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Children: The New Bored Housewives

Last month, Lenore Skenazy came to On Parenting to talk about her movement called Free Range Kids. Today, one day after National Missing Children's Day, I'm running a second blog by Lenore. While the problem of children who do go missing is a tragedy, Lenore points out that statistically it's far less of a problem than many people who listen to media reports might think.

By Lenore Skenazy

Betty Friedan called it, “The problem that has no name.” The problem being that just a decade after American women rolled up their sleeves and built the bombers that won World War II, they were suddenly told: Hey, what are you doing out here? It’s not safe! You’re too dumb/cute/sweet/spacey/silly for the outside world! Go home and stay home. Love ya! Same thing we are telling kids today.

Yes, obviously there’s a big difference between children and grown women. But there is also something strikingly familiar about a big group of hitherto happy-go-lucky, independent people suddenly being told they are in such grave danger, they can’t be allowed out on their own anymore. Especially when that means they have to go home and watch TV, eat snacks and try not to die of boredom. Fifties moms had Valium. Kids today have the Wii.

The rationale behind this latest lockdown is also strikingly similar: It’s “for their own good. “ But is it?

Well, it would be if we were living in incredibly dangerous times. But we’re not. Despite the climate of fear, statistics from the US Department of Justice show that crime has been dropping across the board since the early ’90s. Juvenile sex crimes are down a whopping 79%. And abduction/murder by a stranger – the biggest parental fear of all – is so rare, it’s almost hard for the numbers to budge. They remain about 1 in 1.5 million.

“What if it’s MY kid who’s the one?” parents ask – because they see that one child so often, on CNN, on CSI, on the cover of People Magazine. And that may be why we are so much more smothering today: We really do think children are more vulnerable than ever.
But that’s what we thought about women in the ’50s, too. Sometimes the zeitgeist gets it wrong. It’s our job to nudge it toward reality.

The reality is that kids today are just as capable and safe as we were. We got to play outside. We got to walk to school. And yet I was chatting with a mom in the park who won’t let her 13-year-old ride the bus by himself. I spoke with another mom whose condo association prohibits anyone under age 14 from playing outside without adult supervision. I remember when the 14-year-olds were the supervision. They were the babysitters! They started at age 11 or 12!

We’ve been brainwashed with fear and our children pay the price. We clip their wings and wonder why they’re bored, sad, fat – just like the housewives of our youth (but without the Living Bras). It’s time to fight the newest problem that has no name.

You thought sisterhood was powerful? Wait’ll we liberate childhood.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry” and founder of To contribute a guest blog to On Parenting, please e-mail

By Stacey Garfinkle |  May 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Guest Blogs
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I agree with the entire article by Lenore. Just this weekend my 11 yr old daughter got a "job" as a mother's helper this summer, just 1-2 mornings a week but she will be responsible for keeping a 3 year old occupied - outside and inside! Hold on to your outrage!

Plus, this weekend my 11 year old and her friend rode their bikes, with their two 8 year old brothers and another 9 year old, up to the neighborhood school (5 blocks away) ALL BY THEMSELVES. Good googlymoo, what is the world coming to?

The condo association 14 year old rule is completely stupid. Next year when my daughter is 12 she can get her new ID card and go to the pool by herself. We went to the pool alone by the time we were 8 and 9, as long as you passed the pool's swimming test and got your patch. I don't ever remember a kid drowning or getting abducted off their bike, and this was the 70's.

I think I will visit the freerange kids website and congratulate Lenore on being sane in an insane world.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 26, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I walked with my 7 & 5 year olds to the park this weekend and passed a creek. I told them how I used to play in the creek all day with my friends when I was their age. Then my 7 year old told me it was too dangerous to do that. I sighed and wondered if we are raising our children to be overly cautious, or even afraid, of the world we live in.

Posted by: BurkeMom | May 26, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

In our Arlington neighborhood lots of 7 and 8 year olds roam around by themselves, go to friends' houses by themselves, ride bikes by themselves, etc. And I've hired plenty of teen babysitters. So if there is a "trend" of over-protecting kids, I haven't noticed it. Maybe it varies by neighborhood?

