Bryan Caplan  

I Loved Free-Range Kids

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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.
"Why?"

"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.



COMMENTS (17 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

Hank takes The Simpsons too seriously.

mulp writes:

Does either book explain why kids became so heavily protected and sheltered from any potential harm, challenge, or risk during a time when it has been argued that America has moved toward individual self reliance and individual self protection and individual responsibility for every outcome good or bad that befalls them?

And in an era of supposed call for less government, government has been condemned for not doing enough to defend the children from child molesters, drug pushers, gangsters, sex, and the evils of a liberal education in the broader traditional arts and sciences?

It seems to me the shrillness of the fear mongering of "protect the children" has only increased as the demands for tax cuts and less government has further entrenched and with it calls for more government to "protect the children" by locking up ever more people in prisons for longer and longer times, all of which increase the scope and cost of government, not to mention reducing liberty.

chipotle writes:

mulp,

Even though I disagree with your representation of the facts, this is easy to explain.

We have vastly more and faster outlets of communication than we had even 25 years ago. Every single kidnapping in our country of 310 million is now potentially a national news story. There are people--mostly women--who are addicted to stories of tragedies befalling children. You could easily tell a "just-so" story about how evolution favors "worried hens," mothers who defended against every danger, real and imagined.

Honestly, I have no idea where this fear comes from. But it's horrible. And I wish I knew who to fight back.

SydB writes:

Observation: Many of the conservatives I know shelter their kids to no end. Try to control their friends, their schooling, etc. They're full of fear. Liberals on the other hand seem much more open minded and flexible.

Are conservatives more afraid of the world?

Tom West writes:

Honestly, I have no idea where this fear comes from. But it's horrible. And I wish I knew who to fight back.

You can't.

It's a natural product of us being wealthier. We refuse to accept that there are trade-offs, that the benefits of allowing most children to face real risks and overcome them is that some won't, and *will* die or be permanently injured.

Since the benefits of allowing children real challenges are distributed and far in the future, and the death of a child is an immediate concentrated price, it makes sense that as it becomes possible to protect our children further and further, we, as a society, seek to do so.

Previously, the amount we protected our children was limited by our ability to do so (except for the extremely wealthy). Now, for the first time in history, we are finally at a point where it is economically possible to protect them to the point of actually causing them damage.

And no surprise, we're ill equipped to deal with it.

To reverse the trend, we need a society that is willing to (statistically) sacrifice a few children for the good of society. Given how we view every preventable child's death, I don't see that coming any time soon.

Loof writes:

In principle, Loof is opposed to any study that starts from a conclusion and objectively picks evidence to create a Procrustean Bed – especially for children. Parental self-interest balanced with other’s interests (i.e. the child’s) supplies sufficient reason to have more children or not. Selfish reasons to have more children, indeed!

Exposure theory has merit with proper practice, the key is to know the boundary for “free range” at different ages. For instance, when a child first crawls and ranges freely in the house ignorant parents leave the electrical sockets exposed for little fingers to range freely. The principle applies for all ages as range expands in different fields. Not to distinguish boundaries and limits to exposure as the free range expands is extremely poor parenting.

The point of “overparenting” is well taken Children who are abused, bullies or wimps can be taught to “face their fears” with proper exposure. Pampered children tend to have a hard time facing their fears, since they typically can’t see them.

Also, beware and be aware of your child’s peer group when ranging freely. Teenagers roam the range in flocks that can easily go astray, whether physically outside or spiritually inside, on the internet for instance. The solution is to teach your child to be a goat; not a sheep, as they flee from fear. Goats will face the danger and are good at dodging death.

A “kid” is a young goat. Free range children without proper boundries, exposed, without a shepard are lambs, not kids. Wolves easily spot and target the fat pampered ones.

brian:

as the author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, i want to register my surprise at your comments about my book. i draw on a body of social science...directly relevant studies...to link overprotection with the lack of coping skills and psychological fragility of overprotected kids. the claim is not, as you allege, "implausible." it is highly credible, supported by numerous studies. moreover, several psychological mechanisms have been demonstrated as accounting for the effect. like you, i wish it were not the case.

i didn't set out to "prove" that kids were being harmed. my book really started in 2002 when i discovered that college kids were becoming increasingly psychologically fragile and breaking down in record numbers when they left the protective cocoon of home for campus. the damage was happening. i investigated why, in interviews with hundreds of professionals on the front lines of campus counseling centers. they all pointed to the same phenomenon of kids being overprotected and thus lacking the simplest of coping skills. and i knew the social science literature regarding the effects of parental overprotection, so i was able to connect the dots.

believe it or not, parenting does have effects on kids, and "overparenting" has effects, although over time the effects can be mitigated by many factors.

i agree with you that many of the risks kids face today are trivial compared to what kids of yore were exposed to. but any risks are clearly exagerrated, and less tolerated today by parents. this is an across-the-board phenomenon, not related exclusively to child-rearing.

the critical question, as i see it, is why parents are so distrustful...distrustful of the natural course of childhood, of children's natural curiosity, children's natural desire to demonstrate their own competence, and distrustful of the world at large. why does it take 11 parents to walk 10 kids to a bus stop 50 feet from their house, when parents distrust the neighbor to look after their own kids. many young parents distrust their OWN parents in looking after their kids. there may be a kind of narcissism at play here..."no one knows my child as well as i could possibly know my child and no one could therefore possibly care for my precious one as well as i do." true, but we live in a world where, to function, one has to relate to more than kin.

the march to adulthood is long, and begins at birth, and there are plenty of opportunities for parents to give their kids increasing independence. i wish more would take them. the goal of child-rearing, after all, is to produce an independent adult. it doesn't happen magically by itself, at age 21. parents have to let out the leash gradually, sensing when their kids are ready for the next step, displaying confidence (not distrust) that their children are ready for to take on the next new little (or big) challenge.

