Should parents actively supervise their kids’ play time?
Some parents follow the “free-range” way of more relaxed parenting – but the extremists among them (too relaxed) let their kids wander off alone to become more “self-sufficient” even though unsupervised kids are often too young to deal with potential hazards.
Other parents are more cautious – but the extremists among them are called “helicopter” parents (‘hyper-attentive’) – always hovering over their kids, which may well cause them to become “fragile” and overly dependent.
At what point does either type of parent become an extremist? Critics of over-parenting often ignore the harms of under-parenting – and vice versa.
Here's a tried-and-true middle ground:
“Safe-Range Kids” parenting is simply letting kids play freely (unstructured) within a designated area with a designated, attentive adult nearby as a lifeguard. Enlarge the area over time after careful tutoring. Err on the side of caution to play it safe. (See the end for links to tutorials as well as a list of common parenting styles.)
Lenore Skenazy’s 2009 “FREE-Range kids” book urges parents to relax their kids’ supervision and allow them to roam freely to learn self-sufficiency.
She has useful tips to reduce over-parenting and rescue henpecked kids from extremist helicopter parents (the control-freaks). But, especially in her public statements, she often throws caution to the wind and goes to the other extreme of too much freedom and dismisses those who disagree with her as irrational or paranoid. Let’s see if her book can withstand rational scrutiny.
A popular narrative says that, starting in the 1970s, the media hyped the increasing rate of crimes against children, which resulted in overreaction and overprotection, and that contributed to stunted childhood development, which, in turn, caused 21 percent of today's college students to become anxious and depressed.
At first the media ridiculed Ms. Skenazy’s free-range theory but as more research emerged showing the growing problem with some college students’ self-sufficiency, some parents began adding more unstructured free play to enrich childhood development (and some of them became free-range extremists).
But extreme free-range wandering (unsupervised) needs to be pulled back to 'free play in a safe range' by always having a designated, attentive adult nearby as a lifeguard. That way, kids still get the developmental benefits of unstructured free play and lessen the significant risks of P.A.D.D. – predators, accidents, drugs, and delinquency. See the stats below.
Most U.S. state laws define child endangerment as “placing a child in a potentially harmful situation through negligence or misconduct.” Penalties range from a misdemeanor to a felony.
It’s difficult to exactly define ‘child endangerment’ or ‘negligence.’ As a result, most state legislatures enact strict parameters with zero tolerance and have a judge determine each case individually. But such inflexible laws are sometimes unfairly rigid and treat some parents unjustly.
In May 2018, Utah enacted Child Neglect Amendments to their law and redefined “neglect” to exclude things like letting a lone child walk to school or play in a park – with this clause: “of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm.”
Utah now leaves it to Child Protective Services to decide each case on its own merits and give (mildly errant) parents a fair warning – thereby likely sparing them from legal proceedings.
Ms. Skenazy spearheaded the drive for the amendments, which some media call the “free-range parenting law” But what does such a vague term mean? And how do parents know what is “of sufficient age and maturity?”
Ms. Skenazy portrays cautious parents as ‘living in fear’ as though they’re paranoid instead of realistic people with legitimate concerns. In fact, behaving cautiously is what practical people must do every day, such as using seatbelts, locking their home's doors, and so on.
The ‘Precautionary Principle’ of risk management says that potential risks, no matter how remote, must be given more weight than any presumed benefit. It’s better to overestimate rather than underestimate any possible harm.
Calm, commonsensical fear is an essential survival trait that has kept us alive throughout history. Fear and caution protect us. See “The Gift of Fear” by renowned security expert Gavin de Becker.
The Pollyanna Syndrome (the “it-couldn’t-happen-to-me” attitude) is derived from the 1913 novel “Pollyanna” about an excessively optimistic girl. That’s what psychologists call the tendency for some people to recall pleasant memories more easily than unpleasant ones – looking back at the ‘good old days’ through rose-colored glasses and seeing ‘anecdotal fallacies.’
Part of the parenting controversy is that parents often deceive themselves (and burden others) with anecdotal fallacies and project their experience, or that of people they know, onto the general (and diverse) population, such as: “My childhood was (fill-in-the-blank) and I’m OK, so it must be OK for everyone.” Ms. Skenazy's book is loaded with them.
All childhood memories and anecdotes are subjective and reciting them as some sort of universal wisdom makes it impossible to have an objective discussion. Let's ditch the clutter and stick to the facts:
The USDOJ says between 750,000 and 1.3 million children are reported missing each year. Roughly 140,000-240,000 of those are temporarily lost or runaways, and 500,000-900,000 are kidnapped in a parental custody dispute.
Every year on average, 50-100 kidnapped children are murdered, and another 50-100 are offered for ransom or disappear permanently. Another 58,000 are briefly abducted or lured away. And yet another estimated 150,000 children are targeted but escape by rejecting a lure and running away.
Ms. Skenazy disregards the total of 100-200 deaths/disappearances every year because they’re so few compared to the millions of kids in the U.S. She also plays down the 58,000 briefly missing and doesn’t even mention the 150,000 children targeted by predators. How could she close her eyes to more than 200,000 kids every year?
From 1981 to 2015, more than 1,000 children went missing and were never found alive. And nearly 2 million other kids were briefly abducted or lured away but survived.
The vast majority of strangers will protect a child - if they happen to notice the child is in danger – see Stranger Danger vs Stranger Safety FAQ But three percent of men are devious pedophiles. That means 1 man in 33 is struggling to resist his craving for sex with a child. Why tempt him with your unsupervised child?
Three Types of Kidnappers - From “The Kidnapping of Juveniles” – USDOJ - July 2000 (an unprecedented analysis):
• Family members commit 49 percent of kidnappings – usually a parent kidnapping their own child due to a divorce and custody dispute.
• Acquaintances commit 27 percent of kidnappings – often teen girls kidnapped by the mother's boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.
• Strangers commit 24 percent of kidnappings – usually within a quarter mile of the child's home.
See Common Kidnapping Lures at Child Safety - Outdoors
Also see Child Safety - Kidnapping Escape
Three Types of Child Molesters - A 2001 University of Pennsylvania study found that 47 percent of child molesters were relatives; 49 percent acquaintances, such as a teacher, etc.; and 4 percent strangers. The molesters are 91 percent male – a quarter of them married with children.
Child Safety - Molesters shows how 'acquaintance' molesters target kids.
The rate of crimes against children is lower today than in the past, so now Ms. Skenazy wants to decrease the tighter parental supervision that was crucial in reducing those crime rates. Now that's irrational.
Unintentional injuries of children and teens 0-19 years caused 12,175 deaths and 9.2 million nonfatal injuries (hospitalized). Motor vehicle injuries were highest in teens 15-19 years old. Source: CDC 2008 Child Injury Data
Not surprisingly, most motor vehicle injuries of teenagers occur when unsupervised teenagers are driving (that's why car insurance rates are so high for teenage drivers ). This disproves the contorted stats on page 184 of the 'Free-Range kids' book that somehow compare kidnappings to car crashes. It's absurd to compare little kids to 15-19 year old teenagers in completely unrelated situations.
She also illogically compares other injuries to the few kidnapping/murders – while ignoring the far more numerous attempted kidnappings and brief kidnappings wherein the kids survived. Why is she blind to more than 200,000 children targeted by predators annually?
Beyond that, Ms. Skenazy unwittingly shoots down her own theory because when she says that kidnapping/murders are far outnumbered by car-crashes, fires, and drownings, she's actually proving that your child does indeed need even closer adult supervision to help prevent all those accidents!
And that is the exact opposite of her unsupervised free-range theory. Close examination of her garbled, self-serving statistics exposes her illogical reasoning - as you'll see throughout this page.
• Every hour, 1 child dies from an injury.
• About 1 in 5 child deaths is due to injury.