Posted by: bubba777 | May 26, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I may have made this comment before, not sure, but I have mixed feelings about the whole free-range kid movement.

On the one hand, I agree: kids do need gradually increasing freedom and they do need the time and skills and space to explore, learn that they can get around on their own, be outside and in different situations with varying degrees of supervision, etc.

On the other hand I was one of those free-range kids as a child: walked to school/took transit some distance by myself starting in grade 1, went downtown alone in grade 4 for saturday enrichment classes, and so on.

And while a lot of those experiences were positive, I think there is a LOT of nostalgia here for a bucolic past that didn't actually exist. There were many times that I was scared or in some cases terrified: I nearly lost toes to frostbite one winter when the streetcar was delayed and my boots were wet; I was bullied and harassed by older children; a friend and I made a grisly discovery in a ravine (later in the news; it was an abandoned newborn) that we never told anyone about; a guy flashed me; a girl was abducted in a white van and for months all us kids would shriek and run at the sight of any white van... about 3 times a day.

And yes, those things were actually unpleasant and stressful, not "fond memories."

So... I don't know. I just think it's important to remember that it is not so black and white as "past good, present bad" or media hype about abduction. It's not just about whether your child is killed. It's about an ongoing process of evaluation and communication.

Posted by: Shandra1 | May 26, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

i hear you shandra1. we were left alone quite a bit and we roamed the neighborhood and beyond pretty independently.

i think a lot of that was for the best, even the parts where we had to overcome an uncomfortable/scary situation. (no white van abductions, however - looks like your friend was the one-in-a-million?)

i actually feel pretty safe, living in cleveland park, that there are so many people around. we'll give our kids a wide berth, but probably not quite as much as our parents gave us.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 26, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Shandra, It's not necessarily nostalgia, it is people recounting their childhood experiences. Perhaps you were a kid that shouldn't have been expected to, or not ready to, travel alone to school etc, but an overwhelming majority of kids are ready and willing.

Who wasn't bullied? Anyone? There was an 1 block stretch in our neighborhood that every kid I knew avoided because there was a perpetual harrasser/bully that would verbally or physically attack anyone he could. He was a menace to society and I would ride my bike a mile out of the way to avoid him if necessary. Guess what though? That's life, there are bullies. If I was with other kids we rode right through, safety in numbers. I learned a lot of lessons from that bully but it wasn't fun at the time.

I can't speak to your experiences, but there are life lessons in everything you described. It wasn't nirvana as a kid, but I enjoyed my childhood. We had lots of freedom and it made me more independent and savy. I am hoping for the same for my kids.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 26, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

"The problem being that just a decade after American women rolled up their sleeves and built the bombers that won World War II, they were suddenly told: Hey, what are you doing out here? It’s not safe! You’re too dumb/cute/sweet/spacey/silly for the outside world! Go home and stay home. Love ya! Same thing we are telling kids today."

Sorry to go slightly off topic, but this is one of my pet peeves. This blog is based on a false premise - namely, that mothers in the 1950s were told to go home and take care of the kids, and not work. Many women - including mothers - in the 1950's worked outside of the home. According to A. W. Zelomek's 1959 study, about 40% of American women with husbands and school-aged kids worked outside of the home in the late '50s.

Yes, they were typically "female" jobs like clerk, secretary, teacher, etc. They weren't jobs that led to status, money and power. But they were jobs that let the family do better financially than they otherwise would have - in many cases it let the family make ends meet.

There seems to be this group of bloggers who came from upper-middle class or more affluent backgrounds, who just presume that the entire world was like their neighborhood and no mothers worked. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mothers in the lower socio-economic classes have ALWAYS worked outside the home in much higher numbers; it was necessary to survive and prosper.

Jezebel now has something else to show to her next date. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 26, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

While I agree stranger abductions are extremely rare, it's important to remember, as well, that kids don't always have the best judgement, no matter what we teach them. Case in point from my own childhood: I was a responsible kid, enjoyed plenty of freedom, babysat when I was 11, etc. I lived in a small town where everyone pretty much knew everyone. In the summer, I'd often join my best friend at her family's lakeside camp. One of our favorite things to do was walk the one mile on a rural country road from her camp to the general store to buy Cokes. Well, one day when we were 13, we were walking back from the store when a big sedan with Canadian plates rolled up alongside us and stopped. The back door opened and a pair of hands reached out, grabbing my friend, attempting to pull her in. Fortunately, another car came over the hill behind us and the sedan sped away. We were terrified and ran the entire way back to her camp, where we promptly locked ourselves in her room.

