As parents, we all want to raise kids who are resourceful, resilient and ready to succeed at school and beyond. But lately, thanks to both traditional and social media that keeps coming up with new ways to frighten parents, we’re holding our kids closer than ever. Over-parenting has reached the crisis level.
“Be careful!” “Not so high!” “Don’t touch anything!” “Stay just where I can see you!”
Concerned parents often urge safety when children are at play, but recent research suggests this may be over-protective and that kids need more opportunities for “risky play” outdoors.
Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, says:
“Risky play is thrilling and exciting play where children test their boundaries and flirt with uncertainty. They climb trees, build forts, roam the neighbourhood with friends or play capture the flag. Research shows such play is associated with increased physical activity, social skills, risk management skills, resilience and self-confidence. These findings make intuitive sense when you watch children at play.”
Risky play is almost unheard of in the U.S. Our children are encouraged to read and watch movies about Pippi Longstocking, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jem and Scout Finch, the kids in To Kill A Mockingbird, but far be it from most American parents to let their children emulate these characters.
Think about it: we are even sending mixed messages to pre-schoolers. Have you ever seen a grownup hovering over Dora the Explorer or her cousin? His cartoon is called Go, Diego, Go! When was the last time you said that to your child? “Go, Avi, go!” Um, never.
Dr. Brussoni says: “Growing up in a risk-averse society, such as we currently have, means children are not able to practice risk-assessment which enables them to match their skills with the demands of the environment. As a result, many children have become very timid and are reluctant to take risks. At the opposite extreme, many have difficulty reading the situations they face and take foolhardy risks, repeatedly landing in trouble.”
How can we raise nimble problem-solvers if an adult is always right there, solving their problems first? We can’t. We have to let grow.
That’s the new catch-phrase from author Lenore Skenazy, whose bestseller Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Kids Without Going Nuts With Worry, hit a cultural nerve 10 years ago and started the anti-helicopter parenting movement.
Skenazy says what letting grow looks like varies for different children, “depending on their developmental stage, competencies and personal preferences.” For example, play where there is a chance of getting lost is common at all ages: A preschooler hiding in bushes feels like he’s a jungle explorer. His parents or teachers supervise while giving him the feeling of independence.For older children , this kind of play can involve exploring their neighborhood with friends. Parents can help prepare them by gradually building the skills needed to navigate traffic safely.
If your responsible, reasonably mature middle-schooler feels ready to walk to a friend’s house on her own, the experts say to let her try! If a few kids want to plan a weekend bike ride in the park, or they want to play a pick-up basketball game, encourage them to figure out how to assemble everyone and what they need to bring.
Don’t take this as your opportunity to get involved. Step back. As Skenazy says: let grow! Those are the kids who will be confident enough to initiate study sessions , run for student government, and apply for part-time jobs.
Last year, Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt , the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, co-authored an article for Reason Magazine called “The Fragile Generation” that generated more than two million views.
Together with Boston College professor Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: WhyUnleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life , Skenazy and Haidt co-founded Let Grow, a think tank that
creates school-based programs and provides parent education to foster childhood freedom.
According to FBI and police statistics, crime is down to pre-1970 levels and our country has never been safer for kids. Still , in a 2016 Pew survey, only 30 percent of parents said children under 13 should be allowed to play unsupervised in a public park. While parents are skeptical
and remain scared in the face of the reality that their kids are capable and the world is not as dangerous as social media would have them believe, schools are stepping in to help.
The Let Grow Project has been adopted at public and private schools around the U.S. as
a way to bridge children’s desires and readiness for some freedom with parents’ willingness to let them have it.
For more information about how your school can participate in The Let Grow Project – or to invite Lenore Skenazy to speak in Dallas – visit www.letgrow.org.