13 June 2011

Letting Out the Leash

My kids are growing up in a world that is very different from the one I lived in, even just a few short decades ago.

Remember being sent up to the dairy to get your mum a loaf of bread?
Remember walking to school on your own?
Remember riding your bike up and down the street, exploring the empty lot down the road with the neighbours, building secret huts in the park... while mum was nowhere to be seen?
Would many of us let our kids do this these days?

Our kids are growing up in the era of cushioned playgrounds; trampolines with nets and pads, mummy-taxis to school and back... and endless scheduled activities.

Yesterday I watched a fascinating documentary called "The Lost Adventures of Childhood".
Fascinating because of some of the things child psychologists are now discovering, as a result of all our protectiveness and busyness.

Kids are more stressed out that they have ever been: 42% of kids in the U.S. are continually in a state of stress because they are forever rushing from one scheduled activity to another. That's scary.
Psychologists are now saying that kids need free time. Unscheduled unstructured playtime in order for their brains to develop fully. In order to switch on their creativity and imaginations.
And they need to be allowed to take risks.

Our kids are growing up scared of taking risks because we are protecting them and watching over them at every turn.

"Don't climb that, you might fall..."
"Don't jump off that you might hurt yourself..."

One woman said, "The problem is that our kids are going to have to go out into the world at some point. What do we think, that we just take the leash off all of a sudden and our kids will suddenly know how to cope in the great big world? No, we have to let the leash out a little bit at a time. Our job as parents is to prepare independent individuals. We have to let our kids test themselves and learn to make good choices by allowing an amount of risk, so they can learn from it."

Another woman said, "What we really need is a bit more benign neglect!"

Benign neglect. An odd phrase but I like it.
She means we need to let our kids have a bit more space. Watch over them less. Let them make mistakes, have falls, even break a limb or two. That's how they will learn for themselves to assess risks and make good choices. Learn to be responsible. And... more independent.

This all really struck a chord with me, because I've been wondering for a while if we're too over-protective these days. At seven I was catching the bus to school across three suburbs with my five year old sister, who I was responsible for. Just thinking about allowing my kids to do that sends a shiver down my spine.

There was a lady on the documentary, Lenore Skenazy, who had allowed her nine-year-old to ride the New York subway alone, as a test of his independence. She wrote about it in her column, and got a heap of flak for it. It's a scary thing to do - but I admire her for it.
Was she irresponsible... or is this something we actually need to do more of?

{Lenore's article here}

In small ways, I am trying to let the leash out for my kids.
Telling myself that the incidence of child kidnapping has actually not increased from when we were kids. Only the awareness and publicity. Did you know that? Its true.

We let Dash ride his bike 200 metres to the park at the end of our street.
We give him a time limit and tell him to be back by then. If he returns when we told him, he can go back for longer.
He is proving himself responsible and trustworthy.
It gives him a sense of freedom. Its a calculated risk - there are no major roads for him to cross. Its a pleasant quiet street with lots of families. No major drug-deals taking place under the swing-set in our neighbourhood.
He knows that if there are lots of bigger kids swearing and being silly, he has to come home.

Now that he has proved himself I let the leash out a little more.
He can bike around to his friend's house, four blocks away.
He phones me when he gets there.
He knows his road safety. We've all gone biking as a family.

We're letting the leash out.
He's eight and a half. We started letting it out slowly when he was seven.

Miss Fab though, she's a different story. She's nearly seven, but will the rules be different for a girl?
Currently she's allowed to go to the park with her big brother.
And it may stay that way for some time.
I doubt I would let her go completely alone; she'll probably always have to go with a freind, at least.

Benign neglect. The chance to come home from school most days, drop your bag on the floor and head across to the neighbours to play Lego.
The chance to have a friend over after school to play "teachers" or "beauty queens".
To jump on the unpadded, un-netted trampoline.
To walk home from school all the way, together, alone, with friends.
Watching that doco reassured me that my sometimes-lackadaisical parenting style is probably the right approach. My aversion to endless after-school activities, my lack of structure, even our old-fashioned trampoline with all its un-PC potential for stitches... apparently, all good for my kids!
We're letting the leash out bit by bit. Hands-off parenting, benign neglect, less is more.
And it seems we're on the right track. Phew.


