Parenting Without Fear. Our kids are safer than ever. So why are we still afraid? By "Free Range Kids" author Lenore Skenazy for

Our kids are safer than ever. So why are we still afraid? by Lenore Skenazy

June 2, 2009


What do the DVDs Sesame Street: Old School and Showgirls have in common? Besides enduring popularity, that is?

Simple: They are both for adult viewing only.

Swear to God. If you go out and buy the deluxe DVD set of Sesame Street‘s early days – 1969 to 1974 – you will have a delightful night ahead of you, watching kids play follow the leader, and climb through a giant pipe in a vacant lot, and laugh as they go hide-and-go-seeking through laundry on the line. It is childhood at its most PBS pure. But be forewarned: you will be watching something labeled – seriously – “For adults only.”

That’s how much childhood has changed in just one generation.

I should know. I let my son do a time-honored rite of passage here in New York – that is, I let him ride the subway by himself, last year, at age nine – and got labeled “America’s Worst Mom.” Yeah, worst. Because I listened to my son, who’d been begging me and my husband to let him do this “grown up” thing for months until we finally thought, “Well – okay.” We made sure he knew how to read a map, gave him money for the trip and quarters for the phone and then, one sunny Sunday, I left him.

In the handbag department at Bloomingdale’s.

There’s a subway station right underneath, which he found, of course. But I didn’t stick around to watch, because I knew he would. In fact, if I’d thought he was in mortal peril, I never would have let him go at all. But really – I said, “Goodbye! Have fun!” because I trusted him, I trusted my city (with its crime rate now on par with Boise, Idaho). And I even trusted the training I’d given him in how to get around in the world: “You can talk to strangers – just don’t go off with them.” (A way better lesson than plain old “Stranger danger!”)

My son got home safe and sound – and practically levitating with pride – about 45 minutes later. He knew he’d achieved a milestone. But leaving our kids to their own devices is not the way we are expected to do it anymore, at least not if we pick up a parenting magazine, or turn on the TV, or venture into the great maw of a baby superstore. The message we get from all those places is that TIMES HAVE CHANGED! Our kids are in greater danger than ever before.

From what? From everything! Risky rattles! Toxic toys! Or at least not-developmental-enough toys! Or plastic toys! Or cribs! Or the wrong food, the wrong bottles, the wrong stroller. Really – did you read that flap a few months back about how our kids are going to end up with less than 800 on their SAT verbals because in most strollers, they sit facing the street and not their mother? And that therefore, they are deprived of time that would have been better spent discussing, I guess, Hegel? (And not the Knocked Up kind of Heigl, either. Hegel Hegel.)

Every single second is presented as a chance for us parents to either protect and perfect our kids, or leave them alone at their peril. That’s why the old Sesame Streets suddenly seem so “inappropriate” (the favorite word of the parenting establishment. Whatever happened to good ol’ “wrong”? Guess that’s for another rant.). Now activities like walking to school, playing in the park sans a security detail and even babysitting are considered ridiculously, terrifyingly dangerous. See-you-on-a-milk-carton dangerous. Calling-Nancy-Grace-dangerous. It’s one of the fastest societal sea changes I can think of: what was wholesome just one generation ago is reckless today.

But as I discovered in a zillion interviews with historians, sociologists, psychologists, criminologists, teachers and even children, it turns out that kids today are as safe as we were. So maybe it’s time to give them a childhood again – and give ourselves a break from all that worry. Let’s talk about safety for a second, and then we’ll discuss how kids might benefit from a little loosening of the reins. (And how we parents might benefit from having a second to breathe.)

Crime-wise, we are back to the levels of 1970. In the ’70s and the ’80s, crime started going up until it peaked around 1993. After that, it started going down again, steeply. So if you were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s (are you ready for this?), your children today are actually SAFER than you were.

Our kids are safer than ever. So why are we still afraid? by Lenore Skenazy

June 2, 2009

That’s almost impossible for a lot of people to believe, but my statistics come from the U.S. Department of Justice. They are confirmed by the Crimes Against Children Research Center – a center at the University of New Hampshire dedicated to childhood safety. Below right are its numbers in all their non-alarmist glory. The operative word? Down.

So what has gone up? I’d say cable TV, crime shows, the violence in crime shows, the number of hours we spend inside watching those shows because we’re too afraid to go outside (thanks to those crime shows), and the number of books, products and services peddled to us by telling us our kids are unsafe.

Before I go on, let me say that some people think crimes against children are down because now all the children are inside under lock and key. But ALL crime is down – inside and outside, against kids and against grown-ups, even crimes inside the home against kids (that is, child abuse) – so it is an across-the-board drop that cannot be explained by the fact we are keeping kids off the street, and even off their own front lawns.

All U.S. homicides: Down 40% 1992 -2005.

Juvenile homicide: Down 36% 1993 – 2005 (kids under age 14)

Juvenile homicide: Down 60% 1993 – 2005 (age 14 – 17)

Forcible rape: Down 28% 1992 – 2006

Sex Abuse Substantiations of Children, 1990 – 2005: Down 51%

Physical Abuse Substantiations of Children, 1990 – 2005: Down 46%

Juvenile Sex victimization trends, 1993 – 2003: Down 79%

And yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing. One mom wrote to my website in dismay. She’d been outside in her yard, reading a book, as her kids frolicked around her. Another mom walked by and screamed, “Put that book down! Your children could be snatched at any minute!”

That is the kind of fear we have to fight. Because, first of all, it’s way off (if you really want to keep your kids safe, your best bet is to never drive them in a car. That’s the #1 way kids die. As passengers in car accidents. Not by being snatched off the lawn). Moreover, our blown-out-of-proportion fear of abductions also forgets that there is something pretty crucial – and wonderful and empowering – about a childhood with some freedom to it.

About two weeks ago I got a call from a man who introduced himself as Irving something-or-other. “I’m 90 years old!” he said. Great. So why was he calling?

He’d just read about my son’s subway ride and wanted to tell me about his own first ride. “I was ten at the time and my mom made me take my little sister – she was eight – and we rode in the front car so we could look out on the tracks and we were going to my grandmother’s . . .”

That ride was in 1929!

In the intervening decades, Irving managed to get married – and stay married – for 66 years. He has children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, even two great-great-grandchildren. He fought in World War II! But clearly one of the DEFINING moments of his entire LIFE was that first subway ride.

And you remember that feeling, too, right? The ecstasy of NOT being a baby anymore? That is what we can give back to our kids. The chance to say, of something – anything! – “I did it myself!” “I rode my bike!” Or, “I made dinner for the family!” Or, “I went to the park with my friends and we made up a game called Seven-Square and we’re going to play it again tomorrow!” That’s the kind of thing you can’t do if you are driven everywhere and assisted – lovingly – all the time, and told which team to be on and which position to play and what snack to eat and now get back in the car.

The world is safer than we’ve been brainwashed into believing. Our kids are more competent than a superstore’s worth of kiddie walking, reading, eating and sleeping aids would have us think. Our parental instincts have gotten us to this point in human evolution without a library full of books warning us that one wrong step and our kids are goners. In other words: take a step back from this weird parenting moment we’re in and you CAN give your children the freedom you had without going nuts with worry. Even the freedom 90-year-old Irving had.

Even the freedom Oscar and Bert and Ernie had, once upon a time.

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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