Sunday, October 30, 2011

So I finally read "Free Range Kids"

Book review time. Our topic today is a recent book whose mere title alone has become a new catchphrase in the parenting vernacular: "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy.

I really wanted to love it. Really I did. I had heard both good and bad things about this Free Range concept everywheres. The whole idea is pretty polarizing - and falsely dichotomous, I might add. As though most of us are either these Overprotective Ninnies or Risky Child Endangerers. Dr. Laura doesn't like it, so I figured that meant I would probably love it. Yeah, not so much.

Now that I've finally read it, allow me to share my shitty opinion. DH read it too, and he was a lot less charitable than I'm about to be, so I'll go ahead and share his shitty opinion, too. I'll try my best to be brief.

What I said to myself after finishing it and returning it to my local library: "Ouch. The author has a lot of unresolved hurt feelings about the way she was treated and mis-labeled in the media when she published her account of putting her 9-year-old son on the NY subway alone. I sympathize with her. Sucks to be judged like that. And she is clearly not over it, nor should she necessarily be, however let's not forget she CHOSE to put her shit out there with her real name and her son's real (?) name on it, so honestly, whatever did she expect?." (BTW, I love that she put "America's Worst Mom" on the front cover of the version I read. I chuckled every time I saw it.)

Let's be real for a moment: if folks suddenly started going around calling me "America's Worst Mom" you bet your ass my memoir posing as a parenting book would come across as more than a bit defensive of my various parenting choices. That, or I'd have to spend a crapload of time and money with my therapist. And therein lies my basic problem with Skenazy's musings in "FRK" - taken together, they lack a sense of intellectual, research-based rigor free from this sense of painful, righteous indignation about how she was personally hurt. Yes, she was the victim of media bullying and unfortunately, her book read like she was lashing out, grasping at straws trying to prove those mean bullies wrong. As a result, I didn't find her arguments terribly convincing. Let me give you a flavor.

Among many other helpful hints, Skenazy suggests parents let their school-age kids walk alone to the bus stop, or all the way to school. She cites lowered rates of violent crimes against children, and mentions the increasing dangers of having more cars on the road when parents drive their kids to school. She says if you look at the numbers, we have nothing statistically-significant to fear about strangers who abduct children. Our kids are getting fat, antisocial, and vitamin-D deficient because we keep them inside all the time because we're scared of kidnappers. Conclusion? Just let them walk to the bus stop alone like we did in the proverbial good old days, you overprotective parents, you.

Then she goes on to say, (I'm paraphrasing) "Well, actually my own sister was often bullied on the way to school by older kids, and neither she nor I ever told our parents about it, so the bullying continued and she was maybe scarred for life, but you parents today can overcome that by being close to your kids and asking them if they're being bullied!" Um, no. Read the research on kids who are bullied. News flash: they don't usually tell their parents!

I'm with Skenazy on the 'don't irrationally fear the strange adult' bit. I say read Gavin de Becker's "Protecting the Gift" - teach your kids never to leave anywhere with an adult they don't know - do teach them to talk to adults they don't know, especially women with kids, in order to ask for help. However, we part company in one key area. For my kids' sake, I actually do fear some of the other kids they'll encounter. That, to me, is one of the biggest dangers to my kids' well-being. Raise your hand if you've never been teased or bullied or worse. Yep. Both DH and I have. Luckily nothing too traumatizing though. And no surprise, we didn't tell our parents either. I'm digressing. Where was I? Oh yes, it irked me that Skenazy didn't fully analyze and process the account of her sister's bullying, and put it in context. Really, what are the best practices for helping our kids thrive despite bullying? That would have been really helpful reading, way moreso than making fun of parents who buy baby knee pads and shopping cart covers.

As I've already mentioned, DH also read the book, then said: "You know, fun ideas to think about here. I enjoy the novelty of it all, but when the main thesis doesn't really pass the sniff test, I'm not buying it. 'Let your kids ride public transit alone! Give them a note for when police and conductors will inevitably stop them that reads 'My mom knows where I am!' - Huh? I don't think so. I guess it all depends on the context, sure, like the kid who grew up riding the Manhattan subway since age 2 would be fine to do it alone at 9 perhaps, but not with my kids living in Podunkville who did not, obviously. If you're so passionate about wanting kids to roam free like chickens why live in a large city where that's arguably hardest to accomplish? There just have got to be other ways to teach the values she holds dear - independence, confidence, freedom from fear - letting the kids take calculated risks without resorting to gimmicky, headline-grabbing shit that just doesn't ring true as a smart thing to do."

