Free Range Survivor: How a Survivor of Abuse Doesn’t Freak the F Out Raising Kids

Free-range pigeons.

Free-range pigeons.

Dealing with sick kids for the last few weeks was exhausting but I did manage to read a very interesting book while I nursed my ungrateful, germy children back to health. It’s called Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy. Skenazy became the poster child for “bad” parenting a few years ago when she allowed her then 9 year old son to ride the subway by himself. The backlash and support she received led her to question how this generation of parents is raising children.

The premise of the book is that we’ve been groomed by the media and other parents to be consumed with fear when it comes to our children. We’re convinced that there’s a stranger on every street corner waiting to abduct our kid and that anything short of remaining in our homes and high-fenced backyards is dangerous. Our good intentions have led us to try to protect our kids from any discomfort whatsoever. Whether it’s toddler knee-pads or “second winner” trophies, we are living in an age of childhood bubble wrap.

When our first child was born, my husband and I were total wrecks. As we were leaving the hospital, my husband flipped off and cursed another driver because he was ‘driving like a maniac’ in the parking lot. That drive home (an entire mile) felt like an eternity. We used a diaper wipe warmer (it was winter) and we had the entire house baby proofed before our son was old enough to roll over. I worried about every fever, examined his poop way too much and agonized over if his head was the right shape.

I like to think we’ve relaxed some since then, thanks in part to having our second child. I don’t even remember the drive home from the hospital with her and she wasn’t coddled nearly as much as her brother. So far, she’s turned out fine (probably because of that).

But as I read this book, I realized that I have indeed bought into the belief that the world is more dangerous than not and that protecting our kids means not exposing them to anything dangerous (like the world). I have some good reasons for not wanting my kids to be too “free-range”. I will probably always drive them to school and I really don’t want to go camping. First, we don’t have enough sidewalks in our neighborhood to make walking to school safe. Second, we had a mama bear and her cub come into our camp years ago when we were camping. Those bears ate all our chips and oreos, which we were trusting enough to leave out on the picnic table during the night. Hairy thieves.

As totally reasonable as these fears are, I have others that are senseless. Like my fear of tsunamis and the way I plan our escape route when we vacation on the beach. Or my fear of ants and how there’s a certain park I hate to go to because I’m sure that a yet-to-be-discovered species of piranha-ants is going to consume me and my children.

This book helped me to reexamine my beliefs about which activities are appropriate for children. For example, whenever I see a group of girl tweens walking along the street, I wonder which one will be the first to get pregnant because clearly, walking home from Circle K is a gateway to teen sex. One minute they’re sucking on their pixie sticks and the next they’re in the backseat of a car with a young Matt Dillon lookalike. When I was a kid, my mom would send me to Circle K with a note that said, “Please allow my daughter to purchase a pack of Salem Lights.” To make the 20 minute trek more enticing, she’d give me an extra quarter to buy something for myself. I’d stretch the 20 minute walk into 40 by kicking every rock in my path and then I’d spend another 20 minutes deciding between pop rocks and bubble gum. Eventually, I’d hand my mom’s note to the cashier. He/She would barely glance at me before handing me a pack of smokes and my Bazooka. While I did have teen sex, it wasn’t because I was seduced by a Matt Dillon lookalike on the way home from a convenience store (I wish) and by the time I was old enough to want smokes of my own, cashiers weren’t taking notes from mommy anymore.

Skenazy’s book painted a pretty picture of childhood in the 70s and 80s that didn’t mirror my own. It’s true that most of us who grew up in those decades could walk to school, play in parks unsupervised and pal around with the neighborhood kids. It was idyllic…except when it wasn’t. The walk to the school bus stop was when I got bullied the most, the neighborhood park was my first introduction to syringes and used condoms and a group of neighborhood kids poured sand down a kitten’s throat. Yes, we were allowed to do more stuff without helicopter parents but I’m not exactly in a hurry to recreate my childhood for my own kids. Sometimes, the boogeyman is real.

Yet I also completely agree with what Skenazy says about the fear level of today’s parents. We watch Dateline, the evening news and CSI and we’re convinced that children are abducted by strangers on a constant basis. But the statistics tell a different story. Skenazy writes:

“…if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years.”  

If only statistics raised children.  The reality is, no one wants their kid to be that 1 in 1.5 million. I’ve played the lottery expecting to win with worse odds but I’m a dreamer. The key, I guess, is to not let those dreams (nightmares) get in the way of exposing our kids to the kinds of physical and emotional bumps and bruises that build character and confidence. In reality, it’s not strangers we need to worry about. It’s people right under our noses that have the best opportunity and cover to hurt our children.

