3 problems with Mike Lanza's version of free-range parenting

girls in the mud
CC BY 2.0 Eddy Pula -- Forget the pricey play structures. All kids need is a mud hole and some bicycles.

After mulling over the big New York Times piece from last week, I have some further thoughts on Lanza's approach to fostering independence in kids.

Last week the New York Times gave front-page space to an article about Mike Lanza, the anti-helicopter parent of Silicon Valley, who, in an effort to recreate his own unsupervised childhood spent running around Pittsburgh in the 1970s, has created a kid-friendly ‘Playborhood’ in his backyard.

The article’s prime location speaks to how unusual it is to see children engaged in free play. On one hand, it’s a reminder of the current sad state of affairs; on the other hand, it’s great to see people talking about the lack of free play in children’s lives.

There are, however, a few things about Lanza’s Playborhood that have been bugging me since I wrote about the NYT piece for TreeHugger last week.

One is that his particular approach is steeped in affluence. For example, the 24-foot play river, the picnic table (which is no ordinary picnic table, but a deluxe, permanent, upholstered masterpiece, as seen in a NYT photo), the two-storey log playhouse, etc. must have cost a fortune. Not that I begrudge him his fortune, but I came away from that article thinking, “Wow, that would be so cool for my kids… but I could never afford it in a million years.”

While I realize the focus of the original article was on affluent kids, and how kids living in Lanza’s uber-wealthy Silicon Valley bubble are suffering from extreme lack of freedom, the article felt highly class-specific – as if its philosophy and methods exclude anyone who lives in a house that costs less than $2 million. It is a bit disheartening for the rest of us who cannot possibly recreate what Lanza has.

Nor should we have to. Free-range play isn’t about affluence. It should, in theory, level the playing field among children from all socioeconomic classes.

Secondly, Lanza’s outdoor set-up reeks of parental interference. This is ironic, given that his favorite saying is:

“Think about your own 10 best memories of childhood, and chances are most of them involve free play outdoors. How many of them took place with a grown-up around?”

While Lanza might not be present in the backyard at all times, his touch certainly is. That yard would look very different if Lanza’s boys were left to their own devices to carve out a play space. Maybe they’d have a tree fort made of plywood and old 2x4s. Perhaps the play river would be a hand-dug ditch that collects rainwater and allows them to get muddy from head to toe. Most likely, it would not be a swanky, fancy set-up conducive to a NYT photo shoot.

In his bestseller A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander explains that children should be given materials to build their own spaces, but that parents shouldn’t do it for them. Once a parent interferes, the project ceases to feel personal for the child.

Finally, I don’t like that Lanza lets his boys play on the roof. That feels too reckless. Setting boundaries and rules is not helicopter parenting; it’s common sense, and I agree with free-range kids guru Lenore Skenazy that the house roof will always be out-of-bounds for my kids. The playhouse roof is less scary, but I certainly would not condone jumping from it onto an unprotected trampoline. Skenazy writes:

“A female friend and I agreed we’d never want our kids on the roof. Period… The Free-Range idea is not to court danger. We are not negligent. We are not daredevils. We are allowed to set whatever limits make sense to us. But we are also mindful of the fact that a childhood drained of absolutely all risk, even the risk of walking to the bus stop, is a new and dangerous (!) idea. We believe we can actually make our kids too safe to succeed.”

3 problems with Mike Lanza's version of free-range parenting
After mulling over the big New York Times piece from last week, I have some further thoughts on Lanza's approach to fostering independence in kids.

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