The Wonderful 'Free Range Kids' Book Has Been Expanded for a Second Edition

Lenore Skenazy explores topics like tech, anxiety, and useful childhood hobbies.

kids walking together

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For more than a decade, Lenore Skenazy's delightfully entertaining book, "Free Range Kids: How Parents and Teachers Can Let Go and Let Grow," has been giving adults permission to let go of their fears and give kids the independence they deserve. Now, the book is poised to help even more families recover from the epidemic of helicopter parenting that has overtaken the United States. A revised and expanded second edition launched this week, with updated statistics and additional chapters on issues that have become relevant in recent years, such as childhood anxiety and technology use.

Skenazy gained notoriety for letting her 9-year-old ride the New York subway alone in 2008. An article she wrote about the experience landed her on numerous national TV shows, where she was lambasted by "experts" for allowing her child to do such a dangerous thing and even labeled "America's worst mom." This experience grew into a successful blog and eventually a national nonprofit called Let Grow that promotes childhood independence. The phrase she coined, "free range kids," has since entered the American vernacular.

In a recent conversation with Treehugger about Let Grow's involvement in getting a reasonable childhood independence law passed in Texas, Skenazy said her deep-dive into the topic of childhood anxiety for this second edition was new territory. She mentioned a psychologist who testified on behalf of Let Grow and said that over 20 years, she's seen kids become far more passive, anxious, and diagnosed with more problems. "You wonder, is it just that we're diagnosing more, or is it that kids are getting more fragile?"

Skenazy went on to describe the crippling effect anxiety has on a child's life, defining anxiety as the belief that you can't handle something, that it will either overwhelm you, or that you'll get hurt and never recover.

"If your children are constantly told by a culture that says, 'No, you can't go outside because you'll get hurt or you'll get kidnapped and you'll never come back,' then all you're getting is [the message] that you can't handle something on your own and terrible things will happen," says Skenazy. "Well, that's depressing! I'd feel scared if that was my regular life all the time."

She adds: "The only thing that changes that feeling is reality. And if you're not allowing kids that reality of having some independent time, of doing something on their own... then there's nothing to counteract the message that you're vulnerable, you're fragile, only Mom and Dad can save you."

Another new chapter looks at the connection between one's childhood interests and adult jobs. There is a distinct link between the two, which goes to show that parents should allow children the time and space to develop those quirky interests they may have because it might just develop into a full-blown career someday. 

In a chapter titled "Take the Long View: Wasting Time is Not a Waste of Time," Skenazy wrote, "There's a big difference between kids being intrinsically drawn to an activity and parents trying to foist an interest upon them. It is indisputably great for parents to introduce their kids to the wide world of wonders out there. But at some point—often really early—kids start finding their own way."

A third new chapter examines technology use, mainly video games and social media. The former should be less worrisome than the latter, but in Skenazy's view, neither merits the kind of frantic paranoia that has been churned up in recent years. The last thing kids need, she argues, is adults "coming up with yet another way to curtail kids' freedom and fun." (This Treehugger writer does not entirely agree, but that's a conversation for another day.)

Where she does express serious concern, however, is with the surveillance technologies that many parents use to track their children. Not only is this creepy and exhausting, but it fails to teach the child any real independence skills while conveying the fact that their parents never truly trust them. 

"My advice is to try to resist the lure of omniscience," Skenazy recommends. "Talk, don't stalk. Then, as you see your kids growing up and becoming responsible, give up some of the tracking. Show them they've earned your trust by actually trusting them."

Last but not least, the second edition contains resources for educators, showing teachers and principals how to implement Play Clubs and Let Grow projects to develop independence skills in students. Schools that do it report happier, healthier, and thriving kids who benefit from the mixed-age interactions (which is how kids played historically), the lack of adult intervention, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing hard things. 

Packed with humor and facts, dozens of personal stories and practical advice from the kinds of experts you should be listening to (not "Parents" magazine, which Skenazy despises), the new edition of "Free Range Kids" is more relevant than ever and should be required reading for every parent and teacher.