The Age of Raising a Child Dangerously

Josh Clark

I was in Manhattan recently and waiting for the train back to Brooklyn when Umi pointed out three girls about ten years old standing on the opposite platform also waiting for a train, entirely on their own. It's so strange to see that, three girls moving around arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. without any adult. New York is something of a loner in this respect. Kids travel unaccompanied in small towns, sure, but not in larger cities. I can't say exactly why New York trusts its inhabitants enough to let its children wander around, but seeing those girls reminded me of one of the Free-Range Kid movement, which originated in New York.

The long and short of it is that you should trust your kids to make their own way through their town, which, in turn, serves as a practical analogy for their lives as a whole. It calls for parents to take a more hands-off approach to child rearing, and it demands not only faith in one's kids, but also a lot of faith in humanity as a whole that some monster won't emerge from the underbelly snuff out that young life or debilitate it forever. This faith is not always well-placed, as is evidenced by the horrific case of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered by a stranger as he walked home from camp last summer. What happened to Leiby was only the most recent argument against the Free Range Kid movement and the type of example used to support frequently citing Lenore Skenazy, the woman who came up with the Free-Range Kids movement, as the World's Worst Mom.

The idea of leaving kids to in part raise themselves as a means of creating self-sufficient adults goes hand-in-hand with another favorite child-centered idea, the Hygiene Hypothesis. Kind of a corollary to Free-Range Kids, this says that perhaps raising children in a sterile, hygienic environment maintained by the use of bleaches vigilant attacks against dirt isn't the best way to raise a child. In fact it challenges this predominant Western view of child health, suggesting that in addition to perhaps the deadliness of the chemicals in the cleaners themselves, being raised in a sterile environment leaves a child at a disadvantage to allergens. Having not been exposed to allergens or dirt or grime early on during immune system development, states the Hygiene Hypothesis, a child is likelier to develop allergies from commonly encountered allergens when finally exposed to them later on in childhood as they leave the home and enter school.

Aside from the inherent dangers attendant to each of them, I find both the Hygiene Hypothesis and Free-Range Kids appealing. I find it fascinating that after millenia of exponential population growth as a type of species that raises its offspring for longer than perhaps any other animal, we still don't have confidence that we're doing it correctly. Did the Western generations leading up to the 20th century have it right when they failed to even recognize the concept of childhood? Do Asian cultures that allow their children to run buckwild until they reach school have it right? Do kids need more attention and dedication than even helicopter parents provide?

How were you raised? How are you raising or will you raise your kids?