What's your take on all this? Thoughts anyone?

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jacksta said...

YES! YES! YES! going through the same thoughts here with the kids going across the road to the park by themselves last week for the first time...Damn those child preditors for making us so freaked out!

posie blogs Jennie McClelland said...

Oh yes, there are certainly times when letting them have calculated freedom is fine. I think it depends on the 'hood you're living in, take them when you walk the dog so you have a clue if there are any crazy dogs, neighbours, dangerous corners for bikes etc, talk to them, let them go. I mean, most schools don't have fences & what are you going to do, hide in the bushes when your kindergarten child has recess & lunch?? No, faith in teachers, trust they'll follow the rules & build up respect for them!! The time limit & trust option you created is brilliant. As my youngest is 7 we're almost over all these issues, but have to say when my eldest was 7 & 4th child was 2, we lived in a cul-de-sac on an Air Force base & everyone knew everyone, they were free to play in the street BUT there was a dodgy family on the corner, so they had their eyes open!! Teaches them also a bit of instinct, as we can't hold their hands on a date when they're 18, they need to know if a situation, boyfriend, driver is not 'right' & make a good decision. Love Posie
PS i think it's like 96% of kindnappings are by someone you know, like an estranged family member!!

Anonymous said...

It's a tough one, isn't it. I too remember the days of heading off on my own adventures, walking to school all on my lonesome, etc etc. And often I can be found hovering behind windows as Bean leans over the front fence to talk to strangers walking down the street. He's in his own yard and still I worry. I think part of letting go is letting go of our own fears, which is what makes it so difficult. Over here, Bean has the option of riding the bus to and from preschool - by himself. He LOVES it. I was worried the first few times, and called the preschool to make sure he got there okay. Now I don't bother. Riding the bus is a highlight of preschool days. He's still only 3, one day he'll want to ride his bike to the skate park or go to the shops, and I'll have to let go of my fears of paedophiles/car accidents etc etc. But I will let him, because as you say, it's good for kids to step out on their own. Healthy even. If only it wasn't so nerve wracking! :)

Catching the Magic said...

Brilliant post. My daughter has been walking to and from school independently since turning 7. I let them climb high even though my heart is in my mouth. I let them free wheel down grassy hills and cringe at the thought of a heap at the bottom, it's great to see their sense of pride as they are given independence - but with it understand trust and respect.

I also value as much free 'down time' as I can give them. We try to have no more than 2 scheduled hobbies a week. They so need the free time to be creative and imaginative.

Great post!

Dee said...

This is a very valuable post Simoney! I agree wholeheartedly with your philosophy. Tough decisions to make but your kids will be thanking you for them in years to come. I have the best memories of roaming up the road to the school park as a kid, by myself or with my brothers. I think it's actually an approach you can take with the little ones as well (in a different way of course). Something I have been thinking about a lot recently too, interestingly. Thanks for sharing! :) x

Widge said...

I was cringing when I started reading this BECAUSE I LET my kids do those things you have written here eeek...they are older than yours though, and my 6 year old walks to school with my almost 12 year old. I fully agree kids are wrapped in too much over protection these days, and I imagine if I were living in a main city that I would not be so lenient in some of these areas with them.
Parents inc talk about this as a V and how as are children get older that v of love widens for more freedom in there part. Very interesting.

PaisleyJade said...

Excellent post Simoney - excellent! Totally agree with you here... we have the unpadded trampoline, try to shy away from too many activities for our kids after school and are looking for ways to help them be more independant in the big wide world. I grew up walking a long way to and from school each day, playing in the bush with my brother and his friends and often riding my bike up to the shops by myself. Awesome memories!!

Alison said...

