Free-Range Kids: A Movement That's Gaining Ground
"America's worst mom" is making kids' lives better.
Posted June 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
In 2008, when she had allowed her then-9-year-old son to take the subway from Macy’s in Manhattan to their home in Queens by himself, Lenore Skenazy became nationally known as "America's worst mom," as television commentators called her. Skenazy ran with the label and, a year later, published Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), with the epithet “America’s Worst Mom” under her name on the cover.
I read the book and said to myself, “I must get to know this very funny and smart woman,” and I figured out a way to do it. I invited her to speak at an academic conference on play that I had a role in organizing. We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.
Ever since her book was published, Lenore has been active and effective in creating and leading what many call the “free-range-kids movement,” which in my mind and hers is simply a return to common sense in our understanding of children and their need and capacity for independent activity. Now, the second edition has been published, and this gives me a good reason to interview Lenore and share that with you. My questions here are in bold, followed by Lenore’s replies.
Lenore, how is the second edition of Free-Range Kids different from the first?
The second edition has all sorts of new sections, info, jokes (of course!), and stories.
For instance, in a new chapter on kids and tech, I look at how some technology can have some downsides in some subgroups (mostly middle-school girls and social media), but a lot of it really isn’t hugely worrying, including video games. I tell a story about two brothers, 13 and 19, who played a particular game together. The younger one said he was going to ask the online group to vote to make him an official member.
"Don’t do that yet," his older brother told him. “People don’t like you and they’ll vote against you.” The younger brother was shocked. Why would they do a thing like that?
“Because you talk too much and you kill people for no reason,” the older brother said. “So don’t talk unless you have something to say, and don’t kill anybody unless they are breaking the rules. And then you can apply in three weeks when they like you.”
The younger boy was willing to hear this unvarnished evaluation of his social skills and start working to improve them…because this was all explained like a videogame cheat code. Peter, you always talk about how kids learn through play, right? Even a videogame is play.
I also have a new chapter on childhood anxiety, which has continued to worsen. You taught me about the “internal locus of control”—the feeling you have when you know you can deal with some difficulties, and make things happen. But when someone else is in control of you all the time—even someone you love, like a parent, teacher, or coach – you feel anxious because you have no idea of what you’re capable of handling on your own. How can kids become confident problem-solvers if someone’s always right there, solving their problems? So, the anxiety chapter looks at how, ironically, always helping kids is hurting them—and how to stop jumping in. (Advice I still sometimes need myself!)
A new chapter for teachers talks about how to get kids out of their comfort zone and a chapter on “wasting time” talks about how people often find their true calling through what they loved doing as kids. One guy I interviewed spent his childhood picking up the fruit that fell from the trees onto the sidewalk—this was in Miami—and selling it from his little wagon. In other words, he sold other people’s stuff. And in a way, he still does—because that guy was Jeff Bezos.
I am proud to be one member of the team that helped you found the nonprofit organization Let Grow, of which you are president and chief mover. What, in your opinion, have been the main accomplishments of Let Grow since its inception a couple of years ago?
After I published the first edition of Free-Range Kids in 2009, I went around giving talks everywhere from PTAs to Microsoft about how we got so afraid for our kids. The audiences would smile and nod. They all remembered playing outside till the streetlights came on and wanted to give their own kids that same experience!
But then…they didn’t.
Turns out that simply listening to me and my amazing facts didn’t move the needle. (Statistically, if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to leave them outside? 750,000 years!) So, when you and I and Daniel Shuchman and Jonathan Haidt got together to found Let Grow in 2017, the goal was not to change minds. Minds, schminds. It was to change behavior. Parents have to actually experience what it feels like to let go and see their kids blossom. Changing behavior changes everything. (Including behavior…if that makes sense.)
So, how is Let Grow making that happen? We started a website and Facebook page where anyone thinking of letting go a little could find information, and each other. And then we created two school initiatives—both free—that are really transformative:
The Let Grow Project. Students get the homework assignment: “Go home and do something new, on your own. Walk the dog. Make a meal. Run an errand…” The project breaks the ice of anxiety in both generations. Here’s a two-minute video of some 7th graders discussing how the project changed them.
The key is that this assignment, because it’s coming from the teacher, pushes parents to let go—to change their behavior. And once they do that, wow! It’s like watching your baby take their first steps. You don’t say, “Great! Now go back to crawling.” Your heart soars, and they’re on their way!
Once you let your kid ride her bike to the library or go play at the park with a friend, it’s not a terrifying idea anymore, it is a joyful reality. You’re bursting with pride, and so is the kid.
For his Let Grow Project, one 5th-grader went to get his haircut—and came back with a mohawk! His mom was annoyed, but also kind of tickled. After that, the kid started running errands and even —get this—doing his homework by himself.
