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.
I have a distinct memory of being about nine years old and spending weeks saving up $11 of allowance money so I could buy a stuffed cat I liked at a nearby store. When I had the money, I walked to the store and bought it myself. Such pride I took in being able to do all that by myself! I remember walking with my friend to the 7/11 in her neighborhood and buying candy with our own money when we were maybe nine or 10 years old. I remember playing in our "canyon" at the end of my street, complete with secret hideout. I remember riding my bike all by myself up the hill at the top of our block and falling into a cactus, then sitting in the bathroom while my mom painstakingly picked spines out of my abdomen. I remember my mom sending my brother and me off with parts of the grocery list to find items and bring them back to her when we all went shopping together.
My kids will have no memories like those if I don't find a way for them to make them. What stymies me is this modern perception that the world is so much more dangerous than it used to be. It isn't. We just think it is because we get to read or see every single news report about every single family who has some horrible tragedy. Not that we'd want our kids or our families to be that news story, but the risks are actually quite low compared to, say, driving them to school every morning.
I think many of today's parents would be aghast at the idea of children wandering supermarket aisles alone, of riding their bikes to the park and playing without supervision, of walking to the corner store for candy or a stuffed animal they saved so carefully for, of walking home to a friend's house after school to play without making a prior arrangement with the friend's parents (which I and my friends did all the time!). And we didn't even have cell phones or GPS watches or any modern devices which make keeping track of each other so much easier!
Ms. Rosin's article points out that kids don't learn what to be afraid of if they aren't exposed to potentially scary situations. They don't learn the dangers of fire if they don't learn to use fire. They don't learn to negotiate heights if they don't climb. They don't learn how to scrape their knees and get up and keep going if they're coddled every time they fall down.
On top of that, they don't learn to solidify friendships and navigate social situations if they don't experiment with what works and what doesn't. They'll learn pretty quickly if hitting and yelling mean people won't play with them, while negotiation and kind words help them make friends. I'm not saying we should stay out of things completely: I like to supply the script when I can, or give them ideas of how to word things or a different tone they might try, but we don't need to pop in every time kids start to argue and end the fight for them.
The conclusion I came to, for myself, was that I want to be able to send my older kids out to play, maybe in a year or two when I feel they have the maturity to do so. I want to be able to say, "Hey, guys, why don't you walk up to the park for a bit," or "Why don't you go down to the convenience store and get some juice," or "Go knock on your friend's door and see if he's available to play." But I feel like I can't, because society has made it somehow wrong to not be within eye-sight of your children all the time. It's no longer acceptable for kids to go out and just play, to be kids, to navigate life without an adult peeking over their shoulders all the time. And I, too, suffer from this inability to just let them go out and do what comes to mind. I don't want them to get dirty or hurt. I don't want them to make a mess. I don't want them to dig holes or play in mud or get their hands and clothes covered in sidewalk chalk. And that's a failing on my part, too, for not wanting my kids to just go bekids.
I needed to find a balance. I decided I needed to find something for them that would give them an opportunity for growth while still keeping them safe. If they had something to do in the backyard, I thought, they might be more inclined to go out and do it. And I hit upon the idea of gardening. Now, I know very little about gardening, beyond, "You put a seed in some soil and water it." I thought, what if I buy them some pots and soil and seeds and give them the supplies and then get the heck out of their way. Let them experiment. Let them read the instructions on the seed packets, figure it out, and hopefully see the fruits of their labors. I figure they can learn a lot from planting seeds: following directions, watching nature do its thing, delayed gratification (an important lesson in today's world of instant fulfillment), seeing the hard work that goes into growing their food, the beauty of a flower as it blooms, the consequences of weather and wildlife on growing plants. They planted broccoli, green onions, watermelon, and carrots. I'm very, very interested to see what happens over the next few weeks and months. Will we end up with edible vegetables? Will the raccoons and gophers get them before we do? Will the kids enjoy the process and the result and want to try it again?
The idea of letting them "have at it" with the soil and pots and seeds appealed to me, but it was also difficult for me not to step in and do it for them. My oldest kept running in and out of the house, asking me how much a quarter-inch is, how much a half-inch is, so he'd know how deep to plant the seeds. I showed him how to estimate using his knuckles and fingers. I made a few suggestions, like finding a way to label which pot held which type of plant, figuring out where to put them in the yard so they'd get sunlight, remembering to water them. So far they've been enthusiastic, but it's only been a few days and we don't even see sprouts yet. It's hard to wait, even for me, a grown adult! They're doing very well so far, and they seem to understand the waiting game, which is very encouraging for me.
There will also be a lesson in it if the seeds don't grow, or if we end up with tiny carrots or golf-ball-sized watermelon. Failure is its own lesson, that sometimes we put in effort and the effort doesn't pay off. But, that doesn't mean the effort wasn't worthwhile; we just need to figure out where we went wrong and try again. Maybe they planted the seeds too deep in the soil. Maybe a raccoon knocked over the pot and the seeds were eaten. Maybe they gave them too much water, or not enough, or the weather just wasn't quite right for planting yet.
I strongly believe kids need independence. They need our trust. They need our belief in their own ability to problem-solve and face new challenges. I don't want to hover, but I don't want them to get hurt. It's a fine line to tread. Now that this gardening idea came to me and seems to have been successful, I'm trying to think of other ways to encourage them to get out and just be without putting them in danger or overstepping the bounds of what society today says is an acceptable level of independence.
In what ways do you encourage independence in your children? How do you keep them safe while still pushing them out of the nest a bit?
All photos copyright 2013 and 2014 by the author.
I blog about babies, breastfeeding, birth, and other parenting topics at http://jessicaonbabies.blogspot.com