Sherpa Parents, And The Fall-Out

On the Saturday before Mother’s Day, Lenore Skenazy (author of Free Range Kids and a long-time friend of 168 Hours) penned a funny op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on hovering parents. She mocked the modern parental obsession with staying within 2 feet of one’s children (“a hug’s length away” to use Gymboree parlance). Once upon a time, children could ride their bikes all over the neighborhood until the street lights came on. Leaving a school-aged child in the children’s section of the library while you returned a book nearby would not be seen as horrible parenting. The culture of parenting has definitely changed, which is one reason that mothers (and fathers) spend more time with their kids now than they did in 1965. Even as mothers work far longer hours for pay than they did in those days. There are upsides and downsides to this, of course, but Skenazy likes to make fun of extreme examples, so this particular op-ed even took on a back-pack in which you can carry 7-year-olds who can walk but don’t want to. Sherpa parents!

Evaluating risk is one of those concepts that the human brain is funny about. We have a tendency to be very scared of extremely rare but horrific events, whereas every day dangers seem more tolerable. So we think little of putting our kids in the car (which kill 1 out of every 10,000 people who ride in them per year) but wouldn’t dream of leaving kids at a playground by themselves, though only a handful of children are abducted by strangers each year.

Of course, in today’s letters section, the Wall Street Journal runs a letter from one kidnapping victim, and another letter from someone who seems like she lived near one. They mentioned that all it took is the parents looking away for 5 minutes. 5 minutes! I guess this is the “rare exception” line of reasoning, in which any anecdote which counters a broad based trend or statistic must be evidence that the data are wrong or should be ignored. But while Kathleen Newton of Lindon, Utah writes that “there are too many vicious people out there who seek to do children harm” and this is “why unsupervised play does not exist anymore,” this ignores the reality that the world has changed, but not in the way she’s pointing. Crime rates are lower now than they were a few decades ago. And regardless, in a world of 7 billion people, you can find anecdotes of anything. The fact that an animal could escape from a zoo exhibit doesn’t mean that bringing your kids to the zoo indicates lax parenting.

Parenting always features tough calls of what children can be trusted to do by themselves, and what we have to help with. As Jasper just turned four, we’re trying to work more on self-sufficiency: putting on one’s own clothes (even if the shoes wind up on the wrong feet), going to the potty by oneself, and so forth. I’m hoping to give him opportunities to go a bit free range as he grows up, but it’s interesting to see the reactions people have to the concept.


19 thoughts on “Sherpa Parents, And The Fall-Out

  1. Great piece.

    Generally, if it’s in the news then don’t worry about, because the media only report what is rare and exceptional. If it wasn’t then it wouldn’t be news.

    I think it’s important to emphasize just how much crime rates have fallen in the last few decades — they’ve plummeted. Not that child abduction have ever been very high.

    1. @My Little Nomads: Thanks! Glad you like the piece. Yes, crime is lower than during the free ranger era. But we hear about incidents more due to the 24-hour cable news cycle.

  2. This is so difficult because it really requires a community culture to make happen. Just yesterday my daughter was bemoaning her lack of playdates–when I was a kid in the suburbs we just looked at the driveways of our neighbors–if the minivan was there, we could go up to the door (by ourselves) and ask if so-and-so could play. Once we moved to a more rural area, we often didn’t come home until dinner (around ages 8-12 or so). Today, even if I did let my daughter play outside by herself, there’s rarely anyone to join her, unless I (or another parent) organizes it. Very. Frustrating.
    I never wanted to “over-schedule” my child, but this summer we’ll be doing swim, ballet and art classes, just to get out of the house…

    1. @Calee – I hear you. We’ve become a more private, secluded culture perhaps. We were at our new house in the ‘burbs for 24 hours recently, and none of our new neighbors came over to introduce themselves. Of course, we didn’t go knock on their doors to say hi either. Why not? We’re going to be living next door to these people for years and yet I felt like it would be strange to go over. Some people have claimed that this change in culture has come about because neighborhoods have fewer women at home looking out the window to make sure no one’s doing anything awful to any of the neighbors’ kids. But the fascinating thing will be, as more of us work from home, whether any of that starts to shift again. I mean, when I’m working I’m working, but if someone was screaming in the front yard I’d obviously go check it out…

    2. We have that same issue here, and we are in the suburbs, there just aren’t really any kids around us, even though we’re in a top school district.
      We are friends with the kids around the corner and we try to set something up regularly, someday we’ll let them cross the big street on their own and we are working towards that.

  3. My kids play in the backyard by themselves. They ride bikes in the street, though I am out there to watch for cars, that don’t watch out for children. I leave them in the children’s section of the library while I look for books. I even let them play on the front lawn while I am inside (how neglectful of me). I allow my 8-year-old to go into the Mens room alone, while I go into the Ladies room.

    Last week in a neighboring town a 9 year-old-boy was killed by a car, while riding his bike right next to his mom on the sidewalk. Sadly, you can’t always protect your children, yet you have to allow them the freedom to navigate the world on their own, or they never will be able to function as independent people.