I was not a confident child. I was smart, I was sweet and I was creative but I was far from confident. I was the perfect victim for those who wished to do me harm. I was polite and deferred to adults. I picked up early what it meant to be ashamed and I knew how to keep my mouth shut about those things. I believed that grownups knew better than me in every circumstance. I didn’t truly find my voice until I was 40.

I don’t blame my parents for anything that happened to me as a child. They cared very much about my well being but like a lot of parents, they trusted the wrong people. It wasn’t total strangers who hurt me. It was people that should’ve been on their radar. No matter how much we respect our parents, we all have something that we want to do differently. I’m trying to teach my kids that adults don’t deserve respect just because they’re adults. If any adult, I don’t care who it is, does or says something to you that makes you feel uncomfortable, listen to that feeling inside that tells you it’s not ok. And tell me and your dad. That’s what I’m teaching my kids.

I can’t wash away all my fears with promising statistics but I can mirror confidence by not expecting the worse to always happen. Confidence is power. It’s also what makes a kid think they can jump off the roof into the swimming pool (which my little brother did when he was house sitting for us one year) but if confidence also empowers my kid to say, “Get away from me!” at a critical moment, I’ve done something right.


And because there’s nothing cuter than a piglet eating potato chips… 

23 Comments on “Free Range Survivor: How a Survivor of Abuse Doesn’t Freak the F Out Raising Kids

  1. You’ve given me so much to think about. Great stuff! I lean toward parenting in fear, but in the last couple of years, I’ve made a conscious effort to ease up on those fears. Living in fear is not living. I don’t want that for my kids. I especially loved this: “I’m trying to teach my kids that adults don’t deserve respect just because they’re adults. If any adult, I don’t care who it is, does or says something to you that makes you feel uncomfortable, listen to that feeling inside that tells you it’s not ok. And tell me and your dad. That’s what I’m teaching my kids.” Thanks for your wise insight!

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    • Thank you Jackie! It does take conscious effort. I grew up living in fear and I have to watch myself to make sure I’m not unconsciously encouraging my kids to be afraid of things. It can slip out unexpectedly if I’m not paying attention. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  2. Thank goodness I married who I did – I would have owned stock in bubble wrap had it been up to me. He’s been my balance when the monkey brain plays every single scenario out to the worst possible outcome imaginable. The calm voice of reason and the person who watches the next adventure when I have to look away.
    This definitely looks like a book I need/want to read – I don’t seem to be getting any calmer in my old age.
    Much love to you, my friend!!

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    • I do recommend it and it’s a quick read. What’s funny about me and my hubby is that we don’t freak out over the same stuff so between the two of us we have just about every fear covered! I gave him a recap of the book and now we’re both more aware of things we can do differently. But I will probably always be mindful of disaster preparedness. It’s just the way I’m built! xxoo

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  3. “In reality, it’s not strangers we need to worry about. It’s people right under our noses that have the best opportunity and cover to hurt our children.”

    Such truth, Karen.

    I was hurt by someone close. You were, as well. We need to realize the threat often lays in wait within the walls of our homes and hearts. Sadly, those we trust (or should be able to) are those most readily able to walk out the grievous offenses of heart and soul.

    Lovely post.
    As always, dear one.

    With friendship,
    Dani

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dani, I thought of you when I was writing this because the excessive fear in our society is not reserved for people raising children but a problem for anyone who makes themselves vulnerable to love. When we love, we fear for those we love. The fact that the worst perpetrators are often right under our noses is a frightening fact. But I like to think we are bigger than our fears and that love wins. Much love to you sweet Dani!

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  4. I could relate to so much of this! As I was reading, I kept nodding and thinking, “uh huh” and expecting the connection to end there. But I related the whole way through to just about everything you said.

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    • I think this subject resonates with a lot of people caught up in our fear culture. I’m probably not going to stop watching Dateline but I’m going to look at it differently. 🙂

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  5. When my kids were little I used to say to them, “What’s my job?” and they would say, “To keep us safe.” That way, they understood that when I said no it wasn’t just to be mean (like it was with my mom) but that I had a real reason.

    I also taught them that respect is earned and while it is not okay to be rude or unkind, it is also perfectly okay and even required to speak up when you believe something is just not right. I know for a fact that this saved one of them.

    But I tried (and tried and tried) not to be too far up their behinds – I knew they needed their freedom. I just made sure that freedom had limits because my childhood in the 60’s and 70’s was much like yours ten years later. No sunshine an lollipops for me (I mean of course there was fun – I just don’t romanticize it into something it wasn’t). My neighborhood was the “hood” and I was seldom allowed out after dark. I did walk to elementary school which is where I got beat up by some older kids and, in a separate occurrences, had one man expose himself to me (what a jerk) and one man molest me.

