Book Review of Free-Range Kids

Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy, published in 2009
There are times when I feel like a terrible parent and ridden by guilt for doing things like letting my kids run ahead of me at the store or play out in the backyard while I stay inside the house. There are other times I feel suffocated by the fear that something horrible like kidnapping will happen to my kids. So I was thrilled when I had the chance to read Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). I started reading with the hope that I would be able to relax as a parent and that I would be able to find guidance about what was reasonably safe to allow my kids to do and what really was inappropriate.

Overall, I was satisfied with the book. I was actually surprised to see the book was filled with stats alongside the expected anecdotes of kids running free and stories of kids virtually imprisoned in their homes. The stats help me process whether I am endangering my children when I contemplate allowing them to walk to school on their own. They will also help me hold my ground when I feel I need to justify myself to another parent. The book even talks about this issue specifically, that there’s sort of a parent peer pressure/competition to be the safest parent ever. Our culture translates “safest” parent into “best” parent.

Skenazy uses stats to point out that “children today are statistically as safe from violent crime as we parents were, growing up in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.” She says that, “when parents say, ‘I’d love to let my kids have the same kind of childhood I had, but times have changed,’ they’re not making a rational argument.” I was surprised to read this, because it means that kids are just as safe now as they were when I was growing up. However, times really have changed, it’s just that the change is in the parents. Parents today don’t want to take any risks.

My favorite part of the book comes at the end in the chapter titled “Strangers with Candy.” She puts into perspective a parent’s greatest fear of child abduction. She knows that parents aren’t really relieved when told that statistically child abductions have gone down, because what if that one in 1.5 million is your kid? But she says that “a child is forty times more likely to die as a passenger in a car crash than to be kidnapped or murdered by a stranger,” “ten times that number are killed by fires at home,” and “almost twenty times more likely to drown than to be kidnapped or murdered.” However, we can’t stop our children from getting in cars, staying at home, or going swimming (well, maybe they can avoid swimming, but you get the idea), since living life means that you have to take some risks. And trying to prevent them from practicing their independence while they’re young by doing things like playing outside and walking to nearby places means that they are missing out on valuable experiences and life lessons in the name of safety.

Skenazy’s writing style can be grating at times with it’s over the top jokiness and combativeness, and I even found some parts of the book to be offensive. The “Avoid Experts” chapter assumes that all her readers do not know how to check their sources and says that all “experts” should be avoided. Instead she says that we should just talk with other parents for advice. I found this offensive for three reasons. One, I can evaluate an expert’s credibility on my own. Two, as the book’s author she appears to be an “expert” saying that all other experts are wrong. And three, she quotes experts in her book all over the place, and she even says at one point that she knows that she told us to ignore all experts, but this one really knows what he’s talking about. This is just nonsensical. Perhaps the books that she read weren’t right for her kids or said things that her own parents had already taught her, but everyone grows up differently and a good “expert” can help even things out. The book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” will always have a place in my mind as the book that helped me really get through to my three year old when asking advice from parents, from teachers and going to talks didn’t help. The “Avoid Experts” chapter was early in the book, but it was the worst and most of the book was fine.

Overall, this is a good book and I’m glad that I read it, but there are definitely parts of it that should be ignored. I do feel more relaxed as a parent now, and I feel safer in my mind. I just need to take reasonable precautions like locking the door at night, but otherwise my main tool in keeping my kids safe is to teach them how to take care of themselves. Skenazy lists ASSERT Super Kids as a group that teaches safety skills to kids, and a group local to me is Kidpower. They say that kids need to know not to go off with strangers, know how to say or yell no to others, and fight back or run away when they need to. That’s like teaching a kid to fish instead of giving him one.

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