Imagine it’s 1999 again, well, let’s make it 1998 to remove any impending Y2K fears. It’s 1998 in a small Maryland town and an eleven year-old girl has just been granted permission to walk to the neighborhood park to meet her best friend. Imagine her parents smiling with wine glasses in hand as she shuts the door behind her, only to not return for another two hours. Imagine, more shocking still, the sun has begun to set and she…has…no cell phone. This was me in 1998. I loved this ritual. Beyond getting to swing really high on the swings with my bestie as we gossiped about boys, I learned to navigate my surroundings independent of my parents. All before the age of thirteen. Fast forward sixteen years. I’m taking a stroll through my neighborhood with my dad, and we pass by the same neighborhood park. Everything at first glance appears exactly the same. First, there’s the huge swing set that is situated beneath the shadow of a Weeping Willow. Then, there’s the monkey bars, the volleyball net, and the picnic benches. But there’s one notable difference. There are zero children. Not one single kid. The park reeks of desolation, and it makes me sad.
So where are the Maryland kids these days? In Silver Spring, MD, they are apparently being stopped by authorities. Maryland parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv are not only being publicly scrutinized for allowing their children to walk around the neighborhood, but are being investigated by CPS for purportedly neglecting their children. They say, their kids are just Free-Range kids.
Lenore Skenazy, quite possibly the most talked about mom in America, began the Free-Range Kids movement after being dubbed “World’s Worst Mom,” when she allowed her nine-year old son to ride the subway by himself in Manhattan.
Skenazy, a columnist, published author, and now host of Discovery Life’s reality show named after her own ironic moniker, shed some light for me about why America is so overprotective of its children.
“What I’ve come to believe, is that the belief in America today is that children are in constant danger. They are in danger if they wait at the bus stop, as they could be abducted, and they’re in danger if they drink out of a plastic cup, because they could damage their endocrine system.”
I asked Skenazy where she thinks this type of fear stems from; as it seems that many 21st Century parents are unnecessarily anxious.
“We live in a media saturated world. And the best way to get people’s attention is to show a child who has been kidnapped or murdered.” This couldn’t be truer. Jon Benet Ramsey was murdered in 1996, and almost twenty years later, news outlets are still exploiting her death. Skenazy explained that though these types of incidents are isolated, because of the negative media frenzy, they stay in the forefront of many people’s minds. “Our minds work like Google,” she said.
In addition to the negativity seen in the media, Skenazy provided me three additional reasons for the tight grip kept on children today: the litigiousness of society, our “Expert Culture” mentality, and further, the fact that we are in the height of the Consumerist Age.
On “World’s Worst Mom,” Skenazy infiltrates households of stressed out parents, who take “helicopter parenting” to a new extreme. In one episode, a mother is too terrified to allow her children to leave the home with their father, whom she disparagingly refers to as a “donor,” while another mother insists on her thirteen year old son joining her in the women’s restroom. When being introduced to these families on the show, I wondered how Skenazy could possibly dissolve their deep seated anxieties. But she did. And effortlessly! By the end of the episodes, both moms went from nervous wrecks to proud parents who acknowledged the benefits of giving their children some freedom—“Free-Range style”.
“If Free-Range succeeds, you’ll have so many kids back outside, it’s going to look like 1957 again,”Skenazy said. “Playgrounds will be filled, and kids are going to be walking to school alone.”
Beyond empowering the children seen on her show, Skenazy bestows a special gift onto the children’s parents: confidence. “You can see how happy the parents are when they see their kids growing up before their eyes.”
When I inquired if there was a way to summarize her Free-Range parenting style she told me:
“The formula is: show them reality. And reality wins.” And hopefully that reality will bring about more children into my old neighborhood park, and the rest of the parks and playgrounds across America. Because as someone who unknowingly grew up Free-Range, I can attest that playing with other children outside—unsupervised— helped shape me into the independent spirit I am today.