If you're a parent of a child under the age of 12, here's a question for you: When is the last time you let them walk to school by themselves, have an unscheduled play date, or—God forbid!—let them to go to the store to pick up a gallon of milk by themselves?
Kids today are tagged, surveilled, and tracked like endangered species. Is it any wonder that our college campuses now rush to provide safe spaces and panic rooms to protect young adults from speakers and materials they might find disturbing?
To discuss the changes in American childhood—and what to do about them—Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) and a contributor to Reason. Skenazy is launching a new non-profit called Let Grow, along with psychology professors Jonathan Haidt and Peter Gray, and Daniel Shuchman, who's the chairman of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Meredith Bragg.
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Gillespie: What has changed and what defines American childhood now?
Skenazy: Kids are supervised all the time and the idea of letting a kid out unsupervised has become so unusual that that's when people … when people see a kid walking outside, sometimes they call 911 'cause they don't know. I mean, should a child ever be unsupervised? Then the cops come and they don't know, isn't that dangerous? It's constant supervision of one sort or another.
Gillespie: In the story, you mention an incident where a kid was outside chopping wood and the police end up showing up.
Skenazy: Right. So a kid was outside chopping wood in the suburb of Chicago, which is, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He was in his teens and a person walked by, saw the kid, thought, 'Oh my God, a child, an axe, anything terrible could happen.' Called 911, the police came, 'Why do you have an axe, why are you chopping wood here?' And he's like, 'I wanted to build a fort, me and my friends were going to build a fort.'
Well, they confiscated, the police confiscated, the axe and he had another tool and they gave them to his parents for safe keeping. To me, that's the land of Lincoln. There's a history of-
Gillespie: Abe Lincoln would have been picked up on the first of 12 miles he was walking to school and put in the pokey until his parents came to pick him up.
Skenazy: Right, or given a little extra homework and some reading or something that would really develop him because chopping wood and building something and doing something with your friends and having any autonomy, all those are terrible. What's really important is a little more homework.
Gillespie: You've been writing about this for years now, calling attention to it and the story that got you started on this was when you let one of your kids ride the subway home in New York, which made you into the 'World's Worst Mom.'
Skenazy: Right, first it made me America's Worst Mom and then it grew.
Gillespie: Now you're battling it out to be the World's Worst Mom on Mars and the gas giant planet.
Skenazy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, those aliens planets.
Gillespie: Tell us about … what was that story and why was that emblematic really of what you're talking about with Let Grow?
Skenazy: I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone because he had been asking if he could do it and we decided it was safe and smart and good cause he was familiar with the subways and so are we. We let him go, I wrote a column about it and two days later I was on the 'Today Show,' MSNBC, Fox News and NPR. I got described as America's worst mom.
I struggled with why for a long time because whenever I was in … being interviewed by one of the TV shows or whatever, there would come a point in the interview when the lady or the man would lean over and say, But Lenore, how would you have felt if he never came home?'
I never had a good answer. 'Oh, you know I have my spare son at home!'
Gillespie: Yeah, your weekends would suddenly open up.
Skenazy: Yeah, really, yeah. I don't have to save for college, I mean, all sorts of … I never knew what to say. There was no good answer to that and I finally figured out, the reason there was no good answer was because it wasn't a question. How would I have felt? I think they knew, so why were they asking, because that was my crime. My crime was I didn't go to how terrible I'd feel if I let him ride the subway and somebody kidnapped him and then they raped him and then they killed him and if I … you know and how I … If only I'd been with him, it would have never happened. I won't let it happen.
That's what you're supposed to do to be a good parent today, is go to the very darkest place first, I call it 'Worst first thinking.' Think of the worst case scenario first, think about how terrible you would feel, how you could have prevented it if only you had been there and therefore, not let them do anything on their own.
That's what's describing childhood today. Never letting kids do anything on their own because of the fear that something terrible could happen or that they will fall behind because I'm giving them free time but they could have been in Mandarin.
There's the fear of children being raped, killed, eaten and then there's the fear of them not getting into Harvard and they're parallel.
Gillespie: Yeah. This is all happening against the backdrop of incredible safety for children as well. Discuss that. One of the most bizarre things is that we're treating our kids more and more as kind of Faberge eggs. You just can't let them out of your sight, they have to be in shrink wrap all the time, or bubble wrap all the time and at the same time the social reality is that children have never been safer.
