Saturday, June 13, 2009

How free should kids be?

I just finished reading an interesting, and thought-provoking book, called Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. The book is subtitled “Giving our Children the Freedom we had without going nuts with worry” and the author’s name is sub-titled “America’s Worst Mom.”

Her point, in the easy-to-read and funny book, is that crime rates have decreased drastically from the time of our childhoods, that only 150 children are kidnapped by strangers per year in America and only about one third of those are killed. That is still horrible. No child should have to go through that. But when there are millions of kids in our country, the question is: do we want to restrict their freedom, independence and exploration in order to avoid an event that is very improbably to begin with?

My gut feeling is no, I do not want to restrict River’s independence. I think I’m already on the far end of liberalness in letting him explore. I get my share of disapproving looks from people who think I’m not hovering enough. Like the librarian yesterday who said the poles marking the line for checking out books “are extremely heavy and could cause him serious injury.” When I didn’t react by scooping up River away from this terrible danger, but instead continued to check out my books, she stood there and guarded the poles until we left. Of course, I don’t want a heavy object falling on my baby. But really, if the odds of serious injury are so high, then why would such a dangerous object be put in the path of every patron checking out a book? My friend from Germany became very nervous when I allowed River to walk in front of me on a sidewalk that was on a busy road. Yes, he admitted, the odds of River rushing out into the road weren’t very high. But if he did, it would be certain death. I was ready to grab him at any sign of veering off the sidewalk and into the road. Since he wasn’t making such moves, I thought he had the right to walk and explore as we did.

I have a very strong confidence in River’s abilities. I taught him not to put earplugs in his mouth, he already has a good sense of right and wrong (uh-oh is a frequent phrase he says when he sees something he knows is wrong or problematic), he knows to not eat flowers, he can understand things I’m telling him. Mark says my confidence level is too high. When I read about the tragic story of Mike Tyson’s 4-year-old dying on the home treadmill, the article mentioned that some parents have an artificially high sense of their children’s abilities.

Oh no, I thought. River is going to die or get hurt and it’s going to be my fault. Then I read this book and I felt better. Yes, he may have some injuries along the way (although he hasn’t had a single one to date), but that is how he will learn. In exchange for those potential injuries, he will develop confidence, independence and pride in his abilities. I will also have a more sane life by not worrying about every single thing he does.

I dipped back into the book It’s a Boy to read about the 18 month to three year stage. That author made a similar point. He says that at this age, young boys need to have a certain amount of freedom from their parents. They see their parents as a stable source of support to return to when they need refilling. So River can walk away in another direction and I should let him explore as he wants to when feasible. But I remain in the area and when he needs a hug or a hand, he can run right back to me for more fuel. I like that role and I’m enjoying this time. I’m still needed, but not so much. The pressure is reduced and I get the joy of watching him find the thrill of an inclined driveway, the physics of an old twig that breaks, the happiness of jumping in a puddle-filled pothole.

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