Are American parents raising children who are never allowed to take risks, or are they simply protecting them?
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"We are dangerously close to becoming a society that is so risk-averse that we drain the lake because one child drowns." This attitude actually puts the larger society at risk because, says Mr. Louv, extending the metaphor, with no lake, no child would learn to swim.Skip to next paragraph
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Businesses have already begun to identify this as a serious problem, says consultant and Washington-based speaker Silvana Clark. For example, in initial job interviews, the tech giant Microsoft will often ask applicants to describe a risk they took in a previous job and how they handled the consequences.
"More and more companies are finding young job seekers simply don't have this skill set," says Ms. Clark. Innovation requires risk, she adds, and for American business to retain a leadership position, risk must be reintegrated into child-raising.
Many parents want to change their ways but feel trapped by fears about safety and keeping up, says Bob Livingstone, a clinical social worker in San Mateo, Calif. "They feel bombarded by our 24/7 culture, where the media have a field day with every incident involving a child, and they worry constantly about getting their kids into the best schools...."
But a quick look at actual statistics on child abductions reveals that the number of abductions by strangers has remained steady at under 200 for decades. That stands in stark contrast to the level of fear and worry about the safety of minors that Mr. Livingstone says he sees in his family practice.
Change isn't as simple as merely allowing a child to walk unescorted to a friend's house. Real progress will come only when fundamental attitudes begin to change, says Louv, who is a passionate advocate for the role of nature in a child's education.
The natural world is the best environment to challenge and develop a child's innate abilities, he says. "Two-dimensional environments like television and video games do not provide the spontaneous stimulation that nature does." He points to pending legislation in Congress dubbed "No Child Left Inside," as evidence that this view is gaining momentum.
An ongoing dialogue
In fact, although Skenazy came up with the term, "free-range kids" as she and her husband contemplated children raised with "no cages," the free-range notion of child-raising has circulated among thinkers at least since Britain's progressive educational experimentation at Summerhill in the 1920s.
Skenazy says her website and nascent movement are moving forward with an ongoing dialogue about just what free-range kids should act like. On her website, she freely fields comments and letters from all points on the spectrum, but has gone to great pains to explain that she is not reckless.
She believes in bicycle helmets, air bags, and car seats. The message she wants to get out is fairly simple: "The world is nowhere near as dangerous as the media would have us believe and maybe not as safe as some would like it to be." But, she adds, "How will our kids ever learn that if we don't let them out until they're 21?"