Long before I was given blogging privileges on The Agitator this past month, I was a reader of Free-Range Kids. Ironically, the person who put me onto the blog was Karen DeCoster, who doesn’t have children, but is wonderfully-opinionated and fun to be around.
Lenore Skenazy, who runs the site, became famous four years ago because (Horrors!) she let her then-nine-year-old son take the New York City subway home. I remember when it happened because a number of people were shocked and accused Lenore of engaging in child abuse.
(The thing to keep in mind is that the term “child abuse” in America has changed in definition from actually abusing children to not hovering over them at every second. By actually permitting her child to engage in something that was an adventure without putting him in real-live danger, Lenore was performing a real act of parenting, which apparently to some has changed in definition from guiding children to outright dominating them. Why this has become the New Normal in the USA will be explained later in this post.)
When I heard about what Lenore had done, I loved it. Why? Children need adventure, and their imaginations are able to change things like a typical subway car into a spaceship or a vehicle that takes them into another dimension. (Yeah, some of us who like to ride the NY Subway might agree that the while thing really IS another dimension, but I won’t go there.)
Her act helped me to remember my own childhood in which my best friend, Gary Babe, and I ranged far and wide where we lived. We explored creeks, went ice skating in the winter, and rode bikes from here to there, all without parental supervision. I remember once when my mom let me walk to Billy Fries’s house holding a small guitar — in the middle of a blizzard. That was an adventure in itself, but I still remember that we had fun making music. (Today, Bill Fries is a first-rate professional musician.)
Yes, sometimes we got into trouble. Bikes crashed, we got cut on thorns, we fell out of trees (I was a great tree-climber and falling was an occupational hazard.), and once I fell into Hook Creek on a cold March day in 1961 and shortly thereafter got pneumonia. Being in the crude children’s ward at Crozier Hospital for a week was as terrifying as being in jail, as the battle-axe nurses performed rectal temperature checks and made us use bedpans. But I survived quite well, thank you, as did my other friends, and we have plenty of stories to tell. None of my buddies ever received a serious injury and none were kidnapped, although I am sure that some folks in the neighborhood might have wanted to see the loud and mouthy Billy disappear for a while.
Today, Americans are supposed to believe that danger lurks behind every corner and if we take our eyes off our kids for even a second, tragedy can strike. Yes, children throughout the ages have disappeared or have been abducted, but the actual numbers of abduction are much smaller than what we are led to believe, and often helicopter parenting won’t prevent such a tragedy, anyway.
Why the difference in then and now? If anything, the environment is safer than it was then. If I have to point to once event, it would be the passage of the Mondale Act of 1974, which not only led to scores of false accusations of sex abuse of children, but it also created the various bureaucracies that are dedicated to the “safety” of children. When bureaucrats and social workers occupied the Child Protective Services agencies, they came with the “mission” to protect children from their parents and the children themselves.
One of the things we learn about bureaucracies is that over time, they become imperialistic. As the reach of bureaucratic empires expands, the bureaucrats become careerists and all of the self-preservation that comes with human nature comes to the fore. When combined with the (unfortunate) endurance of the Progressive belief that “experts” should have control over our lives, it is not hard to see where all this is going.
Unfortunately, most journalists have bought into this “the experts know best for us” mentality. In my old days of watching TV (we have not had television reception in our home since 2001), I remember that the Today Show would have Bill Clinton’s head of the Consumer Safety Products Commission director as a guest, and she would tell us what new toys were dangerous to children. The atmosphere was near-worshipful, and no one ever questioned the Great Wisdom of the Expert.
Furthermore, the very self-perpetuating and imperialistic nature of bureaucracies means that people employed in those entities must find reason after reason to justify the existence of their jobs. Creating and sustaining crises is the most effective way bureaucracies can grow and seize more power. The process is insidious, but at every turn, there always is someone in a very public situation (like a journalist) justifying this metastasizing bureaucratic growth.
