One of the most challenging books I have read on parenting is Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-reliant Children, by Lenore Skenazy. Modern-day parents live in a world where worrying is billed as one of the most essential character traits of good parenting. Skenazy argues in her book that this obsession with overprotecting our kids is a relatively new development in child rearing — and she challenges parents to take a reasoned look at whether our safety-crazed culture is actually beneficial to our kids.
As I read this book, I began to think about how I might apply the ideas/challenges within it to Harrison as he grows. The central story in Free-Range Kids is one where Skenazy allows her nine year-old son to travel from Bloomingdale’s in New York City all the way home (using busses and the subway system) by himself. As in all alone — with no parents or other adult chaperones. He was nine, and he was flying solo.
This was something that her son had asked to do for some time, so it’s not like she just dropped him off and wished him luck. He knew how to ride the subway, he knew how to read public transportation route maps, and he wanted to do it on his own. People called her the “Worst Mom in America” for allowing her son to do this. Her book is an explanation of the worldview behind her choice to allow her son so much freedom — and it’s very compelling.
Since reading this book, I have been looking for ways to allow my son to experience age-appropriate levels of independence, and you’d be amazed at how hard it has been to fight against the prevailing winds of culture. I recently began to wonder what it would be like to have been in Skenazy’s shoes, how it would feel to actually allow my nine year-old to do something at that level of independence and self-reliance. Then I began to wonder what — specifically — that would look like in our lives. We don’t live in New York, so allowing my son to do what Skenazy’s son experienced would be irresponsible of me. But what would be our New York subway excursion?
Well, I think I’ve found it.
Heidi and I have talked this over and we have resolved that, when Harrison is about 10 years-old, we will take a trip to Disneyland with him and a friend; we will enter the park together, take family pictures at the Mickey-head flower bed, and then we’ll send the two of them off with a Disneyland map and $20 each (adjusted for inflation, of course). They will be free to explore the place that Walt Disney built for kids, as kids.
I’m sure many people will think this is crazy. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure if Disneyland would allow it. But every time I see the picture below of children running through the archway of Sleeping Beauty Castle for the very first time in 1955, I can’t help but hope that Disney still encourages the mixture of wonder and adventure that these kids had on opening day:
All we have to do now is wait until Harrison is 10, then we’ll get the chance to put our money where our mouth is. If you are a Disney Executive and would like to offer us a few practice runs over the next few years, we’d be happy to accept. Actually, if you do work for one of the Disney parks, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Does Disney allow self-relient, well-behaved children to explore the park unsupervised like they did in Walt’s day?
As for the rest of you, I’d love your feedback as well: