Frustration is good. Some of the worlds best inventions and discoveries come from frustrations, boredom and nothing to do. We don’t need to constantly entertain our children. We don’t need to guide their play or explain everything they see or are doing – in many ways it is a disservice to kids. It takes away from their own curiosity and learning experience. Kids learn through figuring things out, through trial and error, through exploring their interests. Not from someone telling them how to do things. Telling and teaching are two totally different things.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.Maimonides
Over the past fifty years “parenting” -especially in the United States- has shifted from a very hands off approach to a new kind of parent controlled direct explaining of the child to the child of their own life experiences from the parents point of view. For example, we observe a parent at the playground: “Ok Sally, go up the slide. Down this way, whee! Wasn’t that fun? Didn’t you love that! No Sally, not the see-saw, you go ow. Danger!” There seems to be a renewed focus on telling a child how to think and how to feel –in a sense– pre-filtering and pre-digesting the child’s reality. This spoon-feeding denies children the creative learning experience that is so important for growth and development.
Parents have the best intentions and yes, it is important to guide your child up the ladder to slide down the slide, but you show them once, step back and observe next or a couple times and then back away and let them enjoy their new found freedom and their autonomy. This builds a self-confidence that becomes a model throughout life. If you don’t show your children that you trust them in early on experiences, then you are setting them up for your approval and needing you to do so much more for them through-out life because they lack self-confidence and are afraid they will fail. They won’t be able to go to the food store or college without mom and dad. It’s true and it’s really happening. Just ask your friends who have college age students.
Author Janet Hibbs, calls this a mental health epidemic stating in her book, The Stressed Years of Their Lives, that what we are seeing is very smart kids, which some researchers call brainiacs, that suffer from “destructive perfectionism; they cannot tolerate not excelling at everything. And no one typically excels at everything. We all have times when we both make mistakes or fail. And kids don’t have as much practice at that today, because they’re protected from having those experiences, and also it freaks their parents out, which makes then the kids feel more responsible.”
This is a very new phenomenon over the past 30 or 40 years and it’s something we have the ability to change for the better of our children; for their self confidence and encouraging resilience for life. Ask some earlier generation parents what they did as a kid. If they were born in the USA during the 60’s and earlier they say things like: work on the farm, tend to the animals, cook meals for the family, take care of their siblings (and most grew up in a household where only one parent was working). They did things like mowing the lawn, took their siblings to the local lake or pool to swim or ice skate (unsupervised by adults). They probably played outside a lot more than you and your own children, they may have walked to school (by themselves or with their friends or siblings), they may have had a job at the young age of 12…they may have ridden public transit by themselves. My mom often tells me the story of how she would, at the ripe old age of 12, take the public transit bus from her suburb town in New Jersey into New York City to meet her dad at work for lunch. Most of you reading this can probably remember your own freedoms as a child. It was an independence that helped teach you great skills like problem-solving, self-reliance and confidence.
Today, parent’s are nervous to leave their kids unattended in their own backyards to play. What has happened to us over the past 50 years as a society, that we now have more anxiety and fear about raising our kids and we have more children filled with fear and anxiety. In her book”i Gen: Why Today’s Super Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, author Jean Twenge explains that most teens today aren’t even interested in getting their license to drive, a privilege that most youth would be counting down the days until. It used to be a symbol of true freedom. Yet, todays youth are too anxious to get behind the wheel and are waiting longer and longer to learn to drive and get their licenses. This generation of youth is the first to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. With social media and texting replacing other activities. They spend less time with their friends in person and are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
In the book Free Range Kids: Giving Children the Freedom we had without going nuts with worry, a fantastic read for any parent with kids of any age, the author, Lenore Skenazy, decides to let her 9 year old son ride the subway alone. She builds her son up to this, first riding with him for years and then riding with him from their home to the desired subway stop to be sure he knows what to do. When she decided to write a column about her child’s adventure and new found independence, she was chastised by the media and parent’s for being called careless and “the worst mom ever.” I do understand parents’ concern. It is so outside the box for us to feel comfortable with actions like this, but Skenazy knew her child. She knew his capabilities and maturity; she set safe guards to make sure he would be ok.
I have struggled with giving my children these same types of freedoms because we don’t live in a society that totally supports it. Instead, people attack the parent as being negligent. Children have fewer and fewer spaces to grow, to explore, to be trusted to their own activities. They need space to build confidence and competence. I firmly believe that it is safer to allow your child to walk around the block in your neighborhood or up the street to the playground with a friend than it is to leave them unsupervised in their rooms all day on an electronic device! Here they are alone and engaging in material and media that may be more of a threat to their well being. This isolated media diet can be more harmful than a walk around the block without mom and dad. Yet, today, many parents believe that their children are safer on the couch in their home, safer at scheduled organized activities, playdates or even in their bedrooms– than in their own backyard! How sad is that?
