Help for Overprotective Parents: A Free-Range House Call

Readers — This is an excerpt from an article in the family issue of Real Simple that’s on the stands now.  Read the whole piece here.

Help for Overprotective Parents by Jennifer Breheny Wallace

A couple of years ago, my then five-year-old son William took a standardized test in which he was asked about everyday objects. The tester noted his unusual responses to some questions. When asked “What do candy and ice cream have in common?” William replied, “They both give you cavities.” For the question “What is chewing gum?” William answered, “A choking hazard.”

I was raised by risk-averse parents, and they were raised by risk-averse parents, and now I find myself raising risk-averse children. It’s an emotional family heirloom—but even my parents think I’ve taken it too far. They have two smoke alarms; I have 10. They worry about sunburn; I worry about skin cancer. And how well does sunscreen really work, and why can’t the kids just wear full-protection hazmat suits?

William, now seven, is my oldest; his sister and younger brother are six and three. Last year William and I had an exhausting summer as we struggled between his desire to grow up and my desire to keep him safe, which basically means locked in our house: no playing on the front lawn, no crossing our busy street, no swimming in the ocean. This year I vowed to break free. I was tired of saying no all the time, and I knew that as William grew older, he would only want to become more independent. But I knew I couldn’t get there alone—I needed a copilot who could stop my anxious mind from spinning. So I called Lenore Skenazy.

Lenore is the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry, ($12, and she is my polar opposite. In 2008 she let her nine-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone and wrote a column about it for the New York Sun. After national media picked up the story, Lenore was dubbed America’s Worst Mom, so she founded Free-Range Kids, a grassroots movement to give children more autonomy. According to Lenore, hyper-protective parents like me are not only driving ourselves crazy but also depriving our kids of the satisfaction that comes with mastery and self-sufficiency. She even makes “Free-Range house calls,” in which she visits nervous parents to help them see how competent their kids can be.

I was ready to change, but I couldn’t resist asking Lenore, “Isn’t there a safe way to teach children to take risks?”

“Of course,” she said. “I’m a big fan of safety measures—bike helmets, seat belts. I just don’t think kids need a security detail every time they leave the house. Risk and risky are not the same thing, but our culture is determined not to see the difference.” Whenever a child gets on a bike, he’s taking a risk, Lenore told me, because he could fall and break an arm. (I resisted the urge to hang up.) Riding a bike at night without reflectors, however, is risky. “You can limit risky behavior, but you can’t eliminate risk,” she said. “If a child never tries gum, he’ll never choke on it. But he could choke on a bologna sandwich.” I had to admit she had a point.

Read what happened next!


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17 Responses to Help for Overprotective Parents: A Free-Range House Call

  1. Manny November 4, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    Great work Lenore! Score one for Free Range!

  2. Michelle November 4, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    Funny story – my sister has always been the overly-protective parent. Her daughter was not allowed to play in the grass or at parks. She might get germs. She kept her at home and wouldn’t allow her to play with other children. Germs. She was never allowed to have pets or play with relative’s pets. Too germy. Restaurants were off limits because of….you guessed it – germs. She washed meat and bleached vegetables. Hand sanitizer everywhere. No movie theaters because of the threat of lice. Very overly-protective to the point of paranoia. Now the funny (not “haha” funny, but ironic funny – or maybe not). The kid ended up with roundworms. And, now that she is older and in school, she picks up every cold and illness that goes around. Poor kid never had a chance to build up an immunity system.

  3. Marni November 4, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    You did a great job, Lenore, but I hope you also suggested that the mom get some therapy.

    Not allowing your eight year old to plug stuff in or ride without training wheels???

  4. Rachel November 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    How many times has this story been posted? At least three or four times.

  5. Papilio November 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    My first thought was ‘Oh yaaay, another one!’, and then I recognized the name of the magazine and that mother and realized this was nothing new.
    You blogged about this already when you just had that new site, and I think there were a lot of tweets as well.


