Recently I had the chance to check out clips from Lenore Skenazy’s television program World’s Worst Mom. Skenazy is the leader of the Free Range Kids Movement, which encourages people to give up helicopter parenting and allow their children to have more freedom and independence in their everyday activities. She counters the public perception that we live in a dangerous world with a more balanced reality and works with parents to relax and back off from their hovering.
Skenazy, and the movement, have received some attention lately within the news media. One particular point of focus has been on the cards that the group distributes and encourages free range children to carry. The card identifies the carrier as a free range kid and provides a phone number to the child’s parent for confirmation. Apparently, people were spotting kids alone in public places and then calling authorities to report the child left without a parent or guardian. This movement inspired a Facebook post listing the different ages children must be to be left alone at home. While many states do not have any set ages, those who do vary from age 6 to 14.
I think it is important to question unfounded or exaggerated fears. I also cannot object to a discussion of whether and how states should regulate the babysitting and care of children. However, last week the annual Sarah Lawrence Women’s History Conference presented research on motherhood. At the conference, someone (sorry for the lack of a shout out, but it was an audience member whom I do not know) spoke about the contrast between the free range kids, who have the first world problems of over-protective parents who can choose when they want to let go, and children who are “othered” by society. Last summer, news stories spread nationally about a woman who was arrested because she needed to work her shift at McDonalds and left her child to play at a park across the street for the day. Skenazy commented on this case and the problem our contemporary culture has of not believing children are okay alone.
For many parents on this new TV show, the problem is one of over-protectiveness and fearing for their child’s safety. Yet, for some of these othered children, the problem facing parents is one of access to affordable, quality childcare and the inability to set up a flexible work schedule. These parents often have the additional fear of not just strangers attacking their children but the possibility that their children will be policed in a racist and ultimately life-threatening way. Some might say that Skenazy’s movement may help all children by shifting societal attitude to question the intensive caring we feel obligated to provide for them. Yet, I don’t think we can forget that a child walking by herself means something very different in some people’s eyes, depending on who the child is. I wonder whether there is a way for those leading or participating in these movements to consider ways to reshape the discussion to include these larger questions about race, policing, and parenting.
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