come down and take them away!” Basically, once you start looking at how something could possibly hurt a child, you will find a way that it can hurt. The Consumer Product Safety Commission comes up with new things all the time--they banned drawstrings even in the waistlines of pants because these could get entangled in a bus door and a child could be dragged. Really, it just becomes this fantastical element. Sometimes I challenge myself to look at stuff on my desk, like my tape dispenser here. “Well, it has a sharp edge and that could cause lacerations, and a laceration could become infected, and that could kill a child!” Once you start looking for danger, you can find it anywhere, and that has become the national parlor game. Do you want me to continue with my third and fourth reasons?
LS: Third is expert culture, and it’s what I was talking about before with the idea of Dr. Oz telling you that you have to read to your kid while she or he is in the womb because otherwise they’re going to fall behind. You have experts telling you how to do absolutely everything--how to talk to your kid when their cookie crumbles. There’s literally a book that I opened when I was trying to write my book, to see “Well, what is the advice most parents are getting?” It told you how to discuss with your child the fact that their animal cracker was now two pieces. I’m not sure we need even a page about that. How about “Tough, kid,” or “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” There actually already is a phrase dealing with that exact problem and it has served us for generations, and yet somehow now every interaction with our children is supposed to be over-thought and it’s wrought with peril, and you can do it right or you can do it wrong, and you can feed them the organic thing or the inorganic thing, or give them a bottle or give them breast milk--but if you do give them a bottle but don’t give them a bottle that’s made out of glass, then there’s no hope for your child, they’ve been drinking out of plastic AND it’s formula, so they’re going to die. Everything is seen in terms of somebody telling you the exact right way to do something, and I always imagine it like a balance beam. If you stand on that balance beam and you manage to walk from zero to 18 without ever wiggling or slipping or sleeping, then maybe your kid has a chance to live/make it into Harvard, because those are our two fears, that our children will either be kidnapped or not get into Harvard. But if you don’t do everything right, all bets are off. So, parents are very afraid because they’re getting so much advice from all the parenting magazines, the blogs, and that’s why I say you should never buy any parenting book that doesn’t have the word “range” or “free” somewhere in the title. The final reason is about what I was talking about when I mentioned the monitor that you can put on your baby when they come home from the hospital, is that there’s a marketplace out there that recognizes that the easiest dollar to get from anyone is the dollar from a frightened parent. All you have to do is frighten parents and make them think that this food isn’t good for them, or they’re going to fall behind if they don’t take this wiggling class, that they won’t be safe if they don’t slather themselves in purell, that you better buy this shopping cart liner to put your kid in or they’ll slobber on the handle and they’ll come home with Ebola. Basically you can just scare a parent about absolutely any aspect of their child’s life, either that they will not be getting the enhancement or the enrichment they need to become successful or that they will be literally in danger because you haven’t been GPS’ing. There’s a new watch that you can get for your children that straps on like an iron grip like they do with prisoners with the ankle bracelet, the kid can’t get it off, and it not only is a watch, which just seems like a normal to the kid--”’Oh yeah, it’s a watch!’ Ha Ha, he fell for it!” But really it’s a GPS device and it’s a telephone, and if you call the child and for some reason, I can’t imagine any reason other than disaster, the child doesn’t answer within ten seconds, because, you know, they couldn’t possibly be playing or trying to ignore you, it must be that they’re in danger, then the watch turns into a microphone. So, you can listen to the man saying “No, come on honey. Don’t answer the phone. Come and help me find my puppy. And I have balloons! And candy! And an uzi! Whoops, I forgot! No, not the uzi! Come on in!”
LS: So, basically the whole marketplace has recognized that fear sells, and that fear for our children REALLY sells, and so when you talk about your friends going crazy with fear, it’s like living in a dystopian teen novel, it’s hard not to feel afraid for every turn of the page because something terrible is happening, or so it seems, every step of the way unless you are super-hyper-vigilant.
MJ: For those people that don’t want to buy into that, I think the whole free range parenting movement that’s grown up around both your book and your site, and among other people as well, it seems like that’s a countermovement to this tendency that’s been in the culture. What kind of advice would you give to people that have been very afraid or that have been buying into the whole helicoptering thing and maybe they want to back off?
LS: First of all, don’t blame yourself because you’re in a hysterical moment in our culture, just like if you were living in the Victorian era. In the Victorian era, they covered over piano legs because everybody thought they were suddenly too sexy, and “How come we have these naked piano legs around?” Afterwards, everyone was like “What? We thought what?” I think at some point we’re all going to wake up and go “What? We thought that there were pedophiles on every block, just coordinating with our Facebook account and reading our texts?” So, at some point we will wake up. The easiest way I’ve found to liberate yourself from this culturally imposed fear is to straighten your shoulders one afternoon and when your kids come home from school say “Guess what kids? Today is the day.” They go “What day?” You say “Today is the day that you get to tell me something that you feel you’re ready to do that, for one reason or another, you just haven’t done yet.” The kids can come up with any project they want. It could be “You know, I always wanted to walk the dog but you always walk the dog with me. I want to walk the dog by myself,” or “I want to ride my bike to my friend’s house,” or “I want to walk to the library; I want to make dinner.” If they come up with something, think it over--and you can modify it a little and say not after dark or whatever, but do it that once. Give them that opportunity for them to do something on their own and for them to see that you let them and believe in them doing something on their own that one time. It is positively transformative. My whole television show is based on this idea. What I do is I go to very overprotective families where, for instance, a mom still fed her 10-year-old in his mouth, like a baby food sort of thing.
