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Free Range Kids

Maybe kids are not as breakable as I thought. Could it be that my anxieties about falling from a bicycle and eating spoiled eggs and falling from a trampoline are more dangerous than a scrape, occasional bellyache, or even twisted ankle?
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What if you lose your son for a minute in the mall? Will he be snapped up by a deviant with yellow teeth and a Def Leppard T-shirt?

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, says, "Absolutely not."

Skenazy is hell-bent on showing parents that the world is not as unsafe as they think. Her self-proclaimed cause: "Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers . . . baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape."

I disagree with her about the non-organic grape. But otherwise, I'm onboard. My son is 7-years-old and seeking more independence, so I can use a dose of her anti-anxiety medicine.

Skenazy wants us to stop being helicopter parents. She wants us to let kids play outside, experiment, and be more independent. This, she posits, makes them happier, smarter, and more empowered.

In the Netherlands, reports Skenazy, 4-year-olds romp around the playground unattended. In Lithuania, parents still leave their babies in strollers outside the market while they shop. And in lots of places around Europe, little kids ride their bicycles to school. This is true. My friend Yolanthe, who has moved to the Netherlands, confirms, "Yes, kids start riding at age four so they can bike to school by five."

Skenazy notes that when we hover over our kids to protect them, kids get the message that they're helpless without us. So what should we do? Says Skenazy, "Train our kids to look both ways, wash their hands, and never go off with strangers," and then give them some freedom.

In my favorite chapter of the book, Skenazy encourages us to reclaim Halloween. She wants kids to trick-or-treat without parents, she wants folks to give out home-baked cookies and brownies, and she wants to get caramel apples, candy apples, and plain old apples back into the mix. So she looked into the number of Halloween poisonings and deaths.

Guess what she found.

One hundred?

One thousand!?

Oh, my! Save us! Certainly not four thousand?!

Nope. Zero. A big doughnut. Joel Best, professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, studied crime reports dating back to 1958 and found zero recorded incidents of trick-or-treaters being injured or dying from apples with razor blades or poisoned Halloween candy.

Skenazy has changed me. There is no doubt that kids need more free time and more play outside. And that empowering kids with appropriate levels of independence makes them stronger and more self-confident. After all, if we never remove the training wheels and don't let go of the bike, our children can never learn to ride.

So even amid my fears and reservations, I've found myself going free-range. Just last week I asked Noah to venture a few aisles away from me in the supermarket to pick out fruit. And yesterday, when Noah and I were supposed to go for a bicycle ride together but I needed to stay home with Benji, I found myself saying, "Go ahead, sweetie. You can ride by yourself down the road to Marc Circle (a cul-de-sac) and do some loops."

Noah was thrilled. He tore off down the street. He gathered speed, neared Marc Circle, started turning, took it a bit too wide, hit his tire on the curb, flipped off his bicycle, hit his bike helmet against the pavement, rolled two times, and cried.

I jogged to him.

He could stand.

I patted him down. Bloody scrapes on his knees and right elbow, but nothing serious.

I carried him home.

We are suing Skenazy.


But the experiment was actually a massive success. Noah stood proudly as Gwen washed his knees and elbow. Proud not of his cuts but of his independence. Proud of his short mission. And happy, I think, that I believed in him. That I trusted him. If I trust him, well then, he figures, he must be pretty great.

Maybe kids are not as breakable as I thought. Could it be that my anxieties about falling from a bicycle and eating spoiled eggs and falling from a trampoline are more dangerous than a scrape, occasional bellyache, or even twisted ankle? Maybe fearing nature is actually more harmful to health than an occasional beesting? Maybe as I come to realize how strong Noah and Benji are, they will believe it too.

And maybe, just maybe, as I come to see that strangers are not in fact incompetent, evil, and plotting but are instead, competent, kindly, and trustworthy, then perhaps I will finally accept that so, too, am I.

Excerpted from the new book Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi ©2014 by Brian Leaf. Published with permission of New World Library