YOU MAY HAVE heard the story about the Minnesota mother who faced jail time after accidentally failing to properly strap in her child's car seat. Or the cops who arrived to question a mom who told her neighbors that her 9-year-old could help them do chores. Or the police officers who went door to door hunting for a man after he drove off from the mall with a toddler--who turned out to be his daughter. They'd been shopping. An onlooker had assumed he was a kidnapper and called the police.
We live in an age of fear, especially where children are concerned. Even as the world has become safer and richer, parenting has become a paranoid exercise in removing all possible risk from a child's life. This is exhausting for parents and even worse for children. Too many have been taught that they are fragile, weak, and in constant danger. Instead of getting experience problem-solving and bouncing back, they have grown up unable to rise to the challenges that life presents.
No journalist has more effectively chronicled the strange and dismal culture of contemporary child rearing than Reason contributor Lenore Skenazy, 59, who is not ashamed of being "America's Worst Mom." She got that nickname after she let her son, then age 9, ride the New York subway home by himself in 2008. "Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse," she wrote in a much-read piece for The New York Sun. "As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids."
Skenazy went on to found the Free-Range Kids movement, dedicating her career to investigating and explaining how today's parents became so afraid and what effects that fear is having on their children. In 2017, she co-founded the non-profit Let Grow with a mission of encouraging schools and families to allow kids to "have some adventures" and therefore "grow resilient."
In January, Skenazy spoke with Frank Furedi, 71, a Budapest-born sociologist now based at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. When Furedi was 9, he had an adventure even more exciting than riding a subway by himself: His family got caught up in Hungary's anti-Stalinist revolution of 1956. "The thing that I remember about that moment," he told Spiked years later, "was the sheer optimism, the sense of power expressed by people who were normally extremely passive and fatalistic." After the Soviets crushed the revolt, the family fled to Canada, where Furedi was drawn into the student left. Anti-Soviet and anti-statist--but not delighted with the West's status quo either--he became a self-styled libertarian Marxist. He "saw the state not as a medium of liberation but as a medium of oppression, as something that limited the possibility for more radical change," he explained to Spiked.
Over the years Furedi has frequently taken stands on censorship, technology, environmentalism, identity politics, and other issues that set him apart from the rest of the left. He is also the author of many books about fear, parenting, and campus culture, including 2002's Paranoid Parenting, 2005's Politics of Fear, and 2016's What's Happened to the University. His latest, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century (Bloomsbury Continuum), looks at how fear has become the driving factor behind much of contemporary Western culture and the ways that has changed society for the worse.
In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Skenazy and Furedi discussed the origins of today's fearful parenting, how schools and universities became incubators of scared kids, and why a refusal to tolerate risk has, paradoxically, led to a generation of children who are more fragile than ever before.
Skenazy: Tell me the basic idea of your book. How does fear work?
Furedi: What I'm trying to establish in the book is: What do we fear in the 21st century? There is a lot of material that is available on how people feared in the past, and it's very clear that there have been a number of very important changes in the way we talk about fear.
For a start, in the contemporary era we talk much more about it. Fear is an overused word. We talk about it in relation to a lot more experiences than we did...