Skenazy: A parenting lesson from a plane crash

No one can believe the bravery and pluck of 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler, the little girl who survived a crash of a small Piper PA-34 plane — which killed her parents, sister and cousin — and then scrambled her way through the deep, dark woods to a stranger’s house for help Jan. 2.

Lenore Skenazy Free-Range Kids

Lenore Skenazy
Free-Range Kids

With a broken wrist. And no moon to guide her. And dressed for sunny Florida but wandering through the chill of a Kentucky winter’s eve.

Her injuries were minor, and she was released from the hospital to relatives the next day, but her story is still making headlines.

An expert on one of the talk shows said that in times of extreme stress, adrenaline kicks in, enabling us to go way beyond our normal capacities. As if Sailor were somehow beyond herself in that moment. Superhuman.

Because no one can imagine a 7-year-old being just plain competent.

Sure, what she did was fantastic. But maybe all our kids are capable of being smart and resourceful, if only we give them a chance.

The thing is that we don’t. Underestimating kids has become our national pastime. We think they need us to wait with them at the bus stop, to organize their social life, to solve all their problems. A psychotherapist interviewed by Parenting magazine told parents never to let two friends play together unsupervised, even if they’re old enough to stay home alone: “You want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

That’s right. We’re told our kids can’t even handle a squabble without parental intervention.

With this kind of advice being shoved down our throats, I don’t blame parents for overprotecting. I do blame the fear-mongering media for insisting that almost everything — a plastic bottle! a bad grade! a bike ride! — could somehow cripple our kids.

Ironically, the ones really being crippled are the parents. Crippled with fear.

There’s only one way I’ve found to fight that fear, and that’s with reality. It’s fitting that — promo alert — I’m about to host a reality show, “World’s Worst Mom,” starting Thursday, Jan. 22, on Discovery Life Channel.

In it, I’m like the Supernanny. Except instead of taming brats, I try to tame parents’ anxiety by showing moms and dads (but mostly moms) what their kids are really capable of.

One mom I visit follows her 10-year-old daughter not just into the public bathroom but into the stall to keep her safe. Another wants to put video cameras throughout the house so she can make sure her six kids, ages 0-13, don’t sneak outside to play, even in the yard.

These aren’t bad moms; they’re just terrified. They have no idea how competent their kids really are, because they’ve never let them go.

So my job is simple. I take the kids away from them. The 10-year-old? I sent her to the park across the street with her 12-year-old brother — something they’d never been allowed to do.

The kids of the mom who didn’t want them to go outside? I sent the three tweens down their suburban block, beyond where Mom could see. Then I kept her in the house, while they set up a lemonade stand.

When all these kids came home — happy, sweaty, thrilled to have finally had even the most modest of adventures — I thought maybe the moms would be angry. Instead, they were out of their minds … with joy.

They were so proud of their kids. One of them actually grabbed me in her arms and twirled me around.

Now, obviously, it takes a lot more to get yourself out of a plane wreck than to run a lemonade stand. But at base, what we’re talking about is this: Our kids are way more competent than we think. We cheat them — and us — when we don’t let them prove it.

Lenore Skenazy is host of the new show “World’s Worst Mom” on the Discovery Life Channel, debuting Jan. 22. She is also a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”

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