When Spokane resident Stacey Conner was 10 years old, she and her two younger sisters would walk down a dirt road in their English village to the ocean, hunting for heart-shaped rocks they pretended were made by fairies.
“We’d throw them into the water and make wishes,” she says.
“We stood on this huge cement breaker wall, 15 to 20 feet above the ocean, and the waves would crash into the wall and splash up … if there had been a freakishly high wave, we could have been washed away,” Conner, now a mother of four, reflects. “But we weren’t.”
Conner’s friend Elise Raimi, mom of two preschoolers, grew up in a similar era, across the ocean, in North Carolina.
“There were incredibly creepy reptiles and bugs, and we would crawl through the sewers looking for them with our dog … We lived outside as much as we lived inside,” says Raimi.
Both women are aware now of the inherent risks they took playing outside as children, and they both want their own kids to enjoy the same sorts of freedom — with the possible exception of the breaker wall. Isn’t that the case with most parents?
If by “most” you mean “31 percent,” then, yes.
“There is no rational reason that a generation of parents who grew up walking to school, riding mass transit, trick-or-treating, teeter-tottering and selling Girl Scout cookies door-to-door should be forbidding their kids to do the same,” implores Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. “Mostly, the world is safe,” she proclaims in the introduction of her book. “Mostly, people are good.”
Raimi agrees, blaming the rise of fear-obsessed parents on the 24-hour news cycle.
“We hear about kidnapping and sexual abuse so much more than we used to,” she says. She agrees with Skenazy’s assertion that the media focus on the most outrageous, but highly unlikely, events. Over and over.
“It’s created a generation of people who believe that this stuff can happen. But the statistical probability is nil.”
It’s not worth the risk to another Spokane mom, Michelle Daer-Bevins. Although she’s been working with a family therapist for the past few years to let go of her need to control, for the first five years of her children’s lives, she wouldn’t leave them alone, inside or outside.
“I was a helicopter parent,” she admits. “I used to believe I could control the outcomes. We have a very strict structure and scheduled routine.”
Daer-Bevins runs a small daycare inside her home and takes the kids with her to accompany her son and daughter, now 7 and 8, on the two-block walk to school. She says she’ll be willing to let them walk alone by fifth or sixth grade.
Her most immediate concern is traffic, but there’s always a bigger, underlying concern, too.
“When I was growing up, I was a latchkey kid. But now, you don’t know how easy it is for kids to disappear.”
British writer Warwick Cairns tries to allay the fears of parents like Baer-Devins in his statistic-laden satire, How to Live Dangerously. According to Cairns’ research, just 100 children are abducted by strangers each year in the United States. (The majority of abductions are committed by family members.) More than half of children abducted by strangers are recovered safely within 24 hours. So, fewer than 50 children, out of 64 million, are kidnapped and killed by strangers.
Horrifying, but statistically speaking, extremely unlikely at just 1 in 1.5 million, or .00007 percent.
Hearing that data gave Baer-Devins just a momentary feeling of relief.
“If I were to hear that over and over every day for a year, I would start to believe it,” she says.
Stacey Conner believes it’s not just the fear of strangers, but the fear of failure, both our own and our children’s, that’s at the core of the overprotective parent syndrome.
“It started out as a generation of incredibly educated, intelligent, career-driven women who turned that awesome power into parenting,” she says. “They had an idea that there’s this perfect way to parent, but there isn’t.”
Child and family therapist Rainn Ellingwood believes “helicopter parenting” was a response to the failures of the “free choice” movement about 15 years ago, and the “Free Range” movement is rising to correct the failures of hovering.
“Any type of extreme parenting is damaging,” she says. Whether parents tightly structure, schedule and interfere, or let go of discipline and limits to let children make all choices themselves, the result is the same, says Ellingwood: stressed-out parents and anxious kids.
“Parenting is always about balance,” she says. “Being in the middle, giving children choices between well-balanced, organized activities and allowing them free time to play.
“Send them to the neighbors,” Ellingwood continues, “but tell them when to be home. Allow them to mess up … and give consequences.”
“Kids need to have rules and routines,” Baer-Devins maintains, “but they also need freedom and creativity as well, and I am still learning in that department. I’m starting to trust they know right from wrong. They can make good choices without me.”