The Definition of Dangerous

July 1, 2013

by Leah Flores

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Leah Flores.

On Instagram last week, my friend Mike posted a picture of his 4-year-old in his own kayak on a quiet pond, wearing a life jacket, of course, and very near his mother’s kayak. Mike said he’d been hesitant, but his wife Alma had persuaded him to let their little guy try it. And their son was good at it, “a little kayak Mozart,” Mike wrote. I think this is brave and wonderful parenting, the kind that inspires me, and inspires confidence and independence in children. But Mike’s closing comment also struck a chord with me, “Still worries me, even with a life jacket.”

Yep. That’s me, too. Even with safety precautions in place, I tend to worry about the accidents and unforeseens. I’ve always landed a little on the timid side of adventure, and though I would support a solo kayak ride, I would do it a bit uneasily.

I have a tendency toward what Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids, calls “worst first” thinking, a trait I always thought I inherited from my mother and my grandmother, both renowned worriers, the sort that can jump to the worst conclusions in a lightning-fast hurry. But Lenore suggests “worst first” thinking and overly protective parents are also a cultural trend, heavily influenced by worry-inducing media coverage and TV crime shows that dramatize our worst fears. (Lenore famously let her 9-year-old ride the subway by himself in New York City, and earned the media title, “America’s Worst Mom.”)

The mission of Free Range Kids is simple: let’s treat kids as smart, competent, capable individuals who can do a whole lot of things on their own. Reject cultural fear and media worry, for an attitude that encourages our children to develop confidence and self-reliance through discovery and exploration. It’s time to step back a bit, Lenore says and let our kids walk to school by themselves, roam the neighborhood, and maybe even learn to kayak.

Do you encourage adventurous situations with your children or tend toward a more protective approach? Do you notice a wide range in the definition of “dangerous” among parents today? What’s the most independent thing you’ve allowed/encouraged your child to do?

P.S. — Fears of crimes against our children may drive many of our decisions about what we allow our children to do, even though our perceptions are based more on media coverage than reality. I was fascinated to learn that crime rates in the U.S. have steadily fallen since the 1990s and are currently as low as they were in the 1970s, a time when most children enjoyed significantly more freedom that modern kids.

Also, another of our discussions on over-protective parenting can be read here.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chelly July 1, 2013 at 8:33 am

I am not a parent, but I have two nephews (one from each sister) and am shocked, and even a little disappointed in what one of my sisters will not allow her son to do, sometimes. And I am not even referring to things that take great bravery; he is 10, and until recently was not allowed to cut his own food, or mix his own easy mac for fear that he would cut or burn himself!


2 Katy July 1, 2013 at 9:32 am

The kids in our neighborhood are all “walkers” to our elementary school. Unfortunately that has been interpreted to mean that parents drive their kids to school. When my oldest started 2nd grade I was determined to find another set of kids to walk to and from school together. It was tough to find another family “willing” to let their kids go and walk the 7 minutes alone to school. We’re still in the minority and wave to our friends as they drive by.


3 amyb July 1, 2013 at 10:11 am

Total free-range parent here. We live in downtown Boston. Our 10.5 year old has free run of our neighborhood, walks to and from school bus, to the store etc. Next year she is going to start taking public transportation to school. I really believe in knowing your kid. Mine has always been super independent and has very good judgement.



4 Julie July 1, 2013 at 10:32 am

My oldest, who is nearly 8, CRAVES independence. He is SO excited when I let him do something on his own. It’s very hard for me to let go, but I do….more and more. And the more I do, the more confident I am about it. The problem is that if we don’t let them do things independently, they don’t learn simple things….like to look for cars when they cross the road. I’m always terrified as him and his friends leap across the road without even looking. But, they are so used to parents standing there, looking for them, and telling them when to cross. I never had this. Either I looked myself or potentially got hit by a car.

I was a very independent kid and had the run of the neighborhood. But, even when I was in my 20s and went off on my own to travel Europe and Australia…my parent’s friends were astounded that they “let” me go off on my own. I had already finished graduate school and was in my mid-20′s for crying out loud. I definitely don’t want to end up being that parent!

Our kids are the safest they will ever be when they in the womb. Once they are out, it’s a constant worry. But, you HAVE to let them be their own people and discover their own talents and fears and limits and capabilities. They can’t do this with you standing over them all the time.


