Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fantastic free-range feature

A few thousand years ago, Greek mathematician Archimedes legendarily distinguished himself by running naked through the streets screaming something along the lines of, "Eureka! I found it!" following his bath-time realization that hydrostatic displacement could be used to determine the volume of an irregularly-shaped object such as a king's crown.

Whether or not there's any truth to this famous scientific anecdote, I felt much the same way yesterday after watching a reporting segment produced by our local ABC-TV affiliate KTRK, which I will embed at the end of this post.

Fortunately for y'all, I did not proceed naked through the neighborhood, but the fact remains that I found it:  An unusual example of responsible journalism, and an uncommonly introspective one at that. 

Let me explain in detail, because hell might freeze over before any of us have the privilege of seeing the likes of this again.

I raised a "free range" daughter, to the point where we were literally a local poster-family for the movement, widely known (and occasionally vilified) in our community, appearing briefly in a European TV documentary, and making other public appearances that I will not reference here.    

For those of you who are not familiar with this child-rearing approach, it's difficult to capture all the nuances and underlying philosophies in one easy sound bite, but the underpinnings boil down to this:

Kids are a lot safer today than our pathologically-suspicious and histrionic American culture is publicly representing.  And they're a lot more capable than we give them credit for.  If we grant them the types of appropriate freedoms that we grew up with when we were children, they will develop stronger situational awareness and self-regulation skills than they would if we were to simply overparent them into a psychological no-man's land

You've probably heard the term "helicopter parenting"?  Free-range parenting is, in many respects, the antithesis of that.  In my view, helicopter parenting is a subtle but gruesome form of child abuse because it communicates a wholesale lack of faith in the child's intrinsic capacity to mature.  It instills groundless fears and literally erodes a child's ability to develop his or her own distinct identity. 

Anyway, as I started to say, my child grew up free range in north Clear Lake.  From the age of about seven onward, she was allowed to go outdoors, meet up with a few friends who were also granted the same limited but logical freedoms, and explore our neighborhood without any adult hovering over her head in a state of sub-panicked paranoia.  And for several years, that's just what she did with her free time - she would leave our home with her friends on a weekend morning, and then re-appear perhaps six hours later, all smiles and sparkling eyes, to tell me about their collective adventures. 

I watched that small group of kids flourish in the face of these basic freedoms.  From afar, I saw them develop fantastic cooperation skills, such as subtle but highly-sophisticated intra-group communication protocols to warn of approaching cars as they were riding bikes and playing ball games in the streets.  They climbed trees unassisted.  The built a secret fort in the shrubbery behind one of the Pineloch neighborhood monument signs, a bower into which they would retreat for hours at a time.  They knew every squeezable hole in every fence within a half mile of our house.  Even if the Boogey Man had attempted to pursue them at any point, he wouldn't have had a chance.  They had mentally mapped their surroundings so thoroughly that they would have simply slipped away, vanished like four-foot phantoms, as the masters of their suburban environment that they had literally become. 

My daughter, now a teenager in high school and beginning to feel the inevitable performance pressures of impending adulthood, looks back upon that time with pure reverence.  "Those were the best years of my life," she often says, with a twinge of sadness in her voice, mourning their passage. 

I can't imagine what either of our lives would be like today had we not lived that way when she was young.  What's the point of living if there's no available access to life's everyday moments of pure magic?  How does a child go on to explore and relish the wider world and successfully face adult challenges if they start from way, way behind the existential eight-ball, cement-shoed with the type of abject fears and suspicious world views that are transmitted to them through helicopter parenting?  I don't know the answer.  I do know that, even as we were free-ranging, I was seeing some other children - a mere seven or eight years old - already beginning to take psychoactive medication to manage their anxiety and depression.  It's easy for me to understand why they were succumbing to those afflictions at such tender ages. 

Anyway, the great gift that KTRK gave us all yesterday was to shine a CG spotlight on the extent to which many helicopter-style fears are actually groundless.  Free-rangers have known this all along, of course, but in the chronically-sensationalist commercial news media, that part of the message is almost always sacrificed on the altar of "bad parenting" rhetoric and "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality. 

