Free-Range Kids: Giv­ing Our Chil­dren the Free­dom We Had With­out Going Nuts with Worry

Lenore Ske­nazy
  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

Amer­i­cans prob­a­bly ana­lyze the nature of good par­ent­ing andtheir own skills (or lack there­of) more than oth­er nation. There may beas many books on rais­ing chil­dren as there are on diet­ing — enough said.This prompts many oth­er Amer­i­cans to throw up their hands and declare:“Just do it.” Join­ing the dis­cus­sion are three more authors, with­dis­tinc­tive touch­es of intro­spec­tion and feistiness. 

In Amer­i­can Par­ent, Sam Apple takes a jour­nal­is­ti­cand his­tor­i­cal approach, invit­ing the read­er on a tour of par­ent­ing­phe­nom­e­na.” He inter­weaves gen­uine humor (some­times self-deprecating),extensive research, and a sense of peren­ni­al sur­prise in his explo­rationof expen­sive strollers, birthing class­es, water birth, colic,breast-feeding, attach­ment to par­ents, baby names — after con­sid­er­a­tion ofa num­ber of exot­ic choic­es, he and his wife end up with Isaac” — andcircumcision. 

Apple reads books and ques­tions experts, think­ing they would­lead him to find order in the chaos that new par­ents face in the­months before and after the birth of a child,” as he writes in thep­ref­ace. He also con­cludes in that same pref­ace: Now I know bet­ter.” Ilove the way Amer­i­can Par­ent ends but don’t want to spoil that­sur­prise. If the author, by virtue of his gen­der, attracts more males tothe ranks of involved (neu­rot­ic?) par­ents, he’ll have done a furtherservice. 

Free-Range Kids will prob­a­bly have you either­cluck­ing with agree­ment or feel­ing your blood pres­sure boil with­annoy­ance. Lenore Skenazy’s point that Amer­i­can par­ents tend to beover­pro­tec­tive, judg­men­tal, and intru­sive in the lives of oth­er par­ents­may be well tak­en. Maybe the noto­ri­ety she gained for let­ting her­nine-year-old ride the sub­way alone was unde­served; the world isn’t moredan­ger­ous than it used to be, and the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion was raised­with more permissiveness. 

But there is, I believe, an under­ly­ing fal­la­cy here. If“only” ten chil­dren are kid­napped and killed each year and only three­are hit by cars, to exag­ger­ate the author’s data, maybe that’s because­of the pre­cau­tions par­ents have been tak­ing for years. For bet­ter or for­worse, sta­tis­tics are unlike­ly to win this bat­tle any­way. Crime may bedown, but peo­ple may still per­ceive urban areas as more dan­ger­ous thanthe rur­al or sub­ur­ban ones they grew up in. Schools may be safe, but­Columbine had its effect. More­over, sar­cas­tic dis­missal of otherpeople’s fears won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly per­suade them either. (A more-rea­soned con­sid­er­a­tion, quot­ing Ske­nazy, appeared in the Sep­tem­ber 13, 2001 The New York Times.)

Hell Is Oth­er Par­ents is some­thing of a misnomer,since only a few of the essays in this well-writ­ten book by Deb­o­rah­Co­pak­en Kogan relate to Mom­my (or Dad­dy) Wars. They right­ly con­vey thed­if­fi­cul­ties of par­ent­ing — espe­cial­ly in Man­hat­tan with a third child­born dur­ing its par­ents’ midlives. Many will relate to the author’sexperiences as stage mom” when her son gets cast in a Star Trek”movie, and to the fore­see­able con­clu­sion when she takes her tod­dler on atrip of sev­er­al hours to see that son per­form in camp. 

In the fun­ni­est essay, Copak­en Kogan shares a hos­pi­tal room­post-deliv­ery with a 16-year-old unwed moth­er, who is vis­it­ed by loud,drinking friends with no respect for vis­it­ing hours. The author’sformidable sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties are most in evi­dence here, and least­self-con­scious­ly. The breakup of a friend­ship between her daugh­ter andan­oth­er child because of the oth­er moth­er is mov­ing­ly true to theti­tle — bor­rowed from Sartre’s sen­ti­ment about oth­er peo­ple in the play“No Exit.” In the essays direct­ly about par­ent­ing, the wri­ter­demon­strates that par­ent­ing is riski­er than her pre­vi­ous career — warphotography. 

If you’re look­ing for a Jew­ish angle on par­ent­ing, the book­that pro­vides the most (and then, only tan­gen­tial­ly) is Apple’s. Amid­st­the more gen­er­al obser­va­tion of Amer­i­cans as a penis­cut­ting peo­ple,” hedis­cuss­es the Jew­ish tra­di­tion of cir­cum­ci­sion as he and his wife­search for a mohel. (They end up with a female OB-GYN. One of thelac­ta­tion con­sul­tants they call hap­pens to be an Ortho­dox Jew.)

Addi­tion­al books appear­ing in this review:

Bar­bara Train­in Blank is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and arts previewer/​reviewer, as well as some­time play­wright based in Har­ris­burg, PA.

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