5 erika July 2, 2013 at 6:44 pm

i know what you’re trying to say about the womb being the safest place – but having given birth to two stillborn children and one miscarried baby (and being in a pregnancy/infant loss support group for almost 5 years) – to me the least safe place is in the womb! but I know that’s my perspective…

I tend to be a little free-range-ish. But we live in Los Angeles, which makes it difficult. My oldest is 6, so perhaps as she gets a little older, I will ease up…


6 Jenny P July 1, 2013 at 10:37 am

Coincidentally, when I read the first paragraph of this post (before the jump), I thought to myself, I should recommend Free Range Kids to her!

I have a two-year old and my husband and I are trying to be more hands-off. I really enjoyed reading Free Range Kids and I found all those statistics about the crime rates so interesting! Although we haven’t been able to implement a ton of ideas yet because our son is so young, the book flipped a switch in my brain and I started noticing a lot of the fear-mongering in the media (and in my friends and family).

For example, a few months ago there was a headline in the paper, “Teen dies on high school field trip.” After reading the article I learned that the student died from a pre-existing health condition that had nothing to do with his trip. While it was a terrible tragedy, what impact does that headline have on a reader? It subtly says, field trips are dangerous, your kids are unsupervised, look at what can happen.

After talking about some of the scenarios in the book with friends, I noticed that what a lot of us are afraid of is what others will say about our parenting and not really what will happen to our kids.


7 kirsten July 1, 2013 at 11:08 am

My daughter is 14 (on Wednesday) and stands six feet tall and I STILL have to fight myself (internally) every time I push her to do things. She walks to basketball practice this summer on her own every day (and I have a mini heart attack every day) but I think it is important to make her feel independent. But I feel like every time I watch ANYTHING at all bad on the news – it seems like it “could happen to us” syndrome strikes and it becomes just as hard to let her do things on her own the 100th time as it was the first time. Does that sound insane? Sometimes having all of this information sucks. :)


8 Justin July 1, 2013 at 11:18 am

I’m happy to hear crime rates are down. I grew up a free range kid and would love to let our kids have a care-free summer like that. Hard, though. What am I worried about?


9 Sally from Little Hiccups July 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm

As an Australian living in California I’ve noticed a HUGE difference in what parents here deem as safe and unsafe for their kids to do. Obviously I don’t put my kids in situations that actually will be dangerous, but I have noticed that many simple things that I’m happy for my kids to do (climbing over the top of the monkey bars, balancing on stone walls, hanging from play equipment, splashing about in a creek, doing tricks on their scooters…) result in looks of shock from other parents.

Another thing I’ve noticed here in California, but not so much in Australia, is that there seems to be more of a gender divide when it comes to more adventurous play.

When I take my 6 year old daughter to the playground with her girl friends, I find that the other parents always seem to set strict rules about what their kids can play on, how high they can climb and how far away they are allowed to go within the park. My daughter is quite adventurous and always eager to push herself , but at the same time she knows her limitations and has a good sense of danger. She’ll climb to the top of a play structure and dangle upside down from the top, but only if she knows she can do it safely. I find in these situations my daughter’s friends always want to try out what she’s doing (it clearly looks more fun!) but their parents freak out. I’m always hearing “But how come Ava gets to do it?”.

On the flip side, when we go to the park with her boy friends I find that their parents tend to give them free reign and they’re allowed to be more adventurous in their play. For this reason my daughter usually prefers playdates at the park with boys rather than girls.

I often feel as though the other parents expect that I should restrict what my kids are allowed to do when we’re at the playground. As much as I may feel that they are being overly protective, I respect their right to bring up their kids as they see fit and that respect should be mutual.

Most of my 2 year old daughter’s friends are either English or German. I’ve had many conversations with their parents about just this topic. We’ve all noticed that our kids’ American friends are restricted in their play a lot more than our kids are. I guess it’s just a cultural difference.

The other thing that I’ve noticed amongst parents here (and my English and German friends have commented on as well) is a fear of germs. Many of my kids’ friends are not allowed to play in dirt, splash about in creeks or eat food they may have dropped on the ground momentarily. The really ironic thing about all of this is that we live in a fairly hippy area where eating organic food, having backyard chicken coops, and not immunizing your kids is all the rage!


10 Becca July 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm

I feel really strongly about letting our kids test their physical limits. As a camp counselor for girls in my early 20s, we were always helping them go beyond their limits in a safe environment (ropes course, horseback riding, canoeing). My thought is that if we let our kids try, they can sense where the danger is and develop sensible caution. And the smile of accomplishment when they get unstuck bouldering or making it down the hill on skis is priceless!