Fab post, Simone. I think about this issue all the time. Although my son is only a toddler, I am already looking ahead as to how we should parent him when he's of the age when he will want to bike to his friend's house, or go to the park with them etc. 'Benign neglect' - sounds like something to think about. Thank you for sharing!

Meghan Maloney Photography said...

Such a great topic for discussion - I think we all WANT to give our kids more freedom but when push comes to shove our own insecurities and fears are what stop us.

Totally think we should allow them as much freedom and independence as the circumstances allow - like this is always gonna be more if you live in the country or in a quiet suburb with no horrible major intersections they'd meet on their daily excursions.

And SO agree on the 'too-many' activity front - so far we've only done one thing at a time, i.e. was football last term and now swimming this term and I SO don't think kids should be thrust into it at an early age - I know some parents with kids in daycare who then do at least 2 scheduled activities on the weekends as well. Where is the fun, free downtime in that to just simply 'BE' together?!

Anyway, rant over, I am SO in agreement with all you said!

Renee said...

Wow - this is so what I am all about! I grew up on a farm, I had a quad bike at 8 and I'd disappear on my own with the dog for a whole day and my family wouldn't have blinked an eyelid! We used to play in the creek eeling on our own, making rafts, getting stuck in thigh high mud, we made home-made go carts and roared down the race (true we didn't have much skin left on our knees - but I'm still alive!), and spent days collecting frogs from the pond. It was the best!

And if you speak to my husbands mother - it's a wonder he's even alive the things he got up to! He grew up in South Africa, the youngest of 4 boys, on a farm, and the mischief they got into makes me get the heeby jeebies. But again - he's still alive!

I have friends who have 2 and 3 year olds doing a different 'activity' every day - dancing, music, playgroup, swimming etc etc - and I often feel guilty wondering if I'm neglecting my kids by not buying into all of this? Our 3 year old has been doing ballet for a term (well - attempting to do ballet - she's still all very excited before we go and then ignores the teacher and lies on the floor when we get there). And my 1 year old just tags along everywhere we go - no set activities for her! I do lots of things with them, messy time, arts n crafts, adventures to places - but they both can play quite effectively on their own too (something I've noticed the kids who do all the activities aren't so good at).

I'd love to see that documentary - sounds fascinating!

Jen said...

sounds like an interesting program that made you think :)

interesting feedback too :)

The Woven Moments said...

I need to get better at benign neglect. I want my children to LOVE being independent, not FEAR it.

But it's so, so hard.

Beautifully written. Thank you.

Gail said...

Yes, a great post Simone.
I agree with a lot and then have my own $25 worth to add to. The truth of the matter is that our world is vastly different to the one we grew up in. And some of the hold back from parents (myself included) is over protectiveness and some of it is "learning from history". Tree climbing - definitely a must do! For sure - just time your broken bones kids! (I can't be bothered with the inconvienience!) Haha. I often hold my heart in my mouth, but yes climbing is about risk taking but also develops spatial awareness in children which benefits them in math work too!

Bike riding etc love the trust building thing too and when the time is right (and ours can ride confidently, which they totally can't we will lengthen the leash too). To me a lot of that comes down to understanding your child's personality too. What might work for Miss O is not going to work for the boy. He is more unpredictable at this stage of it than she ever was! Good Judgement from parents as to when they show signs of being ready to be trusted, then cool-as go for it!

It's such a massive issue - but parents need to apply a bit of wisdom. Just because my dad let my sister and I walk to school as a 7 and 5 year old, crossing a couple of major roads and go to the park on our own, doesn't necessarily mean that it was the right thing to do back then either. And while on the walking school bus as a parent/teacher watching some of the older boys riding their way to school independently - I have often wondered if their parents would still let them if they actually saw what they were doing out there (we walk on a fairly main Auckland arterial road)... yes give them the responsibility, but be responsible and check in with them more than once in a while.

OSH has definitely made things more PC on a ridiculous level in NZ playgrounds - but my guess it's that they've based it on research and have gone to extremes - there will always be people complaining and not happy either way, so go all the way. Funny though, from a teachers perspective, parents are always happy until it's their child who has fallen off the climbing wall and broken a limb. Then it's all about "why do we have a climbing wall at all"!