It isn’t easy to give your children the freedom and space they need to foster their wellbeing. Showing them you believe they are ready to do things on their own encourages confidence and responsibility. It is the best lesson for children. When you don’t allow them to cross the street on their own and tell them it is because you don’t trust the drivers of the cars, all your child hears is that you don’t trust them. Instead, find a common ground that makes you feel comfortable and also allows them some freedom while being safe. We live on a very busy street where cars drive over 40mph. I haven’t felt comfortable with the kids crossing the street by themselves, but when Ava turned 9, she kept asking me why I didn’t trust her to cross the street on her own? I realized that this was the message she was getting and that I wasn’t giving her the autonomy she needed as she was growing. So, we made an agreement that she could cross the road and bike down the quiet dead-end street across from us during the less busy hours of the day. I have always taught the kids from an early age to look both ways before they cross – so, our next step was for them to tell me when it was safe to cross and to cross me across the street (this is what I started doing with the kids from an early age, maybe 4 or 5). So, the natural thing to do, was to now let Ava cross on her own. I watched her from the window as she looked both ways, looked again, waited, waited more and then finally she and her bike were off! The smile on her face and confidence that shined through her is a picture I have in my mind that I will hold onto forever – it was a gift to give her that independence and show her that I trust her.
So, what are the next steps when we live in a society that reports parent’s to the police if their kids are in the yard alone or walking their dogs around the neighborhood by themselves. Well, we couldn’t stop there – what I did next was try and think of a space or place that the kids and I both knew well and felt safe in and could let them go to by themselves. We visit the local library often and we know all the librarians that work there, so naturally, I started to let Ava and Lily at the age of 6 and 4 go into the library to check-out books on their own while Leo and I waited in the car outside. I first checked with the librarians to make sure they were okay with this and told them why I wanted the girls to have this type of opportunity and they were very encouraging. Ava and Lily both felt so responsible to go into the library, pick out their books (we always agreed on a number before they went in) and walk back out to meet me at the car. When Leo turned 4, I let him join them. I told Ava and Lily that they were in charge and told Leo that this was a privilege that would be taken away if he didn’t behave the way I expected him to and listen to his sisters. He was very excited for this freedom and now I even send him in alone (age 6) to pick up books. So many parent’s say, “oh I could never let my child do that,” but have they ever let their child do anything? If this idea sounds so foreign to you, take baby steps and build both you and your child up to it. There are so many ways to give your child freedoms that will instill confidence for their lifetime.
When I go food shopping with the kids, I give them each a list of things they need to get for me. They sometimes do this together or individually. I never send them off in a large packed store, only in the local food store that we know and the grocers have gotten to know them over the years. Ava always orders our meat and cheese at the deli counter – long before she could see over it! I have sent Ava and Lily into our local mom and pop farm store to buy milk or ice cream, especially helpful when Vivi was very young and napping in the car. I have always told the kids that if an adult questions you as to where you parent is, you can let them know that I am right outside waiting for you and if they don’t approve then they can come and get me. I have also taught my children that it is ok to respond and say hello to “strangers,” but you never, ever go anywhere with a stranger. I want my children to know that if they were ever in trouble that they could go to someone they didn’t know for help and to not be afraid of strangers. I think there is a difference that is important for them to understand.
I also let my kids walk trails that we all have walked together and that they know well. My girls have walked the sidewalk to the library with friends on their own. My husband had many freedoms growing up and so did I, we both rode our bikes far from home and were left at a young age to babysit our younger siblings. My husband even had a paper route throughout his town and biked many busy roads. I don’t know entirely why or how we have shifted to this model of fear and over concern for allowing our children to have similar freedoms. Some argue that the world is less safe yet, all news reports and honest statistics point differently. Is it because most of us don’t even know our neighbors? My father-in-law said he couldn’t get down to the end of his street without saying hello to most of his neighbors and having at least one of them call his mom to let her know if he was up to no good. Maybe that’s something we don’t have today in our communities. My own father grew up in a small mountain village in Italy and at the age of 5 was in charge of the garden, planting and watering the plants that were grown in a plot of land a 1/4 mile from his home. He also had to collect the beans in the summer and bring them to the market to sell (all of this was unsupervised and to help his family survive).
It takes a Village to Raise a Child – an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment.African Proverb
I write about this topic because I see in my own children how they get along better and have less frustrations when I give them more responsibilities and trust. Finding balance isn’t easy for ourselves or our children. Yes, there are dangers out there in our world. Yes, there are things fully out of our control, but we have options – we can shelter our children out of fear and pass on that fear and anxiety to our children from a very early age OR you can choose to empower your child. To foster independence, self confidence and encourage unsupervised moments that allow them to grow, build skills that prepare them for the adventures of adult life. These are the tools that they will truly need to grow into a healthy well balanced individual that is able to handle life’s ups and downs with a resilience that can only be taught through life experience. Don’t be afraid – the rewards far out way the dangers.
We’re all in this together,
- I know right now this concept of giving your child more freedom and independence to grow outside your home might not work as most of us are social distancing – but like all change, it starts from within. Encouraging independence starts in the home. There are ways you can begin to create this change in yourself, in your daily routines with your child at home and in your relationship with your child. Have your child think of something they have never done before that they can do without your assistance. It’s a great assignment and encourages a little independence.
If you’re interested in doing any more reading or research on this topic check out these resources: