An underrated barrier to equal opportunity is America’s 21st-century expectation that children should be constantly supervised. As my interview with Lenore Skenazy shows, the solution isn’t more childhood supervision. It’s to restore a society in which children are more self-sufficient. Lenore is the author of Free-Range Kids: How Parents and Teachers Can Let Go and Let Grow and founder of Let Grow, a group that equips parents with the tools they need to give their children more independence.
Dan Lips: Lenore, please share some background about your perspective about the importance of supporting independence during childhood.
Lenore Skenazy: Think back, first, on your own childhood—something you absolutely loved doing. Now: Was your mother with you? Most of us can recall some time we spent as kids doing things that were just…fun. Maybe you played kickball, built forts, drew, or, like me, made coasters out of dried glue and food coloring.
Okay, perhaps not a whole lot of you did that (which is good, since coasters made of dried glue actually melt back into glue when you put a cup of coffee onto them). My point is that, until very recently, kids had some time to explore, goof off, goof up, be alone, make things happen and figure some things out without an adult always watching, helping, worrying, commenting.
You can’t learn to be a problem-solver if someone is always right there, solving your problems. And you can’t feel proud and resourceful and trustworthy if no one ever trusts or depends on you. So sometimes, just being expected to organize some of your own time, or come home with a latchkey, or babysit your younger brother is part of a kid’s realizing: “Mom believes in me.” They might never put it that precisely, but they long to be trusted, helpful and competent. When kids have very little independence, they have very little sense of who they are and what they can do. That is also the definition of anxiety.
Lips: How is achieving independence during childhood particularly important for children from lower income households who face other disadvantages?
Skenazy: I think that “in the olden days” of a generation or two ago, disadvantaged kids may have had one subtle advantage working for them: their parents had to rely on them more. Maybe they did more around the house because mom was so busy or got a part-time job to help with the finances, or simply took care of their younger siblings because the family could not afford a babysitter or camp or after-school activities. All those things can contribute to a sense of self-worth.
Yes! But I’m dismayed to say that two things have changed in the past couple of generations.
One is technology: Kids who might not have had the money to participate in, say, Little League could, pre-Intel chip, instead go out and find their friends at the park for a pick-up game. Now many of those kids are indoors on some sort of screen after school. I’m not anti-screen. But it’s different from interacting IRL (in real life).
The other thing making me sad is that when I spoke at a conference on after-school care in California, I learned that the free programs run by the state require the kids to spend the first 90 minutes at a table, doing their homework. I know the idea was to make sure they didn’t fall behind. But the reality is that 90 more minutes of mind-numbing schoolwork after an entire day of the same is not making kids smarter or more successful. They need some time to not be students—some time to do and try and enjoy something other than schoolwork, otherwise the whole world seems gray. When I asked you—the reader—to think back on your own childhood, I’m sure your first thought wasn’t, “Gee, I loved homework!” It was something you did for fun. And I bet that if I asked you, “Do you think that was a waste of time?” you’d probably say no, because you got so much out of it: focus, fun, friendship, a sense of accomplishment, maybe even a reason to live.
Poor kids deserve joy and self-direction, too.
That’s one reason Let Grow tries to get more and more schools to start Let Grow Play Clubs. That is, we suggest schools stay open before or after school for mixed-age, device-free, loose-parts free play. Adults are on hand for emergencies, but don’t otherwise intervene. Kids make up their own games and solve their own problems, learning skills they can't get in the classroom.
Mixing ages means that the older kids develop some kindness and empathy – contrary to popular belief the presence of younger kids makes older ones LESS likely to bully. And the younger kids learn “executive function” – they hold themselves together, even when upset or disappointed, because they don’t want to look like babies to the older kids. Play is Mother Nature’s way of teaching kids the “soft skills” they’ll need to succeed in business – and love, and life. I’m sure when you think about all the time you spent playing was pretty foundational to you, too.
And the great thing about the Play Club is that even kids in neighborhoods with no parks, or a lot of crime, are guaranteed a safe place to experience the developmentally rich fun of playing with a bunch of other kids after school.
(Our whole Play Club implementation guide is free. You can download it here.)