My kids have two activities a week - swimming (which I think in NZ should be regulartory) and one other seasonal thing. It's more than enough. And as much as playdates are great, I don't necessarily think they need more than one a week, one a weekend either. That is hard when they are social - but I find my kids get TIRED - and need time to recover from school and refreshed again FOR school(where they get to play with mates anyway) and time to be a family. There are weeks where I feel like such a meanie saying no to playdates but my I believe that I know my kids limits better than anyone else - and while they are young, then I have most say in the issue. (And when I'm dealing with floods of tears at 6:05pm just after a weekday playdate because someone looked at their school bag funny, then I put on my told-you-so face).

Yep, that's me - more like $49.50 worth.xx

Simoney said...

Wow, Gail that really was $49.50 worth!! LOL.
I hear ya, loud and clear.
Its something each of us have to find a balance for with our own kids and their personalities.
Definitely not something I have nailed down perfect either.
I am usually beating up on myself for not being MORE organised/structured so it was nice to hear that all the free play they get is actually beneficial to them.

Its nice for us to have neighbours over the fence and around the corner for "spontaneous play"; I love where we live and am grateful that there are no major roads on the way to their freinds houses. Mid you, Miss fab won't be biking on her own to Ruby's any time soon. Trust is EARNT!

We have to say no to Dash in order to keep him from being overstimulated; he loses it if he has too much people contact; he needs that down time and we pay for it if he doesn't get it.
So, yep, its all just food for thought!

cmorgenstern said...

When I read your post and the comments it makes me feel as if our children grow up differently here in Germany at least in the part were we live. I find they have a lot more independence than yours do at an earlier stage. Our public transport specially in the area I live is not very good. The children walk to kindergarden when it is in the same village and ride their bikes to school from school age (6/7). Taking the public bus is necessary since there are no specified school buses. Our school grounds have no fences around them. Where we live children grow up playing together in groups of different ages so the older ones take care of the younger ones (often not voluntarily) and teach them too (not very tenderly sometimes though).Yes there are accidents and crimes but the children grow up knowing about them and being responsible through this knowledge (we all hope). Finding the balance of teaching them to be aware of dangers and not growing up too scared to even go out and try is the most difficult thing to do I find. Apart from letting go as a mother which is even harder (in my case at least).
Greetings from Germany

Gail said...

Holy crap, I've only just gone back to re-read my comment - ummmm $205 worth there. sorry about that soap box.

Heidi said...

Great post. My oldest is almost 3 so we aren't quite there yet.
When I was a kid I was all over the place! Starting at about 9 or 10 I don't think my mother knew where I was most of the time.

There is a great book kind of along the same lines. It's called 'Last Child in the Woods'. It's about how today's kids are to "plugged in" and need to spend more time exploring and playing outside.

Carey Morris said...

If only my 8 year old would want to be more independant, he is too scared to go anywhere by himself.

He does walk to school though, but I can see the school from my house LOL.
It does my husband's head in that the kids are so nervous about everything and he tries hard to get them out taking risks. Bush walks with scary swing bridges and a bit of four wheel driving on the way home.
We both came from childhoods with lots of freedom but like others have said its a different world today and we need to take measured risks with our kids.
Great post and thought provoking.

Jamie Swan said...

Luv, luv, luv this! I have lots of negligent moments. Albeit, my son is only 2.5 years old, BUT we live on 500 acres surrounded by paddocks and he now makes his way up the race to the old milking shed, over fences to walk the paddocks, up the hill to see the view...I can only imagine what he'll be doing at 5! It's so important that my children sample the world on their own to learn consequences, independence, and good old common sense. It seems to be on the out these days, common sense, and I love the fact my husband and I got it through a lot of independent play, now I hope to encourage it in our children. FreeRangeKids has a great thread going after the subway incident. Fabulous discussions happening!

unsolicitedious said...

