Why I Broke Up with Lenore Skenazy and Free Range Kids

Why I Broke Up with Lenore Skenazy and Free Range Kids November 5, 2015

I came upon the concept of free range parenting several years ago when I came upon Free Range Kids, a website run by author Lenore Skenazy (who authored a book with the same title). I was initially extremely attracted to the idea. The byline for both the website and the book is “How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and Skenazy seemed to focus on promoting children’s rights. She argued that children are capable of much more than we give them credit for, and encouraged parents to take a step back and give their children room to prove themselves without micromanaging or over-babying. I liked what I saw! But over the years, I have begun to have some concerns.

For one thing, Skenazy is very very big on promoting parents’ rights. She opposed a bill in Scotland some years ago that would have assigned each child a social worker at birth. This individual would then be there to check in, to provide resources, and to be a source of support to both parent and child. Skenazy’s scathing article was then reposted on Ladies Against Feminism. While I am sure Skenazy had nothing to do with this reposting, it cemented my growing concern—I, too, grew up in an environment that emphasized parents’ rights and the idea that parents know what is best for their children, and I’m sorry, but I just can’t with that.

If we want to promote children’s freedom of movement (Skenazy’s first big break came when an article she wrote about letting her nine-year-old ride the New York City subway alone went viral), we have got to do it within the framework of children’s rights. I am very very very uncomfortable with framing it within a “parents know what is best for their children, just leave them alone to make their own decisions” framework because I have seen that framework lead to child abuse and even death. I grew up in a homeschool community where people routinely looked the other way because, well, parents know best so whatever those parents are doing must be fine. This sort of framework is not okay.

I was stuck by an example of this when I read Skenazy’s article, Stop Criminalizing Parents who Let Their Kids Wait in the Car. (The article itself is nearly two years old, but I only came upon it recently.) When I read the article’s title, I was initially taken aback. Leaving toddlers and infants in the car in especially hot or cold weather can result in death, and parents are not very good at judging just where that temperature line lays. Surely, I thought, Skenazy must be talking about leaving older children in the car. I was left in the car when I was eight or ten or twelve while mom would run an errand, and I could totally see framing that as a children’s rights or children’s freedom issue. But no.

The article is a posting of a letter Skenazy received, but it starts with her commentary:

Ah, readers, you know this is my bugaboo: the idea that the authorities (cops, CPS) know better than PARENTS whether or not a child is safe waiting for a short while in the car. I always want to ask the busybodies who summon the police, “Do you really think it’s safer to drag a toddler across a crowded parking lot, where they could get run over, or into a STORE where there could be a ROBBERY in progress and the child could get SHOT?” I  mean, if we’re going to do some wild “worst-first” thinking about kids in the car, let’s do some worst-first thinking OUTSIDE the car, too.

As for this particular note, I urge the writer not to shop at that jerk’s store again and know that she has a whole lot of people ON HER SIDE. We are sick of a society criminalizing CONVENIENCE as if a mom who dares to be efficient, smart and rational is not as good as one who’s hysterical. Or so sez me. – L

Notice the centralizing not of children’s rights or freedoms but rather of parental convenience. Look, when you become a parent your children’s safety and wellbeing takes the front seat while your convenience takes the back seat. Convenience should not play a role in this conversation. Instead, the conversation should center on children’s safety and children’s autonomy. 

Skenazy frequently points out that rates of things like childhood abduction are far, far lower than we as a society seem to think, and that children are in fact safer than we realize. She uses this point to encourage parents to let children of a certain age walk to the park alone, or walk to school, etc. She correctly points out that our fear that our children could get kidnapped unduly hampers our children’s freedom of movement. So now, all of a sudden, why is she talking about the chance of a robbery going on in the store where the parent is shopping and the kid getting shot?! Seriously, what is that? I have never in my life walked in on a robbery, or, heck, even worried about walking in on a robbery. Apparently fear mongering is okay if it’s in defense of parental convenience?

