Advice From Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids

Free Range Kids Part 2

Last week, we were thrilled to present Part One of our interview with one of our favorite parenting book authors, Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids. The conversation continues with here where Lenore shares advice for nannies working with all types of parents, along with how she felt being dubbed “The World’s Worst Mom.” We also just learned that Lenore offers house calls!

AN: While many of our families and nannies promote free-range philosophies, nannies are just as susceptible to the judgments and opinions of other moms and nannies (for example, the popular blog called ‘I Saw Your Nanny’ ). What advice would you give to a nanny facing criticism from helicopter-types?

LS: Of course I always advise that people talk to each other. If they know they are being criticized and parents are making comments, they can explain to them that we all care about the kids, that’s a given. We all want kids to be safe and healthy. I consider myself a rather adventurous person, but not a person who embraces danger!

A nanny could say, “I’ve spoken to the parents of this child and we’ve agreed that we are not going to be beholden to giant “what-ifs” or worst first thinking (coming up with the worst possible scenario and proceeding as if it’s a given that it will happen.)”

AN: If a nanny is working with “helicopter parents” and it seems to be hindering the children, what are some first steps they can introduce in the home that most parents would be comfortable with? In other words, do you have any tips for communicating concerns about over-parenting with families?

LS: The point I try to make in general is that helicopter or free range, most kids are going to end up fine. So really if the family you are working for is extremely protective but they are not abusive, you will have a difference of philosophy.

If you have a communicative relationship with them, you can talk to them and ask them what it was like when they were growing up, and point out that the crime rate today is what it was in 1963. You could also point out that kid’s obesity, diabetes, and depression are all going up in numbers, and there is some evidence that this is due to them having so little freedom and so little unsupervised play. But you can’t push anybody to do something they aren’t ready to do.

I find the most persuasive thing you can do is not what you can do, but show them what their kids can do.

A lot of times, parents will build up this big fear in their head about what will happen – like “What if I let them walk to the park, and they get kidnapped or hit by a car?” Because that’s generally what they’re thinking, but if there is some way you can have them agree to let the kid do something on their own, literally on their own without you watching (because that defeats the purpose,) what I’ve seen is that parents are usually incredibly proud, delighted, and surprised by how much their kids are capable of doing because they never gave them the chance.

When I lecture at schools, I try to get the schools to agree to what I call the Free Range Project, which is simply when the teachers tell the kids to come up with one thing they want to do that for whatever reason they haven’t done yet like walking the dog, cooking dinner, walking to school or whatever – something very simple that their parent generation wouldn’t have given a second thought to.  Generally the parents are OK with it because it is endorsed by the school, and it’s a one shot deal. Right? If they don’t like it, they never have to do it again.

Well, then when the kid does it, the parents feel sooooo proud. When the kid walks through the door and they brought home the milk, or they just had a great playdate, or they bring home a bunch of dandelions because they had so much fun finding them – that’s what changes the parent.  It’s not a lecture from me or anybody else about the odds, which are overwhelming in our favor for survival, not (as they are portrayed on TV), where it seems like the odds are overwhelming against anybody surviving. That’s all they show on TV-  is the horrible outliers.

AN-  right – good news isn’t helping ratings.

Exactly.  So you can’t do it without the parents’ permission, but if you frame it like the schools do as a one shot deal, like “your daughter’s 6 now, why don’t we have her walk to the neighbors house and borrow a cup of sugar?” or one of those things, and if they do say yes, it is SO MAGICAL. I did a whole television show based on this.

They took 13 families that were incredibly anxious and my job was to separate them from their kids for half a day and have the kid run an errand, or walk to school, or surprise them by making dinner, and of the 13 families, 12 at the end couldn’t remember why they were ever against those things.

And these were parents who were outrageously protective.

There was a mom who wouldn’t let her 10-year-old son use a knife, a mom who let her 8-year-old son ride his skateboard only on the grass, only standing still, so I guess “ride” is the wrong word. A mom who made her 13-year-old boy come into the ladies room with her when they were at the mall because she was afraid if he went in the men’s room he would be raped. So these were not garden-variety anxious people, they were super anxious people, and literally 12 of them took it upon themselves to write me letters saying “I just wanted you to know that today my kid is riding his bike to school.”  Because they were so proud, and they were so grateful, for feeling less overwhelmingly anxious- that’s such an unpleasant feeling. Relief in the form of your kid is like a double happiness, because you get the relief, plus you get this pride in realizing what your kid can do.

AN: Despite your title as the world’s worst mom, you are a huge proponent of safety. Many of our families travel frequently with their kids and our nannies. What are your free-range safety tips for traveling in a foreign country?

LS: Let’s see… make sure the water is drinkable! I’m a big fan of deciding on a meeting place and time with the group before dispersing. For example, “Let’s all meet back at the tent or hotel at 5pm.” Also, there’s safety in numbers. I’d go where there are people around. I always say “you can talk to strangers, but you can’t go off with strangers” and I think that’s good advice whether you’re in America or anywhere else. It opens up all the opportunities of meeting and learning from people, without the danger of them taking you anywhere.

AN: Did you ever have a moment of doubting yourself when the criticism started up? Was there ever a point at which you flinched at embracing the term “world’s worst mom”?

LS: Yeah, it did feel terrible. Like, curled up on the floor, holding my stomach terrible. That’s how terrible.

I was worried that you know… I’m not immune to superstition, what if I’m saying “Oh, I’m sure my son will be fine” and then God laughs and says “I’ll show you” – so I did have to justify myself over and over again with everybody saying “why didn’t you think twice?” or,  “why weren’t you worried?” and you just start worrying! Of course I worried.

Then when I rallied, I thought, “no, I’m not doing this without consideration, and there’s something really weird about a society that berates you for believing in your child.”  It felt like,

“who has convinced us that the more you allow yourself to think about catastrophes and kidnapping, the more you actually care?”

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If you are interested in exploring Free Range Parenting with Lenore one-on-one, she does house calls!

Click here to learn more about Lenore and Free Range Parenting