Fantastic post & awesome food for thought. I agree with it in principle, but agree with Gail & others who suggest taking measured risks - we need to be careful in terms of what balance we strike as the reality is, while there are many things that we may have done & survived doing as kids, it doesn't mean we should have done them or allow our kids to do them. E.g at 14 I was biking 10km most days along desolate country roads to get to my horse then went horse riding for a couple of hours - all unsupervised. If we lived in the sticks I would probably let Magpie do the same (once I was certain she could handle herself), but would maybe bike up & meet her on part of the ride/ensure she called etc. However, I would never for example, let her go to the mall on her own, even with friends - its a 14km bus ride away & I think the sexual assault on the young girl in Auckland is a good reason to be cautious with our girls.

And while I have no problems with tree climbing & all the 'risky' play stuff, I did make sure our trampoline had mats (nets seem cotton wool to me).

The reality is there are loads of things we did as kids that we shouldn't have been allowed to do, where our parents put far to much responsibility on some of us, instead of just allowing us to enjoy our childhood. And there are now far too many examples of a cushioned, moddly coddled cotton wool life scheduled down to the last second. It seems we have gone from one extreme to the other - the strap and/or smacking was often common for many of us growing up yet these days some parents seem too frightened to even yell at their kids to just shut the heck up & do as they're told!

So while we allow Magpie to do things that we had the freedom to do at her age, there are some things we don't. We will not allow Magpie to have overnight stays with friends until she is at least 8 (she's nearly 6) & further, only with people who I know & trust completely in terms of their parenting over things like what kind of movies they allow their kids to watch, how the siblings interact & who comes & goes in the house.

And it's hard because the pleading & begging for overnight play-dates have already started - I'm happy to have kids here, but no way am I ready to let Magpie stay elsewhere.

My caution comes from the fact that in NZ we have a shocking abuse rate: 1 in 4 girls have most likely been sexually violated by the time they are 16 (on average) & this often occurs in nice white middle class families where the perpetrator is known to the family.

So let your kids of the leash by all means, but strike a balance that you know in your heart to be right for you & which takes into account the realities of life.

Re activities - totally agree. We have 2 things a term & only have play-dates with school mates in the school holidays - Magpie only just manages to walk home (with me) without collapsing from exhaustion so after school is time for telly, reading & a bit of bike riding or trampolining.

That's my 100 bucks worth anyway! :)

Amy said...

I'm all for equipping them to make safe mistakes. I will never forget Gareth Morgan saying once (trademe founder's father) on tv that it would be better to let your child climb a tree and fall and break an arm, than stop them from climbing. The rationale behind this is that it is easier to heal a broken bone than it is to heal a stunted sense of courage, vision and personal achievement. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, never allowing them to be in a position that puts them at high risk ie daughters going for sleepovers without parents knowing the others parents/big brother etc. But as far as adventure goes.... wahoo. All the way baby. We regularly let ours do hard things. Sometimes they order the family's meal for us at a restaurant. Or do the shopping with cash while we wait outside keeping half an eye on them. Independence and knowing how to negotiate their way out of trouble is a life lesson that I really hope we can gift to our kids.

unsolicitedious said...

@ Amy - totally agree re GM quote. SO very true. Put child locks on poison cupboards & fences around swimming pools etc but don't stop the tree climbing, jungle gyms, flying fox & monkey bars all things that encourage the mind to grow. And bring back bullrush - such a fabulous game that I have fond memories of!

And I love the shopping tip too. Our Magpie knows what our main basic food items are & is starting to connect money & maths so I have thought about getting her more hands on in our smaller local supermarket. Brilliant idea, love it!

Gail said...


Lyns said...

I agree. Scary at times, but agree. xx

Cat said...

YES YES YES - we have started letting Philosopher (5.5 yrs) ride his bike to the bottom of the road (cul de sac) to play in the park with his sister (3 yrs) *yikes* even for 5 minutes .. .... the Mums in the street all know us .. .. .. it feels good to allow them some freedom.
I totally agree with you re calculated risks.

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