Home on the Range

Published on Tuesday September 6th, 2011

A few years ago, Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year old ride the New York City subway back home and wrote a column about it. This turned into a blog, then a book, then the Free Range Kids movement. Its premises are as follows: parents today are paranoid and driven to madness by exaggerated media-generated phantasms of drug dealers and pedophiles lurking around every corner. This madness manifests as a refusal to permit the unsupervised play that children once enjoyed. Where once children would roam the streets on bikes and skateboards with nary an overprotective adult or safety helmet standing between them and the opportunity to independently negotiate the world, today they are shuttled from structured activity to structured activity, safe in the minivan’s suffocating embrace.

Naturally, this movement is not without controversy, and even non-parents perceive a stake of their own in this debate. The insistence on safety helmets and constant supervision is seen to be closely related to the desire for media censorship of sex and violence, and denial and repression of their teenagers’ burgeoning sexuality. Since these restrictions also impact the enjoyment of non-parents, the figure of the overprotective parent appears – a toxic subject who threatens our enjoyment because of their excessive love for their children. Parenthood as a concept deviates from today’s consumerist orthodoxy that protects individual freedom by reimagining interpersonal relationship as a form of entertainment to be kept fresh and novel by continual turnover, and cannot help but appear as at best boring or out-moded and at worst pathological.

One odd feature of this phenomenon is that parents are usually castigated for their nostaglia about the past, when it is used to justify media censorship. We read that the wholesome vision of the safe, suburbuan and family-friendly 1950s just a fantasy, one that parents ought to train themselves to forget, possibly with the aid of CBT-style mental exercises. The idea that children once enjoyed profound unsupervised independence doesn’t elicit the same bursting of bubbles because its proponents don’t have the deviant attitudes that would require diagnosis and treatment as if they had a mental illness.

But it may also be a fantasy. Not in the sense that kids in the 50s or 70s or whenever didn’t really have the kind of freedom that we think they did – we have it on good report that this really did happen, although it shouldn’t be forgotten that it depended on an economic system that provided a middle-class life on the income of a single breadwinner and a stay-at-home parent was in shouting distance of any kid who found themselves in trouble.

What’s forgotten in the story of lost freedom is that social standards for what constitutes acceptable forms of discipline have also changed. Yes, children were allowed to wander on their own, but not without a stern warning (we’d call it a threat today) that there would be hell to pay if there was trouble. People today talk about their mother’s eyes on the back of her head, because they were routinely busted for doing something forbidden even when they thought she wasn’t watching. Mothers actively cultivated this kind of paranoia in their children, because it was considered a sound parenting practice – if kids felt that they were constantly surveilled by parents (or by God), there is less of a need for the actual parental presence.

Today’s ubiquitous friendly oversight is not a sign that children lack autonomy. In fact, it signals the opposite, a new emphasis on psychological autonomy, and removing freedom of physical mobility is the cost. Is this unreasonable? I think the trade-off is, at the very least, not as obvious as it’s often made out to be.

The specific fears of pedophiles preying on their children and so on is probably not well-founded, but the belief that children are not prepared to face the world on their own probably is. What we think of now as threats, bullying and psychological coercion was used by parents to restrain their kids from doing stupid stuff, but those strategies are now believed to be traumatizing. Parents perceive the world as more threatening, not because the world is really so different, but because parenting standards really do make kids less equipped to deal with it on their own.

On balance, I think it’s a good thing, and I think self-described free-range parents are making a mistake if they’re denying their own safety instincts out of guilt over limiting their kids’ physical freedom.


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