    My children played outside, went camping with friends (I DO NOT camp), played on sports teams and even camped out in our back yard – overnight no less! No cell phones, just me asking them to check in from time to time, me taking a genuine interest in their activities and their friends, me getting to know the parents of said friends and me being as involved as possible in school.

    That said, I just don’t buy into “free range” parenting. My 9 year old would not ride the New York Subway (or in our case the DC Metro) alone under any circumstances. Besides, the only thing that “free range” brings to mind is chicken and we kill and eat them.

    But in fairness – I will read the book before I pontificate any further.

    Great post Karen.

    Sherry

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! Sherry, you’re awesome. Every kid and every neighborhood is different and I’m sure there are things I let my kids do here that would be a really bad idea somewhere else. I created a little fear monster in my son by telling him one day that it was illegal for me to leave him in the car alone. He was being lazy at the time and didn’t want to go into a store with me. A couple of weeks ago, when he was home sick and I needed to take his sister to preschool, I tried to get him to stay in the car alone while I checked her in. It was a 60 degree day in a church parking lot and it would’ve taken me less than five minutes but he would have none of it. He cried and told me that I would be arrested and he’d have to go live with someone else. If nothing else, this book is helping me see the little ways that I create fear in them without meaning to.

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      • I know what you mean. When mine were little I was having a stranger danger talk with them when my son piped up and said, “mommy please stop – you’re scaring me”. Really made me stop and think about what I was doing and what it was doing to a five year old. I lightened up after that.

        Sherry

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  6. I love that book! And I love your thoughts on this because my childhood was very similar to yours, and my husband was raised in a very secure bubble. We both want to find a balance with our someday-kids, so that they’re independent and responsible and thoughtful and safe but not afraid of everything.

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    • Yes, finding that balance is so hard. Especially since when you’re in the middle of parenting, the answers are far from obvious. My husband had an awesome childhood but he still wants to keep our kids in a bubble until they’re in their mid-twenties. I totally blame it on what we, as a society, watches on TV. We start to think the craziness we see is ‘normal’.

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  7. Sounds like a cool book. I had to laugh at the part about your fear of tsunamis though, because it was like I was reading my own thoughts. Every time I’ve gone anywhere near the ocean, whether we’re driving, hiking or laying on the beach, I am planning how to escape a tsunami (so I’m glad I’m not the only one). I think I watch too many Discovery disaster shows.

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    • I just watched a Dateline on Tsunami survivors, which didn’t help. What’s funny is that one of the women interviewed said she’d always had an unreasonable fear of tsunamis that didn’t seem so unreasonable after she was in one!

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  8. I’m convinced the risk to children from strangers are no greater or lesser than in years gone by… frankly I think probably less since on the whole (in the UK anyway) we are seeing crime levels fall year on year for at least a decade or so. Like you say we’ve created this frightened environment where if you let your kids go out after dark you are condemned by society as a poor parent who doesn’t care.

    My son did loads of stuff with scouts as a boy. Canoeing for several days from the start of a river to the open ocean. Over night orienteering team races. Camping in the mountains. Skiing … etc. etc. He grew so so much by us letting him go and be himself with the minimal interference. I know the risk assessment on the overnight hikes demanded some poor scout master pretty much dedicating every waking non-working hour for many many weeks.

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    • This book talks about declining crime rates here in the US too, which you’d never know from watching the news.

      There’s just no substitute for outdoor activity. I may not want to go camping but my husband is up for the task! Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts may even be on the horizon for them.

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      • “you’d never know from watching the news”….
        we are so inundated now with news, every time we turn on tv, radio, open our laptops, there’s something. And that also conspires to give us that feeling that we are not safe, that “others” are out to get us or our kids…
        great post. I remember summer days when my mom would open the front door in the morning and tell us to get out and be back for dinner, and then we’d be out again until dark. Doing who knows what, as far as she was concerned. And I grew up where i still live, in L.A….not a cozy small town.
        It’s so hard, i guess we do the best we can, make sure they know we love them and that WE are safe havens for them, and then hope of the best.

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        • It wasn’t that long ago that kids needed to be completely capable of taking care of themselves at a young age. My mom was married and a mother at 15. I didn’t have my first until I was 38! That has to affect how we parent. Thanks MIsh!

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          • I was 39, and only had one….
            my mom had me when she was 25 and then 3 more every two years or so..
            yes, certainly a factor

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  9. I can’t wait to read this book! I heard about it on NPR also and think it provides a voice of reason to anyone who is trying to raise their children without excessive fear.

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    • It definitely gave me a lot to think about. I highly recommend reading it, even if like me, it doesn’t completely jive with your experience. I saw a lot of myself in those pages!

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