Okay, but what’s in the letter Skenazy is prefacing here? It’s a bit long, so I don’t want to quote the whole thing, but suffice it to say that the letter is by a mother who left her sleeping toddler in the car while running an errand and returned to find that a concerned store employee had called the cops. The employee made racist comments (telling her to go back to where she came from) and accused her of abducting the child. The writer then goes on as follows: 

I really would have liked to explain my view on the likelihood of a random child abduction from a locked car — especially compared to other risks we all are exposed to simply by driving in traffic  — to the rather nice police officer. (We were probably more likely to be struck by lightning or to win the lottery than that kind of abduction happening.) But who wants to get into that kind of discussion? Most people are simply not sensible about risk assessment, especially when children are involved — there are even studies about that. In hindsight, I probably should have described the employee’s inappropriate behavior to the police as well, but I was way too upset and just wanted to get out of there.

At this point I should admit that my husband does not share my views about leaving a sleeping baby unattended in a locked car for a few minutes, even in our peaceful New England college town. (He grew up in a big city and I understand that with my small town background, our perspectives and experiences differ.)

P.S.: I am happy to say that my toddler slept deeply and peacefully through the whole unpleasant affair. 

— A Trying-to-Stay Sane Mom

The letter-writer seems to think that the main concern about leaving a toddler in the car while running an errand is abduction, and Skenazy doesn’t correct her. In fact, the main concern is children becoming too hot or too cold, depending on the weather—and a car can become an oven even at moderate temperatures. But I want to point out another concern that everyone seems to leave out. 

My children are six and three. Recently I stopped at a store and had to run in for one thing. The weather was mild and it would take two minutes and I really didn’t want to go through the whole unbuckling routine and then have to buckle them right back in two minutes later. I momentarily considered leaving them in the car (wishful thinking on my part), but I quickly realized what a very very bad idea that would be.

While I can lock the car, my three-year-old knows how to unlock the front doors from the inside (the back doors have a child safety lock). When we arrive at a destination he frequently unbuckles himself, crawls to the front, and lets himself out the passenger door. This is fine, because we’re getting out anyway and it saves me having to open his door, but if I left him in the car for two minutes and walked into a store I would have no guarantee that he wouldn’t let himself out and follow me. And a three-year-old crossing a store parking lot alone? That would be dangerous.

Perhaps the letter-writer would object and explain that that her toddler can’t undo her seat restraints. It’s possible that that’s the case. But in that case, how do you think a toddler would react to waking up and not seeing her mother and being unable to free herself from her seat to look for her?

If you leave a sleeping toddler in the car, even if the weather is mild enough that overheating or getting too cold is not an issue, your possible results are: (a) the child sleeps the whole time and never knows you’re gone; (b) the child wakes up and waits happily until her mother returns; (c) the child wakes up and freaks out and starts screaming for her mother; and (d) the child wakes up, figures out how to undo her restraints and get out of the car, and runs across the parking lot alone looking for her mother. I don’t know the relative odds here, but I don’t like them.

An actual child-centric discussion of leaving children alone in a car while running an errand would include discussion of all of the options I listed above, not a simple brushoff of the entire question because parents know best. An actual child-centric discussion of issues like these would center the child’s needs, not the parent’s convenience. A discussion of leaving a sleeping toddler in the car while running an errand that centers parental convenience and does not even take into account how the child would feel if she woke up alone is not in any sense a child-centric discussion. It is instead a parent-centric discussion.

Can you see why I feel so disillusioned by Skenazy and her free range parenting movement? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about promoting children’s freedom and children’s rights! I will continue to believe that children are capable of more than we give them credit for, and that we need to give children more trust and more say in their own upbringing, along with more freedom of movement. It’s just that Skenazy frequently seems more interested in promoting parents’ rights and parental convenience, and it has gotten to the point that I can no longer see that original ideas I liked so much in her writing.

I’m not breaking up with the idea of free range parenting, but I am breaking up with the brand Skenazy has created, a brand that centers parents’ rights, not children’s rights.

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