Book Thoughts –> “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy

Quick background: Lenore Skenazy, a journalist, lets her 9-year-old son take the New York City subway home alone. She writes a column about it. Media goes nuts. She’s on a bunch of TV talk shows, then launches a blog and writes a book.

The subtitle of her book is, “Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had without Going Nuts with Worry.” People often agree or disagree strongly with her message, although it does seem there’s lots and lots of middle ground. This is just a topic people tend to be *very* opinionated about. She mentions this fact in the book several times, and interestingly, I was listening to her book on the way into work one day, and she happened to tell a story that made me laugh as I walked past a coworker’s desk. So as not to seem any weirder than necessary, I stopped the book and chatted with my coworker and told her I was just listening to this book, bla bla bla, just enough background on the book to make the story make sense, then told the story. Then I laughed. Coworker looked at me in horror. I had not even said I *agreed* with anything the author had said so far, just that it was very interesting, and that she had just told this funny story… My coworker proceeded to relay some story about a child who was allowed to walk to the bus stop alone for the first time and was abducted and, I believe, dismembered. I really felt like the experience lent legitimacy to Skenazy’s assertion that people are much more likely to be extreme, anecdotal, and sometimes just irrational when discussing which situations are and are not safe for our children.

The book was very, very thought-provoking. I definitely recommend this book. Whether you agree or disagree with her, the stats are very interesting, and it provides much to think about and discuss with other parents. Unfortunately, I do have real complaints about the book. I think this is a big topic and she had a big platform, and although she did do lots of great things with it, a few things about the book really bothered me.

My first and biggest complaint is her demeanor towards people who differ in their thinking. She is very sarcastic, which is part of what makes her so funny, but she descends into name-calling and exaggerating that I think is really unhelpful to the conversation. When she refers to parents that “won’t even let their kids outside”, I can’t help but think that caricaturing them certainly seems like she’s overreacting in the same way many overreact to her. (This would be a great place for a quote showing what I mean, but this was another one on audio, so I just don’t have one.) I’m a little torn on this, because her stories are very funny. It’s part of what makes her such a good writer. But in several places in the book, I don’t think they way she’s making her point could be taken as anything less than an insult to anyone who disagreed. And it’s very unfortunate, because one of her main points is that we ought to be encouraging conversation about this, which her writing often doesn’t do.

My next complaint is what seems to me like twisting of statistics. The overwhelming majority of them were helpful, and many fascinating, but there were some that seemed to be skewed in an attempt to support her point better. I’m really not sure, though, because I have no idea how to check her references. (I listened to the book on audio. Maybe the hard copy has the references?) One of her repeated stats is that kids are safer today than ever before. Child abductions are on the decline and have been for a while. However, she also states over and over in the book that parents are more and more protective of their children. Parents do not leave their children unattended nearly as often. I can’t help but think… Could the two trends be related? Could parents being more protective of their kids be the very *reason* that abductions are down? And she’s suggesting we leave our kids unattended more *because* abductions are down? I am not supporting over-protective parenting or even saying we should never leave our kids alone, but it really seems to me that this could have been explored. Another example is her statistic that children are at higher risk of dying in a house fire than being abducted. I think this statistic is “children per year”. When people ask her how she could “live with [her]self” if something did happen to her kids while they were out alone, she retorts by saying she could say the same thing about having them stay home: “You have them stay home?! How could you live with yourself if they died in a house fire?” If the stat really is kids per year, then it really sounds like she’s twisting the stat to me. Children obviously spend way more time indoors than out. Sleeping and school alone make up the vast majority, even for kids who play outside a lot. But her retort seems to twist the stat to mean that your chances are better playing alone unattended outside for any given period of time. I don’t even know that I care about the exact stats as much as I care that she seems to be twisting and exaggerating as much as those she accuses of doing so, which I think just makes her sound less credible.

Lastly, I think she way too often relies on statistics as a really good reason to do, or not do, something. If there is a one in a million bazillion gazillion chance that my child will be killed doing something, will I let them do it? Well, if there is absolutely nothing to be gained by doing it, then no! But there is something to be gained!! If I never let my child walk across the street, I have done worse than allowed him to do something he may die doing. She never addresses this in the book. She relies too often on, “chances are”, “odds are”, “there’s *such* a small percentage…”.

I really, really agree with so much she says in the book, but I think her arguments were crippled by insults, twisting stats, and by not exploring what is to be gained by allowing our children to do the things many families choose not to let their children do.

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