the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Abby Sunderland and Other Free-Range Kids: An Endangered Species?

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Henry Rodgers has a tree swing in his backyard that hangs very close to another tree.

In the middle of Arkansas’ summer heat, he plays on it while other kids are inside watching movies or playing video games. He collects rocks and catches bugs, too. His recent addition to his insect aquarium: a fat lime-green horn worm. (But he confesses that he didn’t find it; his dad did.)

Henry, 7, doesn’t play it safe. He doesn’t mind dirt, sweat or even getting a scratch or two.

Henry’s childhood seems normal to me. I grew up a tomboy, playing baseball, popping wheelies and skateboarding in suburbia with plenty of Band-Aids in the mix. I collected fireflies and climbed trees. My Barbies sometimes swam in a mud hole I dug in the backyard. My parents were overprotective but they let me explore.

But Henry is far from the normal kid these days, says Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids.”

Children and their helicopter parents fear danger everywhere. A kid’s universe has become a world where playgrounds no longer have merry-go-rounds or seesaws and babies wear knee-pads to crawl.

Huh? I don’t have children, but is Skenazy really serious? Yes. And God forbid that children should want to do something radical — like Henry’s grand plan of traveling around the world when he is an adult. Or heading to Mount Everest, perhaps, when he is a teenager.

Apparently, according to Skenazy, that’s an exceptional dream that many parents would squash considering they won’t even let their kids walk to the end of the driveway to collect the mail.

“This is what people think — that your job is holding your child’s hand until they are 30 and be there to personally connect each synapse in their brain,” she said. “Nothing should be left to normalcy, even wanting to play outside.”

On her blog, Skenazy describes such a free-range child as one “who gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help.”

It’s the kid who might skip sunscreen one day at the pool and live to tell the tale. Henry fits the definition of a free-range kid perfectly.

Perhaps that’s because Henry’s parents, Brian and Pearl, are not the bubble-wrap kind. Pearl gave birth to Henry and his little sister, Bela, 2, at home. Brian, a computer network administrator, plays in a popular local band, The Moving Front. They let their kids attend concerts when the band plays all-ages shows. Henry and Bela help their mother gather tomatoes from her impressive backyard garden. Henry and Brian build things with hammers and nails.

The couple recently transformed an upstairs room into a hideaway for their son. They encourage his future travels with eagerness. They allowed him to have a garage sale where he sold his toys, netting $50 for his future journey.

This summer, Henry plans to host an art show where he hopes to sell more than 55 paintings and two costumes made of boxes. Pearl, a stay-at-home mom, is helping to find a location.

Recently, with his mother’s help, Henry opened a savings account. No one can touch the money unless Henry is present to co-sign. That was Henry’s idea.

Pearl, 32, grew up in the Ozark Mountains with parents who had tuned out mainstream society and tuned into nature. She didn’t watch much television and she learned to be extremely self-sufficient. She is a goddess of all things “Little House on the Prairie” — sewing, chopping wood, canning, raising chickens and gardening.

“My parents raised me so that you can do whatever you set your mind to do,” Pearl said. “You could go anywhere, do anything. They wanted me to travel and have adventures.”

Independent thinking is becoming a real rarity as parents rely less on instinct and indulge more in “parental mania,” as Skenazy calls it. That neurosis hinges on following the instructions too closely in parenting books and buying into a money-making market aimed at parents, all of it driven by fear.

“There’s a lot to be said for kids playing on their own, learning on their own,” Skenazy said. “Free play is better developmentally than playing in soccer. It gives them a challenge.”

Children have long dreamed of quests and wanderlust.

The Darling children in Peter Pan wanted to visit Neverland. Huckleberry Finn drifted down the Mississippi River. Nancy Drew and her adventures at the Lilac Inn, on Larkspur Lane and at Red Gate Farm made me believe that if I happened upon an old mansion I could fearlessly unlock a mystery, too.

Recently, Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old who attempted to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world, took a lot of heat for what some called a reckless stunt. A few people even suggested that her parents go to jail for child abuse. Abby should be heralded.

Childhood adventure is becoming an endangered species. It’s up to children like Henry Rodgers to pull his generation away from video-game-induced safe adventures on a sofa and into a real world packed with exploration.


Written by suziparker1313

March 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm

One Response

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  1. I agree! Kids are far too overprotected by their parents. Much easier to sit them in front of the television. I recently read Abby Sunderland’s book Unsinkable, about her experience sailing around the world solo. Here’s a link:

    Mark Neal

    May 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm

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