MJ: Holy crap.
LS: Yeah, holy cow. She didn’t let him ride a bike, use a knife, go on an overnight, or ride a bus by himself. So, what I did in four afternoons in a row is I let him do that. I said “Okay, today is the day I’m going to teach you how to use a knife.” I got rid of the parents, I sent them to a spa. Then “Today’s the day I give you a bike”--with that one, the mom was with me and she was like “No, no! He’s never ridden a bike!” “That’s right, because you never let him ride a bike.” So, he wobbles and he keeps going in a circle because he only uses one foot and he forgets that the other foot has to also push down on the peddle. But eventually he gets it, he goes about fifty feet. The point is that once the mom saw he could do that, when she came home and her mother was waiting at the house, so grandma was there, she runs through the door and goes “Guess what mom! Sammy can ride a bike!” The grandmother goes “What? Sammy can ride a bike? Our Sammy?” and she goes “Yes, our Sammy!” They’re dancing around and they’re so proud. Over and over again, when I did this with different families, families who wouldn’t let their kids walk to school or run an errand or use the microwave or stove, when they see that their kids can do this, this sort of baby that they had in their brain that they superimposed on their kid--they really still saw their kid as a baby--obviously, because why would she be feeding her son in his mouth at age ten if she didn’t still see him as a baby. When I did this, suddenly truth bursts through, which is “I’m raising a young adult! Look at my kid!” The pride that they feel in their kid for being able to bring home the milk or get his own library book out a of a library, it transforms the parent so fast that it actually changed my whole idea about psychology. I really love therapy and I’ve been through a lot of therapy, but some things that look like they need therapy, sometimes. at least in the cases I saw, they don’t. So, I started doing this project at schools too. I just have schools sign on to do the Free Range Kids project, which is the same thing--have the teachers tell the kids to go home and ask their parents “Can I please do something that I’m ready for?” and just do it once, because I know that that once is all it takes.
MJ: One of the things I’ve read about lately--you mentioned the way that the schools and things are pulling out the playground equipment--is they have gotten so safe that actually now kids don’t actually understand the fact that they could get hurt on the equipment even, that the old equipment, because it was dangerous, kids were careful on it. Now kids feel free to push and shove each other and they’re actually getting hurt more because they’re not expecting it or they’re not understanding that there’s any kind of danger associated with it because it’s been made so safe. It seems like some of the things you mentioned about kids taking on these tasks and having that pride, it seems like not having that is a pretty big liability in life.
LS: I totally think you’re right. I heard of an interesting thing that happened in Berlin, where I think whoever insures the city started asking playground developers to please make the playgrounds a little less smooth on the ground. They wanted to have a more variegated surface and they wanted even different spacing, like when you’re climbing up the slide and it’s a ladder--they wanted to have a little more space between one rung and the next and then a little less space--because they said that they were getting sued so much by young adults who were tripping and bumping into things just on the normal sidewalks because they hadn’t developed that sense of “I better look down, I better situate myself and pay attention,” because things had become so smoothy-smooth that they hadn’t developed that same sense of balance and self-awareness. So yes, I think you’re totally right. One of the other things that we’ve taken out of kid’s lives, and it’s tangentially because of fear, is we’ve replaced a lot of independent play, like just you and me going down to the playground and coming up with something to do, with very regulated play, whether it’s at school or on a team. I have nothing against little league and my kids are on sports teams, etc., but there’s something to be said for free time and kids just mixing it up together, kids of different ages getting together at the playground and having to come up with something to do. When you have these different aged kids together, one of the things that develops is an empathy; if I’m a 12-year-old and you’re 7, I’m going to know to throw the ball a little easier to you and you’re going to learn how to be a more grown-up player from me. They’ve done studies where it’s like if 7-year-olds are all trying to play gin rummy, they can’t do it, but if the 7-year-olds are playing with the 9, 10, and 11-year-olds and the eleven-year-old keeps saying “Hold your cards up, we can see them!” then the 7-year-olds learn how to play and the eleven-year-olds learn how to explain the game, and all these great things you learn from interacting without a coach telling you “It’s your turn, do it this way,” and your parents cheering from the stands. A lot of wonderful things come into play. We need that unsupervised time that we’ve been afraid to give our kids because of this heightened fear of predators, pedophiles, kidnappers, etc. So once again, some really basic skills, talents, and smarts that we want our kids to develop, we’ve taken away the opportunities where they would normally develop them when we think that we’re making them safer because now we have a coach, now we’re observing them, now we’re in the stands. But we haven’t made them safer because we’ve taken away a regular building block of development.
