Lentis/Free Range Kids
Modern parenting has shifted considerably from parenting in the 1950s. Parents today tend to prioritize their childrens' desires much more heavily. In some cases, this can verge on helicopter parenting, where parents are overly involved in every aspect of their child's life. The Free-Range Parenting movement arose as a way to return to earlier parenting styles, where children are given more freedom and independence. However, the movement has received backlash from those who believe allowing children to do things unsupervised puts them in significant danger. This chapter focuses on the factors that led to the development of the Free-Range Kids movement, elements of society that have challenged or allowed for its integration, and agents involved on all sides of the debate.
Parenting Over Time
In the 1950s, the household was centered around the parents. Children were expected to obey their parents and other authority figures; they were given orders and punished if they did not follow them. Children accepted the consequences of their actions. Their grades, possessions, health, and well-being were their responsibility.
This attitude applied to the playground as well. Children were expected to make their own fun rather than play with their parents, so they ran around outside without supervision. They played in the streets without fear of traffic, strangers, or violence. Few families owned cars, strangers were interesting rather than scary, and crime was largely unheard of. Many families left their keys out or doors unlocked so that children could come and go.
The modern household is centered around the child; the parents are satellites. Parents give their children requests rather than orders, sometimes stooping to eye level in order to communicate. Any punishment is unlikely to be corporal, which some argue means it is less effective. Children always have their parents as a fallback; they help with homework, fix their toys, nurse injuries, and solve disputes with other children.
Now, children cannot play in the streets. This is partially logistical, since most families now own cars, so the streets are full of parked cars and moving traffic. As pedestrians cannot walk on the roads, sidewalks are more crowded as well. In addition, people have become more fearful of their world. Parents are now concerned that strangers could harm their children, so they keep children indoors or under close supervision.
Several explanations may explain the shift in parenting. Some argue that the value of the child has risen. Since the Industrial Revolution, birth rates have declined in the West, so parents are focusing their attention on fewer children than before. Some theorists have posited that this means parents cherish their children more and are more protective of them. Another theory is that people are scared of the world. The Mean World Syndrome theory hypothesizes that as people are exposed to news of violence and crime through the media, they start to believe the world is more dangerous than it is. According to this theory, parents keep their children under supervision because they believe the world is too dangerous to leave them on their own.
Role of Mass Media
The mean world syndrome largely arises from mass media. TV, radio, and social media have brought sensational stories, often featuring violence and danger, into people's homes. Though these incidents do not happen often at a local level, media can focus the national spotlight on the places they do occur, making them seem more common. This gives people the impression that the world is becoming more dangerous. For a period of time, this impression was actually true, since violent crime rates increased between 1950 and 1990. However, even though violent crime has dropped by 50 percent since 1990, the perception that the world is increasingly dangerous has remained.
Lenore Skenazy and the Inception of Free-Range Parenting
In 2008, Lenore Skenazy became the "world's worst mom" when she published an article in the New York Sun titled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” She received significant backlash for the article, including a threat to arrest her for child endangerment. In response, she founded the Free-Range Kids movement, which attests that children should be given the freedom to do certain things on their own. Skenazy believes in raising children "the old-fashioned way" and criticizes the "back-door anti-feminism of expecting mothers to monitor their children all the time". In 2009, she published a book called “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)". She also started a website where she further details her parenting philosophy. In addition, she is the star of a series on Discovery Life Channel called “World’s Worst Mom,” where she visits overprotective parents in an attempt to help them overcome their fears about giving their children more freedom. In one episode she visits a mother who is considering putting surveillance cameras inside her family’s home so she can constantly monitor her children. Skenazy has also appeared on several talk shows such as The Daily Show and The View.
Principles of the Free-Range Kids Movement
The movement is described on the Free-Range Kids website as “Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers, and/or the perils of a non-organic grape". The Free-Range Kids website also includes crime statistics. According to Skenazy, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger”, which aligns with Mean World Syndrome discussed above. Dr Peter Gray at Boston College has attested that actual risk of children being abducted by strangers is very small, and that abduction or molestation by relatives or family friends is far more common. Dr. Gray has also published a book titled “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” which echoes many of Skenazy’s parenting philosophies.