• Every 4 seconds, a child is treated for an injury in a hospital.
Source: CDC Child Injury April 2012 - “Injuries of children 0-19 years are preventable. Car crashes, suffocation, drowning, poisoning, fires, and falls are the most common ways children are hurt or killed. More can be done to keep our children safe.” So says the CDC (contrary to free-range theory).
In The Straits Times - August 1, 2015 newspaper interview Lenore Skenazy said: “If parents tell children something is too dangerous, they are telling their children who they are and who they can be, before they have even tried it.”
Huh? So don’t tell Johnny it’s too dangerous to tease that rattlesnake. Let him find out on his own and learn who he is and who he can be - whatever that means (and if he survives).
She claims that only unsupervised free-range meandering with random kids will teach children to be “resilient” and “self-sufficient.”
Some professors actually agree with her yet they, too, don’t realize that kids can have unstructured, free play in a safe-range with a lifeguard nearby. They’re also blissfully unaware of her many other flaws shown on this page. Are any professors ever wrong? Will you bet your child on them?
Your kids need a lifeguard whether they're in the water or on dry land. Regardless of what a few professors say, it's simply common sense - and confirmed by the CDC statement (mentioned above): “More can be done to keep our children safe.”
When kids aren't supervised or monitored, a power hierarchy sometimes develops as group-think and peer pressure lead them into deviant behavior and do stupid things simply to maintain bonds with their peers. Why risk your kids hanging out with ‘the wrong crowd’ and having ‘problem’ kids lead them astray?
There are also older kids as well as adult predators who lure unsupervised teens with alcohol and/or drugs.
The CDC reported 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017. There are also many more addicts. And the Prison Policy Initiative says 2.4 million prisoners were behind bars in 2014 (the latest statistics available).
Where do these wayward kids come from? Does anyone really think that more than a fraction of them were raised by helicopter parents?
Almost all juvenile delinquents and gang members, most drug addicts, and most prison inmates were raised as extremist free-range kids (defined by default) who weren't carefully supervised. It's self-evident.
To be clear, most well-trained, moderately free-range kids do not go astray – rather mostly just those raised by extremist free-range parents or over-stressed parents struggling with overwhelming life burdens.
“FREE-RANGE kids” (as it appears on the book's cover) is a rousing and catchy title for marketing and publicity purposes. It's enhanced with the image of distant trees, a heavenly blue sky, and a lone child dressed as an explorer, focusing on a map, seemingly on an exciting adventure. Go, kid, go!
The fanciful cover and the fuzzy meaning of the title urge parents to let their kids range freely and boldly on their own. However, that would endanger the millions of kids whose surroundings are not safe for aimless, unsupervised wandering. And while there are helpful tips for less rigid parenting, the book’s content comes nowhere near the fantasy that the cover sells.
(By the way, your child could join the Scouts for a safe way to become the explorer on the cover. Oh wait, Ms. Skenazy disapproves of supervised activities.)
Overall, her guidelines ignore the dangers of accidents and also gloss over the risks of drugs and delinquency (with just one brief mention on page 187) – in effect, brushing aside the annual toll of:
• 200,000+ unsupervised children targeted by predators
• 12,000+ accidental child deaths
• 9 million+ hospitalized accidental child injuries
• 70,000+ drug overdose deaths (and many more are addicts)
• 2 million+ prison inmates
Is she a blindly optimistic Pollyanna ignoring inconvenient truths – seeing only what she wants to see? How could she miss the glaring downside of her unsupervised free-range theory that puts millions of kids at risk of P.A.D.D. – predators, accidents, drugs, and delinquency? Why is she opposed to lifeguards? She's a modern-day Donna Quixote crusading to save kids from safety.
The ill-conceived free-range theory needs to be replaced with the far more sensible, supervised (yet unstructured) ‘free play in a Safe Range’ - with a lifeguard.
