Free Range Kids

04/12/2008 By Shawn Burns

My first day at Erin’s Day One playgroup was weird, for many reasons. That was six months ago, and everyone has adjusted very well and been really friendly and I love bringing Erin to that group every week.

But one thing that hasn’t changed in the six months that I’ve been surrounded by Peninsula moms is the feeling that OmigodI’msuchabadparenthowcouldIletherdothat?

Because from Erin’s first day at the playgroup I’ve been internalizing all of the worries, fears, and paranoias of the moms I talk to. Some are afraid of vaccines; some are afraid of milk; some are afraid of the sun; some are afraid of water; some are afraid of the ground; some are afraid of cars; some are afraid of daycares; some are afraid of dads; some are afraid of moms; some are afraid of plastic; some are afraid of glass; some are afraid of wood; some are afraid of formula; some are afraid of outlets; some are afraid of drawers; some are afraid of cats; some are afraid of sleeping; some are afraid of spiders; some are afraid of sponges; some are afraid of sugar; some are afraid of choking.

From day one, at Day One, I’ve been bombarded with these fears about the things that are going to hurt, make ill, stunt, retard, or kill my daughter. I’m sure everyone reading this can tell me the same kind of story. And I’m equally sure that you are all perpetrators of at least one crazy fear that you are convinced is ‘just-sensible-and-who-wouldn’t-want-to-….’ blah blah blah. I know I have my own crazy fears; and I know that I would never be able to identify them because whatever they are just seem so sensible to me.

But very early on I adopted a very relaxed attitude toward safety. Because at least one of my crazy-that-I-believe-sensible fears is that I will go crazy and not be able to raise my daughter, I’ve decided to not go crazy with fear about this stuff.

(Old codger voice): "Back in my day, we used to shave with chainsaws in the snow and eat thumbtacks for breakfast." It’s no lie that something has changed in child-rearing, and I’m afraid that what’s changed with the constant media reports of children going missing, and people doing disgusting things, and new bacteria and illnesses popping up in our attention, and autism and everything else, is that we’ve learned the wrong kinds of lessons. We’ve learned that the best thing for our children is to be constantly vigilant against everything, because we can’t bear the thought of slipping and being the family on television saying "We never thought it would happen to us." But that’s an over-reaction. That will drive us crazy, and not make our kids any safer, or healthier.

I wonder if our vigilance has done anything to reduce the kinds of things that can go wrong with kids. I doubt it.

And Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids has the same doubts. "Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963?" she wondered. So she let her 9 year old son find his way home using a subway map, some money, and some quarters for the telephone in case he needed it. Sure there are lots of things to worry about, but the only relevant thing that’s really changed in New York in the last 45 years is that parents think about this stuff all the time. Parents are their own crazy-makers. She was on NPR and was bombarded with callers, and also e-mailers, who essentially accused her of child-abuse.

Child abuse? Because there might be, on that particular day, on that particular train, at that particular time, on that particular route, someone who would do something to her son? That kind of worrying is crazy-making, and YES I’m going to sit here and judge those people because this is my blog and I get to say what I want. Also, I’m right, and they’re crazy.

Here’s how I’ve put off my own crazy-making when it comes to Erin and her safety:

If, at the end of the day, I haven’t stabbed my kid with a fork, I’m doing a pretty good job.

I told this little mantra to the moms at Day One on my first day there. About half of them looked at me like I was the devil. The other half looked at me like I was an idiot: "Who’s wife let her husband baby sit today??" I could see them all wondering. The third half (it was a big group that day) looked at me like I was a frickin’ genius. An alien genius, but still a genius. Some of these latter moms admitted they would have a really hard time giving up some of their craziness, and I get it. And maybe it’s a very dad-type attitude to have. I don’t know which of my crazy fears I still have. As I said, they must seem pretty sensible to me. But I appreciated these moms both listening and not acting as though I was a mental defective or a child abuser.

I’m friends still friends with those moms.