‘World’s Worst Mom’ or inspiring parent? Getting outside trumps video games for kids

There are plenty of reasons why kids are becoming less connected with the outdoor world - the Internet, video games, TV, sports and all sorts of other competing activities. Another reason is fear.

Some parents are afraid their kids might get hurt, lost, kidnapped or worse. The outdoors is full of awful things: poison ivy, bugs, snakes, big scary woods and all kinds of creepy people.

But such fears are silly, according to Lenore Skenazy. "We're swimming in fear soup," Skenazy says. "Fear of lawsuits, fear of injury, fear of abductions, fear of blame."

Skenazy says let kids be kids. Let them climb trees, jump in puddles and catch frogs. Let them do all the things we did as kids. Take risks. Fail sometimes. Succeed. Build confidence and grow.

Skenazy is author of "Free Range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry."

Her book and its message have become a rallying cry, a movement for "free range kids," kids whose parents let them play outside, build forts, explore the world and become self-reliant. It's a backlash against over-protective helicopter parents who watch over their kids' every move, sometimes smothering them under a blanket of protection.

While Skenazy's message is about basic parenting, it's also a strong refrain in the childrenin- nature movement prompted by Richard Louv's 2005 book, 'Last Child in the Woods.' Moving kids away from 'nature deficit disorder,' Louv argues, will require not only generous exposure to nature, but giving children the freedom to explore, play on their own and take risks.

Taking risks was exactly what Skenazy had in mind when the New York City mother allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the subway by himself.

The boy had asked his parents to take him somewhere and let him find his way home solo.

The Skenazy family had been riding the NYC subway system for years, so it wasn't exactly unfamiliar territory for the boy. At Bloomingdale's one day, Skenazy gave her son a subway map, a MetroCard, a bunch of quarters for a phone call, $20 for emergencies and a few questions and words of advice.

Forty-five minutes later, the boy arrived safely home, ecstatic and proud from his adventure.

Skenazy, a former reporter, wrote a column about her boy's adventure. Two days later she was making appearances on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News. One person who was upset with Skenazy's risky, free-range style described her as 'America's worst mom.' Skenazy found herself defending her parenting and the notion that kids need to take risks, including exploring the great outdoors.

What resulted for Skenazy was her 'Free Range Kids' book, a popular blog by the same name and a reality TV show that Skenazy hosts: 'World's Worst Mom.' The reality show produced by Cineflix is kind of like Supernanny, featuring over-protective parents and Skenazy offering advice and real-life challenges about giving children independence while also staying safe.

One of her key points is that it's okay for kids to fail.

'If they don't fail sometimes, they won't learn that they can get back up and go on with their lives,' Skenazy writes.

'For instance, we don't want our kids to fall off a bike. Who does? But we do want them to learn how to ride. So we have two choices: We can hold onto their handlebars forever. That way they'll never, ever fall. Or we can wish them luck and then -- let go.' Eventually, they're going to fall. And when they do, they need to get back up and try again. Ultimately they'll succeed and be all the better for it.

The media's barrage of horrible crimes against children has given parents a false sense of alarm, according to Skenazy. Statistics from the Department of Justice show that crime rates have actually fallen since a peak around 1990 to 1970s levels. 'So - unbelievable as it seems - if you were playing outside as a kid in the '70s or '80s, your kids are actually safer outside than you were.' Skenazy says.

Skenazy calls herself a 'safety geek' and is constantly making sure her children wear seat belts and bike helmets.

But there is a point where concern for safety can become over-protective. The point of Skenazy's message is to push that line toward independence and self-confidence.

Lenore Skenazy will be the keynote speaker at the N.H.

Children in Nature Coalition annual conference on Oct. 4, at the Castleton Conference Center in Windham.

For more information about the conference, visit nhchildreninnature. org.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

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