On May 8, Utah will be the first state to protect parents’ rights to practice “free-range parenting” of their children by changing what is considered child neglect. Under this law, neglect does not include “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities,” such as going to school, to the park, local stores or bicycling by themselves. The goals of this new legislation is to protect parents who allow children to do things like travel alone to school, and to prevent “nuisance” calls from taking time away from child protective services from dealing with serious issues of neglect.
Lenore Skenazy has popularized the term “free- range parenting,” and is the author of Free- Range Kids : Giving Our Children the Freedom We had Without Going Nuts With Worry. She has written about the negative effects of overparenting and overprotection so that children are not growing with the necessary coping skills for independence. “Free- range” is the term used with livestock when they are kept under natural conditions. Free -range parenting is a parenting philosophy where children are raised with less parental supervision to accept realistic risks meant to be consistent with the child’s developmental age. It is often seen as the opposite of “helicopter parenting.” Most states have laws that assert that a children need to be a certain age to be left alone. Skenazy maintains that children can only learn to make good decisions in risky situations by practicing the need to do so independently, and that is what free- range parenting allows.
How about child safety and dangerous predators and accidents? A recent article by Melissa Mayer on Apri 11, 2018 in Health News noted that actually the world is safer than it has ever been. “When it comes to all dangers one might imagine unattended children face- death, abduction, traffic accidents- the incidence for all of those things was historically low and infinitesimally small. In fact, an unaccompanied child is more likely to be hit by lightning than experience premature death or stranger abduction.” In this world where we teach “stranger danger” to our children, (and I maintain we should!), free -range parents preach a different message: “The world is inherently safe, humans are mostly kind and young people are definitely capable.”
Despite this reality, with constant media access, it does seem that the world is a more dangerous place. And, with cell phones allowing us to have connection with our children, it does provide some reassurance to parents, but we still believe that unsupervised children are in danger.
LenoreSkenazy feels that there a number of reasons why parents are fearful for their children today. The media is always broadcasting tragic and scary news. Our culture is litigious and people are constantly focused on negligence and risk. Experts are always telling parents that they are parenting wrong and in a manner that’s harmful to their children. The child safety industrial complex will convince parents of danger so that they can sell their safety devices. “If you can convince parents that their kids are in any kind of danger- physical, psychological, emotional- you can get them to buy almost anything ...once you have rewritten childhood as a minefield, (even as child mortality rates reach historic lows), you can sell parents anything.” Skenazy adds that now that we are in constant contact with our children and “can know everything about your child every second of every day, anytime you choose not to know, you are making a conscious decision to opt out of your role as
omniscient protector. This means, that now, if something bad does happen, instead of sympathy, the parent can expect a dose of haters: ‘Why didn’t she GPS him?’ ‘Why wasn’t she watching more closely?
A few weeks ago, CBS aired an episode of 48 Hours interviewing those who were on the case of Eitan Patz’s disappearance in 1979. Eitan was a six year old who was allowed to walk to his school bus stop two blocks from his house for first time by himself and was abducted. That case “changed the way parents watched over their kids.” That is understandable.
I am not saying that I agree with Skenazy. I am quite an overprotective mother myself. But, there is an element of truth in her words. This past week, as we commemorated Yom Hashoah, I often think of the young ages of my my grandparents who were older teens during the horror, or even of the younger ones, like Rabbi Lau, who was a small child. G-d forbid that our children should ever experience something like that, but when one thinks about how these children were able to face difficulty at such a young age- they had resiliency that our children do not have nowadays. My Zeidy used to tell how at the age of 9 he started his own business to help raise money for his family. My 9 year old is busy going to baseball and playing Lego.
And, as we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, I think about how Israeli children are more resilient than in a row, according to the UN’s annual Happiness Report. The United States is 18th. How is it possible that they face the challenges of being surrounded by enemies and their teens need enter the army, and yet they are the 11th happiest country? Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, whom I have quoted in the past, famous for his development of the science of happiness, recently returned to Israel after being abroad. for 15 year, (some of that time teaching his famous course on Happiness at Harvard). I recently watched a documentary where Ben Shahar analyzes what makes Israel special called “Israel Inside: How A Small Nation Makes A Big Difference.” Ben Shahar notes that Israelis’ focus on family is one reason for the happiness they have. More importantly, everyone is family. He humorously notes that when he goes to the park with his children, he gets numerous pieces of unsolicited advice about how to raise them. Why? Because every person in Israel is family. He then interviews others who note that small children can cross the street alone in Israel for they know that some adult will stop and hold his hand… again, unsolicited. Children walk to school alone, take buses by themselves and 9 year olds take their 3 year old siblings to playdates. Perhaps it is the fact that all are family that allows Israelis to give their children that freedom. Israel has a strong sense of community, says Ben Arieh in the article, “It’s OK to walk Home Alone.- Compared to their American counterparts, Israelis prefer ‘free-range parenting’ over the hovering helicopter type.
Inbal Arieli, in her article “For Israeli Kids Every Day is Independence Day” agrees. “From the moment they can raise their heads, we encourage our sons and daughters to explore the world around them without fear and constraint.” She speaks of the importance of parents “getting out of the way” and letting them go exploring even when it is not safe. She claims that this risk- taking explains the innovations and entrepreneurship for which Israelis are famous. “We are a much less risk-averse society, and this willingness to make to make mistakes gives way to more resilient children and eventually, amazing inventions.” She continues to compare Israeli children to the Jews of the Torah who wandered in the desert for 40 years. “They learn to take responsibility for their own destiny.”
I hate to argue with Ms. Arieli, but the Jews in the desert still had their “Parent” - Hashem to watch over them. They did have a “omniscient Protector.” They were not simply wandering unsupervised in the desert. Perhaps that is the secret to the independence- a knowledge that Hashem is there watching out for us. That is the emunah found by those in the Holocaust and those children being raised in the miraculous Medinat Yisrael. And, so there needs to be a happy medium. Just like our Father in Heaven has modelled for us that the role of the parent is to provide some independence, but to always keep a watchful eye.
Sixth Grade- Students began a unit on bullying and the importance of being an upstander with some practical strategies.
Seventh Grade- As the beginning of their unit Do Not Stand Idly By- Students heard Mr. Shahar Azani from Stand With Us about the issues facing Israel in the world today. Students began learning about the BDS movement and the danger it poses for Israel.
Eighth Grade- Students began a unit on Substance Abuse and its effects. Stay tuned to my column next week to hear more.