Now, while that was bad enough, it's what we *didn't* do next that scares me now the most -- which was absolutely nothing. Convinced we wouldn't be allowed to walk to the store again, we kept our mouths shut. While fortunately we'll never know if my best friend was destined for the side of a milk carton, certainly we should have told our parents and, also, the police.

So while I'm not going to put my own kids under house arrest, I do recognize it's a balancing act and like most parenting issues, this one is also not so black and white.

Posted by: vtma | May 26, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

"Perhaps you were a kid that shouldn't have been expected to, or not ready to, travel alone to school etc, but an overwhelming majority of kids are ready and willing."

The statement that an overwhelming majority of kids are ready and willing to travel alone to school is based on what --other than your opinion??

Should anyone parent based on the readiness or willingness of other peoples' kids to do X? Other peoples' kids are willing to eat 6 hot dogs in one sitting. So?

Some of these kids grow up to be Darwin Awards winners. Others are runners-up. A kid's unwillingness to do something might be worthy of veto power, but a kid's willingness? that's worth less than a penny.

Posted by: anonfornow | May 26, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

"Shandra, It's not necessarily nostalgia, it is people recounting their childhood experiences. Perhaps you were a kid that shouldn't have been expected to, or not ready to, travel alone to school etc, but an overwhelming majority of kids are ready and willing."

Well no, I can't really agree with you there.

I recently had a discussion with several friends about this whole free range thing and I don't think my experiences were atypical. Actually I know they weren't because a lot of them were shared with people my age. The whole white van thing was because they told all of us kids "don't go near white vans or you might be grabbed." (I mean at school.) Yah, that was helpful information - not.

What I think is that when people are looking back at these "perfect 70s" when kids roamed, they are also remembering/experiencing the culture of silence that kids had and discounting the fear & tough times that many kids experienced.

Now if you want to argue whether or not these were "life lessons" or "growth experiences" - okay. Your view is that there a bullies, you deal with it, get over it. I'm not sure I share that view, and I'm not sure I want my child at 8 or 9 to be left to learn that kind of lesson on his own. I pretty much believe that it's that kind of willingness to let bullying happen that results in a lot of evil in the world.

Anyways, I know that there are some things I'm willing to hazard with my son and some I'm not. I'm not arguing to lock everyone in with the Wii. But I think that the free-range movement, such as it is, is making a mistake in thinking that freedom was ENTIRELY positive or ENTIRELY empowering and that "if only we'd go back to that time" our kids would be oh-so-empowered and happy.

In other words, I think there's a balance, but I'm not sure it can be found if we're all like "our childhoods were so much better." Why no, a lot of them were not.

Posted by: Shandra1 | May 26, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Shandra: perhaps you shouldn't have been allowed to do the things you did...however, why shouldn't kids know that things in this world can be unpleasant?
People get bullied, people are in situations they can't control, they have to learn how to deal with them. Things are sometimes scary. We seem to want our kids not to know these things, but then what happens when they are 18?
I have a neighbor who has three boys, the oldest is 8. They let them play around their block, not really supervising (the oldest two, not as much with the littlest). I really wish i could do that with my kids, but i've made myself too scared.

The worst is my cousin's daughter who is almost *9* and is so petrified (not a little scared PETRIFIED) of someone taking her. Her mom talks about it with her way too much and has frightened this girl beyond all necessary ideas. She's not allowed to go NEXT DOOR, when the houses are right next to each other, by herself.

We are frightening our kids for no reason.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 26, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

shandra: i think the point is that you can't always have a life without bumps, and kids should learn to deal with bumps. small ones when they're small, bigger ones as they get older. No one said bullies were okay - they said bullies are there. They exist.
If I knew about a bully, I'd try to help the situation, I wouldn't say: oh, well, they have to deal with it anyway. But dealing with it in a hopefully positive way (discussing with child, talking with parent, avoiding if necessary) well, those are life lessons that need to be learned.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 26, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The business of America is business and paranoia sells.