MB: When I was a kid, I would have acted a lot differently if my parents were just standing there all the time. I’ve read things that say kids learn negotiation skills and all these other skills when nobody is around to tell them about it. The other thing with removing all of this playground equipment, and I even saw a school now where you’re literally not allowed to throw any object, whether it be a ball or whatever, during recess--and then you wonder why all these kids are so fat but there’s nothing to do! If you’re going to take me outside and make me stand in the middle of a parking lot for a half an hour--
LS: “Stand on the rubberized mat please!”
MB: Yeah, I’m going to be bored. I’m not going to want to do that. So, I’m going to go in and play video games because that’s the only entertainment.
LS: Right, and you won’t even learn how to organize a game. If you’re not allowed to do anything on your own, you can’t do anything on your own. One of the things I do in my speeches is I ask people to do something that I’m going to ask you to do right now. Oh, wait, you don’t have your kids yet. I’ll have to modify it.
MB: I have a dog, does that count?
LS: I feel like we are treating dogs like we are treating kids. There are so many restrictions on who can adopt a dog now and the requirements for once you adopt it. Somebody wrote to me and said “This sounds exactly like Free Range Kids--I want to adopt a dog and it turned out I wasn’t allowed to unless I built a 6-foot non-see through fence,” because we don’t want the dogs to know what they’re missing, “and had a floodlight in the back yard so that the dog would never be out there in the dark.” Somebody else wrote that one of the instructions for adopting a dog was that when you walk your dog, don’t always do it at the same time of day, vary your movements, as if the Mossad is following you, trying to figure out when to make their hit on your labradoodle. So, I do feel like the same kind of free range issues are “dogging” pet owners as well as they are parents. The question I’ll ask you nonetheless is what did you absolutely love doing as a child, one thing that you think back on so fondly when you look back, that you don’t see kids doing today?
MB: Playing baseball in the street. Literally, every morning I would get up, I’d go outside and eventually I’d meet up with one or two friends and then more and more until there was ten of us, and we would literally stand out in the middle of the street and play baseball from morning until it was time to come in. If a car came through, that was fine, we just moved out of the way. But I don’t ever see kids outside doing that kind of stuff anymore ever.
LS: How about you Mike?
MJ: I’d have to say riding my bike. What I mean by that is I had no helmet; actually, my parents bought me this full-sized kid’s bike when I was like four that I was way too small for. I could not touch the ground when I was on this thing. They kept me on training wheels I think for the first two years that I had this bike because I would ride it and it would be tilted at an angle. But by the time I was six, I was riding that thing all over the place. I spent literally every day on my bike.
LS: Fantastic. Yeah, a lot of people remember the exact same things with such fondness. We had a kickball game also on the street in front of my house all the time. What I ask parents in the audiences when I gave speeches is “Okay, so you’re remember this as your favorite moment from childhood. If you’re giving your kids all the advantages, a great school, Mandarin lessons, Gymboree to learn how to wiggle when they’re babies, why would you not give them the one thing that you remember as the best part of your childhood and, I would argue, possibly the most formative thing of your childhood?” If you’re a 4-year-old riding tall on this big boy bike and you’re feeling confident, I think that becomes part of who you are, and if you know that you’ll always be able to organize your friends into a group that can make something happen, that’s a very powerful thing to know and that’s a skill. The message that kids get when you’re doing everything either with or for them is not that you don’t love them--they get that message very loud and clear that you love them--but they get the tandem message that you don’t believe in them. Your parents believed in you; they believed that you could ride that big bike, they believed that you could play in the street and be smart enough and quick enough to get out of the street when you had to. For some reason, we’ve been told that we’re not allowed to believe in our kids, we’re not allowed to believe that they’re going to be okay, that they’re going to mess up and come through okay, that they’re going to be like all kids throughout history, which is imperfect, but that’s okay. Free Range Kids is just giving parents back the confidence to believe in their kids and to believe that even if things go wrong, very little goes terribly wrong, and so much goes right when we let them go. On my site now, there’s a couple of things that I think are helpful and they’re really new. If you go to FreeRangeKids.com, obviously there’s a community of all of us who are wading our way through the issue of how much independence we can give our kids, but I just started--and it’s sort of in beta--a thing on the top called “Find a Free Range Friend.” That’s because a lot of people are in neighborhoods where they feel like they want their kids to walk to school, or they want their kids to play outside after school but there’s nobody else outside. So, this is a way where you can put in your zipcode and find people nearby who also want to send their kids outside or let them ride to the library together. It’s a way to create community because in the end Free Range Kids is totally about community; it’s about trusting your community and it’s about building community. There’s also the Free Range Kids bill of rights that I want people to start bringing to their city councils, to their local mayors, to any politicians they can, and it says that children have a right to be outside and parents have a right not to be arrested for letting them. That’s as political I get. I don’t think it’s a left or a right issue, I just think it’s the right of kids to have a childhood and parents to believe in their kids and their community.
MB: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more.
MJ: Same here.
LS: I guess that’s why we’re talking!
MJ: Yeah. Well, thanks so much for joining us Lenore.
LS: This is great you guys. And thanks for having me on. I feel much younger being on a “robot” podcast!
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