A couple of years ago, my then five-year-old son William took a standardized test in which he was asked about everyday objects. The tester noted his unusual responses to some questions. When asked “What do candy and ice cream have in common?” William replied, “They both give you cavities.” For the question “What is chewing gum?” William answered, “A choking hazard.”
I was raised by risk-averse parents, and they were raised by risk-averse parents, and now I find myself raising risk-averse children. It’s an emotional family heirloom—but even my parents think I’ve taken it too far. They have two smoke alarms; I have 10. They worry about sunburn; I worry about skin cancer. And how well does sunscreen really work, and why can’t the kids just wear full-protection hazmat suits?
William, now seven, is my oldest; his sister and younger brother are six and three. Last year William and I had an exhausting summer as we struggled between his desire to grow up and my desire to keep him safe, which basically means locked in our house: no playing on the front lawn, no crossing our busy street, no swimming in the ocean. This year I vowed to break free. I was tired of saying no all the time, and I knew that as William grew older, he would only want to become more independent. But I knew I couldn’t get there alone—I needed a copilot who could stop my anxious mind from spinning. So I called Lenore Skenazy.
Lenore is the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry, ($12, amazon.com) and she is my polar opposite. In 2008 she let her nine-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone and wrote a column about it for the New York Sun. After national media picked up the story, Lenore was dubbed America’s Worst Mom, so she founded Free-Range Kids, a grassroots movement to give children more autonomy. According to Lenore, hyper-protective parents like me are not only driving ourselves crazy but also depriving our kids of the satisfaction that comes with mastery and self-sufficiency. She even makes “free-range house calls,” in which she visits nervous parents to help them see how competent their kids can be.
I was ready to change, but I couldn’t resist asking Lenore, “Isn’t there a safe way to teach children to take risks?”
“Of course,” she said. “I’m a big fan of safety measures—bike helmets, seat belts. I just don’t think kids need a security detail every time they leave the house. Risk and risky are not the same thing, but our culture is determined not to see the difference.” Whenever a child gets on a bike, he’s taking a risk, Lenore told me, because he could fall and break an arm. (I resisted the urge to hang up.) Riding a bike at night without reflectors, however, is risky. “You can limit risky behavior, but you can’t eliminate risk,” she said. “If a child never tries gum, he’ll never choke on it. But he could choke on a bologna sandwich.” I had to admit she had a point.
More advice on how to stop being helicopter parents.
On the phone, Lenore and I began identifying which previously forbidden activities we thought William was ready for. I immediately started negotiating. I could let him plug in electronics, but he had to do it in front of me. (I know that’s extreme, but that’s why I called in a professional.) He could play in our front yard, but not during rush hour.
And then my resolve wore thin. I said, “But how can I let go of my fear when that’s what’s keeping my kids safe?” Lenore said kindly, “All the fear in the world doesn’t prevent death—it prevents life.” Those magic words acted like a reset button, powering me down. Lenore told me to sit with William and create a list of five activities that he could try. The two of us would start with the easier challenges on our own. Later, when things got tricky, Lenore promised that she would come to our house to walk me through it.
1. Allow William to plug in electronics. William was so excited to get his first taste of freedom as he gripped the plug of the CD player. I watched, but from across the room. I didn’t say a thing—except “Be careful! Hold it by the plastic!” “I know, Mom.” Of course he knew. And, shocker, no one was electrocuted. Maybe I could do this.
2. Allow William to cook breakfast alone. Bizarrely, this was less frightening to me than the wall outlet. William cooks with his dad every weekend, so he knows his way around a stove. Plus, I had bacitracin and a Band-Aid in my pocket. William knew to take off his oversize robe so that it wouldn’t catch fire. He gently put the eggs in the pot, covered them with water, and turned on the gas. I saw how proud he was and felt a pang as I remembered the childhood thrill of mastering something new. When it was time to take the eggs out, I instinctually reached out to help, then realized that was cheating. I stepped back as he carefully took the eggs out of the scalding water with a spoon. They never tasted better.
3. Allow William and his sister to play in the front yard alone. This next challenge would be a huge leap for me and I needed backup, so Lenore made a house call. When she arrived, however, I had second thoughts. “My neighbors never let their kids play in the front yard,” I said. “And my daughter just turned six!” Lenore said, “You can do this,” and gently nudged me into the kitchen. She then went to the front door and opened it for William and Caroline, who were jumping up and down, unable to believe their luck.
Lenore set ground rules. “No street,” she said, “and no leaving the property.” She then shut the door and came back into the kitchen. “Wait,” I said. “If you’re in here with me, who’s watching the kids?” “That’s the point,” she said. “No one is watching the kids.”
Lenore and I chatted while we drank our coffee, but I have no idea what we talked about—there was an internal alarm blaring in my head. Lenore insisted that we let the kids stay out for at least an hour, but it felt like 10. Then there was a knock at the door. My stomach dropped. Was it the police? No, it was a neighbor stopping by to introduce himself. He had never seen us in the front yard before.
4. Allow William to cross the street alone. Our street gets light car traffic. Lenore warmed us all up by crossing with William several times. When it was his turn to try it by himself, I watched him cautiously look for cars, figuring out when it would be safe to pass. He took his time, and when there was nothing in sight, he carefully stepped into the street. Everything seemed to unfold so slowly, as if it were happening underwater. But he made it to the other side, and when he turned around, everyone was grinning, including me.
William was so inspired that he crossed back and immediately asked to ride his bike without training wheels for the first time. Most of his friends were doing this at age five or six, but I kept putting it off. I think he had picked up on my resistance and never pushed the issue. So we got the screwdriver and took the wheels off. “Stay in the driveway!” I yelled. (Where was the bacitracin?) But he pushed off and nailed it—no wobbles. This was a milestone for both of us.
“Courage begets courage,” I said to Lenore. She smiled and quietly added, “Like fear begets fear.”
I had been afraid for a long time. But as I watched William pedal, I realized that in my struggle to keep out every possible threat, I had been keeping out one very important thing: possibility.
5. Allow William to swim in the ocean. Armed with Lenore’s wisdom, I headed to the beach with our whole family for the final, most difficult challenge. I sat on the sand with my two younger kids, and William and his dad headed for the water. The waves were rough, and my mind churned: What exactly is undertow? Can a person detect it before it grabs hold? I whipped out my phone and started to Google “undertow.” And then I stopped myself. All the fear in the world doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.
A couple caught me looking at the water, stricken. They probably thought I had seen a shark; they stood up to peer out into the ocean, too. And they saw…a boy and his dad jumping into the waves, carefree. I let out my breath. I had safely landed.