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Free-range kids

Are American parents raising children who are never allowed to take risks, or are they simply protecting them?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2008

Screech: This boy is riding the subway as part of a field trip, but what's the right age for going alone?

Todd Bigelow/Aurora/Getty images

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Los Angeles

When applied to poultry, the term "free range" evokes images of chickens running freely in wide-open spaces. When used to describe human offspring, the moniker "free-range kids" is intended to conjure up the same sort of unencumbered wandering with few boundaries.

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For New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy, who coined the term in April, the idea blossomed after her decision to allow her 9-year-old son to ride the New York public transportation system – subway and crosstown bus – from Bloomingdale's in midtown Manhattan to her home just off 34th Street.

The humor writer penned a column regaling readers with her son's triumphant foray into independent urban living and was stunned to find herself at the center of a firestorm of controversy. Many people called her a threat to her child's safety. But, she says, more readers wrote in support of her desire to teach her child to be self-sufficient, so she and her husband decided to found a website (http://freerangekids.wordpress.com) to further the emerging dialogue.

In the weeks that have ensued, it is clear that Ms. Skenazy and her family have touched a nerve in the national psyche, say educators, medical professionals, and sociologists. For a complicated mix of reasons, including the high cost of gasoline, America's slipping position of global leadership, and unprecedented levels of stress on the American family in a 24/7 culture, these observers see an urgent and growing desire among families to reassess their lifestyles.

More balanced parenting

Many say the much-written-about "helicopter" or hovering parents of recent years need to give way to a more balanced form of parenting, one that allows for more independence and risk-taking.

"We used to see the notion of a 'vulnerable child' only in medical terms," says Dr. Robert Coleman of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The term meant that a child might be at risk for specific physical reasons but was otherwise considered "safe." However, in the past four decades, that definition has expanded, leading to what he calls an "epidemic of seeing all children as vulnerable, all the time."

Beyond the obvious stress that this constant state of anxiety induces in both parents and children, a generation of kids raised without learning to handle or even face risks won't be prepared to take leadership positions in business or civic life, experts note. "We have begun to lose sight of the notion of comparative risk," says Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."

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