Lips: In an era when so-called helicopter parenting is widespread, how is your mission being received?
Skenazy: My origin story is that when my younger son was 9, he desperately wanted to take the subway by himself, and I let him. I was a newspaper columnist back then so I wrote, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone” and two days later I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR. The media labeled me, “America’s Worst Mom.” (Google it!)
So I started a blog that weekend called, “Free-Range Kids” that stated, “I love safety! Helmets! Seatbelts! Car seats! I just don’t think kids need a security detail every time they leave the house.”
Well, that was such a shocking statement that for a couple years I was voted the most controversial mommy blogger in America.
But that was about 13 years ago! And as the years have gone by, more and more parents, teachers, psychologists and employers have become worried about a generation that seems very anxious, passive and depressed. One theory is that kids have so little chance to do anything without adults hovering that they grow up with very little “inner locus of control.” An inner locus of control is the feeling that you are in control of your life—you are competent, you can handle things. Without this feeling, you feel like a victim.
Now that people are realizing the importance of the “locus of control” issue, my campaigning for more independence seems a lot less wacky or risky, and actually pretty prudent.
Lips: Please tell us about child neglect laws? How do these laws affect parents and children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds?
Skenazy: In most states in America the neglect laws are pretty open-ended and vague. They say things like, “Children must be properly supervised,” without explaining exactly what that means. As a result, a few things are happening:
First of all, some parents are getting investigated simply for letting their kids walk the dog, or play at the park unsupervised, even when the kids are totally fine. Here’s a harrowing story of a mom whose toddler wandered away at a family picnic—something that is not exactly unheard of. She quickly found him, but not before someone called 911, jumpstarting an investigation that ended with the mom hog-tied by the cops.
Secondly, parents who know that the government can sometimes overreact are starting to second-guess themselves. On Twitter I asked, “Have you wanted to give your kids some independence—to walk outside, stay home alone, etc.—but decided not to because you worried that someone might call 911?” And 55% answered yes.
But asking about how the laws affect parents and kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds is the key, because far too often in America, the authorities mistake poverty for neglect.
So, for instance, you may recall the case of Debra Harrell. She’s a single mom in South Carolina. During the summer, when she worked her shift at McDonald’s, she’d bring her 9-year-old daughter Regina with her. Regina would sit at a table and play on her laptop while mom worked. But then their home was burglarized and the laptop stolen. So Regina asked if, instead of sitting at McDonald’s with nothing to do, she could play at the nearby sprinkler park instead. Debra said yes, because it’s a really popular park, with tons of kids and a lot of parents too.
But after one lady noticed Regina there on three different days she asked, “Where is your mother?” Regina told her that she was working nearby – Regina had a phone to call her if need be. The lady called 911 to report a girl “abandoned” in the park.
Debra was arrested and thrown in jail. Regina was placed in foster care for 17 days. If you watch the police interrogation of Debra, do it sitting down. The officer, straight out of some 1950s movie, says things like, “Do you see the error of your ways?” “You can’t leave a 9-year-old in the park by herself!” But of course you can, if you know your kid, and your neighborhood and the park. A 9-year-old is not a toddler. A composed young woman with a cell phone, surrounded by other kids and parents – that is just not a dangerous situation. When I was researching my book, I asked Warwick Cairns, author of “How to Live Dangerously,” “How long would you have to leave your child outside, unattended, for them to be statistically likely to be kidnapped by a stranger?” He crunched the numbers and came up with the answer:
We think kids are kidnapped all the time. We hound parents as if that is the truth. But actually it is the rarest of crimes (and getting rarer!). If we are going to arrest parents for putting their kids in extremely unlikely danger, we should arrest them for letting their kids eat solid food—they could choke! Or for letting them live in a two-story home: They could fall down the stairs! But we don’t. We only arrest parents when we morally disapprove of them. (Here’s an amazing study of how we think we’re judging danger…but we’re really judging moms.)
The impact on the poor is profound: If we as a culture decide to believe that every time a child is unsupervised they are literally in peril, we can arrest or investigate pretty much every parent who can’t afford constant childcare.
