Lenore Skenazy and Dax Shepard Talk About Free-Range Parenting

An episode of Shepard's Armchair Expert podcast delves into raising resilient kids.

children play in a stream

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Lenore Skenazy is a journalist from New York City who was called "America's worst mom" when she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone. After seeing so many shocked responses from the general public, Skenazy realized it was time to have a bigger discussion about the over-coddled, hyper-protective approach some parents take to raising their children. She wrote a book called "Free Range Kids" and launched the Let Grow non-profit that encourages parents and educators to give their children independence from a young age.

I'm a huge fan of Skenazy's work and have written many times on Treehugger about her clever, witty advice on raising children. Not infrequently I find myself wondering, "What would Lenore do?," when faced with decisions regarding my own young brood; and her staunchly logical, fact-based, anti-fear-mongering advice never fails to infuse me with confidence. 

So I was pleased to listen to a lengthy interview with her on Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert podcast. While much of the information was familiar to me (and would be to anyone who's read her book), some interesting points came up that I've been mulling over and wanted to share with Treehugger readers.

Skenazy suggests that science has replaced religion as a guiding beacon throughout the tumultuous years of raising children. She does not say whether this is good or bad, but points out that it places undue stress on parents to always be reading the latest scientific studies on what you should and should not do to ensure optimal outcomes with your children. 

Then, when something goes wrong, parents blame themselves for having screwed up somewhere along the way, whereas in bygone centuries there was some sense of comfort in believing that God had a plan, or karma was at work, or fate was fickle. Skenazy said,

"Religions are smart enough to say that perfection is just not possible in this existence ... But if you think that perfection is yours to create here on Earth, then you are stuck trying to make every birthday the best birthday, trying to make every soccer game a winning game, every car ride you had a good talk, and every song you sang along with because that's the kind of family you are ... It's impossible – and yet that's what you're supposed to feel."

This also has the unfortunate consequence of setting up unrealistic expectations for children in their future relationships. If they're taught from a young age that someone will hang on to every word they say and and revere every action they do, it doesn't make them an appealing future mate. Shepard, who has two daughters, weighed in:

"There's no dude out there that's going to stare at them knitting and be thrilled. I don't want to mislead them into thinking there'll be another man or woman out there that's going to be this excited about every little thing they do. I think I'd be setting them up to be completely dissatisfied in any relationship." 

Skenazy agrees and suggests that parents think about their parenting style in terms of a normal adult relationship. Do you have to high-five everything, hand out gold stars all the time? No, that wouldn't be a healthy way to function. Treat your children as you would a partner – with respect, love, praise when it's deserved, a good laugh when they're genuinely funny, and words of encouragement when needed. 

Last but not least, enough with all the parent guilt! Know that parents these days are going above and beyond what parents in the past did – which means you can pull back without ruining your kids. Did you know that college-educated moms today spend nine more hours a week with their kids compared to moms in the 1970s? You should not feel pressure to attend every single soccer practice, to organize play dates on behalf of your child (and then chaperone those play dates), to drop dinner prep the moment your child asks you to draw with them. This is unrealistic, unsustainable, and as unhealthy for your own mental wellbeing as it is for your child's perception of what's normal.

Let go and let grow. Skenazy gives parents permission to opt out of the common modern parenting narrative and forge their own path, and she offers reassurance that they'll turn out fine in the end – probably even better.