Kurbla writes:

It might be other way around - children (and people) are relatively safe because people invested some time and effort in making them (and us) safer than before. How can we say that at one point people worry to much, without offering some kind of quantitative analysis?

Let's say that value of my work is $100/hour. That value of life of my daughter for me is $1 billion/year. That sorting out backpack thing requires two hours of my work and as result, I'll increase the chance that my daughter will survive next year for ... say ... 0.0001%. Now I can calculate is it good business or not ... calculate, calculate - value of sorting backpack problem is $1000, so it is well worth ten hours of my work.

Of course, it is almost impossible to make such calculation in practice, first, because people are not willing to estimate the value of their children; and other - we cannot practically know risk related to backpack and many other issues accurately enough.

It still might be wise to care less, but it is hard to say anything rational to back up that wisdom.

Barbara Erickson writes:

The oldest of my 8 children is 60, and if you think that's the Dark Ages, you're wrong. Kids need to understand what NO means, and parents should use it consistently and reasonably. I didn't have time to be over-protective. I found that Benign Neglect had considerable merit. Barb

D writes:

"Observation: Many of the conservatives I know shelter their kids to no end. Try to control their friends, their schooling, etc. They're full of fear. Liberals on the other hand seem much more open minded and flexible.

Are conservatives more afraid of the world?"

Liberals have kids? lol.

Actually I see you were careful enough not to say that!

Bryan, check out this post about "helicopter" parents and overparenting.

Edward Hafner writes:

"Honestly, I have no idea where this fear comes from. But it's horrible. And I wish I knew who to fight back."

If your Board of Education has a policy that won't allow students to walk to and from school without a parent - Get the policy changed!
If your community has a law that says you cannot photograph children playing a game of baseball in a public park unless you are one of the parents - Get the law changed!
If you fly on an airline that considers adult males to be child molestors simply because they have been assigned a seat next to an unaccompanied minor - Do not patronize that airplane until the regulation is changed!

[Comment edited to remove overuse of upper case.--Econlib Ed.]

Gavin Andresen writes:

If you haven't found it already, check out the Free Range Kids blog.

Mike Lanza writes:

Bryan, I blog about a solution to this whole problem - i.e. giving our kids a life of neighborhood play. (See Playborhood.com.)

I'm surprised to see your criticism of A Nation of Wimps. I've read dozens of books in this area, and I find it *the best* explanation of the problem of overparenting. It's copiously researched and documented. It's not very funny, but, well, neither is the epidemic of teenage depression and suicide.

BTW, regarding the link between libertarian ideals and overparenting, an intriguing blog that touches on libertarianism and community is Front Porch Republic. The crucial link between overparenting and community is Jane Jacobs' concept of "eyes on the street" - i.e. that active communities are safer because there are more eyes on the street to see if some crime is committed.

This is the foundation of Playborhood.com, namely, that the only way for parents to fix kids' boring, overcontrolled lives is to invest a lot of time in their neighborhoods. We've largely abandoned our neighborhoods in 21st Century America, so kids' choices are staying inside in front of screens or getting driven around from one structured activity to another. Letting our kids roam "Free Range" can only happen after a lot of work to build community in our neighborhoods.

DaveL writes:

It seems to me that overparenting is directly related to family size. Many American families today have one or at most two children. This makes them advantaged from an evolutionary point of view as the parents can lavish more resources on them, but riskier in that there are fewer eggs in the nest, so each egg is proportionately more valuable.

Thus, overprotectiveness.

Obviously a "just so" story but I think a grain of truth in it.

Yancey Ward writes:

Observation: Many of the liberals I know shelter their kids to no end. Try to control their friends, their schooling, etc. They're full of fear. Conservatives on the other hand seem much more open minded and flexible.

Are liberals more afraid of the world?

Since we are arguing from anecdote.

Tom West writes:

I didn't have time to be over-protective.

You have the advantage of us. With eight children, you have my awe and admiration, but you have escaped one essential aspect of current existence - the absolute knowledge that, outside of illness, nowadays you *can* be protective enough to prevent any fatal or terrible accident.

In other words, if a child is injured or hurt - it *is* your fault.

Each time I've given my child a *real* push towards independence (i.e. the possible consequences include death or permanent injury), I've had one of his grandparents reminding me over and over that if anything terrible happens to him, I'll have to live with the consequences for every second for the rest of my life (which might not be very long :-)).

(And yes, that independence includes the first time you allow a child enough freedom that they could run into the road before you could catch them.)

Of course, for the child's sake, I have pushed my son (he's not exactly eager to leap out of the nest himself), but it's easy to see the strong social forces that would cause parents to take the easy and approved route and protect their children to their eventual detriment.

M. Marano asks "Why parents are so distrustful?". I strongly suspect they aren't. It's simply that what was an acceptable risk 30-40 years ago is no longer acceptable today.

Parents behaviour today is an entirely rational reaction to the expectation that the number of children's preventable fatalities and accidents should be *zero*.

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