These are my Google adds:
1. Free Sex Offender Search Do Sex Offenders live in Your Area? Is Your Family Safe? Find out Free!
2. GPS For Children Dependable & Accurate Way To Track Your Kid. Easy To Use. Buy Now!
3. Child Internet Filter Monitor & protect your kids online. 100% Undetectable. Now from $29.95!

Paranoia sells!

Then when considering all the child-safety stuff for sale - baby gates, cabinet locks, latches, door knob handles, anti-scalding devices, security systems, baby monitors, books, videos, child/women defense classes, outlet protectors, car seats, bicycle helmets…

When I walked into work this morning I deleted from my inbox a dozen Amber Alerts, (the hi-tech milk carton solution for missing children) Gosh, I guess all those abductors had a busy weekend. I just can't. get. Away. From all the paranoia. I'm not even going to mention the loudspeaker on the Metro reminding me to report suspicious packages and to note the terrorist-proof trash cans.

Sheesh! In 2 short generations, America has gone from the "land of the free and the home of the brave" to the "land of the taxed and the home of the paranoid". If you ask me though, I don't think kids are any more or less free range than they ever have been. It's our perception of freedom and independence that has changed, and there is no mystery to me why this is the case.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | May 26, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

shandra = the voice of reason on this issue.

why is it so difficult for others to appreciate nuance over absolutes?

Posted by: anonfornow | May 26, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

As Shandra and vtma pointed out, there were (and still are) serious risks in giving children unsupervised freedom. In my community we had the Lyons sisters (11 and 13 year old girls who were abducted and never seen again), a serial pedophile, a serial murderer of teen girls, and a classmate who lost his legs after climbing on a nearby business and encountering electrical wires; and those are just the most extreme situations. I was babysitting at 11, and one of my clients was an infant when I had never changed a diaper. I, too, almost lost toes to frostbite walking home from buying comic books. Like several other posters, I didn't speak up because I didn't want to lose my freedom by letting my parents know what was going on. That was when we knew all of our neighbors, too. There needs to be a balance between preparing children for independence, and just setting them loose. Parents back then tended to not notice what their kids were doing, and parents today tend to plan every move. There should be a happy medium, and it seems that the key is for parents to acknowledge the risks to themselves, guide their kids through new experiences while teaching them to minimize risks (which gives kids self-confidence), and gradually loosen the reins.

Posted by: Voter4Integrity | May 26, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

You "almost" lost your toes to frost-bite? Did you go to the hospital? Did the doctors discuss amputating your toes?

Posted by: rlalumiere | May 26, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I, too, was a wander the neighborhood, come back for dinner, bike to the pool at 10yo, babysit before 11yo, free-range kid--and this was less than 20 years ago! It was a great childhood, full of imagination and roaming. But I also lived in a very residential suburban town where the kids ran in packs, the back roads took you anywhere you needed to go, and everywhere you went you knew multiple adults. I don't know that my own kids will have quite the same freedoms here in DC because our neighborhood just isn't as amenable to pedestrians/cyclists of any age.

Posted by: kajr | May 26, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I remember the Lyons sisters and it scared the piss out of everyone, but it didn't rule our lives. And if you and Shandra and others were scared to tell your parents about something - make sure you teach your kids differently. Parents have changed and awareness is high, I know my parents never had "stranger danger" or many of the other talks everyone has with their kids today. I knew not to talk to strangers, but there were no school programs or the community awareness that there is today. This is part of the reason abductions, etc are down - kids and parents are much more aware.

Anonfornow, Willingness is one part of making a decision as to whether or not to let your kids be on their own. Most people use common sense when it comes to their kids, but you will always see the hysterical parents that won't let their kids out of their sight because they "might" be bullied. There are bullies in college, in the work place and in all places public, so shielding your child to the point where they have no experience is doing them no favors.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 26, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Voter4Integrity said
There needs to be a balance between preparing children for independence, and just setting them loose. Parents back then tended to not notice what their kids were doing, and parents today tend to plan every move. There should be a happy medium, and it seems that the key is for parents to acknowledge the risks to themselves, guide their kids through new experiences while teaching them to minimize risks (which gives kids self-confidence), and gradually loosen the reins.