The impact on the poor is profound: If we as a culture decide to believe that every time a child is unsupervised they are literally in peril, we can arrest or investigate pretty much every parent who can’t afford constant childcare. It doesn’t matter if they know their kid is responsible and ready. All that matters is an inflated sense of danger on the part of the authorities and—poof. A mom could be facing anything from parenting classes to child removal to jail time. And the numbers are just insane: 37% of all U.S. children will be reported to Child Protective Services at some point in their childhood.
But if you’re a black kid, that number shoots up to 53%. That’s right: More than half of all African-American kids in our country will be reported to Child Protective Services. Some African-American activists call it “The New Jane Crow.”
And if you want to freak out just a little more, here’s a new statistic Let Grow’s legal consultant, Diane Redleaf, just found. A study of 418 kids in foster care found that:
"The odds of being placed in foster care tripled for inadequately supervised African American children compared with White children. [“Examination of Substantiated Lack of Supervision and Its Impact On Out-of-Home Placement: A National Sample, Vernon Brooks Carter PhD & Miranda Myers, Pages 51-70, 11 Oct 2008.]"
Lips: How do you recommend modifying these laws?
Skenazy: We recommend something really simple and straightforward: narrow those child neglect laws! Instead of saying something vague like, “Children must be properly supervised,” say that neglect occurs when a parent puts their kid in obvious, serious and statistically likely danger.
So Debra Harrell did not put her child in statistically likely danger – case closed.
A child who comes home with a latchkey at 7 or 8—they, too, are not in obvious or serious danger. Yes, the house could burn down, an intruder could burst in, an asteroid could fall through the roof – but these are not likely, and we can’t outlaw all childhood activities that could, perhaps, one time in a million, get a kid hurt, or we’d have to outlaw all jungle gyms and ice skating and car rides. The #1 way kids die in America is as car passengers, yet we let parents drive their kids around. We don’t say, “You crazy person – I’m taking your kids away! You put them in a car? Don’t you know how risky that is? That is unforgivable!”
The point is: We should let parents make everyday decisions that work for their families, so long as they are not putting their kids in obvious, serious, statistically likely danger.
Lips: How does the "Free Range Kids" model legislation work? Where has it passed and where is it being considered?
Skenazy: The first “Free-Range Parenting” law passed in Utah in 2018. It was championed by Connor Boyack, founder of the Libertas Institute in Utah. He’d heard me give a speech at ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), went right home and drew up a bill. It was sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Filmore. Later, ALEC adopted model “Free-Range Kids” legislation.
This year, 2021, we had two more states pass the law: Oklahoma and Texas. These new “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws make even more clear that giving your kids some independence by choice OR necessity – poverty -- is not neglect. Neglect is when you truly endanger a child. Not when you trust a child to do something you know they are ready for.
Now, for the 2022 legislative year we are targeting four states: Nebraska, Idaho, South Carolina and Colorado. We had passed the Colorado House of Representatives unanimously in 2019 and were about to be heard in the Senate when Covid hit. It was so sad! We had bipartisan sponsors, both women, one Black, one white. They had always wanted to work on a law together and this was the first one they both agreed on!
We worked in Nevada and had almost the same story: A gay, African-American Democrat and a straight, white, Republican – both women – co-sponsored the bill, in part to honor their own single moms who’d raised them with a lot of freedom, trust and responsibility. As our African-American sponsor, Sen. Dallas Harris, noted: “If you see the two of us sponsoring a bill together it’s either a great idea or a terrible one.” (It was great!)
This is a bill that both sides support. Democrats appreciate the way it keeps the state from being able to disrupt and even destroy families simply because they don’t conform to some middle class, “helicopter parent” ideal. Republicans…well, come to think of it, they appreciate the same thing: That the law allows parents, not the government, to decide how to raise their own kids.
In Nevada the bill sailed through one house but got held up in the second for political reasons. Politics is hard. But in Oklahoma, we also had bipartisan sponsors (two men this time) and it won. The headline about this win in the Enid, Oklahoma newspaper was: Poverty Does Not Equal Neglect.
Lips: The “free range parenting” movement faced criticisms as inviting double standards. Some have argued that low-income parents come under suspicion from child welfare authorities when they give their children greater independence.
