Free Range Kids: Seminar, December 2022
Want Independent Kids? Don’t be Afraid to Step Back.
By Melanie Wells
NYC-Parent’s in Action’s Laurie Freeman, PhD, welcomed online viewers to a lively conversation on what it takes to nurture independent kids, noting that the subject comes up frequently at NYC-PIA facilitated Parent Talks. She introduced speaker Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free Range Kids” and co-founder and president of Let Grow, a non-profit promoting childhood independence.
Dr. Freeman and Ms. Skenazy chatted about differences in the way kids spend their childhoods now, and what both remember from their own early years; Freeman recalled having much more freedom than her kids had growing up in New York City. Skenazy noted, “You were given independence; your mom was expected to step up to the ‘trust challenge.’” Trust is the parent’s task. It means the parent trusts that kids can manage things on their own and still be fine.
Freeman said the generational shift of trust in what a child can do alone has been narrowing for a long time; her mother, she said, was allowed to go to the dentist alone on a trolley car at age 6. Skenazy said that the independence taken for granted in previous generations was actually “normal and is what kids are capable of, but each generation is getting more anxious about it.” Literally and figuratively, our kids are now kept in a “passenger’s seat,” being taken, with others deciding where to take them. Not only are kids under pressure; parents, she said, are “beleaguered in NYC,” pressured to provide structured activities. We forget, she said, that kids are “born with curiosity, drive and a desire for independence.” Like a river, this drive finds its own way unless we make the way “too narrow.” We need to “step back a little and see where that river is going.”
Skenazy admitted not to being “anti-helicopter parent,” but “against the culture that has made parents become helicopter parents.” Cultural pressure can come from programs where parents are “expected to stay and watch, or sign children in and out” and this model makes it hard for parents not to jump in. She gave an example of a parent constantly present, watching: “If I see my child crossing the street looking at his phone, I stop him. He’s not paying attention because I’m there.” The child waiting for a parent to direct him does not figure out how to cross a street safely on his own – but kids need to learn to do so.
Kids also need to learn how to come up with activities, to convince other kids to join them, and to create and establish rules for their games. Your kids do not need your help. Childhood independence develops during that time when the kids are negotiating, participating, arguing, playing – without adult intervention.
Childhood independence develops during that time when the kids are negotiating, participating, arguing, playing – without adult intervention. -Lenore Skenazy
Freeman noted the “many layers” in Skenazy’s message, including: parental anxiety about using every moment to move a child toward goals; the importance of down time; the importance of space to negotiate, make mistakes and figure things out; and finally, parental anxiety around not being able to see our kids when they go somewhere alone.
Skenazy agreed, offering an anecdote about “taking eyes off” one’s child: over a decade ago, she let her 9 year old ride the subway alone. “It wasn’t my idea – our son asked, so we really had to think about it. He felt he was ready.” Skenazy and her husband realized they took subways and felt pretty safe. They sat down with their son, looked at a map, warned him not to go off with strangers, gave him money for a cab just in case, and gave him the metro card. Sometimes your kid will let you know when he’s ready to try something alone. What can it do for your child? It offers adventure, satisfies the drive to explore, and you, the parent, can get used to having the child out of your sight. If kids ride a bike or walk alone, it helps parents get used to having them out of sight. Getting brave about this is like strengthening a muscle as you use it. If we don’t let them go because we’re anxious, we can create a “what-if” loop. Skenazy asked Freeman about where “what-iffing” can lead; Freeman replied that it “creates anxiety.” Anxiety leading to more anxiety creates a closed loop.
Skenazy said our goal should be to “let our kids do things independently.” We should try to make it “easy, normal and legal” to bring back the rewards of independence. -Lenore Skenazy
Skenazy said our goal should be to “let our kids do things independently.” We should try to make it “easy, normal and legal” to bring back the rewards of independence. You can approach it like homework, giving the child an independent task, with parental approval. Once more people try this, it can become normalized as parents talk about it with other parents. Even if the kids are scared, they can power through it and in retrospect find it wasn’t so bad — and that’s an empowering feeling.
Freeman brought up a question submitted by a parent who wants the child to feel independent but says, “I’m afraid, I’m feeling anxious.”
Skenazy acknowledged parental anxiety can be hard to overcome, but that independence is “key to happy healthy child development.” She gave an example of a 10-year-old boy learning to ride a bike. His mom hadn’t let him do it because she was afraid he’d get hurt, or be frustrated. But within about an hour, he could “wobble across the parking lot.” His mom was thrilled. The happiness was not just the child’s – it affected the parent too. Stepping back so a child can achieve on his own “is effective and fast – you let go and then find that you’re glad you did,” said Skenazy.
Skenazy told of a psychologist who is testing the Let Go Project (which gives assignments to try things independently) as therapy for kids diagnosed with anxiety. For one assignment, walking home alone, the mom was the anxious one – she actually had to take the day off work. On the second day her child walked alone, she was able to go to work. Next, her son would ride the LIRR alone. Later, when he started middle school and was told he could bring his parents along on the first day, he didn’t need to; it was a point of pride for him, since many kids chose to have their parents there. If parents feel “you can do it” and don’t think you’re incompetent, it’s “a big thing.” However, Skenazy warned, this doesn’t just happen. You have to take action. “You can’t just sit and be anxious – you have to do the thing,” she said.