11 Sandra Gonzales July 1, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Has anyone seen the movie “The Call” starring Halle Berry? That movie further cemented my fears concerning my 14 yo daughter.


12 Maike July 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I am from Germany and was raised very free, I was allowed to do almost anything. My father was a boy scout and later a boy scout leader and very connected to nature, such as jumping with us in really cold lakes, playing in the ocean when the waves were really high and stormy and climbing up high trees. Nothing ever happened and I trusted him 100%. He never let me down in his judgement. Maybe this is why I simply cannot be scared when I watch my daughter climbing or jumping or walking close to water. I know she is very responsible and if something happens I am able to help or save her.
My boyfriend is from a complete different cultural backround (Ireland) and I sometimes joke that I am lacking the mother gene for worrying, I am usually the only mother on a playground that doesn’t jump up all the time because she foresees her kid falling from something.
I also agree that I know the expression of shock in the faces of our Irish family members when they saw my daughter crawling through a ‘not child safe’ place and me not protecting her little head from every table corner.
When it comes to hygiene and germs I also agree: much more relaxed in Germany but still: I am the only mother who’s kid is allowed to drink water from a playground well and eat mud and sand. My kid was never ill or hurt herself in a severe way. (Knock on wood.)
I read blogs about American moms who are concerned when their kid comes home from preschool with scratches and bruises and I have to say, those scratches and bruises make me very happy because I know then that my daughter had a good playtime out in the yard.


13 Misty July 2, 2013 at 7:52 pm

I agree! I’m American but, I feel very out-of-place. My kids were eating from a mulberry bush near a playground. I was stopped by a concerned mother. She asked me if they were my children (they are adopted and don’t look like me). I told her they were. She was very concerned and told me they should stop. I kind of laughed in my head. :)


14 joanne July 1, 2013 at 1:30 pm

this is such an interesting discussion! i struggle with this balance everyday. my parents (who are 40 years older than me) did lots of “dangerous” things from a very young age: my mom babysat her younger siblings when she was 8, my dad rode a horse when he was probably 3 or 4, and they both had major responsibilities and major freedoms from the time they were very little. part of this has to do with growing up on farms, too, i think.
my daughter is almost 10 and she has a lot of freedom in the neighborhood, and responsibilities of babysitting her younger brothers. but she doesn’t know as much about cooking and baking as i did at her age, not nearly as much. i guess i still get a little concerned when i see her near the hot oven or wielding a sharp knife. but i know i need to get over it so that she can learn how to do these things that will make her more able to take care of herself. :)


15 Megan M. July 1, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I know for a fact I’m too overprotective but I don’t know how to stop. I’ve always been neurotic. I hate going outside and my parents basically had to make me learn to ride a bike and go out and get my driver’s license. I’m not super worried about germs, but I do fear my children getting hurt. :/

I walked to school by myself when I was in kindergarten/first grade (this was in Germany, though, on a military base) and either rode the bus or biked to school after that. I can’t imagine letting my girls walk to school, though. They’re still really young right now (6 and 3) but even when they’re older, if we’re still in the same area, there’s an incredibly busy street they would have to cross to get there. And kayaking alone would probably send me into a catatonic state! I never learned how to swim so I’m horribly on edge when the girls play in the pool because I don’t feel confident I could save them (even though we’re always with at least two other adults who can swim.)


16 Shannon July 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm

I’m a worrier, too, but I don’t want my kids to be afraid to try new things or live adventurous lives because of me. Having said that, I can’t even tell you how freaked out I was when my cousin, a pilot, offered to take my oldest up in his glider when he was eight. Scared me to death, but I didn’t want Andrew to miss out on an amazing experience because I was afraid. I’m pretty sure I held my breath the entire time!


17 Ellie July 1, 2013 at 8:45 pm

My first daughter walked to school in 1st grade and my 2nd daughter in kindergarden. There is our street to cross and then another, no crossing guard. I was so sad to read in the Huffpost that a mom was proud of finally letting her 3rd grader walk to school, only to read a majority of comments reminding her of an Oprah show where comedians could trick children into following them.
Where I live the boys do more things unacompanied such as going to the park and pool. They are around 10. I’ll go with my girls for now, with no good excuse. I had a big sister so at 5 I could go to the pool and park with her, I even remember her leaving me at the park and me making a new friend.


