Lenore Skenazy allowed her nine-year-old son to ride home on the New York City subway, by himself, and it caused an outrage.
People around the world literally flipped out about her decision. She became something of a celebrity and villain all the same time, which she documents in her blog and book, Free Range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant Kids Without Going Nuts with Worry.
Some find her ideas reckless, while others have come to see her as a hero. I think many of us who are parents struggle to be confident about what’s safe for our kids when we’re inundated with messages about how unsafe the world is. In the midst of our confusion, it’s often our anxiety, our fatigue, and our fear of negative judgment from our peers that guide our decisions, rather than a well-thought-out strategy or plan.
Do we let them go to the playground by themselves?
Should we give them phones to keep track of them?
At what age should we leave them at home by themselves?
Skenazy’s Free-Range parenting is at odds with the commonly dubbed “helicopter parenting” that seems to partially characterize a common parenting style in which adults “hover” over their kids (sometimes even when they’re 24 and living in your basement). Most of us would deny (especially to ourselves) being helicopter parents because of the negative connotations of the term. We like to think that we are more moderate, while our peers are the excessive ones. We live in anxious times, however, and the pressure and perceived responsibility to create a particular kind of parenting outcome in the form of well adjusted and successful children is higher than ever. With all the resources and awareness of how parenting influences kids, it’s become yet another area of our lives in which we are expected to excel.
But the issue is much deeper and broader than parenting. It’s actually about our relationship to anxiety and risk, our beliefs about safety, and the illusions of control we create and cling to. The core issue is perhaps one of perception and attention: what risks do you recognize and focus on, and which are you naive to or ignoring?
My own slight shift to a more relaxed, and slightly less interventionist approach (it’s a work in progress) began when I was watching kids in a developing country. They rode bikes without helmets. They doubled their siblings and friends on their handlebars, sometimes three people to a bike. All of this on busy streets and blind corners with cars whizzing around them. At first, I could barely fathom it. It seemed… irresponsible. But after checking the assumptions I was bringing to the situation, I came to realize that these kids’ parents probably didn’t love or care for their kids any less than I do. Instead, they have a different perception of what is dangerous.
Just a week before my wedding (17 years ago), a car knocked me off my bike and sent me flying onto a nearby lawn. While I managed to escape with minor injuries, many patients I’ve worked with over my career as a psychologist have been less fortunate, often sustaining traumatic brain injuries that persist for months and even years. I have more than enough exposure to sensitize me to the risks that emerge when cyclists and motorist are sharing space and direction. It’s likely that these personal experiences have caused my brain to be overly vigilant and overestimate the likelihood of calamity. But in that same country where kids roam free on bicycles, I was the one swimming in a riptide the locals had the good sense to avoid. It’s not just personal experience that sensitizes and focuses our attention on some risks at the exclusion of others. Technologies like the phones we carry bring news of tragedies, however obscure and unlikely, into our awareness at any time of day or place. Our immersion in a sea of information is useful but carries with it the curse of being continually made aware of various horrible things that could happen to you or someone you love.
So as I consider whether or not my kids should ride around the block on their newly acquired freedom on two-wheels, I wonder if I’m too lax or too paranoid, depending on the decision.
Like many parents, I’m tempted to err on the side of what seems like caution. After all, what have I got to lose by keeping an eye on them and staying close by? Time and energy perhaps, but it seems worth the sacrifice, and I’m not going to be the dad who explains to the ER doctor that my kid got hit cause I was too busy or tired to be vigilant.
But it’s not quite so simple. There are hidden risks in the decision to helicopter – we typically tend not to see them because they’re so abstract and distant, they evade our recognition.
How will my kids learn to look for cars on their own if I’m always their eyes for them? How will they learn to cope with adversity if I’m constantly softening their landings or thinking two steps ahead to help them avoid it? But where does the balance fall between reckless abandon and hypervigilant shielding?