KTRK reporter Ilona Carson showcased quantitatively the relative risks posed by the "stranger danger" hysteria that is usually the excuse parents give for hovering and prohibiting unsupervised play. 
An American child's odds of dying in a car wreck are TWENTY TIMES HIGHER than their odds of being abducted by a stranger.  And yet which of those two possibilities dominates every child autonomy decision made by many parents?  The snatching scenario. 

Screengrab from KTRK.
This is obviously a disturbingly-poor risk assessment that many parents make, yet it's not difficult to understand what drives their mistaken priorities.  We are constantly surrounded by over-hyped media presentations of those few children who do become victims of this incredibly-rare type of crime (even when they are not really). 

But here's where KTRK's production progressed from important to revolutionary:  They actually shone the spotlight squarely on their own contribution to the problem by referring back to their coverage of a recent Houston abduction - the type of story that may work well where subscriber ratings and advertisement revenues are concerned, but which arguably does a disservice to our society by helping to distort public perception of the associated risks.  That took real guts. 

This wider risk prioritization issue, by the way, is also why I am so strident on certain public service priorities such as traffic enforcementsidewalk availability and sidewalk maintenance.  There are risks posed to young children who are playing and exploring outdoors with a minimum of direct adult supervision, but they are not the risks that most parents assume.  The primary risk derives from the auto-pedestrian threat.  THAT is what we should be working to ameliorate, not the much-lower risks associated with imaginary Boogey Men. 

Anyway, thanks for slogging through my usual long-winded preamble.  When I immigrated to Houston many years ago, the first words I heard uttered were, "Say it out loud!  I'm Houston proud!"  I was never Houston-prouder than I was yesterday when I saw this news segment, and I give my heartfelt thanks to both Ilona and Lenore.  Enjoy the 3.5-minute show.


  1. I liked this piece on KTRK, too for many of the same reasons. I loved her writing te risk comparison on the board a lot, really powerful.

    This, though IS what took me aback the most- Could the this TV station be having cognition about their role in the problem? Whoah! "But here's where KTRK's production progressed from important to revolutionary: They actually shone the spotlight squarely on their own contribution to the problem by referring back to their coverage of a recent Houston abduction - the type of story that may work well where subscriber ratings and advertisement revenues are concerned, but which arguably does a disservice to our society by helping to distort public perception of the associated risks. That took real guts."
    Here here!

  2. I don't doubt that for a minute, especially with KTRK, which tends to draw our area's largest English language market share and has a correspondingly high-quality staff. That station is home to a collection of highly professional, well-seasoned investigative journalists who are easily capable of seeing any given bigger picture as it includes their own direct and indirect impacts.

    But seeing it and SAYING it are two different things. The mainstream media is no different from the rest of us in our jobs - we all have to deliver whatever performance is required to make money. That's the restriction to which we are all tied in our respective ways. By saying that kind of thing out loud, they're getting close to talking about their own market restriction, which would be unfamiliar territory to any of us.

    Here's what I suggest in light of this bigger picture: Recognize that we are all co-responsible for what's on the evening news and try to contribute accordingly. If the quality on any given TV station tends to be low and sensationalistic, every single viewer bears some personal responsibility for that. Part of the reason why we see homicides and violent crime and child abduction cases over-emphasized in the media (not to suggest that KTRK did that with the recent case, because they really didn't) is that the outlets don't necessarily have a sufficient amount of higher-quality material to counterbalance it. Sensational and startling events are low-hanging news fruit (just flip on the police scanners to hear them happen) and are good for ratings, but positive human interest material is also good for ratings - but not as easy to obtain. We've become more a nation of consumers and less a nation of contributors, to the point where we tend to sit back passively on the couch and think, "Aw, the news sucks." Well, DO something about it!! The next time you see some quirky little event unfold near you, actively email your local newsroom - they just might run with it, thereby displacing lower-quality content in the final news production for that day. I've actually done this several times in the past with KTRK, and they've jumped all over the leads, because TV watchers want to see cool stories, too!


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