Free-Range Kids—A Movement that’s Gaining Ground
“America’s worst mom” is making kids’ life better
In 2008, when she had allowed her then-9-year-old son to take the subway from Macy’s in Manhattan to their home in Queens by himself, Lenore Skenazy became nationally known as “America’s worst mom,” as television commentators called her. Skenazy ran with the label and, a year later, published Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), with the epithet “America’s Worst Mom” under her name on the cover.
I read the book and said to myself, “I must get to know this very funny and smart woman,” and I figured out a way to do it. I invited her to speak at an academic conference on play that I had a role in organizing. We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.
Ever since her book was published, Lenore has been active and effective in creating and leading what many call the “free-range-kids movement,” which in my mind and hers is simply a return to common sense in our understanding of children and their need and capacity for independent activity. Now, the second edition has been published, and this gives me a good reason to interview Lenore and share that with you. My questions here are in bold, followed by Lenore’s replies.
Lenore, how is the second edition of Free-Range Kids different from the first?
The second edition has all sorts of new sections, info, jokes (of course!), and stories.
For instance, in a new chapter on kids and tech, I look at how some technology can have some downsides in some subgroups (mostly middle-school girls and social media), but a lot of it really isn’t hugely worrying, including video games. I tell a story about two brothers, 13 and 19, who played a particular game together. The younger one said he was going to ask the online group to vote to make him an official member.
“Don’t do that yet,” his older brother told him. “People don’t like you and they’ll vote against you.” The younger brother was shocked. Why would they do a thing like that?
“Because you talk too much and you kill people for no reason,” the older brother said. “So don’t talk unless you have something to say, and don’t kill anybody unless they are breaking the rules. And then you can apply in three weeks when they like you.”
The younger boy was willing to hear this unvarnished evaluation of his social skills AND start working to improve them…because this was all explained like a videogame cheat code. Peter, you always talk about how kids learn through play, right? Even a videogame is play.
I also have a new chapter on childhood anxiety, which has continued to worsen. You taught me about the “internal locus of control”—the feeling you have when you know you can deal with some difficulties, and make things happen. But when someone else is in control of you all the time—even someone you love, like a parent, teacher, or coach – you feel anxiousbecause you have no idea of what you’re capable of handling on your own. How can kids become confident problem-solvers if someone’s always right there, solving their problems? So, the anxiety chapter looks at how, ironically, always helping kids is hurting them—and how to stop jumping in. (Advice I still sometimes need myself!)
A new chapter for teachers talks about how to get kids out of their comfort zone and a chapter on “wasting time” talks about how people often find their true calling through what they loved doing as kids. One guy I interviewed spent his childhood picking up the fruit that fell from the trees onto the sidewalk—this was in Miami—and selling it from his little wagon. In other words, he sold other people’s stuff. And in a way, he still does—because that guy was Jeff Bezos.
I am proud to be one member of the team that helped you found the nonprofit organization Let Grow, of which you are president and chief mover. What, in your opinion, have been the main accomplishments of Let Grow since its inception a couple of years ago?
After I published the first edition of Free-Range Kids in 2009, I went around giving talks everywhere from PTAs to Microsoft about how we got so afraid for our kids. The audiences would smile and nod. They all remembered playing outside till the streetlights came on and wanted to give their own kids that same experience!
But then…they didn’t.
Turns out that simply listening to me and my amazing facts didn’t move the needle. (Statistically, if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to leave them outside? 750,000 years!) So, when you and I and Daniel Shuchman and Jonathan Haidt got together to found Let Grow in 2017, the goal was not to change minds. Minds, schminds. It was to change behavior. Parents have to actually experience what it feels like to let go and see their kids blossom. Changing behavior changes everything. (Including behavior…if that makes sense.)
So, how is Let Grow making that happen? We started a website (LetGrow.org) and Facebook page (Raising Independent Kids) where anyone thinking of letting go a little could find information, and each other.
And then we created two school initiatives±—both free—that are really transformative:
The Let Grow Project: Students get the homework assignment: “Go home and do something new, on your own. Walk the dog. Make a meal. Run an errand…” The project breaks the ice of anxiety in both generations. Here’s a two-minute video of some 7th graders discussing how the project changed them.
Author: Peter Gray, Ph.D., is a research professor at Boston College, author of Free to Learn and the textbook Psychology (now in 8th edition), and founding member of the nonprofit Let Grow.