Help for Overprotective ParentsÂ 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 â€œWhat do candy and ice cream have in common?â€ William replied, â€œThey both give you cavities.â€ For the question â€œWhat is chewing gum?â€ William answered, â€œA choking hazard.â€
I was raised by risk-averse parents, and they were raised by risk-averse parents, and now I find myself raising risk-averse children. Itâ€™s an emotional family heirloomâ€”but even my parents think Iâ€™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 canâ€™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 couldnâ€™t get there aloneâ€”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, amazon.com) 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 Americaâ€™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 â€œFree-Range house calls,â€ in which she visits nervous parents to help them see how competent their kids can be.
I was ready to change, but I couldnâ€™t resist asking Lenore, â€œIsnâ€™t there a safe way to teach children to take risks?â€
â€œOf course,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™m a big fan of safety measuresâ€”bike helmets, seat belts. I just donâ€™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.â€ Whenever a child gets on a bike, heâ€™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. â€œYou can limit risky behavior, but you canâ€™t eliminate risk,â€ she said. â€œIf a child never tries gum, heâ€™ll never choke on it. But he could choke on a bologna sandwich.â€ I had to admit she had a point.