Ms. Skenazy's new program, 'Let Grow' (with the self-aggrandizing claim of “Future-proofing Our Kids and Our Country”), suggests that schools add 'Play Club'
free-play periods in the playground or gym before and/or after school – with an adult nearby as a 'lifeguard.’ Now that's a good idea!
But guess what? That is not an unsupervised free-range. Instead, it's 'free play in a Safe Range' - with a designated, attentive adult lifeguard nearby. Is she now disavowing her book?
Let's hope Let Grow will someday also recommend 'free play in a Safe Range' with a lifeguard for your child at home as well – and drop the free-range nonsense.
• Learn your state's laws. As to “sufficient age and maturity,” err on the side of caution – play it safe. Here's one of many online advice articles - but make sure your local laws agree: At What Age Can Kids Go Out By Themselves?
• Take your child to inspect the area or route where s/he's allowed to go – preferably not alone – and also avoid lonely areas. A designated free-play area or route is safest when it’s near a designated, attentive, adult lifeguard (within earshot).
• A child needs a lifeguard nearby when on dry land and especially when in water. Most people think drowning is easy to spot, but it’s certainly not – and can happen quickly. Rescuing is not so easy, either. See How to Spot a Drowning Swimmer .
• Grant them more freedom only after more step-by-step tutoring.
• Monitor ‘problematic’ playmates who can negatively influence your child – even well-behaved youngsters can become cleverly devious teenagers.
• A personal alarm (a.k.a. screamer or noisemaker) can be useful when a child is taught to use it properly. Attach it to a waist-belt so the child won’t drop it as s/he runs away – a predator will likely not chase after a noisy target.
• Pepper spray is only for a trained child when going to/from places where pepper spray is not prohibited. Remember that kids are not allowed to have pepper spray on school grounds. Check your local and state laws.
• The RadKids.org teaches self defense (from bullies, molesters, kidnappers) as well as all-around safety lessons for ages 5-12.
• Give your kids resiliency, self-sufficiency, and many benefits by enrolling them in the Scouts (now for boys and girls) for controlled, safe adventures.
• There are also many extracurricular activities at schools and community organizations. The Society for Research in Child Development says extracurriculars for kids provide many benefits, including higher grades and self-esteem.
• Training in martial arts is an excellent education for children. It gives them strength, endurance, agility, balance, eye-hand coordination, and flexibility. It also instills character, courtesy, discipline, self-control, self-esteem, respect for elders, a gratifying sense of accomplishment, as well as resiliency and self-sufficiency. And last but not least, martial arts provide lifelong skills for kids defending themselves from bullies and predators. See Choosing a Self-Defense Class
Basic parenting categories used by Family Psychologists:
• Authoritarian = strict (maybe even harsh) overseer.
• Authoritative = loving overseer.
• Permissive = carefree overseer.
Child development experts say the authoritative parenting style is the most successful in raising children who are both academically strong and emotionally stable.
Some (of many) informal parenting categories used by parents:
• Attachment (Pampering/Authoritative) = often accused of overindulging and “bubble wrapping” the child.
• Snowplow (Indulgent/Authoritative) = make sure their kids never face any obstacles in life.
• Helicopter (Intensive/Authoritarian) = involved, sometimes hyper-attentive (the extremists are “control freaks”) - a.k.a. Anxious Parenting
• Tiger (Authoritarian) = strict, encouraging.
• Elephant (mild Authoritarian) = less strict, more nurturing.
• Wabi Sabi (a mixed, Japanese style) = relaxed, accepting.
• Dolphin (Authoritative) = balanced, middle-of-the-road parenting
• Jellyfish (Permissive) = no boundaries, expectations, guidelines, or goals - irresponsible parenting.
• Free-Range (Permissive) = carefree, relaxed, risky if too free and unsupervised.
• Safe-Range (Authoritative) = encourages independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency – with a designated, attentive adult lifeguard nearby. All the above styles blend well with the tried-and-true 'free play in a Safe Range.'
See many more links on Child Safety - Overview.