I was excited to see Lenore Skenazy in the Costco Connection magazine this month answering the question, "Is hands-off parenting a good thing?" Author of Free Range Kids, she has offered an alternative to the helicopter parenting style that has become the norm in America. "Free range" is how most Americans grew up before the advent of personal computers, cell phones and other technological gadgets. If you remember being tossed out the door with a "Go play!" from your mother, then you qualify as free range. If you spent the whole day roaming around the neighborhood, finding kids to play with and had no schedule or time table other than the direction to "be home by dinner," then you were free range. When I was growing up in the 1960's & 70's, it was just called "childhood."
So what happened? How did we become so obsessed with safety and stranger danger? Dr. Bruce Lipton has suggested that one cause was the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. The news, which is mostly negative and scary, puts a person on alert. It's stressful. As Bruce says, "Our bodies were not designed to be on constant alert." The result is that we are fearful and in a state of protection. Being in a state of fear is not a time for fun, it's a time for survival. In addition, now we get to see one incident of a horrible crime in another part of the country or world (kidnapping-rape-murder) over and over and over again. When really, on a planet with 7 billion people, most of us had a good day. But that's not news.
As a result of this safety obsession, parents have adopted what Lenore calls "worst first" thinking. You immediately imagine the worst-case scenario and then think that it will happen. Parents have confused "could happen" with "will happen." For example, I was watching a home improvement show. The four year old son went into the front yard and climbed a tree. The horror! The mother freaked out and rescued him. "What are you doing? Get down from there, you're going to get hurt." It was a smallish tree; he was three feet off the ground. But he could fall and break something. You know what my mother would have said? Nothing. In fact I used to climb an avocado tree in our back yard all the time. It was awesome. I survived.
In the aforementioned Costco magazine, there was a differing opinion from psychotherapist Karen Ruskin in which she states, "There is no proof that free-range wandering has any benefit."
But there is.
Read Dr. Stuart Brown's research in Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, And Invigorates the Soul. Or read developmental psychologist, Peter Gray's Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Here's his TED talk:
Childhood has changed in many ways. One is that it's rare to see children outside, just playing. I know there are kids in the neighborhood; I see the stick families on the back of the mini-vans. In my old neighborhood, there was a community baseball diamond. I never saw kids playing there. It stood empty. What a luxury it would have been to have a real baseball diamond as a kid! Other adults would remark that when they were growing up, it wouldn't haven't been empty until bed time. But there it was, on a perfect summer day, wasted.
Instead of pick-up games and free play, children now have scheduled sports. But as Peter Gray points out, those don't count--unless a child enjoys it. Even then, these are organized and supervised by adults who tell children what to do and how to do it. There's no room for making up different rules, choosing teams, or playing a different game. And why would these be important? Here are some of the benefits of free play:
- Children learn to negotiate and work things out. They don't rely on an adult telling them what to do. "It's our game. We get to decide the rules."
- They practice making decisions. "Should we build a fort or play a game? Who gets to play the captain?"
- They solve problems. I was watching my nieces play dress-up and they were all pretending to go to the "Grand Ball" on Saturday night. One of them pointed out, "Hey, it's Friday. We'll have to wait." The other one said, "No, we need to sleep and then it will be Saturday." Immediately they all dropped down on the floor and pretended to sleep for a few seconds, complete with snoring noises. Then they all popped up and magically it was Saturday.
- Creativity and imagination. Here's my niece going down the stairs. Well, how do you do it? As my brother is fond of saying, "Safety third!"
- Children learn they are not the center of the universe. No matter how special you are in your family, and what kind of special treatment you get, you are going to get treated as just another kid. And if you're too bratty, no one will want to play with you!
- Self-control. If a child is too angry or mean, the other players can choose to stop playing the game. Or not to play with that kid. In order to continue the game, children have to learn to get along.
- Children learn to take criticism. And they get called names. Their feelings get hurt and sometimes they hurt other kids' feelings. If it gets too unpleasant, they stop playing. They also learn to apologize.
- They fall and they get back up. This sometimes hurts but they get better. But it also teaches them that perhaps it's not a good idea to push other children.
- Empathy; being kind keeps the game going and makes other kids want to play with you.
- Challenges and testing limits. "Can I reach that next branch? Can I throw the ball past that tree? Can I jump rope 100 times?" Here's a baby climbing up a rock wall.
- They learn they have choices; who to play with, what game, for how long, where, etc.
- It's fun and things that are fun release the opposite of stress hormones, which promote health, growth, and general well-being. Here's my 2 YO nephew jumping off a fridge.
Side Bar Rant on American Schools
Unfortunately, not only have parents limited free play, but schools have too. Many school districts have abolished recess as a "waste of time." In my own district, recess goes away after 5th grade. Add the current obsession with testing and you have a recipe for turning children into little office drones. Not only that, but testing requires one right answer, not multiple possibilities. It kills creativity and critical thinking skills and requires only memorization. In addition, the "zero tolerance" policies of schools has also removed the need for critical thinking skills and discernment. In Pennsylvania, a 10 YO boy was suspended for using an imaginary bow and arrow. Really?
This lack of discernment isn't relegated to elementary schools, it goes to the university level. Peter Shankman travels around the world, speaking about social media and customer service. Author of four books, he was an adjunct professor at NYU. Was. Some of his students asked if he would put the word out to his network inquiring about possible internships. In his own intern days of five different internships, he along with his fellow interns were affectionately called "slave labor." When he put out his post, he said something about slave labor which was offensive to some people. You can read the whole story on Peter's blog. It boils down to this: it was joke. Anyone doing an internship knows what it's like; free labor and grunt work. Yeah, I said it. Grunt work. Hope I'm not offending any grunts out there. Perhaps this is why Jerry Seinfeld won't perform at colleges anymore.
My concern for helicoptered children is who they become as adults. We're already seeing the first generations in college, now. For some parents, the solution is to move to college with their children.
When I saw Peter Gray speak, he put it very succinctly. Students are overwhelmed with seemingly normal situations. A young woman scheduled an emergency meeting with the school counselor because her room mate called her a "bitch." Two young men, living in off-campus housing, called 911 because they had a mouse in the kitchen. These kids were unprepared for dealing with challenges in their physical environment, or their social one. Kids who have been allowed to have free play would have been able to handle the situations without calling in an adult to mediate.
By supervising all their time, parents are essentially giving a message of "you're incapable." Incapable of making decisions, figuring things out, learning new things. Instead, of teaching that the world is dangerous, how about teaching discernment? If you really want to learn about how to protect yourself from dangerous situations, read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Joe Navarro is another good resource for learning to read people and discern a potentially dangerous situation.
Free range parenting isn't about chucking your kid out into the world willy-nilly, unprepared. It's about trusting your child and giving them opportunities to explore. Bruce Lipton tells a story about encountering a snake in the back yard. One mother is a biologist and teaches her child about snakes. The other mother freaks out. Are snakes interesting or scary? Both, depending on your beliefs. "But what if it's POISONOUS?!" Another opportunity to discern between safe and non-safe. Is the world scary or fun? Both. Depending on how you've been conditioned. I choose fun.
Bonus: The Daily Show sums up the free-range debate brilliantly.