Free Range Kids: Finally! I’m not the only one!

Okay, that’s overstating things just a tad. I know people who have similar views, but I often feel we’re in the minority. The thing is, since before Brandon was ever even thought of, I have disagreed with the concept of “baby-proofing” and tonight is the first time I have known of an actual movement to go back to the long-abandoned ways of parenting.

I’m so fired up right now I can hardly even think straight, so this may be the ramblin’est blog post ever! Why, you ask? Well, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to this article by Tom Henderson at ParentDish about Lenore Skenazy. Lenore ended up in quite a firestorm when she wrote an article about her son (a 9-year-old) riding the NYC subway by himself. The uproar after the article was published prompted her to write a book, Free Range Kids, that I am holding myself back from running to Chapters to buy right at this moment (yes, it’s there; I checked availability).

Initially, I – like many who read Ms. Skenazy’s aforementioned column – thought that I wouldn’t put a 9-year-old on the NYC subway. That is until I read on her site that NYC’s crime rate is basically on par with Provo, Utah. My guess is that in the 70s and 80s, it wasn’t all that unusual to see a kid that age on the subway in NYC. We all know that crime rates are improved there now, so if the crime rate is better now than then, why shouldn’t her son ride the subway?

There’s a fantastic quote in the ParentDish article that sums it up for me very nicely:

"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.

Yeah! I always wonder what parents, whose houses are baby-proofed to the nines, do when the kids are at someone’s home who doesn’t have children (or someone like me with kids and minimal baby-proofing). There are no locks on the cupboards that contain cleaners (actually, we do have a lock on that one), the stove controls are within reach (like mine), the tables have sharp corners as opposed to rounded or some sort of protection on them.

We have one single gate at the top of our second floor stairs and we put it in so that Brandon could freely run around on that floor without us having to watch him every minute. However, over the last nine months, he’s learned that he is not to go up or down the stairs by himself. The handful of times he’s started to go up (he hasn’t tried down yet) by himself, one or the other of us was nearby to catch up with him and have a little talk to clarify our expectations. ;) If I had gates everywhere, he’d be trying to figure out how to get around or over them, which strikes me as even more dangerous. I’m actually okay with Brandon going up the stairs on his own – he’s careful, confident and knows what he is doing well enough that I am not concerned about it. We still stick with him because he IS only 18 months old. He’s not old enough or developed enough yet to be able to right himself if he loses his balance or slips.

I think the issue of baby-proofing is a good metaphor for life in general. My father used to tell me that his job was to help me grow from “dependence to independence”. By creating impenetrable barriers shielding children from all possible harm, it doesn’t give them the benefit of learning self-control and respect for consequences. I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to leave cleaners in an unlocked cabinet (I don’t), but how does a child learn boundaries and how to respect them if there is no way to cross over them? In my view, they don’t. They just learn that there’s a cabinet there that they’d desperately like to get into, but they don’t really know why they aren’t allowed.

The funny thing is that kids are really smart. I’ve had several friends specifically say they’ve given up on baby-proofing because their kids have figured out how to get around it anyway. I’ve witnessed that type of determination in Brandon with the few things we have baby-proofed in the house. If they see you get past the barrier often enough, they will figure it out, too.

Another kind of protection that’s gotten out of hand over the last decade is the concept of everyone being a winner – even if you don’t win. Kids are being taught that no one is a loser; all the kids get a trophy now. Are you kidding me? How is that possibly going to help them in the real world when not EVERYONE gets a promotion? Will they cry because they didn’t get a company car and their friend who made more sales did? Will they expect to get the job just because they’re called in for the interview? When they don’t, how will that affect their self-esteem? Part of developing healthy self-esteem is learning how to handle losing.

Beyond even that, what if the child just isn’t good at the sport in question. If Brandon (god forbid) decided to play hockey and wasn’t any good, is giving him a trophy going to help him realize that he is NOT going to become a future Wayne Gretzky? No, it just keeps him believing in something that he’s not good at – and possibly preventing him from finding something he IS good at. Well, that is until the day that he doesn’t get to the next level and the awards-no-matter-what stop. Talk about a crushing blow.

Brandon’s growing so fast and trying new things all the time. He’s going to get scrapes and bumps and bruises and possibly broken bones. I dread all of that, but I would rather him learn the consequences of reckless behavior with minor injuries that encourage him to be more careful. As a parent, I do not want my child to get awards for just showing up. He deserves the chance to find out what he’s good at and passionate about and then earn any rewards he may receive for doing a good job.

I know that there are a lot of people out there who disagree with my views on this subject and I respect that. As parents, we each have to decide what we’re comfortable with. It’s a difficult choice to make – whether to give them freedom or do everything possible to protect them from harm. I’m banking on my personal theory that if I give my child the “dignity of risk” that he will learn to make better choices for himself more quickly as he moves from “dependence to independence”.

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