I Loved Free-Range Kids
By Bryan Caplan
While writing Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I’ve been reading a lot of popular parenting books. I’m pleased to report that I finally found one that I love: Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids. Most of the competition tries to be wise, down-to-earth, and funny, but only Skenazy pulls it off. And while Free-Range Kids is not intended as a work of social science, you can learn a lot about the social world by reading it.
The quickest way to understand the book is to turn to the penultimate page, and read the pre-fab “Free-Range Kid Membership Card.” You’re supposed to give to your kid so authorities stop hassling him for walking the earth:
I’m not lost, I am a FREE-RANGE KID!
I have been taught how to cross the street safely. I know never to GO OFF with strangers, but I can talk to them. I like being outside and exploring the world. If you are a grown-up, you probably did the same things when you were a kid, so do not be alarmed. The adults in my life know where I am, but if you want to talk to them, feel free to give them a call.
The number is: _________
Have a Free-Range Day!
Skenazy makes many of the same points that I do: Despite what you see in the media, kids today are amazingly safe. Parents are creating needless misery for themselves and their children by fighting against trivial risks. She even favorably references Judith Harris and alludes to exposure therapy. The main difference between me and her: She’s a lot less theoretical, and a lot funnier.
Particularly excellent: Unlike similar books like A Nation of Wimps, Skenazy doesn’t implausibly claim that overparenting does long-term harm to children by infantilizing them. Instead, she sticks to the basic facts that overparenting (a) offers little or no benefit in terms of safety or success, and (b) siphons away much of the daily joy of being a parent and being a child.
Skenazy’s strongest weapon is ridicule, which she wields almost as well as Bastiat. My personal favorite: Her story about Hank, a lawyer dad who crusades against backpacks with waist belts.
“Well, just in case they’re getting off the bus and the bus driver isn’t paying attention and he closes the door too fast and their backpack gets caught inside and they’re outside and they can’t unfasten their belt and he doesn’t hear their screams, so they get dragged down the highway a mile or two before anyone notices.”
“My God!” I stare slack-jawed at Hank. “Has that ever happened?”
“Well, not that I know of. But…”
Just. In. Case.
Now, the hard thing about arguing against the Just in Case mentality is that once you picture an eight-year-old… being dragged down the street by her Hannah Montana backpack while the bus driver digs Zeppelin on his cranked-up, off-brand iPod, it certainly seems worth warning the kids to undo their backpack belts. It’s so simple. And then – whew! That’s one worry off the checklist.
The problem is, the checklist just keeps growing. It’s like those brooms in the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Cut one in half, and it comes back as two. Two becomes four.
The most amazing thing about Free-Range Kids is that it would have delighted me even if I weren’t a parent, and never planned to be. It’s much more than just a trenchant defense of a wise but unpopular parenting philosophy. It’s a reductio ad absurdum of people of all ages who dwell on worse-case scenarios instead of doing something with their lives.