Freeman asked Skenazy about advice for parents with kids in NYC schools. “We all want kids who have good self-esteem and a sense of pride in what they can do, but there are parents who are really worried about sending a child across the street or 6 blocks to walk to school.” What do you say to scared parents? -Lenore Skenazy
Skenazy: I get it about street crossings! One thing that calms parents is to see that it can be okay. Our job isn’t to keep kids in a bubble, it’s to teach them to function outside the bubble. Practice together: tell them, look Right, look Left, then look again. Prepare them. Teach your kids about strangers, too; tell them they can talk to them, but CANNOT go off with them. You want your kids able to interact with the world, able to tell an adult if they feel they need help. Teach the 3 R’s:
RECOGNIZE: No one can touch you
RESIST: Run, kick, yell
REPORT: No one can make you keep a secret. Secrecy is the molester’s best friend.
Our job isn’t to keep kids in a bubble, it’s to teach them to function outside the bubble. -Lenore Skenazy
Teach kids those 3 R’s. And tell them, you can cross the street, just not when cars are coming at you. Give specific instructions!
Freeman: Do you have suggestions for parents whose kids are ready for independence at different times?
Skenazy: It’s “always been the case that one child is less ready than another.” Siblings are important, here, she said, as they can learn from each other. “It’s good to give some family responsibility to family members other than just parents.” She advised being flexible about what each child can do: If your child is so impulsive he’d run into the street, then have him play in the courtyard.
Fear feels like it’s instinctive, said Skenazy, but actually it’s been imposed on us. “We are breathing in fear,” she said, from local crime reports in a 24-hour news cycle and the internet, creating a pervasive sense of fear. The idea that 13 or 14 year old kids cannot safely do things that used to be done at age 7 or 8 is set in our culture now, but it wasn’t always that way. We know kids can manage things younger than we allow. We must recognize that “constant fear and bubble-wrapping is not good for parents or kids,” said Skenazy.
Freeman: If our kids are all bubble wrapped, what impact does that have on this generation?
Skenazy: You’re already seeing an impact: bosses are reporting issues with younger generation workers. And we’re also seeing an impact on college campuses with a huge rise in demand for mental health services.
To nurture independence, free play is crucial. -Lenore Skenazy
To nurture independence, free play is crucial. Skenazy described free play as comprised of several elements: 1) kids of different ages play together 2) creative play is with a variety of random items (not just manufactured toys) and, 3) no parents is around to tell kids what to do, or how to organize the games, or resolve spats. The drive for independence is strong, so “they’re able to put up with arguments,” added Skenazy. She describes observing a free play session: The kids had hula hoops, and at one point, linked the hula hoops to make a train. “Adults wouldn’t have thought of that. These kids were creative, happy.” They were figuring things out, using free play to direct games. “If you want kids comfortable in their own skin and with figuring out what to do on their own, give them free play,” advised Skenazy.
Freeman: What about parents who work hard to figure out after school schedules for their kids?
Skenazy: “After-school schedules are tyrannical!” Ask middle school kids about what they do after school; it’s all classes and organized activities. But kids actually love free time.
Skenazy posed a question: How do we give them time that they can fill on their own? She suggested parents ask their school to start a play club where kids can just be kids. It’s like a wildlife preserve – organized in a defined space, but within that space, freedom to act as if they’re in the wild.
Freeman: This involves “parents tolerating feelings that are uncomfortable and helping their kids tolerate uncomfortable feelings, without stepping in to make it all better.”
Skenazy: It’s “hard for me to stand by when my kids feel bad. What helps is not being with them all the time.” We never used to spend so much time with kids that we witnessed each time someone was mean, or they flubbed a ball. If we’re always there, it’s hard not to intervene. We have to give them unsupervised time and not see every little thing.
Skenazy put in a word about phone-tracking teens – she’s not in favor of it. It can “make parents very nervous if the phone battery dies or if it’s left on the bus.” And in terms of relationships, kids she spoke with said they wished they could prove to parents that “we can be good on our own, without being tracked.” Tracking can “eviscerate” the opportunity for “parents to believe in you.” You can’t make parental calm your only goal. You may have to endure “having your heart in your throat, and having your kid untracked.” They need to separate from you enough to get out of the bubble and learn to take care of themselves. One reason we have kids is so they’ll go on and continue when we don’t. The way we know they’ll be okay is to see them managing without us. It’s like when they finally learn to walk. We don’t then say, now go back to crawling. Parents change as kids change. We need to step outside the culture of fear.
One reason we have kids is so they’ll go on and continue when we don’t. The way we know they’ll be okay is to see them managing without us. It’s like when they finally learn to walk. We don’t then say, now go back to crawling. Parents change as kids change. We need to step outside the culture of fear. -Lenore Skenazy
Freeman observed, “I think you’re saying you want us to have more space for kids to make mistakes and then succeed, rather than feel we must keep them protected and contained.”
Skenazy agreed and added some advice: see if your school is interested in doing a Let Grow project or holding a play club after school (no devices, just free play). Use old ideas to help your kids find new independence.
Freeman: I hope this expands the bandwidth for those in our community to try something positive.
Skenazy agreed: “It’s action that breaks the cycle.” You need to take action.