Lenore Skenazy started the free-range movement almost by accident in 2008. Two days after her personal essay, "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone" appeared in the New York Sun, Skenazy found herself on Fox News and the "Today" show, and labeled "America's worst mom." So, with the help of a friend, the New York City-based, Monroe-summering writer coined and trademarked the term "Free-Range Kids" and started a blog.
Skenazy is no parenting daredevil. "I wouldn't have done it if I thought I was putting my son in danger," she says. But when she's advocating that parents take their kids to the park and leave them there or outlining the imperfections of the sex offender registry (which tracks convicts), she's easy to vilify. Yet her overall message exposes the clash between anxiety and traditionalism in our shifting culture, and it's resonating with parents.
Victoria Stramiello recently moved to New Windsor and started the Hudson Valley Free Range Kids & Parents Meetup group so she can befriend people without feeling defensive about her parenting choices. When she goes hiking, other parents worry about Lyme disease, how the kids will hike back down, and whether the mountain stream water is dirty. Recently, when one little girl kept stumbling on the rocky terrain, Stramiello said, "If you don't let them fall when it's easy, they won't be able to get up when it's hard." She admires Skenazy for putting things into perspective. "I think free-range needed a spokesperson, especially for those individuals who may not have the resources to always watch their kids," Stramiello says.
Age of Anxiety
On her Discovery Life channel reality TV show, "World's Worst Mom," Skenazy coaxes overanxious parents into letting go. She says our knee-jerk reaction is to do worst-first thinking. Our kids might be five minutes late coming home, and we imagine the worst-possible scenario. "'What if?' leads to a lot of fearfulness on our part, but it also leads to laws," Skenazy says. She rails against criminalizing the type of parenting our parents employed, like letting the kids wait in the car for five minutes (illegal in some states) or walk home from the park (recently deemed unsubstantiated neglect in a case in Maryland). Skenazy feels we're prepping for random acts of violence as if they were the everyday norm. Our precautions send the message to our kids that we love them, but we don't believe in them. "A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own, eventually can't," Skenazy writes. It also renders any free time that parents carve out as being at the expense of children's safety, and there's an element of back-door antifeminism to that. Skenazy feels that limiting a parent's everyday options as well as a child's freedom groups the two as if they can't survive together unsupervised. That becomes a no-win situation for people navigating the challenges of a culturally chaotic family life.
In New Windsor, per the Board of Ed policy, Stramiello's seven-year-old son can't get off the school bus near home unless someone is there to meet him. It's perplexing to Stramiello, who grew up in a single-parent household as a latchkey kid. "I don't want to make parenting decisions based on someone calling the cops on me," she says. "I want to make decisions based on what I'm comfortable with."
She has a vision of how she wants to raise her children. They're young, so she starts by teaching the basics: reporting to her where they're going and strategizing with them age-appropriate risktaking. While they're hiking, she'll ask her son which path they should take, and let him decide to change course when needed. "I want him to be able to solve a problem without me fixing it. It's about education and boundaries." But when Stramiello reads posts and comments on Facebook, she feels judged. She laments someone's recent claim that it breaks her heart to be without her children. "It's almost a badge of honor if parents are hovering." What constitutes good parenting is subjective, and Stramiello feels it's too easy to condemn others rather than offer a helping hand.
Boundaries Closing In
At some point, the family focus shifted from an experiential, spontaneous childhood to an idealized, blog-worthy parenthood. When did we start hollering at the teenaged umpires during our kids' soccer games? When did we stop letting our children run barefoot in the grass? During WWII, kids were sent walking home from school with house/latch keys dangling from necklaces, presumably to spend hours alone until mom got home from work. But by the aughts, parents were calling their college-aged kids to wake them up for class. This helicopter parenting is a relatively new phenomenon that's transitioning to become the new norm.