Raising Independent Children

The parents committed the heinous act of letting these kids, Rafi and Dvora, play in a park and walk home.

The parents committed the heinous act of letting these kids, Rafi and Dvora, play in a park and walk home.

In Silver Spring Maryland a couple were found to be negligent parents because they let their children, aged 10 and 6, play in a park alone and walk home.   In Silver Spring leaving anyone under 18 unsupervised is neglect.

OK, “under 18” is simply insane.   What happened to the idea of kids being able to go out and explore, have fun with friends, go on bike rides, hike in the woods…without some adult or supervisor tagging along?  But I’m not going to focus on the law now, but the culture – the idea that people would consider a couple negligent for letting their kids play in public without supervision.

People put such an emphasis on “being safe” that they go way overboard.  Whenever someone says to me “safety is our main concern” or “my job as a parent is to keep my kids safe” I feel like screaming.   No!  Safety is important but has to be balanced with factors such as learning, exploring and enjoying the world.  After all if safety were really the most important thing we’d ban cars – accidents kill nearly 40,000 people a year!

Recently I read an article by an American mom living in Germany who was surprised by the way Germans take care of their children.   As she put it:

All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

“Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.

Kids know how to handle themselves, and the odds of someone getting seriously hurt on a playground are certainly less than in a typical car ride.   She also noticed that they didn’t push young children to read, allowed kids run errands and be on their own.   What is “normal” parenting for them (and for my parents when I was a child) is now considered a radical form of “free range parenting” here.

In Silver Spring, Maryland, it’s illegal.

My children are 11 and 9, and my view of parenting is definitely along the “free range” side.    I trust them to go out and play and explore on their own, usually with neighborhood kids.  At the local mountain they each ski on their own.  If they’re bored in summer I tell them: “go take a bike ride, explore.”  Kids develop self-esteem, autonomy and confidence not by having everyone win a trophy, but by allowing kids to work as much out as possible on their own.

The same goes for “protecting” kids from videos, songs, movies and other things that are meant for adults.  Kids can handle more than we give them credit for, and as long as a parent can explain things they don’t understand and give guidance on behavior (e.g., explain why using swear words in public isn’t a good idea), they’ll be fine.  My nine year old has learned the lyrics of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” by heart (he sings along every time it comes on the radio) – and his questions about the meaning of the lyrics have been real teaching moments.

Yes, there are limits, and the limits change as they grow older.  And as kids explore the parents have to be cognizant of their children’s activites: ready to answer questions, provide guidance, listen and explain.  If I lived somewhere less safe, I’m sure I’d change how I construct those limits.  But overall, I don’t think we do children any favors by treating childhood as some “protected” time of their lives where they are shielded from the supposed dangers of the real world.   Too much of that and kids will not be able handle the real world, and will fear it!

Luckily rural Maine isn’t suburban Maryland, and if my kids go play at the park and walk home, no one will call the police and I certainly won’t be seen as negligent.  But the problem we’re creating is cultural – if we raise a generation that thinks it’s their birthright to be “protected” and “safe,” they’ll not really learn how to live.   When confronted with reality they’ll be more likely to escape, either into safe routines that give order to their lives but prevent true living, or something worse like drugs and alcohol.   That is as dangerous as anything parents are protecting them from!

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on March 5, 2015 - 08:26

    Excellent post about this issue Scott. Innocent people being penalized for a fear that has run amok among the “protect our children from all things at all cost” crowd.

  2. #2 by Girl for Animal Liberation on March 5, 2015 - 10:11

    I was born in 1967. There were no limits to how far I could roam. In fact, in my neighborhood, the parents used to say to us kids, “Get out of my hair! Go play in traffic.” I’m not kidding.

    When I think back to how many miles my friends and I would ride on our bikes, it’s no wonder we were all boney skinny little kids looking like we hadn’t had a meal in weeks.

    Those were some good times.

  3. #3 by Norbrook on March 6, 2015 - 06:29

    I’ve often said to friends that if our parents were held to the standards of today, we’d all be in foster care and our parents in jail. Not only were we not supervised at all times, we were encouraged to get outside and go do something.

  4. #4 by lee1978 on March 6, 2015 - 06:44

    This has been a topic my wife and I have discussed a lot recently. I want my kids to have the courage to strike out on their own in the world. I think one of the reasons they love camping so much is that there is a lot of “free range” that goes with camping for us. However I feel compelled to have a bit closer eye here at home. I know that our neighborhood (literally our neighborhood) has a number of people who were required to register as sex offenders. That scares the bejeezus out of me. So they range less far etc when we are here.

  5. #5 by JT on March 25, 2015 - 19:59

    Very well said. Our “kids” are turning 21 and 18 next month and are surprised at how many of their friends are chicken shits. Too much parenting taught them one thing perfectly. How to be afraid. Free range all the way. 🙂

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