Skenazy: I know, and sometimes when I say there's been a safer time to be a child, people say, 'That's because we're watching them all the time.' It's like, but there's also never been a safer time to be an adult. Crime is back to the level it was in 1963. The safety might be one of these ironic things that the safer you get, the safer you think it can be. Now that we've almost eliminated all childhood dangers, the fact that anything bad could ever happen to a kid looms even larger.
To go back to Lincoln, why not, he had four children and one of them made it to adulthood. People didn't say, 'What a terrible dad! Oh my God! He's just … He's America's worst dad.' They understood that children's fate was … it was fate. There were bigger forces at work than just whether we were watching over our kids enough.
Nowadays we don't have that because every … almost everybody makes it and so if somebody doesn't make it, or the fear that somebody doesn't make it means that you must be watching all the time. Then the thing that worries me is that as much as we're walking with our kids and staying with our kids and driving our kids, now there's technology to watch literally every step they take and did they get on the bus and are they texting when they got there and who are they emailing and let me read their texts and …
You can see so much of your kid's life that that's gonna become the norm. How come you didn't know he was emailing this bad … I don't think about a lot of bad people online but how come you didn't know? You're supposed to know literally everything that's going on in your kid's life and you open by saying it's like universal parole. It's more like prison. Everything they do and say and eat and read is being supervised by somebody worrying about 'is this going to hurt them.'
Gillespie: In the article, you mention a statistic, which is stunning that in a recent year, it's what, it's like a couple of dozen kids have been kidnapped by strangers.
Skenazy: Yeah, I mean it always … it doesn't move a lot.
Gillespie: That's the kind of paradigmatic fear, right? That …
Skenazy: That is totally …
Gillespie: … your kid is going to end up on the milk carton, even though we don't drink out of … milk out of cartons anymore but it's that type of thing. That's a completely phantom fear.
Skenazy: It is a phantom fear but when you think about when the pictures appeared on the milk cartons it was in the mid-80's. Those children are now today's parents and they grew up … you know when they put the kid's pictures on the milk cartons, it felt like every morning you were looking at a child who had been … disappeared and nobody ever explained, 'By the way, 90 percent of those were children taken into custody battles or runaways.'
Nobody explained that. It felt like children were being … as many as there were milk cartons in the world, those were children that were missing and I feel like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children exploited us with that fear without ever breaking it down to the idea that stranger abductions are extremely rare, and the statistic I give in my book is if you wanted your kid to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to keep them outside, unsupervised, for that to be statistically likely to happen? Sort of like how many lottery tickets would you have to buy to be statistically likely to win, how many? How many, how long?
Gillespie: Hundreds of thousands?
Skenazy: Oh, you're like the only one. Most people say, 'Oh I don't know, three hours? Five minutes?' You're annoyingly right.
Gillespie: You would have to be hanging them out in the parking lots of Go-Go bars and things like that and …
Skenazy: That's right, at three in the morning.
Gillespie: … even that it would … you would have to work at it.
Skenazy: You would have to work on it cause the guys are going to Go-Go bars, want the Go-Go girls and don't want your seven-year-old whiner. Maybe they want yours.
Anyways let me tell you the answer it is, it's 750,000 years. You'd have to keep them outside and after the first 100,000 years, they're not kids anymore.
Gillespie: They've aged out.
Skenazy: They've aged out, yeah. They're not really kids.
Gillespie: What in the story, in Let Grow, you have Peter Gray who is a phenomenal developmental psychologist who looks at the role of free play and unstructured play in mammals, including humans. Jonathan Haidt, the author of the Righteous Mind, really interesting character, particular in speech battles and kind of intellectual diversity on campus, what is the connections between the way we treat our kids as human veal, as kids and then when they go to college. Is there a connection that you guys are making there?
Skenazy: There is a connection and there's a … one of my favorite artifacts from our culture that I talk about in the Reason article is a question/answer that ran in Parents Magazine and the question is, your child is old enough to stay home alone for a short while, while you run errands or whatever and that's not problem but now she has a play date coming over. Are you allowed to run to the dry cleaners while the friend is over?
