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'Free-Range' For Kids' Sake

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Our conversation paused just long enough to be sure the screech from the basement was a happy squeal, and not a painful wail. No tears. Score one for the moms.

"How did you do it?" my friend asks. "I only have two daughters, and I'm overwhelmed. You had four kids, and you seemed to have it all under control."

"I had help," I wink. "A great baby sitter who made it all possible." The young mom in my kitchen had been that great baby sitter some 15 years ago.

Missy says, "I learned so much from you; you'll never know."

By way of example, she recalls a time we chatted in the kitchen while my daughter Betsy shouted for me from the backyard. "You looked out the window, but we kept talking, until finally she yelled and cried so much you walked outside."

Betsy had climbed to the top of the swing set - above the beam that held the swings. Afraid and stuck, she wailed for me to get her down.

"But you didn't," Missy recalls. "You stood there and said, 'I'm right here, but you got yourself up there, so you'll have to get yourself down.' Then you coached her to climb down, and she did.

"You'll never know what an impact that had on me," Missy says. "I decided then and there that I wanted to raise independent children, and that's what I'm trying to do."

I don't remember the specific day that I talked Betsy off the swing set. That scenario played itself out so many times with all four of my children that hearing her tell it, I could have put myself in any number of memories, standing beneath a forest full of climbing trees.

Have I raised independent children? Hard to say. But it's always been the goal.

Sadly, for too many parents, instilling independence in children isn't seen as a goal. America's parents hover and protect to the point of stifling our children's capacity to solve their own problems, developing genuine self-reliance and self-esteem. We view ourselves as uber-crucial to their personal safety, as though our parenting alone is the reason they avoid a virus or a broken bone or a brush with a deranged abductor.

Whether from a sense of insecurity or the fear of being blamed by other "better" parents, we're loath to let our children out of our sight for even the time it takes to ride a bike around the block.

I'm not promoting a cavalier parenting style. Just one that's realistic and gives our kids at least some of the freedom we had to spread our wings and learn to fly through the world.

Author and columnist Lenore Skenazy promotes this idea, too, in a much-needed new field guide for parents called "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry." In it, she debunks the myths that feed parents' fears and cause us to inhibit our children's chances to grow and learn.

"I'm all for safety," Ms. Skenazy says, "but the fact is this is the safest time in human history to be a child. It's not more dangerous to raise children these days than when we were growing up, it's infinitely safer." Her book proves this contention in chapter after (hilarious) chapter.

We moms and dads need to lighten up and realize that accidents will happen, germs will be consumed, and strangers aren't usually dangerous. The world is a joyful place to explore, and our children yearn to do it as much as we did.

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