    When you give them autonomy is certain areas, they are also more likely to do things your way when you really need them to. Giving children a bit of freedom, a chance to figure out what they can do, goes a long way.

  4. I am a cognitive psychologist so I am especially pleased to finally see these basic psychological principles about risk assessment get applied to the issue of overprotection. I loved Lenore’s book – my reading of it is that when you have that feeling of risk and dread, it really breaks down into three distinct things:
    – Your gut, emotional reaction. (What about Jaycee Dugard? What could happen? SVU!!)
    – The actual, statistical risk. (100 out of 60 million kids per year are stranger abducted, a miniscule risk compared to, say, riding in a private car to and from school every day.)
    – What other people will think. (Am I the only one in the neighborhood whose kids go to the bus stop alone? If something happens, will everyone blame me? Will I be on Larry King? Will CPS come?)

    All of these are real and important factors affecting our decisions as parents – I just think it’s important to be able to distinguish them and make our decisions (mostly) on a logical basis.

  5. Great piece. I’d like to be added to your newsletter list as well, but I’m having the same problem as the previous poster.

    Thank you!

    1. @Caro – we’re getting you on the list as well, and I’ve contacted the web administrator to try to fix the problem. Hang tight!

  6. LOVE U!!! Thank you!! Can you please add me to the email list?

    A question for the crowd: am I the only one who has become somewhat soured on other parents (and kids by extension) thanks to articles and comments on sites like Babble, Cafe Mom, etc? To use a term often thrown around – the level of vitriol spouted by “SanctiMommies” have turned me off to the whole blog word. I’ve decided to stay away and not get all cranked up over it, but I do miss actual info (rare, I believe!). How do you maintain that balance?

    1. @Kristin: Thanks, we will add you to the list. I get turned off by comments in all spheres that seem not to understand that other people are also human. Political message boards are really bad for this, but so are some parenting ones. Over time, I think we can find the few that aren’t like that. Sometimes they’re more closed email lists than blogs but yes, if something gets you upset, stay away! Life is too short to get riled up all the time.

  7. Laura, I think you should go introduce yourself to your next-door neighbors, either by pretending you need to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar (I actually did this in my first apartment my sophomore year in college, completely flummoxing the off-duty cop who turned out to be my next-door neighbor, but I felt really safe after that, knowing who lived next door) or on some other pretext. Since it seems nobody does this anymore, you’ll make a huge impression! Though really they should be introducing themselves to you, since you’re the newbie on the block. Just beware if you ever bring new neighbors a pie and they reject it–that happened years ago in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the pie-hater was John List, later to appear on America’s Most Wanted!

    1. John List? What was he wanted for? *googlegooglegoogle*

      Ah, he killed his wife, mother, and three children. You know, on the whole, it’s probably best that he didn’t like your pie. I mean, can you imagine?

  8. I am a young single mother- I was raised by ‘old school’ parents. so I believe in tough love and that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. I grew up in a small town so yes, gasp, we did walk the 4 blocks to kindergarten by ourselves, and rode our bikes until the streetlights came on. My son is just 2 and VERY independant- ready for this?…. I let him play in the yard all by himself! My parents were very much free range parents, and I am the independant sucessful woman I am today because of it. Thanks for a great article!

  9. I heard an interview with an oceanographer (or perhaps a journalist who wrote a book about marine conservation?) on NPR a few weeks ago in which — during the conversation about sharks — the interviewer said something about how we as a culture have gotten to the point where “we buy lottery tickets and yet fear sharks,” the strong implication being that our ability to calculate risks/odds is so skewered that we make illogical decisions that could potentially harm us (or not, despite what we may think!).

    Until a year ago, my husband and I lived in an apartment complex where — for the first time ever — we actually knew some of our neighbors. Sure, in our busy lives, we had to make an effort to chat with them in the parking lot at the end of a long day or before we rushed off to go run errands, but it was worth it. We all looked out for each other.

    One of them was a nice young cop and Army Reservist who lived with his wife and 2 little dogs. On one frigid winter morning, for some reason my heater wasn’t working properly so I left the balcony door open (we lived on the 2nd floor) to cool off the house a bit. Within a few minutes, Josh was knocking on my door. He was walking through the parking lot and had seen my open balcony door and thought it odd, considering how cold it was outside. He just wanted to make sure I was okay and that nothing was amiss!

    It really does pay to get to know your neighbors, even if you live in so-called “transient housing” like an apartment complex or rental property. It makes living there so much nicer, more pleasant and safer!


    1. @Marjorie: Thanks for your comment. So true that the safest thing you can do is find concerned neighbors. I joke about my neighborhood where lots of people put up big fences and hedges to keep their privacy. They probably think the fence and gate makes them safer, but you’d be far safer with neighbors who could see onto your porch and see that that guy fiddling with the door probably shouldn’t be there.

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