America’s Worst Mom advocates more freedom for kids

Lenore Skenazy says the lack of unsupervised play is detrimental to our children, who aren't learning to become self-reliant.

Lenore Skenazy

Lenore Skenazy

Lenore Skenazy says North America has been gripped by an epidemic.

It’s not a physical illness, but a mindset she calls, “worst-first thinking.”

What she means is before taking any action, especially when it comes to their children, people have become trained to imagine all the awful things that could happen. And this leads to today’s parents placing more and more restrictions and supervision on their children — to the point where we are raising a generation of kids who can not do anything for themselves.

Skenazy was in Salmon Arm Wednesday night for a presentation at Salmon Arm Secondary hosted by the Literacy Alliance of the Shuswap  (LASS), as a keynote part of their Unplug and Play Week. She also spoke in Kelowna and Kamloops.

Skenazy is a New Yorker and former newspaper columnist who made headlines around the world when she let her nine-year-old son ride the subway home alone after dropping him off in the handbag section of the Bloomingdales store. She wrote about her experience and was so widely criticized for her stance on childhood independence that she has been dubbed, America’s Worst Mom.

Since then, she has written a book entitled, Free Range Kids, which encourages parents to let their kids do things on their own without constant adult supervision.

Skenazy says the lack of unsupervised play is detrimental to our children, who aren’t learning critical skills to become self-reliant.

“The crime rate in Canada is at the same point now as it was in 1969, and yet very few kids have the same degree of freedoms that kids did in 1969. So how did we get to the point where parents today seem to believe that their kids are in constant danger?” she asked the crowd.

Skenazy points to the media, where stories of abducted children become disseminated worldwide. Even though such cases are extremely rare, the widespread coverage plants the seeds of fear into society. A second reason, she says is that we live in a litigious society, where everyone wants to blame — and sue — if something goes wrong.

“When you start thinking like a lawyer, nothing seems safe enough,” she said.

The third reason is that we live in a “expert culture” of parenting books and resources, where the message to parents is “you did it wrong” and “you are to blame.”

Finally, Skenazy points to what she calls the child safety industrial complex, the vast industry of parenting books, magazines, gadgets and safety equipment — all of which build fear in parents, while encouraging them to spend money to protect their children from harm.

Skenazy pulled out an item to show the crowd — a rubber duck designed to be placed in a baby’s bathwater. The device would change colour and show the word “hot,” if the water was too warm for a baby. The irony is that the directions for use on the back of the product label also told parents that in addition to using their product, they should always test the temperature with their hand and arm before putting a baby into the water.

“So if we can just use our arm, why does this product even exist!” exclaimed Skenazy.

She points out only 15 per cent of Canadian children now walk to school. Instead parents have become door-to-door drivers moving kids from school to adult supervised activities.

“When you went to and from school, it used to be called arrival and dismissal . Now it’s called drop-off and pick-up. It’s like our kids have become Fed-Ex packages.”

She also expressed concern about a shift to criminalize parents who are giving their children independence and encouraged an adoption of a free range kids bill of rights in Salmon Arm, which would endorse the right of children to some unsupervised time and the right of parents to be free from prosecution or arrest.

Many parents in the audience took up Skenazy’s invitation to remember things they loved doing in their childhood — things they would never let their child do now. Many talked about being able to run around neighbourhoods going from yard to yard, to ride bikes freely or to run and play with other kids.

“We hope this sparks a community conversation,” noted Darcy Calkins, literacy outreach coordinator for LASS.