  6. Earth.W November 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Once upon a time there were parents who were viewed as over protective and seen as odd, weird, etc. Now, such parents are everywhere. They have spread like Mogwais getting wet. They have got so zealous it’s as if they turned into Gremlins.

  7. Roberta November 4, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Lenore it was a treat to meet you last night and listen to your talk. It is wonderful to hear a mom speak with confidence about what kids can handle on their own. I’m a big fan of confident and capable kids!

  8. everydayrose November 4, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    @Rachel..I’ve never seen it before and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  9. Eliza November 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Try being a Freerange parent who has depression and anxiety problems. I have 14 year old daughter who is able to look after herself and is willing to be responsible for her own behaviour and able to organise school work, part time job and sporting commitments with very little help from me. But when it comes to letting her go anywhere on her own,even to school is a big struggle for me. She does get to school and home by herself, but the anxiety I feel, especially today when it’s my day off work. It has taken me nearly an hour to move from the dining table with the phone in my hand waiting for the school to ring to inform me of some terrible accident. I have actually turned the phone off and keep repeating that nothing bad will happen. My daughter knows about my condition and is very supportive. I’ve even told her to stop texting me that she is ok during the day, and to only text me if she is going to be home after curfew time. I want my daughter to have the same adventures I did when I was young, such as backpacking overseas on her own, or just getting on a bus not knowing where it goes and then getting off the last stop, then finiding your way home. This website has been some help to me by reinforcing what good there is out in the world and helps make those anxiety thoughts just a bit dull, although sti

  10. Eliza November 4, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    woops posted before finished. Was about to say this website has been one of the tools to help my anxiety.

  11. Kenny Felder November 4, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

    THIS IS SO AWESOMELY COOL. Great job, Lenore! This is a huge score!!!!!

  12. Timothy Cooke November 4, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    First off, from what I can gather, he was seven during this story. But that’s just nitpicking. Second, overprotection goes a lot farther than you might think. Some parents, having the idea of ever-present danger drilled into their heads, try to shut off every single thing that could possibly hurt them. While that works(to a certain extent), it has adverse effects on your kids independence, especially when they head off to college and start living on their own. This “helicopter parenting” is only the result of parents and media constantly repeating the horrid, yet rare tragedies. Nothing else. This mother did not need mental help- she only needed to let go of her misconceptions. Overprotection is not a mental illness.

  13. Michelle November 4, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    Eliza, you get big hugs from me. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. While my anxiety is pointed in a different direction than yours (safety issues aren’t one of my major triggers), I know exactly what it feels like to realize that my issues are affecting my kids’ quality of life, and I know how hard it can be to push through for them. I don’t always succeed. I can’t offer advice because I’m still figuring it out myself, but know that you’re not alone.

  14. Donna November 5, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    “Overprotection is not a mental illness.”

    Overprotection certainly can be a manifestation of mental illness. And once you are at a level of refusing to allow a 7 year old to plug in electric items unless you are supervising, you are far enough outside the norm of even helicopter parents to make me wonder if there isn’t something else going on.

  15. Melissa November 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    I think the biggest takeaway I get from articles like this is – “Isn’t she just plain EXHAUSTED?” I have over-protective friends and it always seems like they are on the brink of a breakdown. It takes so much effort and stress to worry about so. many. things.

    Free-range parenting works for me because I really do believe in my kids and the life skills I give them. But also because I am generally lazy and can’t be bothered to worry so hard.

  16. Timothy Cooke November 6, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    “Overprotection certainly can be a manifestation of mental illness.”
    Sure, so can a lot of other things. Your point?

    “And once you are at a level of refusing to allow a 7 year old to plug in electric items unless you are supervising, you are far enough outside the norm of even helicopter parents to make me wonder if there isn’t something else going on.”
    Who are you to determine the norms of helicopter parenting? Why do you prefer to believe the mother had mental issues, rather than just misconceptions? It was overprotection, nothing more. Extreme, yes, but still nothing more.

  17. Tr November 7, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    I’d say by some of the posts I’ve seen here you don’t have to even look beyond this site to find lots of clients.