18 Bridgette July 1, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Just reading the 1st paragraph struck terror in my soul! Our daughters are now 22 and 32 and we were the poster parents for OVERPROTECTIVE!
To make a long story short, I flew the Blackhawk, my husband was the sniper in the open door.
There must be a happy medium?


19 Michelle Rackley July 2, 2013 at 6:53 am

Amy, I love the discussions you create each week! This is my first time commenting. For years, my husband has studied what makes teenage brains tick and using that information to create more successful learning in the academic environment (more specifically, adolescent literacy). While completing his PhD at the University of Michigan, he came across studies that stated the following: adolescent’s brains (with all their glorious chemical complexity) create a very unique environment that develops a hunger in the teenager to participate in risky behavior. That hunger is greatly reduced as the brain eventually matures into an adult. Final thought? Guide your child (especially teenagers) to participate in appropriate risky behavior (sky diving (eeks!), rock climbing), so that they will not seek inappropriate risky behavior (drugs or promiscuity). I remember hearing this as a young mother of two. Now, 10 years later, I have 7 children (2 girls, 5 very active and wild boys). With each child (and boy!), I let go more and more. Sometimes out of necessity and sanity and a lot of times, because I see that it is healthy. We now live in a very safe neighborhood on the North Shore of Oahu. Here, no one wears bike helmets. Even adults will carry their infants in the crook of their arm while riding their bike around town. Kids jump into the back of pickups to go to the store or church. While teaching a young (2 year old) child to swim, or boogie/body surf in the rough waters here, a parent will not use a life vest. Young children climb VERY tall coconut trees and learn how to handle very sharp machetes. They walk all around town by themselves, go to friends, the beach, the store. I have never heard of a serious injury yet. Broken bones from jumping off the top of a mango trees (yes!). Getting some cuts while learning how to handle a machete (yes!). I am hoping, as I am nearing my first teenager, that this activity will be beneficial to their developing brains and help feed their appetite for danger. Heaven knows I’d much rather my children being outside, than spending hours on end playing video games inside.

The following is a photo of my son practicing his climbing to get ready for our coconut tree.

Keep these great discussions coming Amy. I love them!


20 Laura July 2, 2013 at 7:17 am

Really enjoyed reading all these posts. For me, the words worry and kids go hand in hand. Still this doesn’t stop us from encouranging our 6 year old twin girls from playing with dirt, splashing outside in the rain , riding their scooters at speeds that make us cringe. Creating their own obstacle course at home. I see all these little things as part of feeling free and building confidence …..along with having a whole lot of fun,


21 jessica brown July 2, 2013 at 11:32 am

I just wrote a little post about letting my kids be adventurous, with helmets on of course. I’m trying to let them be free range….. makes for more interesting kids, more quiet for me and I really hope when they are older they will feel compelled to venture out and see the world.


22 Emilie July 3, 2013 at 2:06 am

In Switzerland where I live, kids are going to Kindergarten alone when they are 4 or 5 years old. There is a small “training” with parents like the first 2 months of school to memorize the trail, and then they go :-) I am french, and there we don’t let our kids to go alone at school before 8 years old I think (and we also ear much more awfull stories… than in Switzerland) it is for me a real culture’s difference, but I begin to think it is good. Friends in here told me that children learn as much on the way to school as in the school. I will also let my girl play in the neighboorood as soon as I will feel her ready for it. (she is only 3 right now). I already let her go where she feels she can go (I mean “body capacity) I am scared of course, like every mom, but I am trying to let her go, because it is good for her. “Education” in terms of ethymology , means “to bring a child outside of you”… and I think this is the beginning.


23 Joanna July 4, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Today I allowed my newly 3 year old son to be ponied to his dad for his first solo ride on horseback. Usually he just rides around on the lawn or doubles up with dad or uncle for rides in the pasture. This time was a full 75 minute trail ride. I trust his horse, which spent years as a wilderness pack horse so is steady with green people and not skittish around other animals, etc. And yet, I counted every minute because I’m 6 months pregnant and couldn’t ride with them and had to put on the brave face and let them go. My issue is that I fell off one of the horses a few years ago and broke my neck, so had some fears about watching my son ride away from me. However, I really think I have to allow my partner to fully share the parenting and trust his judgment. I had to accept that my fear is primarily due to my own fears for myself and my injury. This experience was good for my son and his growth…and good for me as well.


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