There has been an increase over the past few years in devices such as child leashes and GPS systems, and even the Owlet monitor, which allows you to monitor your newborn baby's blood oxygen level. These devices allow parents to constantly monitor their children, and their recent popularity can be at least partially attributed to parents' fears that their children are in danger. This is also an example of the Thomas Theorem, where the interpretation of a situation, rather than objective reality, is what leads to action. The Free-Range Kids movement offers a way to combat helicopter parenting and give children the idyllic childhood of the 1950s.
Acceptance and Rejection of the Movement
On November 7, 2014, Skenazy posted excerpts of a letter written by a free-range parent, Danielle Meitiv. In the letter, Danielle mentioned that Child Protective Services visited her and her husband on October 27th after police responded to a report that their children were unattended. CPS asserted that the Meitiv's 6 year-old must be supervised while on the street or at the park, and that failure to adhere could lead to a $500 fine or 30 day jail sentence. Skenazy later received and uploaded another letter from Danielle Meitiv on December 23, 2014. On December 20th, Alexander Meitiv dropped the children off at a local park and instructed them to walk home together. Danielle's children were once again brought back to her by police after a call in from a bystander. A CPS representative visited the family and enticed Alexander to sign an agreement stating that he would no longer leave the children unsupervised until contacted by the CPS office. In February, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were found guilty of "unsubstantiated" child neglect. The Meitivs continued to allow their children to roam unsupervised and were picked up by police a third time on April 12, 2015. This time, they were taken to CPS offices for several hours before the Meitivs were contacted. The Meitiv family has since brought a case forward against CPS and the Montgomery Police Department. Maryland has also cleared the Meitivs of any charges of child neglect.
Parents Bill of Rights
In an effort to ensure that parents are able to raise their children how they see fit, the Free-Range Kids movement has proposed a bill called the Free-Range Kids & Parents Bill of Rights. The bill is detailed on the Free-Range Kids website, and includes sections on "Rights of Children to Freedom of Movement" and "Rights of Parents to Make Rational Decisions".
The Meitiv family have come under major scrutiny for their actions. Some claim that the Meitivs are using their children as pawns to advance their cause. Although they knew about the restrictions placed on them, the Meitivs still allowed their children to play unsupervised. Further, the Meitivs' community practiced a different parenting style. If parents saw two children on their own, they were likely to assume the children were lost and would look for the parents. As one parent writes, "I don't want to be responsible for someone else's kids who I don't even know." The Meitivs claim to have given their children Free-Range child tags to identify them, but they were not worn by the children when picked up by police.
Additionally, some have claimed the Free-Range Parenting movement is more about parents than children. For instance, one blog post critiques the proposed Parents Bill of Rights, saying that the movement should focus solely on childrens' rights. The author of the post also cites an article published by Skenazy on the Free Range Kids website entitled "Stop Criminalizing Parents who Let Their Kids Wait in the Car," arguing that allowing parents to leave children in cars unattended is parental convenience not child freedom. She also brings up that leaving children in cars can be dangerous or even fatal, supporting the need for childrens' rights.
As Dr. Gray points out in “Free to Learn,” children today do not learn how to solve problems on their own and generally have a harder time dealing with life’s challenges than children in the 1950s. When children were allowed to play freely outside, they were forced to exercise creativity, and negotiate and empathize with others, skills that are not developed when children sit inside and stare at screens. In fact, children today spend only half as much time as their parents did playing outside, and as a result have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and obesity.  This illustrates the unintended consequences that come from childhood technology use, and provides further support for the popularity of the Free-Range Kids Movement.
While the Free-Range Kids movement has received a great deal of support from some parents, others argue that it is too idealistic and not practical in today’s society. A recent article by Michael Dougherty argues that the declining role of the neighborhood makes truly "free-range" kids impossible. Dougherty paints a picture of his childhood in the 1950s, where neighbors all knew one another and would look out for each others’ children. He argues that people now tend to stay inside more than they did in the 1950s, and parents are less likely to let their children play outside alone if there are no other children outside to play with them. The concept of "eyes on the street" was first coined by Jane Jacobs in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". Neighborhood watch programs began to rise in the 1970s and 1980s, and are still prevalent today. A 2008 report by the U.S. Justice Department found that neighborhood watch program significantly reduced crime. Therefore, assessing whether the role of the neighborhood and "eyes on the street" have declined in recent years, and whether this affects the Free-Range Kids philosophy, provides an interesting area of future study.
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