YES! This. Each kids is different and will need differing "freedoms/responsibilities/priviledges" at different times. But it wasn't freedom back in the 70s when my parents let my 7 year old brother ride his bike to 7/11 -- it was laziness. We're much more involved these days -- and when it isn't from fear, but from love, then everyone wins. I didn't ride my bike to 7/11 back in those days because I was afraid -- even in the 70's! But again, my parents gave me the freedom to be a bookworm, without questions because of laziness.

I guess one can argue that laziness isn't so bad -- clean, fed, lots of sleep, good grades -- so a little laziness, what's the problem? But I think my involvement and definitely my husbands' involvement with our son -- making parenting intentional -- I think that makes it a richer experience and maybe (we'll see!) a more well-rounded experience for our son?

Posted by: Bear4 | May 26, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that 12 is the "scary" age for a parent because you realize your child needs to learn a little more independence, but you're not quite ready to just "toss" him out into the "big, bad world."

If your child was an "after school program" kid (like mine) or involved in activities that required driving them all over town, just how much "free range" time has that kid had by the time they leave 6th grade?

As a parent you have to strike a strange balance between guidance and "getting out of the way" when it comes to independence lessons.

A big milestone for my son (after months of walking back and forth to the neighborhood library and recreation center--both about 1/2 mile away) was when he made a much longer trek (about 3 miles) to his friend's house--a place that both kids had been shuttled back and forth between the past 5 years. When he called to say "I'm at Zack's house," I found my "parental paranoia" being replaced by "parental pride" because I knew my days of being a full-time chauffeur ends this summer.

This from a 70's child who rode her bike across the river into the next town on a regular basis. I've seen the enemy, and she is staring back at me in the mirror.

Posted by: RBinMN | May 26, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

AB, I meant to agree with your post on women in the workforce post WWII and the economics involved. My grandmother was a member of the greatest generation and worked for over 50 years in every menial job she could find to make ends meet. She was very typical of her region.

My pet peeve, quoting Betty Friedan. It seems to be a crutch when writing about women. There are more relevant and recent people to quote on almost any topic than Betty Friedan.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 26, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

"I've seen the enemy, and she is staring back at me in the mirror.

Posted by: RBinMN"

Quote (and laugh) of the day!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 26, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

We just went to our church retreat this weekend which is everything about hanging out with fellow members and very little to do with actual religion. For the first time since they arrived in the US, my stepchildren were able to play without an adult continually supervising their every move. The worst thing that happened is that my stepdaughter fell in the stream and got her pants soaking wet. They fell into bed and were asleep within minutes because they were actually tired from being able to run around outside with other kids.

We don't have many options for unsupervised play because we live in a condo. Outside play happens in nearby parks that are really too far for them to walk to at their young ages (4&7). And after this weekend, I consider it a real shame. It made me feel sad that my kids weren't quite sure what to do with the independence we were able to give them in this relatively protective environment. And now we are back to supervised play *sigh*

I am all for giving them independence and we give them as much as we can. Even with the limited amount of independence we are able to give them, I still get horrified reactions when I say that I allow our kids to play outside within eyesight and earshot of our balcony. Do we really need to hold our kids that tightly to us?

Posted by: Billie_R | May 26, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I too grew up playing around the neighborhood in the suburbs as a kid. We played hide and seek on summer evenings and occasionally explored some off-limit woods. I walked to and from junior high and not every walk was without some fears. My kids have the freedom to play around the neighborhood and walk into our little town for ice cream, but the biggest difference today vs back then is--cell phones. My son practically has his phone surgically implanted to his body. He always responds to text messages, and it is a way to keep a virtual eye on him. Kids can "free range" in a more supervised way than years ago. Part of the deal we struck last summer when he first turned 13 was we had to know where he was, or home he would stay. So as he moved from friend to friend, he called or texted us. I agree with many of the comments here. Freedom and responsible use of it must be taught and ultimately allowed by us, or they will never really learn to function independently in this sometimes dangerous world.

Posted by: mcmom | May 27, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

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