Amen, DH, he made me laugh. So did various parts of the book actually. I can see why Skenazy was a successful newspaper columnist; she writes with an urban, sophisticated flair. In summation: "FRK" was a memorable read, capturing an interesting slice of the cultural zeitgeist; though I'm glad I didn't shell out any money for it; this is not a book we are going to parent by, but I suppose it is good food for thought.

Has anyone else read it? Or not? I'm tossing around a few other intentionally polarizing-tastic parenting memoirs/how-to guides to review here, pending availability at my local library. Tiger Mom, I've got yours in my sights.


Got It, Ma! said...

You know, I think most sane, reasonable people are able to realize that they probably are not qualified to write a book on parenting. Therefore the parenting authors are kind of a self-selecting group of wackos.

As you say, this is so very much about polarization. Sure, we've gotten over protective, but do we really need to go so far in the other direction and turn our kids out to graze like sheep? The sane people (see above) know that there is no one right way to parent. What irks me about books like this one is that the authors really seem to have convinced themselves that kids are basically all the same, and one parenting style can work for all of them, if you just do what they say.

It seems to me that parenting is a process, not a static style. We hang on tightly to them as babies so they don't roll off the changing table, and we let go a little bit at a time over the next 20 or so years, with lots of back tracking in the process. The only really useful advice seems to be to know your kids, and trust your gut. There are days when my nine year old is more like an 11 year old and days when he seems to be 7 again. If I let him walk to the bus stop alone regardless of where he is as an individual, I'm not being a very good parent.

It would be nice if parenting were as simple as "those-who-are-crazy-enough-to-think-they-are-qualified-to-write-a-book-on-parenting" suggest. That's why people are so quick to buy these books. Who doesn't like an easy roll-on application? But parenting takes way too much intuition, flexibility, and dumb luck to fall comfortably under the umbrella of any single theory.

NK: Style-ING w/ Children said...

@ got it, ma!: I agree with everything you say. Above all: know your kid (and yourself), trust your gut. Some days I have to stop myself from being too protective. I have to remind myself that she needs room to develop her personality. But I'm talking about what she wants to eat/wear and play with. NOT walking to the bus on her own :))) that's, thankfully, very very far into the future for us :)
@ hush: I DO worry more about other kids than adults. I worry constantly about bullying. Will she be bullied? Will she, god forbit, bully other kids?? Am I doing a good enough job instilling confidence? Am I doing a good enough job teaching kindness, respect?? Secretly, I also worry about parents who do not teach their kids these things. Bullying, when you've gone through it, is a terrifying thing.

Cloud said...

Interesting review. Thanks for writing it- I think I'll give the book a miss!

I also agree with @Got it, Ma's comment. I think Lenore Skenazy had a very mature little kid, let him do something that made sense for him, got pilloried for it, and then over-reacted in the other direction.

Anandi said...

@Got It Ma - so true about those who write parenting books.

"Protecting the Gift" is waiting downstairs for me to read it, but I'm afraid it'll freak me out. The few anecdotes in there I flipped through were all so sad/scary. Ugh, I just need to grit my teeth and read it already.

mom2boy said...

Penn State scandal anyone? It's the people you know. It's coaches, uncles, priests pastors rabbis if you are so inclined and it scares me probably an unreasonable amount.

Vacationland Mom said...

@ Anandi, don't be afraid of Gavin de Becker, he is fantastic, and ultimately very reassuring. He writes about truly trusting our instincts, that they are there, and can be trusted! I HIGHLY recommend him to everyone. Thank you, hush, for the book review, because now I know not to read it :)

hush said...

@Got It, Ma! - "Therefore the parenting authors are kind of a self-selecting group of wackos." Ha! Ironically, Skenazy spends a fair bit of time in her book trashing those other no-nothing parenting experts.

@NK - I hear you on worrying about bullying. Rosalind Wiseman of "Queen Bees and Wannabees" fame and "Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads" is one of my favorite authors on the subject - those will be helpful when your daughter is older. Barbara(?) Coloroso has also written an intelligent book on the topic - @Cloud once recommended Coloroso's work to me.

@Cloud - You gave the perfect summation of it which I'd like to please use if I'm ever asked for my opinion: "I think Lenore Skenazy had a very mature little kid, let him do something that made sense for him, got pilloried for it, and then over-reacted in the other direction." Yes!

@Anandi - Don't fear "PTG." Like @Vacationland Mom said. Amen.

@mom2boy - Oh man, that Penn State scandal! WTF! Joe Paterno, you willfully blind mofo. This is grounds for abolishing the school's football program entirely. Let the athletes keep their scholarships, but scrap the rest to send a message.

@Vacationland Mom - Welcome! And amen to everything you said about "PTG" - those who have not read it yet should.