Skenazy: Low-income parents do come under more suspicion from child welfare authorities, as discussed above. What many people don’t know is that once you are found guilty of neglect, even for something as benign as letting your kid walk home from the bus stop, or play at the park while you pick up the turkey, your name is placed on your state’s so-called Child Abuse Register. While not public like the Sex Offense Registry, there are Child Abuse Registers in every state, and these can be accessed by many employers. If you’re on one, you cannot get a job at a school or day care center or working as a nurse – you are shut out of many fields, and at least in my state, New York, you don’t get off until your oldest child is 28!
I have seen jobs lost, adoptions derailed, and utter despair as a result of getting on the register, and it is almost impossible to get off without paying a lawyer – something most low-income parents can’t afford. This is a hidden way America’s overly broad neglect statutes impact the poor. Our “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws help “Free-Rangers” who love the idea of giving their kids more independence, as well as financially stressed parents who have no choice but to take their eyes off their kids sometimes.
Lips: We are focused on improving opportunities for disadvantaged children. Kids from lower-income households often don’t have access to the enrichment and extracurricular activities that their more affluent peers do. We’ve highlighted how access to financial resources contributes to the “enrichment gap.” But another factor is parents' ability to provide transportation or otherwise supervise. Have you seen neglect laws as a barrier to participation in these kinds of activities?
Skenazy: When our bill was being discussed in the Nevada State Legislature, one of the representatives, an African-American woman (not our sponsor) said, “I wish this had been the law when I was raising my kids. For my son to get to his baseball practice he had to ride the city bus across town. I told him, ‘Always sit right behind the bus driver and don’t talk to anyone!’ I was so worried someone would turn me in for neglect.”
Why should a struggling single mom have to think that way? She knows what is best for her kid. She could make him come straight home and lock the door until she got home from work, boring afternoon after boring afternoon. Or she could let him enjoy baseball like so many middle-class kids. Parents stretched thin shouldn’t have to factor in, “Well, I’d love him to play ball but I don’t want Child Protective Services to take him away from me, so I won’t let him join the team.” That is a burden our law lifts.
Lips: What is your outlook for 2022 and beyond?
Skenazy: For 2022, we really hope that our Reasonable Childhood Independence bills will pass in all four states we’re working in, even as we scout the next group of states we’ll target in 2023. And of course, we are working on a lot of non-legislative fronts, too.
We hope that more and more schools will adopt the Let Grow Play Club described above (and studied here and here on page 229, by researchers who found Play Club participants developed more empathy and problem-solving skills). And we hope more schools will also do The Let Grow Project.
What’s that? Teachers give kids the homework assignment: “Go home and do something new, on your own. Walk the dog, run an errand, play outside…” This breaks the ice of fear. Kids are thrilled to be trusted and “free.” Parents are amazed at how much their kids can do – and how much they’d underestimated their own progeny. Best of all, it has a huge impact on childhood anxiety. (This 2-min video of anxious 7th graders shows just how huge.) The Project changes parents as much as the kids.
And we have several research projects underway, too! We are undertaking the country’s first research study of independence as therapy for childhood anxiety. This is being conducted by Long Island University Psychology Professor Camilo Ortiz.
And we have 12 English Language Learners in second grade getting two hours a week of free play with older kids. We are assessing whether they learn English better or faster than the control group spending those two hours in adult-organized activities. Our hypothesis is that kids who are playing are involved, excited and unself-conscious enough to try using their English more than they would in a classroom setting, leading to more fluency than their control group counterparts. (If we’re right, schools with English Language Learners should make sure they get ample time for mixed-age free play.)
Most of all, we are trying to make it safe, normal and legal to give kids more independence. The soft skills that kids develop when adults aren’t always there to assist them are the skills they will need in college and on the job: Self-advocacy, patience, frustration-tolerance, bravery and boldness.
America believes in freedom but we have been taking it away from kids, who grow up under almost constant supervision, and from parents, who know that something as simple as letting their kids run an errand, play in the park, or come home with a latchkey could, with a call to 911, tear the family apart. We need a culture, a country, and new policies that allow kids to be kids, and parents to parent.