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Take Your Kids Out to the Park and Leave Them There

Author Lenore Skenazy is tired of helicopter parents messing up their kids.

Question: What is a free-range kid?

Lenore Skenazy:  A free range kid is a kid that grows up sort of in an old-fashioned way.  I mean, I don’t think there’s anything radical about a free range kid.  A free range kid is somebody, probably like you or me, who gets walked to school a couple times and then learns the route, if there’s a safe route that you can go to school, and gradually assumes responsibility for that.  When they get a little older, maybe they have a paper route, maybe they become a babysitter.  A free range kid can go to the park and on the way, knock at somebody else’s door and say, “Hey, come on, let’s go out and play.”  All this stuff that sounds so unusual now. 

In May, I declared it "Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day," and that was considered so insane that the media was jumping up and down, saying, “It’s a pedophile parade!”  They were crazed with fear, and all I was suggesting s that we let our kids of ages 7, 8 and up, go and spend an hour, half an hour, they got me down to 10 minutes, 10 minutes at the park, with each other, trying to come up with a game, figure out four square, play handball, do hopscotch, without me telling you what to do, because that turns out to be a very important thing.  Free range kids end up having to entertain themselves, something that it is very hard for me to get my own kids to do, and when they do, I am so grateful when they’ve plied themselves away from the screen, and they have to figure out, “OK, we’re gonna play foursquare this way.” 

My son’s happiest day was when he came home from school and they had invented a new game, which was seven-square.  He thought that was like discovering mercury or something, but they had come up with something on their own, something you don’t do if you are in travel soccer league, something you don’t do at your Mandarin lessons, something you don’t do, even when your mother is taking you to Gymboree.  You don’t figure out the clap, you’re told how to clap. 

Free range kids start to figure out things on their own, and this turns out to be extremely valuable.  I hate to say, “You must have a good childhood because it is good for you,” but it is.  It is, if you have to come up with a game with your friend, that’s creativity, right?  You have to say, "Okay, we’re gonna run to the sewer, no, we’re gonna run to the tree, no, sewer, tree, sewer, tree, tree sewer."  Whatever you decide, how about the thing in the middle, we’re gonna step on the cat.  You come up with a compromise, okay?  You have communicated and then the hot word right now in the child development circles is something called self-regulation.  Self-regulation is what we call maturity.  It’s the ability to not jump in when somebody else is talking, or not demand that everybody do it your way.  It’s a give and take. And it turns out that the best way to develop self-regulation, here’s the best phrase for developing self-regulation.  It’s called: “It’s not your turn!”  It’s not your turn, is this triumphant phrase of childhood that lifts the child out of demanding, “It is, too,” and slinks them back to behind the start line, and waiting their turn.  And it’s not fun, and everybody would like it to be their turn all the time, but you internalize that lesson when you’re with your friends, and you don’t internalize that lesson when your Mom says, “Ah, go ahead, we’ll do it five strikes and you’re out,” or when the coach says, “Okay, one more time,” or, “That was just practice, keep going.”  When you’re with an adult, it’s a very different thing than when you’re with your peers and you’re working it out together.  And free range kids work things out together.  That’s why I want them to get back outside, playing with each other, without us hovering all the time.

Recorded August 17, 2010

Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

Skenazy's "Free Range Kid" is a kid that grows up in an old-fashioned way, with lots of independence to go out in the world. "I want them to get back outside, playing with each other, without us hovering all the time."

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