Should we drop kids off at the park – by themselves?

Lenore Skenazy is an outspoken mom with a somewhat controversial idea: give kids freedom. In an effort to get American youth off computers and outside their homes, the author and blogger has declared this Saturday, May 22, “Take Our Kids to the Park... And Leave Them There Day.” It’s a novel, head-on approach to force kids – ages 7 and up – to play with other neighborhood kids and connect with their community. It will not only expose kids to potential new friends, Skenazy said, but give them a taste of responsibility. As for the issue of safety, Skenazy says we’re “way more scared than our own parents,” thanks to a 24/7 media culture that overemphasizes child abduction and murders. “Our crime rate is lower than when we were kids, playing outside!” she wrote. “And yet, as a Gallup poll found, 73 percent of Americans think we are less safe than ever.” Skenazy’s no stranger to stirring controversy. In 2008, she left her 9-year-old son in midtown Manhattan with a Metrocard for the subway, a subway map, $20, and told him she’d see him when he got back home. She wrote a column about her experience that got parents – and the media – in a frenzy. TODAY Moms asked Lenore, who publishes the Free-Range Kids blog, a few questions about her unique parenting philosophy and the reactions she’s received from others:     What inspired you to launch “Take Our Kids to the Park...And Leave Them There Day?” A lot of days when it is 80 and sunny outside, I tell my sons, “Go out and play!” And they look out the window and say, “No one’s there.” And – they’re right. And I have a feeling that up and down the block, other kids are looking out the window and they don’t see my kids, so they stay inside. And then my kids don’t see them so they stay inside and they end up playing a couple of hours on the computer. So I dreamed up a day when kids would all converge on the playground and meet each other and sort of “break the ice.” The reason I’d like parents to let them play by themselves without us hovering for a little while – even as short as 10 minutes – is because when parents are around, we tend to get involved. We help our kids organize the game, we rush over if we think they need help, we change the dynamics. When kids are 7 or 8 – the age the rest of the world sends its kids out to walk to school, in Europe and Asia and Africa – kids are capable of being on their own for a little while, and it’s even helpful. Helpful in that when a kid is playing with a videogame and he gets frustrated because he’s losing and he quits, what happens? Nothing. The computer doesn’t care. And what happens if the kid is playing with us and he’s losing? Sometimes we let him take an extra turn, or spot him a few points. Hey – he’s our kid. But when kids are playing on their own – doing what is called, in child development circles, “free play” – what happens if he tries to take an extra swing? The other kids holler, “Wait your turn!” That’s about as crucial a lesson a kid can get. It develops self-regulation – the ability to control oneself, the stirrings of maturity. And it occurs when kids play with each other, without us. Which brings us back to the fact that they won’t play with each other at all, if everyone stays inside. So I think of “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” as almost a block party. I’d like us to take our kids to the local playground, so the kids can make friends in the neighborhood. By the way, that’s why I recommend trying to get to the park around 10 a.m. That way if I’m taking my kid and you’re taking your kid, they’ll be there at the same time. And you and I can take a walk around the block! What do you think is the number one problem with modern children’s habits? Well, we know that our kids are a lot more sedentary than any other generation. This leads to all the bad stuff I don’t like to dwell on – obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and, I think, general crankiness (at least it does in my kids! Running around works wonders for their mood.) But I can’t really blame kids. Often they are not allowed beyond their four walls, because their parents are so afraid of crime. A study just released this week in England showed that 30 percent of all parents worry about predators (a very rare crime), but only 5 percent worry about obesity, which supposedly will complicate, if not shorten, the lives of about a third of all children. You wrote that the world today is “scarier,” but not necessarily “more dangerous.” Do you worry about what might happen to you child when he is left unattended? Believe it or not, I am a big time worrier. I believe in car seats, safety belts, helmets. When one of my sons turned 10 and we threw him a football party, what was the one single “treat” I put in the goodie bags? Protective mouth guards! Woo hoo!What type of reactions have you received from other moms? Some are very psyched. They want a chance to meet other moms, they want their kids to meet other kids in the neighborhood, they want their kids to play – they’re in. And of course there are tons who think I am courting danger. Which is why I must now drop in this quote from C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General, the guy who made it his life’s work to help American’s live long and happy lives: “If you want to say how can we step into childhood and make it better for them, I would start at the activity level. Let your kids go out and play. Then I’d say, ‘You’re not going to do that are you? Make your kids go out and play?’ Kids ought to grow up the way you and I grew up… Now who’s out playing in the afternoon? Nobody. Risks, I think, are the thing that make life important and everything that you and I do is risk vs. benefit. Is there a risk to sending your kid out? Absolutely. Is there a benefit? It exceeds the risk.” I agree: The remote danger that “something” might happen is a risk worth taking, knowing that we live in safer times than when we were young. Also knowing that childhood is fleeting, and I for one would like my kids to be able to look back on memories of something other than Club Penguin and “How I Met Your Mother.” Do you think parents are too overprotective these days? I think parents have been hectored by a media culture that tells them their children are in “dire peril” if they even turn their backs for one minute. The “Fear the worst! Always!” message gets internalized to the point where one mom told me she was sitting on the lawn, reading a book, while her children played around her. Another lady walked by and screamed, “Put down that book! Your children could be snatched at any minute!” When you are surrounded by that kind of message, and that kind of harshness, it is hard not to hover very closely over our kids. Even if a little part of us wonders, “Is this really necessary? Should I really raise my kids in a bubble?” You wrote that this plan will help create a community again. In what way? Well, one of the things people say when they hear about Free-Range Kids is, “That’s all very well, but when we played outside, we knew all the neighbors and they knew us.” So this is a day we all make it our business to get outside, and maybe take a walk around the block while our kids organize a game of four square. You get to know the folks you live around, and maybe your kids make a plan to meet up again the next day. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to re-knit community so that we don’t have empty lawns and empty playgrounds, and I realized it needed a kick-start. “Take Our Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day”has a provocative title, but that’s really what it is. A kick start to community. It’s a chance to welcome summer, meet some neighbors and give our kids back the gift that had been all but taken away from them: childhood. Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free Range Kids: How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)." Get more information at freerangekids.com. Discuss if you think this is a good idea below. And vote here if you would leave your kids alone at the park.