When was the last time you saw a park filled with children playing and not a parent, nanny or park supervisor in sight? Probably not in a decade or more. However, you might remember, fondly, long summer afternoons with a gaggle of friends spent playing baseball or hide-and-seek in the local park or (horrors!) a vacant lot.
According to Lenore Skenazy, author of the bestselling book “Free-range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry),” “Kids coming out of college today are the first generation to have been brought up with no unsupervised, unstructured play time. The drive to play is very strong in children, but it’s not easy; we do it because it’s fun,” says Skenazy.
In order for a group of kids to play on their own, they have to master a number of skills. They have to decide and agree on what to play, which involves problem solving and compromise. Then they have to set the rules, play fair, communicate and, if someone strikes out, he or she has to decide to either suck it up and stay in the game or go home pouting. Once a parent or teacher takes control, children lose the lesson. “Doing something because an adult says so is not the same thing as doing it on your own,” says Skenazy. “Unless kids get a chance to master these skills with their peers (bumps and hurt feelings included), they are less likely to be self-sufficient later on.”
Skenazy adds, “Free-range parenting is the process of overcoming the fear and trusting your kids, the community and the universe that things will work out OK. Constant supervision of our lives used to be God’s job. To put it in Christian terms, you could say that helicopter parents are outsourcing God’s job to look out for us, and our children at all times. They believe in literally having their eyes on their children in person or by proxy at every moment.”
The reality, according to Skenazy, is that the world is not nearly as scary as we think it is. If you run into the gas station to pay the attendant and do not take the kids with you, there is a less than 1 percent chance that someone could snatch them or some other bad thing could happen. But, there is about the same chance that something bad could happen inside the gas station – a robbery, or a bad fall, or any number of potential hazards.
Skenazy, who lives in New York City, dared to let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone, and wrote about it. She was called the world’s worst parent. Since then, she has built a following of parents who appreciate her willingness to say out loud what many have privately thought: that most kids turn out OK even if you do not supervise, document or provide an electronic umbilical cord (i.e. cell phone) every moment until they reach adulthood.
Her message has been especially welcome to working moms, who have felt the stiff-necked glare and forced smile when they cannot make every PTA meeting. Skenazy is a frequent speaker at professional organizations, taking her message of letting go to working parents. She has spoken to parent groups and Microsoft, and they universally seem to appreciate getting permission to turn the live webcam off their children’s lives and let kids be kids, at least some of the time.