Feature Story 01-May-2011
Think back to your own childhood. Remember the freedom of tearing off on your bike in search of adventure? Maybe you walked to school with friends, or took a bus solo to piano lessons or soccer training.
Now think about what you consider safe for your own children. Does your pre-schooler run free at the playground, or do you hover nearby? Do you drive your children to school, or home from the bus stop, though it’s not very far? Would you let your kids go to the park with their friends?
In our desire to control a world we’re told is very dangerous for children, we may be denying our kids experiences we ourselves enjoyed⎯experiences that may not be as dangerous as we think.
The good news for helicopter parents is that if we relax a little and trust each other we can make our communities even safer for our children. Landing your helicopter will make your parenting workload a little lighter, and may make your child a more confident, competent person.
The free range parenting movement
When New York journalist and mother of two, Lenore Skenazy, allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home alone from an afternoon shopping trip, she copped a torrent of abuse and was dubbed “America’s Worst [in their parlance] Mom” on national television.
Unapologetic, Lenore answered her critics with her book, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). In a wise-cracking New Yorker’s style, Lenore writes of a crazy paradox: although crime rates in the United States have declined in the last 30 years, parental anxiety about crime has increased. Things once expected of children walking to school, riding bikes to a park and playing outside unsupervised are now considered aberrant and dangerous.
Skenazy says she looked at the real statistical risk and found kidnapping from a public place in the United States is extremely rare. So rare, she says, if your child stood on the average street corner they’d wait 750,000 years before they’d disappear.
Similarly, in Australia, the number of children abducted by a stranger is very small. The Australian Federal Police estimates of the 35,000 people reported “missing” in Australia each year, half of these are “young people”. Over 95% of them are found, often at a friend’s place, most within 24 hours. (The Salvation Army claims a higher success rate of over 99%).
This is not to downplay the tragedy of the small number of children who are abducted by criminals. The coronial inquest into Sunshine Coast teenager Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance in December, 2003 is a potent reminder that some strangers do intentionally hurt children. But the Morcombe Foundation’s own website avoids a sensational take on missing children, recognising many teenagers go missing on their own. Overall, the community’s response to Daniel’s disappearance should hearten us, as much as the crime committed against him appals us.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a parent. But we can take a positive approach (like teaching kids traffic skills, how to react to an uncomfortable situation, and where to seek help if they get lost), and focus on strengthening our communities. Instead of watching violent television that makes child abuse and abduction a weekly entertainment, go for a walk in your neighbourhood. Better yet, get to know your neighbours and get involved in community events. You may be surprised at how safe real life is compared to what’s on TV.
Mixing freedom with common sense
Sunshine Coast mum, Erin, 25, is determined to put the risks into perspective for her daughters, Cooper, 5 and Bailey, 3. Cooper started prep this year, and confidently makes solo forays to the tuckshop. She regularly peruses the lolly aisle in the supermarket while Erin spends a few minutes at the deli (“she’s still within earshot”), and is rarely bored or alone because she approaches kids she doesn’t know.
“She’s quite happy to make friends with just about anybody that she encounters, anyone from another four-year old to a sixteen-year-old girl down the beach,” Erin says. “She’ll sit and chat with them and interact with them [without me being involved in the conversation]”.
Is Erin concerned strangers could exploit Cooper’s outgoing personality?
“As parents we always have that watchful eye. You have to go with your gut instinct and I’m always present. I just don’t see the need to interfere so long as things are within my comfort zone,” Erin says.
“We have conversations about whether you feel comfortable, and if you don’t like something then it’s okay to say no. You can tell mummy if something doesn’t make you feel right…I trust her to put that into practice.”
When Cooper is older, Erin would like her to walk to school with a group of friends, although she’s not sure if other parents will feel as comfortable as she does with the idea.
“The media don’t report, ‘Ten children walked to school today safely and that’s wonderful.’ What we get is, ‘Someone pulled over and asked them directions’ and suddenly it’s red alert, get the police out there.”
Erin tries to ignore the “scare mongering” in the media, and trust a little in her community so her kids can explore the world on their own as much as possible.
“It may not be 100% safe, (but) I do think it takes a village to raise a child, and if I was to see a little girl being snatched up in a supermarket, then of course I would step in.”
Townsville mum, Leona, 32, says while media reports of missing children “get to you” she tries not to let it influence how she parents her two-and-a-half year old son, Mitchell.
“I personally don’t have a lot of fear and anxiety about him being snatched by a stranger.
“Toddlers in particular move so fast, and they’re so clever about getting into where they want to be. For me, the big risks are not watching around pool areas, not watching when he’s in the kitchen.”
Free Range parenting isn’t just about giving kids physical freedoms to explore the world. In her Free-Range Kids blog, Lenore Skenazy chronicles all the madness of modern parenting, from the “experts” who make us feel as if every tiny decision may be crucial to our child’s development, to the safety products industry that sells us baby knee pads for our crawler, a helmet for our toddler, or a special rubber ducky to tell us baby’s bath is too hot (what’s wrong with your elbow?).
Parenting for every possible contingency, whether to control every outcome or avoid every injury can become a habit that’s hard to kick when your kids start school. If you stress over how lumpy baby’s puree is now, you may find yourself “helping” your kids with their homework so they don’t get less than an A, ever.
All the better for their self-esteem, you may think. But educators say learning to cope with risk and failure is vital to development.
Sunshine Coast Grammar School’s assistant head of junior school, Genevieve Hudson, has seen a shift in parental attitudes in her 32 years in education.
“There’s a very different parenting style that’s emerging over ten years, where parents who are really busy sometimes feel to be a good parent you have to be very, very involved in your child’s life. And a good parent is someone who might carry the child’s school bag, unpack the child’s school bag for them, ensuring everything’s done.”