And there’s an additional hidden risk that we often fail to account for. It comes in the form of lessons we implicitly teach our children about the world as we hover and protect. What do our kids begin to believe about the playground (and the bigger world) when we consider it too perilous for them to be there on their own? If children at an appropriate age can’t be left anywhere without us, perhaps the underlying message we communicate is this: you are unable to cope with the unseen dangers that lurk in the world.
Many are wondering why so many teenagers and twenty-somethings are overwhelmed by anxiety. The mental health statistics indicate a staggering upswing in the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in this age cohort. Likely it’s a complex phenomenon with several factors making contributions. And at the risk of blaming parents for problems that are much bigger than their parenting, my own belief as a clinician is that our daily decisions to protect kids so frenetically is having more significant long-term consequences than we imagined.
Skenazy, in her work on “Free-Range” parenting, seems to suggest that if we provide reassurance through accurate information about how genuinely safe most things are for kids in our world today, then they’ll be able to relax and stop helicopter parenting. She provides a host of evidence showing that North American kids grow up in, objectively, the safest period in history. They’re relatively safe at least from the classic dangers of violence, malnutrition, natural disaster, disease, abduction, etc. However, there’s a little hitch in this logic. Reassurance only goes so far in helping people with their anxiety or facilitating behavior change.
Our brains have developed to scan the environment for potential harm as well as imagine hypothetical scenarios of danger. We may use probability as a filter, but not always. Often, if nothing is perceived to be explicitly threatening us, our attention will turn to low probability events if they are considered to be extremely harmful. So, while statistically, it’s still very unlikely that your child will be at school when someone opens fire with an automatic weapon, the tragic impacts are so intense that most people can’t simply reason it away. We can tell parents to relax and loosen the reigns. (Or, to use a different metaphor, keep the helicopter in its hanger a bit more often.) But if the source of our parenting decisions is more about our anxiety and less about statistically verified risks, I suspect that most of us will continue to hover, even if we know, it’s not “logically” necessary.
The change I recognize needing to make in my self is how I approach risks, particularly when it comes to my kids.
Like most of you, I secretly wish for a universe with options that involve no risk at all, wherever my children are concerned. Most of the time I’m okay with risk in my own life. But I feel this enormous responsibility in making decisions for my kids that expose them to the possibilities of being hurt, either physically or emotionally. Parenting, because it involves love and freedom, carries with it all sorts of risks, beyond mere safety. I’m learning that I have to accept that there are risks no matter what I do. I can attempt to shield them from all suffering – but this will only lead them to a greater pain later in their lives because they will not have learned to cope with adversity and gained the experience and confidence they need to face the real dangers of the world. Our culture often sells us falsehoods about our ability to banish any form of risk by using wealth, diets, technology, and expert opinions to make the “right” choices. This fiction I believe, has crept into our approach to parenting. If we only have them at the “right” school, with the “right” mix of activities, give them the “right” experiences, and use the “right” parenting techniques, then everything will turn out fine.
Except that it doesn’t.
So I’m not going to try and reassure you into letting go of your hovering.
Tragic things can happen, even if they are very unlikely. Lots of less-bad things will for sure happen. Thomas Merton taught that if we try to avoid certain types of suffering, we create various other forms of it. We’re much better off not pretending there’s no risk, but accepting that every choice we make, including decisions in our parenting, will involve risk of some kind. And, rather than just focusing on the obvious dangers, we have to consider what risks are involved in choosing to hover and protect? These are tricky because they often only exist in the long-term abstract future. Our anxiety tempts us to act now, and forget about tomorrow.
But what I see in my therapy office many days is the product of well-intentioned sheltering that forgot about that future, that has now arrived. How easy it is for us to give our children the world, but deprive them of their ability to develop resilience.
Life requires us to take risks. Existence by its very nature involves not just the possibility of loss, but the inevitability of it, and therefore a constant confrontation with risk itself.
Not everyone should ride the subway by themselves at age 9. We have to evaluate risks by considering our unique contexts and our particular children. Lenore Skenazy’s courage was in her decision to do precisely that. She faced and embraced the risks by thoughtful consideration of all them, came to her conclusions, and acted on them.
So if you’re in my neighborhood, watch out for my kids when you’re backing out of your driveway.