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Once obsessing about kids' safety and success became the norm, a kind of orthodoxy took hold, and heaven help the heretics the ones who were brave enough to let their kids venture outside without Secret Service protection. Just ask Lenore Skenazy, who to this day, when you Google "America's Worst Mom," fills the first few pages of results all because one day last year she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. A newspaper column she wrote about it somehow ignited a global firestorm over what constitutes reasonable risk. She had reporters calling from China, Israel, Australia, Malta. ("Malta! An island!" she marvels. "Who's stalking the kids there? Pirates?") Skenazy decided to fight back, arguing that we have lost our ability to assess risk. By worrying about the wrong things, we do actual damage to our children, raising them to be anxious and unadventurous or, as she puts it, "hothouse, mama-tied, danger-hallucinating joy extinguishers."
Skenazy, a Yale-educated mom who with her husband is raising two boys in New York City, had ingested all the same messages as the rest of us. Her sons' school once held a pre-field-trip assembly explaining exactly how close to a hospital the children would be at all times. She confesses to being "at least part Sikorsky," hiring a football coach for a son's birthday and handing out mouth guards as party favors. But when the Today show had her on the air to discuss her subway decision, interviewer Ann Curry turned to the camera and asked, "Is she an enlightened mom or a really bad one?"
From that day and the food fight that followed, she launched her Free Range Kids blog, which eventually turned into her own Dangerous Book for Parents: Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. There is no rational reason, she argues, that a generation of parents who grew up walking alone to school, riding mass transit, trick-or-treating, teeter-tottering and selling Girl Scout cookies door to door should be forbidding their kids to do the same. But somehow, she says, "10 is the new 2. We're infantilizing our kids into incompetence." She celebrates seat belts and car seats and bike helmets and all the rational advances in child safety. It's the irrational responses that make her crazy, like when Dear Abby endorses the idea, as she did in August, that each morning before their kids leave the house, parents take a picture of them. That way, if they are kidnapped, the police will have a fresh photo showing what clothes they were wearing. Once the kids make it home safe and sound, you can delete the picture and take a new one the next morning.
That advice may seem perfectly sensible to parents bombarded by heartbreaking news stories about missing little girls and the predator next door. But too many parents, says Skenazy, have the math all wrong. Refusing to vaccinate your children, as millions now threaten to do in the case of the swine flu, is statistically reckless; on the other hand, there are no reports of a child ever being poisoned by a stranger handing out tainted Halloween candy, and the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million. When parents confront you with "How can you let him go to the store alone?," she suggests countering with "How can you let him visit your relatives?" (Some 80% of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives.) Or ride in the car with you? (More than 430,000 kids were injured in motor vehicles last year.) "I'm not saying that there is no danger in the world or that we shouldn't be prepared," she says. "But there is good and bad luck and fate and things beyond our ability to change. The way kids learn to be resourceful is by having to use their resources." Besides, she says with a smile, "a 100%-safe world is not only impossible. It's nowhere you'd want to be."
Dispatches from the Front Lines
Eleven parents are sitting in a circle in an airy, glass-walled living room in south Austin, Texas, eating organic, gluten-free, nondairy coconut ice cream. This is a Slow Family Living class, taught by perinatal psychologist Carrie Contey and Bernadette Noll. "Our whole culture," says Contey, 38, "is geared around 'Is your kid making the benchmarks?' There's this fear of 'Is my kid's head the right size?' People think there's some mythical Good Mother out there that they aren't living up to and that it's hurting their child. I just want to pull the plug on that."
The parents seem relieved to hear it. Matt, a textbook editor, reports that he and his wife quit a book club because it caused too much stress on book-club nights, and stopped fussing about how the house looks, which brings nods all around the room: let go of perfectionism in all its tyranny. Margaret, a publishing executive, tells her own near-miss story of how she stepped back from the brink of insanity. On her son's fourth birthday, she says, "I'm like 'Oh, my God, he's eligible for Suzuki!' I literally got on the phone and called 12 Suzuki teachers," she says, before realizing the nightmare she was creating for herself and her child. Shutting down your inner helicopter isn't easy. "This is not a shift in perspective that occurs overnight," Matt admits after class. "And it's not every day that I consciously sit down and ask myself hard questions about how I want family life to be slower or better."