Without the Mondale Act and the bureaucracies it spawned, does anyone think that the rash of faux child molestation cases like McMartin, Kerns County, Little Rascals, and more would have happened? Would it be as easy as it is now for people with personal agendas (child custody or revenge) to make false accusations in order to make someone else disappear into the prison system, a person who is innocent of the charges but does not command the personal resources to fight the accusations and the army of police, prosecutors, judges, and journalists that are arrayed against him or her?
Furthermore, like its sister act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Mondale Act has made it easier for authorities to demonize men. Lenore has written much about that awful situation and the real tragedy that the “all men are dangerous molesters, kidnappers, and rapists” mentality that the laws and bureaucracies have created.
So, what does this mean relative to the title of this post? Free-Range Kids literally strikes a blow against the new Evil Empire. (The old Evil Empire, the U.S.S.R., depended heavily upon snitches and an internal spy system complete with anonymous “tips” that someone was being subversive. During Stalin’s Terror, the best way to make a troublesome neighbor disappear or to gain revenge was to tell the authorities that so-and-so had denounced Stalin. The Gulag would not have been possible without this internal network. Today, we see that same kind of thing at work in our “child protection” system.)
What is FRK really saying? It is saying that people closest to the situation usually are the best people for making the hard choices. It really is OK to let your child have some adventure. Lenore didn’t drop off her son in Hong Kong and tell him to make it back to the USA on his own; no, she let him get on the subway in order to let him take what already was a familiar route home. He didn’t have to panhandle or play music to get subway fare. He just needed to do what he already knew what to do — except this time he did it on his own.
Lenore’s choice was a blow against bureaucracy. At the time, she didn’t see it as that, but that is what it was. It was a small step in reminding us that childhood is an adventure that the government should not disrupt just because somewhere real life might intervene in ways we don’t like.
Perhaps “helicopter government” has prevented a tragedy here and there, but that same “helicopter government” has created huge calamities that have cut a swath of destruction. The Little Rascals Trials were the most expensive trials in the history of the State of North Carolina, yet NONE of the charges were true. Innocent people went to prison, lives were ruined, and the wrong people were empowered. That whole sorry affair helped to build up a false atmosphere of hysteria that still affects the lives of those involved two decades later.
Nothing can create the Perfectly Safe Society for Children. Not CPS, not Free-Range Kids, not The Agitator, not helicopter parenting, nothing. Life has its risks and we make choices, sometimes the wrong ones, but often the right ones when left to our own decision-making authority.
I close with a wonderful memory of nearly 30 years ago. On a warm Sunday in early March, I sat down to watch the finals of the ACC basketball tournament, a game featuring North Carolina State (which would win the NCAA championships that year in dramatic fashion against heavily-favored Houston) and Ralph Sampson’s University of Virginia Cavaliers. From what I hear, it was a very exciting game, an ACC classic.
However, I never got to watch it because my oldest daughter, Leah, who was about 40 days short of six years old, just before the tip-off asked me to take her rock climbing on nearby Lookout Mountain (near Chattanooga, Tennessee). I got up and we drove to an area that is littered with huge boulders, some more than 40 feet high. Leah and I climbed for about two hours and we still talk about that magic time.
Yes, there were some risky places where a fall could have meant injury. No, we didn’t do “technical” climbs or perform the antics of the famous rock climbers. We just did a dad-and-daughter thing and what we did that afternoon was better than watching a thousand ACC championships.
No doubt, a CPS bureaucrat or social worker would have been all over me for “putting your little child in danger.” Yeah, we could have been hurt, no doubt about that. But we took precautions and we did something very important: we helped build our relationships with each other.
Today, Leah is 35, a wife, mother of two, and a very successful person in the work world. She is independent, personable, and a good decision maker. She makes twice what her father makes, and I am not badly-compensated by any means. I’d like to think that our “free-range” afternoon in which we quietly defied the child protection bureaucracy helped contribute to her present situation.
Ultimately, Free-Range Kids is a reminder that our children are not helpless, and that a little bit of adventure for kids (and parents) can be a good thing. My sense is that Lenore’s children are going to be independent, respectful, cooperative, and fun to be around. Why? Because they are learning some important lessons on their own.
— William Anderson