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Free Range Parenting Will Take Guts, Groups

What has happened in one generation to cause a shift in the definition of a bad parent from "someone who lets her kids play Atari all day" to "someone who doesn't keep her kids inside playing Wii all day"?
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Not many years ago, I wrote in protest of bringing snacks to kids' soccer games. I said that making cookies for halftime was ruining my weekend, as was being expected to sit on the sidelines during every practice. I can think of 101 things I'd rather be doing than watching soccer practice.

That column was met with much resistance and anger. It also made me pretty unpopular at kids' sports. But that was a long time ago. Today, a growing number of moms are joining a movement inspired by the bestselling book by Lenore Skenazy called Free Range Kids. You know, like chickens, only little people.

The similarity in names is no accident. For a while, humanity was more worried about chickens spending their lives trapped in cages than it was about children being trapped in minivans, playdates and playrooms.

You've heard all the stories -- "when I was a kid, we knew where our friends were by the pile of bikes in the front lawn" and "we didn't go home until the streetlights came on" -- so I won't repeat them here. Soon after I wrote the snacks-at-sports column, however, I wrote another column about my kids riding their bikes through the neighborhood. I was accused, many time over, of being a neglectful parent.

That got me wondering: What has happened in one generation to cause a shift in the definition of a bad parent from "someone who lets her kids play Atari all day" to "someone who doesn't keep her kids inside playing Wii all day"?

I started asking people, "why don't you let your kids walk to school?" The answers always were some variation of "the world is different today" and "I'm afraid they'll be kidnapped." This, despite the fact that numerous studies show that crime rates actually have improved over 20 years. It's actually safer today than it was when we were kids. And back then, even though we came home for dinner when the street lights came on, we went back out to play flashlight tag afterward.

So why do parents think the world is so dangerous today? I believe the 24-hour news cycle has something to do with it, and research by Tversky and Kahneman in 1974 and 1983 supports that. Every semester, I have my college students do a variation of Tversky and Kahneman's classic study, which showed people's tendency to overestimate the prevalence of something they can easily recall:

How many times might a word ending in "_n_" appear on two pages of a novel?

How many times might a word ending in "ing" appear on the same two pages?

Chances are, you can think of more "ing" words than you can "_n_" words. So you, like my students and Tversky & Kahneman's study participants, will tend to overestimate the frequency of those words. But in fact, "_n_" words will have a higher frequency because they encompass "ing" words, plus ones such as "cane" and "paint."

So it goes with the news: You are more likely to recall the vivid images of Natalee Holloway's distraught mother faster than you can recall virtually any other kidnapping story that had a positive ending. And we are bombarded with those vivid images of tragic endings over and over again, 24-hours a day.

But I don't know how much Tversky and Kahneman had to do with the new free-range kids trend. Are we really recognizing psychological tendencies and purposefully suppressing them in order to let our kids be kids again? Or have moms everywhere simply realized we can't play outside with our kids all day and make dinner and hand-frost cupcakes for tomorrow's soccer practice? We just can't.

Maybe moms finally have gotten tired of hovering over every art project. Maybe they are sick of the kids being inside. Maybe they've finally realized they don't really want to sit and make small talk with someone else while their children have a playdate. (The best kind of "play dates," by the way, are the ones where the mom drops off her kid so mine is entertained and I can mop the kitchen floor.)

But getting all free-range takes guts -- and groups. Moms everywhere feel as though they might be the only one on the high-dive who actually jumps on the count of three. Everyone says letting kids walk to school is a good thing, but what if no one else does it? There is still safety in numbers, after all, and a pack of free-range kids is safer than yours venturing out on his own.

In this way, today's young mom bloggers, with their essays about the benefits of free-range parenting, are standing on the side of the pool, swinging their arms and counting to three. They hope everyone else jumps in, too. 1 ... 2 ... 3 ...