Free Range Kids -- Interview with America's Worst Mom Part 1

Cynthia Dermody
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Free-Range Kids by Lenore SkenazyI don't want to be a helicopter parent, but I can't help it. There are so many dangers to watch for -- hazardous coffee tables in homes, fatal germs on shopping carts, and sicko perverts waiting for me to look away for a second so he can steal my child.

Or are there?

For the real truth, read Lenore Skenazy's new book "Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry."

Lenore is playfully referred to as "America's Worst Mom" because she let her (very responsible and mature) 9 year old ride the subway alone. He made it home alive. And mom and son thought it was great! But the rest of the world attacked her for it.

In her book, Lenore digs up the real stats and facts about how real all those mommy things we freak out about really are. Examples: Crime rates involving children and abductions. Down! Our kids are actually safer now. Poison and razor blades in apples at Halloween? Never happened. Ever.

From a section of her book on Halloween:

"One of my favorite warnings tells parents: 'Make sure, if your child is carrying a prop, such as a scythe, butcher knife or pitchfork, that the tips are smooth and flexible enough so as not to cause an injury if fallen on.'

"Fallen on?

"I have just one question for the folks who dream up those safety warnings: Have you ever seen a knife land blade-side up?"

I want to be more like Lenore, to worry less about the fake risks so my kids and I can enjoy life more. So we chatted. Here's the first part of my chill out lesson:

Were you always so laid back with your kids?

No, and I'm still not entirely. Free-Range is a process, trying to separate the real risks from the urban myths that crop up in any generation. Myths foisted upon us by TV and by "experts" eager to show how much they know and we don't. (And even, shhh!, by parenting magazines that wouldn't have anything to write about if they didn't keep coming up with new things for us to worry about: e.g. "Is your bathroom/bedroom/backyard/day care/nursery/car seat/rattle/teddy bear SAFE?" "10 Things That Could Kill Your Toddler This Afternoon!"

Give me an example of how you were just like many of us when your kids were toddlers.

One time when my oldest was about 1 or so, he was crying in the back seat and I was next to him. My mother-in-law said, "Why don't you give him a bottle?" but I said, "Are you KIDDING?" I'd read that if a car comes to a sudden stop, the bottle could choke him and there's no way I was going to choke my baby! What kind of crazy grandma even suggests such a thing? (How about a grandma who raised three kids on her own just fine? That's what I realized later on.)

It's hard to trust the older generation when we have our own new, modern, scientific advice. But a lot of that advice is way too worried about extremely unlikely outcomes.

So what were your toddlers allowed to have or do that kids today aren't?

I'm not sure I granted my kids a ton of freedom, but there were some safety devices and precautions that even I realized were unnecessary. For instance, my nanny had heard on the news that a child could get wound up in his fitted sheets and smother. But I felt that that was pretty unlikely and I already had fitted sheets, so I kept them.

The freedom I did grant my boys was to play on a not-perfectly-clean floor and to use a pacifier that fell on it. (They lived.) And when I realized my first son and I were both bored out of our minds at this dumb music class I'd signed up for, I granted us the freedom to quit without worrying that this meant he would never be Vladimir Horowitz. 

And I granted him the freedom to eat stuff you won't find in Organic Gardening Today (or any day!).

Did you toddler-proof at all?

I did babyproof.

I put little plastic locks on the cabinets and some doodads on the stove that made it hard for anyone (me included) to turn on. And naturally I moved as many small, breakable or chewable items as I could to higher shelves. As I also discovered while doing my book research: Choking is not an urban myth. It's a real danger. Move small objects out of the way.

But 'm glad I got out of the toddler years just as the professional baby-proofing thing was gearing up, because those guys go overboard and I might have, too.

When I was researching the topic for my book, I watched a TV segment that was supposed to "help" parents figure out all the things they needed to do. The professional babyproofer went around the home putting stoppers on all the doors so none of them would shut, lest a child smash his finger. We've had kids and doors co-existing for many a century, and most kids end up with ten working digits. Why all of a sudden are doors considered so dangerous?

What other baby-proofing myths did you expose?

The professional baby proofer also insisted that all homes need a toilet lock because "two kids a week" die in toilet drownings. I looked up the figures on the Centers for Disease Control web site: Four kids a year die in toilets -- an accident you can prevent by shutting the bathroom door. (IF your door shuts, which I guess it wouldn't if you put on those door stoppers.) Point is: the guy had exaggerated the danger 2600 percent.

Anyway, once you hear of a danger, no matter how remote, it is hard to ignore it.

There are some crazy products out there. What are the most ludicrous ones in your opinion?

Here's one: the Thudguard, a helmet kids can wear, dawn to dusk, as they learn to walk. The website says that this product is necessary due to the alarming "increase" in serious head trauma among toddlers -- as if evolution has taken a giant leap backwards and suddenly kids are careering into walls as never before. I don't buy it.

Similarly, there are baby knee pads to protect a toddler's knees, as if suddenly children cannot sustain a fall without serious, possibly permanent injury. This whole field is trying to convince us that our kids are more vulnerable than ever, when they're not.

What are the most extreme examples of toddler proofing you have witnessed?

A mom wrote into one of the parenting magazines with this "tip": Carry extra shoelaces in your purse. Why? So when you go to someone else's home you can TIE THEIR CABINETS SHUT. This struck me as a rather quixotic notion, if nothing else: You are responsible for baby proofing not just your house but the entire world? Not only is that a rather heavy burden on you, but it means your child will never learn (or even HEAR): "Don't open their cabinets, sweetie. This isn't our home!" There is something to be said for teaching your children how to deal with life, rather than trying to eliminate any and every obstacle in their way.

I needed a good laugh today! Any other good ones?

There's also a company out there selling gLovies -- gloves you can put on your toddler so they NEVER have to touch a germ in the outside world. That is a prescription for OCD if ever there was one.

Again, are our kids suddenly SO much more vulnerable than any earlier generation, so that merely touching a shopping cart or playground swing is going to give them some horrible disease? What about building up some immunity? What about the fact every generation up until now survived a trip to the grocery store? (I have the same gripe with portable place mats, as if restaurants are crawling with typhoid.)

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Check out Lenore's blog at Free Range Kids, and buy the book at amazon. Tomorrow, Lenore offers tips for going more Free-Range with your toddlers.

++Are you a Free-Range parent? Give an example of something you do that would make Lenore proud. Do you agree with this philosophy?

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