Raising Independent Kids: Treading the Line Between Safety and Self-Sufficiency

A recent article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin really got me thinking. In it, she talks about how children in generations past (my childhood, my parents' childhood) spent a lot more time out and about alone. I'm sure we all have stories about how we used to go out riding our bikes for hours in the afternoons, went exploring in local woods and open spaces, had secret lairs with our friends, walked ourselves to and from school, and so on. I know I did, and I know you did, if you're my age or older. (I'm 32.) Ms. Rosin mentions that children these days spend considerably more time with their parents than in years past. She discusses the attitude that if we do not take our kids to activities, schedule time with them and for them, hover over them protectively at playgrounds, and police their interactions with peers, then we are not "parenting." It has become a parent's job to direct every step of our children's paths, watch every move they make, jump in to stop fights, and solve their disagreements as well as to provide and be entertainment.

My instinct as a parent has been opposite to this modern standard of parenting. I generally leave my kids to end their own arguments, assuming no one is getting hurt or breaking any house rules. I tell them to go play. I keep an eye out but don't interfere when they're playing with friends, unless, again, someone is getting hurt or they are breaking rules. I don't allow my kids to seriously endanger themselves, but I also don't follow them around paving the way for them and smoothing bumps.

Furthermore, I get bored sitting on the floor and playing with trains for an hour. I don't want to do toddler puzzles over and over again. I detest Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. I like to read them a book or two, but not the same book six times in a row. I don't craft, and I don't do crafts. I don't do Playdoh and paints. They have washable markers, scrap paper, and the occasional coloring book. They have TV and tablets where they watch kids' shows and play Minecraft, puzzles, and toddler games (according to age and interest). They have books and Lego and blocks and train tracks and puzzles and card games and electronics kits and more cars and trucks than I can count. And they find things to do.

I enjoy spending time with my kids. I enjoy watching them play and seeing them come up with new ideas. I like being nearby while they explore their world, but I don't feel the need to direct them in their explorations. I assist, but I won't do it all for them. I'll join them to help build a train track, teach them the rules to a new game, draw a picture, help them find something interesting to play on their tablets, or introduce them to a new movie I think they'll like. I talk to them, answer knowledge questions and ethics questions as they come up. I explain concepts and define words. I tell them about my own memories of childhood, give them new things to think about, and push them a little when they ask a question I think they can answer for themselves, like spelling a phonetic word or solving an addition problem.

But I get stuck when it comes to outdoor play. I feel like I should be able to send them outside with their scooters and bikes and say "come back in time for dinner" like my parents did with me, and their parents with them. I have this idea that, left to their own devices, they'd come up with all sorts of wild fantasies in the hiking trails behind our house. I'd love to be able to send my oldest (when he's a bit older than now) to walk to the coffee shop or the mini-mart in our neighborhood to pick up a snack or some dinner ingredient I need. There's pride and growth in knowing your way around, in discovering shortcuts, in getting lost and finding your way back, in having private time with a friend to walk and talk without adult interruption, to learn to read maps and street signs and negotiate crosswalks, to explore your physical limits and push your boundaries. Kids need those challenges as much as the need the challenge of learning to play the piano or solve math problems.


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