The answer was 'Absolutely not! Are you crazy? What if there's a squabble? You want to be there to intervene.' To me, that's the Rosetta Stone for the connection between childhood and what we're seeing on campus because you've been told that your child cannot handle even a spat with a friend without adult intervention because somebody's feelings could get hurt and when you're instructed that way by the bible of parenting, which is Parents Magazine, that your kids can't handle it, it's too traumatic. Your job is to make sure that nothing ever rises to that level, then you kind of get to campus and nobody wants to be in an argument or hear anything that they don't want to hear or if they are in an argument, they need to run to a safe space or protest the fact that somebody is saying something that's gonna make them uncomfortable because we've been taught as parents, we're not helicopter parents by nature.
We've been taught, that we must not trust our kids in any kind of human interaction. Only adults can handle these things for them. They get to college and they haven't had … I mean, obviously they've had some arguments and they've had some free time but they haven't had huge swaths of it like we did growing up or like any generation before us where they had to argue and get mad and then realize, 'No, I want to keep playing.' Okay and hold it together and then you start playing again and things get okay again. They don't know that things get okay again because they've never gotten to that point.
Gillespie: That seems to be a key to what you guys are talking about is resilience. That idea that life is kind of rough and tumble and you know, we're talking about pathological stuff here. We're talking about just the scrum of everyday life where you … you get pissed, you get angry, you get disappointed, you have a triumph.
Skenazy: Something's unfair.
Gillespie: Yeah. That seems to be what is missing, right? We're designing childhood and young adulthood with where resilience can't develop because you're never really confronted with that type of thing to overcome.
Skenazy: Right, and that's why Peter Gray's work is so important and why he's part of this fab four team. He writes about the importance of free play and he points out that when you're in little league, you got adults telling you when the game starts, when the game ends, is the ball in or out, who's playing what position and when your turn is.
Okay, you learn how to bat, I'll grant you that. When kids are playing a game, first of all they've got to figure out what game they're gonna play and if they make up the rules, they have to explain it to each other and if you have a bunch of different ages, well the 12-year-old is gonna throw it lighter to the six-year-old because the six-year-old … you know you don't want to whop them and you'll look like an idiot …
You're learning empathy and teamwork and that you make the rules. That's democracy, I want to change the rules. 'Okay, what do you want to do?' 'I want to play it backwards.' 'Okay, let's decide on that.' And if …
Gillespie: And you're hanging out with kids of different ages as well …
Skenazy: Different ages-
Gillespie: As opposed to being stratified constantly with …
Skenazy: Right, right. One of the things Peter Gray points out is when you're with just the eight-year-old soccer team, all you can do is compete. There's other eight-year-olds who's the best but when you're the eight-year-old with the five-year-old … I just saw my kid's friend just drop … she just dropped him off on the bus this morning and there's two seven and eight-year-olds who tuck in, who put the five-year-old between them and put on his seatbelt and they get to be, you know they're eight but they get to rise to the occasion. That's a little bit of maturity training. The five-year-old doesn't want to keep crying on the bus because he doesn't want to look like a baby to the seven-year-olds.
We've taken all that out of their lives and we've given them structured activities that teach them a skill but not the skills that come naturally in play. We've given them something but we've taken away something that was always there until now, which is learning how to be a human by being around other humans and playing because the drive to play makes you get along and get frustrated and then get along again.
Gillespie: It reminds me, when you were talking about little league, in the original 'Bad News Bears,' which came out in 1976, the kids at the end, they're coached by an alcoholic, played by Walter Matthau, at the end of the season they lose the big game, spoiler alert, but they come close, and they drink beer at the end.
Skenazy: Oh my God.
Gillespie: Instead of champagne but … in the remake that was made a few years ago with Billy Bob Thornton, the coach …
Skenazy: I'm kind of guessing what they drank.
Gillespie: … is a recovering alcoholic who drinks near beer and at the end, they break out near beer but they don't even drink it. This seems to kind of mark different stages of American childhood …
Gillespie: How did it get this way? What are the causes because it's not the kids, kids haven't changed, it's parents have changed and as you were saying, we … we're both baby boomers. We grew up in an era where you know I'm thinking of, in 1979 I guess I was in high school but there was a band called The Runaways with Joan Jett and Lita Ford and … there was kind of a celebration of kids just being out of control and unwatched and crazy. Not all a good thing, I mean obviously there's problems with that but … what happened? Why are we and Gen X-ers, also famously left alone by their parents. Their parents were too busy getting divorced or doing drugs …
Skenazy: Or high or both.
Gillespie: … or getting on with life. How did we get this way?
Skenazy: One is the media, the media was not 24/7 when we were growing up and of course there's nothing that the media likes more than the story of a stranger kidnapping a white, middle class child. Those get repeated through the drama shows, the 'CSIs,' the 'Law and Orders.' There was actually a 'Law and Order' based on a nine-year-old wanting to take the subway alone and … my son-
Gillespie: I take it he didn't make it home.
Skenazy: He made it to school yeah, he didn't make it home.
Anyway, there's a litigious society that we're floating around in. You start looking like a lawyer at everything, 'Wow, I could have sued for that. Wow, that's dangerous. Wow, I can't believe that … this tag, this zipper thing fell off, that could be a choking hazard.'
Gillespie: Yeah, my hoody, my kid got strangled for five seconds with a hoody on a playground slide.
Skenazy: Right, right, right, and I can't believe it. The slide is to blame. The park and recreation department is to blame and the hoody is to blame.
We live in an expert culture, experts like the Parents Magazine are always telling you that you're not doing it right and so they come up with this new level of perfection and then you follow it and then that's not good enough, they come up with some new level of perfection. You have to breastfeed for six months, eight months, eight years, forever.
Then we live in a capitalist society, which I celebrate but there's no easier dollar to get from any human being than the dollar of a parent who's afraid and you could save them. Now there's all the monitors and stuff that you actually put on your baby, your healthy baby home from the hospital in the crib, you put on this little sock and it measures their heartbeat, breathing rate, temperature, movement and blood oxygen level, which normally, hitherto, had been measured only if your child was in neonatal intensive care. Now that's a level of care that you're supposed to be using with your healthy baby at home at sleep. If you're not even allowed to let your kid be asleep at home and finally you can relax and drink, break out the near beer.
Parents are being driven crazy by this. The overarching thing and sort of to get back to your original idea that children are under parole is this idea that we can control everything. We control so many things. You can control the temperature of your house from your car on your phone. It feels like we can control literally everything our children encounter and you start thinking that you are in complete control and the idea of not being in complete control scares you because you could have. You could have been watching them on a map to see where they were going and you weren't and how come?
This level of sort of God-like omniscience is one that parents are forced to take on and it's driving them crazy and it's driving their kids crazy. One of the reasons parents can't let go is that the old milestones are buried. My mom knew that when you start school … when your kid starts school, you walk them to school the first day and then they go, right? Then at eight or nine you might be a latchkey kid and that was okay and then at ten you might have a paper route and at twelve you would be a babysitter and … everybody thought that these were normal, acceptable milestones.
Now, no because they have to go to piano or I have to be driving them or the school won't let them be self released until fifth grade. These milestones are buried. The one way to un-bury them is to make it normal again for parents to let their kids do something.
The first Let Grow project is getting schools to have teachers who say to their kids, 'Okay, today when you go home, ask your parents if you could do one thing that you feel you're ready to do that for one reason or another you haven't done yet. You could walk the dog, make dinner, if you're in a dangerous neighborhood. You could go pick up your brother from soccer, you could get yourself ready and go to school in the morning. Ride your bike to the library.' Anything that we would have done, literally without a second thought.
Because the school is endorsing it and because all the other kids are doing things and so you're not the only crazy parent, the parents generally let them do something. From the limited times I've done this in schools to date, the parents are almost unbelievably ecstatic at the projects like, 'Oh, look here he comes, oh my gosh, she got the milk! This is my kid. She walked all the way, you're gonna do it tomorrow.'
Parents don't remember, literally don't remember why they were so afraid to let their kid walk three blocks or wait alone at the bus stop because now it seems so obvious and this is my latest revelation if you'll bear with it. It's … I didn't understand why the parents would be so ecstatic about something so minor but what I finally figured out is that it's actually deeper than that. I think that it's that we all realize that as much as we're doing for our kids at some point we will die and our children will be there without us.
Finally, we have proof that that's gonna be okay. I feel like it's this profound thing that just is a school project and it doesn't take any money, it doesn't take any class time. It doesn't take any preparation. I think that trying to spread the Let Grow project in schools, which we're doing in seven schools in Long Island now and two here in the city of New York, I think that's gonna … I think people are gonna look at that and go, 'Well our school can do that too.' There's the project.
Another one, and this is Peter Gray's baby, is after school free play. Alright, so we were just talking about all the stuff you get from play. You solve disputes and you deal with being angry and not knowing what to do and you organize yourselves and yet afterschool, like at the school my kids went to, there was after school robotics and knitting and chess and this and that but there was no chance for free play.
Just offer that as an option. Have the free play literally be free play. I want somebody in the corner who's like a lifeguard who is going in if there is actual blood or they have the EpiPen, but otherwise they're not interfering. We're going to try to get some schools … the first ones that are doing this anyway, a box of loose parts, which is pvc pipe and fabric and springs and tape and boxes and so that they could-
Gillespie: Tattoo rigs.
Skenazy: Tattoo rigs, some needles yeah, yeah, limited.
Gillespie: Heroin needles, yeah.
Skenazy: Limited. That way, they have to share.
Gillespie: Right, yeah.
Skenazy: We're working on it. Anyways-
Gillespie: The bold vision.
Skenazy: Right, right. You got it. You got to shock them, right?
Anyways, the idea is that kids will have a place where there's enough kids, like when my kids came home and I wanted them to go outside there weren't other kids outside so you can't really get a kid to go outside unless there's another kid outside.
This way, you have a critical mass of kids, they're the different ages like we were talking about. Maybe there's a box of junk, maybe there isn't. It's obviously a safe enough space that parents feel okay about letting them be there and then it also gives parents something … a place to keep them for three to six so it works for everybody and it's cheap. You have a couple of supervisors like maybe high school kids just watching. We're trying to get that underway.
Then we're trying to get towns to go become Let Grow towns where they announce that, 'Look, when we see kids outside, we will not arrest the parents.' Imagine that, right? They would pass the Let Grow bill of rights, our children deserve the right to some unsupervised time. We have the right to give it to them without getting arrested and you don't get rid of all the cops or child protective services, you just enlist them in supporting kids outside as opposed to arresting the parents who let them play outside.
Then we're doing some fun contest that have not started yet but will be starting very soon and one of them is Think for Yourself. It's an essay contest trying to get kids to realize that … like one question is something like, write a thank you letter to the jerk who was wrong until you realized, 'oh, they had a point.' Or talk about a time you had a big fight with a friend and how you got over it. Just remind them that the sturm und drang of interpersonal relationships isn't the end of the world, it's the beginning of something fine, which is exchanging ideas, maybe taking something in, maybe arguing your point more forcefully but nobody has to protect you from free speech and whatever you want to read or think about or talk about.
Then finally, we have this one silly contest, cause you know I love contests, which is asking kids to come up with the name of their favorite TV show or book or movie, imagining if their main character had been over protected and so it's like 'James and the Giant Peach Cut into Tiny Little Pieces so as Not to Pose a Choking Hazard.' That's just to get younger kids thinking about it like, 'Wait a minute, Tom Sawyer wasn't always with his mom, how come I don't have any adventures or freedom?'
We just want to start breaking into the children's consciousness that they deserve the freedom that their parents had to read, think, feel, talk, run and then helping parents realize that this fear has been shoved down your throats, it's not natural. It's put upon us by the marketplace and the litigious society, the experts or whatever and you can-
Gillespie: And by ourselves.
Skenazy: Well it becomes internalized, but it's a lot of these outside factors. Wanting your child to be safe and grow up to outlive you is the natural thing. Thinking that you have to stand at the bus stop with them every day with the five other parents and the five other kids until the bus comes is not natural. That's superimposed.
Gillespie: We've been talking with Lenore Skenazy, she's the author of Free Range Kids, she's a contributor to Reason and she along with Jonathan Haidt have the cover story in the December issue of Reason, which announces the Let Grow foundation and organization devoted to creating an atmosphere in which children can become independent and resilient and move into adulthood in a mature and productive fashion.
Thanks so much, Lenore.
Skenazy: Thank you, Nick.
Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.