A middle-school teacher told me that after she had her students do the project 20 times in a single year, one student told her that he’s now off his anxiety meds.
The Let Grow Play Club. This is your baby, Peter! We encourage schools to stay open before or after school for mixed-age, device-free, loose-parts free play. Adults do not organize the games or even intervene, except if there’s an emergency. Kids love this time! But there’s more going on than just getting their ya-yas out. Researchers studying The Play Club (see here and here) found kids developing new empathy and resourcefulness. “They take on a whole new level of maturity,” one teacher said. A speech pathologist told us she knew something was going on when the Play Club got started, because her kids with language delays and the kids just learning English were suddenly way more talkative. Of course! Play is communication. Attendance goes up on Play Club days, too. Best of all: Kids made new friends.
Since Let Grow began, over a thousand schools have downloaded our materials and started doing The Let Grow Project, The Play Club, or both. Post-Covid we’re hoping for tens of thousands more, especially because all our materials (instructions, posters, letters to send parents) are free.
And last but not least: Let Grow is also changing laws.
We’ve always stated that “Children have the right to some unsupervised time, and parents have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.” Well, we’ve been working on that last part and this year we had two huge victories. Oklahoma and Texas both just passed “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws. These say that parents can let their kids play outside, walk to school, stay home alone, etc., without this being mistaken for neglect—so long as the parents aren’t putting the children in obvious and statistically likely danger.
The law also helps parents who can’t afford to constantly supervise their kids. As this Oklahoma editorial put it: Poverty is not neglect.
Utah passed the first Free-Range Kids law in 2018. All told, now one-tenth of Americans are living in Let Grow states, where they don’t have to second-guess themselves when they feel their kids are ready for some independence.
What are some of the ways that readers of this interview—including parents and educators—can use Let Grow resources?
If you go to our site, you’ll find a School Programs section where you can download the Let Grow Project and Play Club materials free, and start using them immediately. And here is my Free-Range Kids chapter for educators, also free.
What are some of the ways that readers can contribute to the Let Grow movement?
By spreading the word about the disappearance of childhood independence—and why this is dire! (Like the rain forest, it’s shrinking and we have to save it.)
By letting your kids drop one scheduled, adult-run activity and replacing it with free time.
By organizing a local group that sends the kids out to play while the parents hang out beyond earshot.
Do you feel there have been any shifts—for better or worse or both–in the culture’s treatment of children since the first edition of your book was published? Is there anything about this that has surprised you?
Yes, some things have changed for the better, others not so much.
Getting worse is the relentless underestimation of kids and the overestimation of danger. In my new edition, I quote a Parents Magazine article that tells parents to listen in on playdates and jump in if there’s a spat, so no one’s feelings get too hurt. That is truly underestimating—and undermining—kids’ ability to handle even the mildest problem. I hate parents being fed that kind of distorted reality.
On the other hand, some other shifts are extremely exciting:
- The changing laws.
- New alliances—I didn’t even know you, Peter, when the first edition of Free-Range Kids came out. Now there are so many parents, educators, psychologists and politicians working together on this same issue: More freedom and free play for kids.
- And now there’s scientific research about to begin on whether The Let Grow Project may work as actual therapy for childhood anxiety. That would be revolutionary.
Most surprising? The simple fact that “free-range kids” became a phrase—and a movement. I’m really glad that people who subscribe to these ideas—a little or a lot—have a way of describing themselves and finding others.
I know you collect examples, which are hilarious, sad, or enraging depending on how you look at them, of advice to parents, and products being sold to parents, that augment or prey upon parents’ fears for their children’s safety. I wonder if you could share here a few examples.
The latest jaw-dropper is a class for babies age 4 to 11 months “teaching” them to crawl up inclines, “begin understanding cause and effect” and “start gaining a better awareness of things around them.”
As opposed to every other baby in the world who is not enrolled in that class?
This is a perfect example of how our culture has figured out how to destroy even the most basic belief in our kids. Parents are being told they need experts to teach their kids what every able-bodied baby—from monkey to mealworm—learns, which is how to move and interact with the environment. A class like this also creates the worry that without professional help, your baby could fall hopelessly behind, perhaps forever, starting with crawling up soft inclines.
Other crazy products include spoons that change color when the food in them is too hot, electronic gizmos that track your baby’s blood oxygen level while they sleep, and a diaper that analyzes their pee —but I’m not sure if that ever got out of beta.
If you were to give three points of advice to today’s parents, what would they be?
- Don’t fall for the hokum that this generation of kids is in more danger of being hurt —physically, psychologically or emotionally—than any generation before it.
- Don’t always watch your kids, electronically or otherwise, lest you feel compelled to “help” them when they are learning to help themselves.
- Repeat this mantra: All the worry in the world doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.
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