Genevieve believes geographic mobility has led to a breakdown in the old support networks once provided by grandparents, aunties and uncles.
“Parents are doing it tough, they’re doing it on their own, and it’s quicker for parents to get in and do it for the child and control the child’s life than it is to take time to empower the child to do things for themselves.”
Genevieve says giving kids challenges need not be scary, especially if we “scaffold” the risk by teaching our kids life skills.
“The challenge need not be that big (that) it’s terrifying and frightening, but enough of a challenge to be a new experience…that might be something from using adventurous words in your writing through to initiating play with children you don’t know to having a go at solving a conflict with a friend.
“Life as an adult is filled with challenges, and as a child if you’ve never experienced challenge then you’re not going to be equipped with the emotional resilience and the confidence to tackle new tasks,” Genevieve says.
If you feel a panicky sensation in your stomach every time you think of something that could possibly go wrong, and that happens frequently, you may be suffering from clinical anxiety. The good news is that treatment is available, and getting professional help can not only make parenting more enjoyable, it can help prevent your kids falling into the anxiety spiral.
Even if our anxiety isn’t at clinical level, so conditioned are we to telling our kids to “be careful” that it can be hard to stop, even when the risks are not that great. Observe yourself at the playground or when your kids are trying something new: you may find yourself hovering and issuing warnings more often than you realise.
Leona says she feels judged by other parents when she lets her son Mitchell take physical risks on the playground, but she is adamant that kids need independence.
“I let him make what I call safe mistakes, where I know it’s not going to cause him great harm, but I know he’s going to learn that probably wasn’t the best decision,” Leona says.
“School is tough for kids, and if he can make decisions on his own when it comes to peer pressure and things like that, it will allow him to cope a lot better.”
University of Southern Queensland Early Childhood lecturer Dr Louise Phillips tends to agree. Her research challenges our assumptions that children are incapable of engaging with social issues:
“Through my research into children as citizens, my view is that children should be included in society and effectively treated the same (as adults) in many ways.
“By overprotecting children, they aren’t developing skills and a sense of themselves as being competent and capable and engaging in the social world,” Louise says.
She adds that her personal philosophy is that life must involve some risk taking.
Lenore Skenazy paints a grim picture of the excesses of our litigious, injury-averse world: schools that ban hula hoops from the playground (they could roll into someone), housing estates that ban children from playing outside, classic Sesame Street episodes from the 1970s re-released on DVD with a legal disclaimer warning. (They show kids playing follow the leader in a vacant lot, unsupervised. Seriously!)
And she adds: “Kids deserve freedom, responsibility, and a chance to be part of this world, not cooped up like, well… chickens.”
On the other hand…
The challenge for parents is that there are situations in which kids do need our protection. While news reports may focus on stranger kidnappings, the danger is more likely to lie closer to home. An estimated 85% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family member, friend, or someone known to the family. Many children are abducted as a result of custody disputes. The state government’s Commission for Children and Young People found in 2008, Queensland had the highest rate of overall child death in the country. We recorded the highest rate of child drownings, with 18 children dying, most in backyard pools. Sadly, we also had the highest rate of youth suicide. And while Tasmania recorded more deaths in traffic accidents per head of population, Queensland’s rates were “comparable” with 52 children dying in cars. In 2001-05, 12 children were killed in “low speed run-overs” (often in the driveways of their own homes). Even watching too much TV can pose demonstrated risks to children’s physical and mental health.
If you’re getting stressed just reading through all that, don’t feel too bad. It’s normal to worry! The problem is when we allow our worries to overshadow a sensible assessment of the situation. That includes allowing for individual kids’ differences: what one child can easily cope with at age 11, another may not be ready for until they’re 13, while yet another could easily have managed at 9.
Let’s put it this way: how often do you consider not driving anywhere because you could have an accident?
Most of us get behind the wheel each day, simply because we know that spending all our time worrying about risks would be paralysing.
Similarly, when it comes to parenting, rather than allowing ourselves and our kids to collapse under the weight of all the possible negatives, we need to arm ourselves with accurate information, good support, and focus instead on being sensibly optimistic.
As well as “helicopter parents” there are now “lawnmower parents” who step in and smooth out any obstacles in their child’s path to make their lives as easy as possible. If you think this could be you, ask yourself:
Do your kids take on some household jobs, without pay?
Do they pack their own lunch / hang up their clothes?
Do they complete their homework and behave at school or cop the consequences?
Do they get involved with the community/help others less fortunate?
“Protecting” children from these kinds of responsibilities, some experts say, is what’s doing the real damage.
Taking healthy risks and experiencing adventures and failures is vital for kids as they grow older. This can come through not only being allowed some physical freedom, but taking on employment, community involvement, artistic projects and self-expression of their own choice, and under their own steam. As you let go, gently, it may help to remember that we don’t own our kids; we just get to look after them for a while.
Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)
By Lenore Skenazy. Publisher: Jossey-Bass
A lot of parents today, Skenazy says, see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range. Any risk is seen as too much risk. Skenazy argues that if you try to avert every possible risk in your child’s everyday life, that child never get a chance to grow up. Whether you think she’s America’s Worst Mum or the voice of reason in a world gone safety-mad, Skenazy’s take on kids and risk is entertaining.
The Idle Parent
By Tom Hodgkinson. Publisher: Penguin UK
Eccentric British dad Tom Hodgkinson makes the case for backing off and letting kids be kids, rather like The Famous Five (where were their parents?) Funny and a little satirical (He can’t really expect us to give the baby beer?)