In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.
The rest of the article is her talking to people who believe in the value of independence and play (a lot of the folks I like talking to, too), and realizing that unsupervised time is at least as valuable to kids as the super-saturated parent time she had been bathing them in. Not that the answer is to neglect our kids. (Well, maybe a little.) But anyway: giving them space is not neglect.
My favorite anecdote came from her chat with Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd who –
… tells a story about how, years ago, his 11-year-old daughter and several of her friends were planning an overnight campout with some younger neighborhood kids in his backyard. Before the big night, the parents of the younger kids began scouring his lawn for nails and shards of glass. “It just seemed like, Whoa, what is going on with this anxiety?” Weissbourd recalls. The problem wasn’t just the parental anxiety itself — it was how it was actually reshaping the experience for those kids: “I felt like these 10- and 11-year-old girls were so conscientious and these parents came and undermined them.”
Shards of glass they were looking for? What a perfect example of Worst-First thinking: Gee, it’s a suburban lawn. What terror could lurk there?
Great article, great stories, great revelation. And a great argument for letting our kids go to camp and spend some time without us. It’s not neglect, it’s Miracle Gro!
“Men never philosophize or tinker more freely than when they know that their speculation or tinkering leads to no weighty results. We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential. Hence the remarkable fact that many inventions had their birth as toys. In the Occident the first machines were mechanical toys, and such crucial instruments as the telescope and microscope were first conceived as playthings. Almost all civilizations display a singular ingenuity in toy making…
On the whole it seems to be true that the creative periods in history were buoyant and even frivolous. One thinks of the lightheartedness of Perclean Athens, the Renaissance, the Elizabethan Age, and the age of the Enlightenment. Mr. Nehru tells us that in India ‘during every period when her civilization bloomed, we find an intense joy in life and nature and a
pleasure in the art of living….’ ”
Hi. Lenore here again: It’s cool to think about play leading to “real” results, including joy and telescopes. So, as I suggest in my book, if you think your kids might be slightly over-scheduled, consider letting them drop an activity. And then, when the days grow warm and long and delicious, consider letting them go to camp, rather than summer school. Be prepared for lightheartedness (and maybe even breakthroughs) all around.
Readers — This is such a fantastic example of the way our society is going: Better not to experience ANYTHING than to be exposed to a single ounce of RISK. That’s something that camp parents realize just doesn’t make sense. Apparently, some cat parents realize it, too. This note comes to us from Julie Saxon, a university lecturer turned stay-at-mom of two in San Jose, CA. - L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to share this story that happened yesterday. My family has decided it’s time to adopt a pet, and we’d like a cat or kitten. My husband and I both grew up with cats in the household and we both had indoor/outdoor cats. I know there’s a lot of controversy about what’s best, but we both believe that it is better for the cat’s well-being to allowed outside sometimes. (Plus no litter box is awesome!)
So we set out to a local pet store yesterday that was holding an adoption fair. It was being put on by a local cat rescue that had very specific requirements of the homes in which the cats are to be placed, and one — written into a contract — is that the kitten will be kept indoors only. So, obviously, this wasn’t the rescue for us. But what was really interesting was the rhetoric the volunteer used in trying to convince us that cats are better as indoor only. It mirrored almost exactly what the media is telling us about children! Some of the things she told me:
* We all used to have outdoor cats when we were kids. Everyone did. But “things are different now.”
* The cats’ biggest problem is PREDATORS. We think it’s cars, but it’s not. It’s predators. She then began to speak about COYOTES, despite the fact that I live in the suburbs of a fairly big city and have never–NOT ONCE in the 16 years I’ve lived here–seen a coyote. Off-leash dogs, yes. Raccoons and possums, yes. Coyotes, not so much.
* Kittens should never be outside, and these in particular because they’ve never been outside. They don’t know how to be outside. (As if I’m going to toss the kitten in the front yard and let it fend for itself.)
* Indoor only cats live longer.
* Besides, they don’t know what they’re missing.
Whether you believe the same way as this volunteer regarding cats and kittens isn’t my point. But I was shocked at how closely animal rescue folks mimic helicopter parents or possibly vice versa. Have we reduced our children to the state of 4-month-old bottle-fed baby kittens? We have to keep them inside because they’ve never been outside and they would instantly become prey to wild predators? Training them isn’t even considered? Besides, depriving them of what comes naturally is fine because they will live longer and they don’t know any different anyway? Wow! – Julie
Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog, “Free-Range Kids” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement.
This Wall Street Journal piece of mine about sending kids off to the first day of school applies to sending kids off to camp as well. Our hand-wringing, expert-consulting culture has managed to make saying goodbye into a much bigger and more traumatic event than it has to be, thanks to all sorts of over-the-top advice on how to help our kids adjust.
Maybe they’ll adjust as soon as we leave?
When Separation Anxiety Goes Overboard
As yellow buses start heading back to school, you might notice some of them being trailed by a little line of cars. Predators? Pervs?
“I was talking to a bunch of parents and found out they all follow the bus for the first week or so,” one mother told me the other day. “I sat there thinking that I was a really bad mom because that thought had never even occurred to me!”
Although I am officially the World’s Worst Mom—I even have a TV show with that name—the thought had never occurred to me, either. But apparently it’s becoming par for the course as the line gradually blurs between shipping a child off to school and shipping a child off to ‘Nam.
“They can’t seem to let go,” says Natascha Santos, a school psychologist in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island—and she’s not talking about the kids. This could be because everywhere parents turn, the advice-o-sphere keeps harping on how incredibly hard they must work to ease their child’s incredibly harrowing adjustment to school.
“Practice how you will say goodbye,” urges one of the zillion or so websites featuring first-day-of-school tips.
“Goodbye!” Hmm. That just doesn’t seem very difficult to me. Maybe I’m heartless. In fact, I know I’m heartless, because I never bought a “Nesting Heart.” That’s a toy made by a company called Kimochis that is meant to “help ease the separation” when you drop your kid off at school.
How does it work? “Your child can take the inner Heart to school and you can keep the outer heart at home,” says a Kimochis news release. “Create a playful ritual for separating the hearts at drop-off and putting your hearts back together at pickup. Reassure your child (and yourself!) that the Nesting Heart keeps you connected even when you are apart.”
Oh yes, how incredibly reassuring it must be as junior watches you—playfully!—break your heart in two. But at least this psycho-toy lays it on the line: Mommy is incomplete whenever she’s not with you, and you are incomplete without mommy. Got that? Now go have a great first day!
But who am I kidding? If you have followed any of the other parenting tips out there, that first day of school won’t really be your child’s first, because that would be too overwhelming. “Change can be scary,” says the website Care.com. “When possible, help to familiarize your child with a new school and teachers. Drive the bus route, tour the building or classroom, locate lockers and cubbies.” Heck, why not just move in for a few weeks in July?
Another site suggests that you have your child practice eating a sack lunch to make sure there are no last-minute snags. Still another tells you to have a picnic on the school playground, lest the sheer unfamiliarity of this particular patch of asphalt throw your child for a loop. But my favorite advice-nugget says to ask your child’s teacher for photos of the kids who will be in the class. “Then cut out and laminate each picture so your child can learn names and become comfortable with each new friend while playing in the comfort of home.”
Ye gads. Day one arrives and your child has already bonded with imaginary versions of real people. “Oh, so you’re Olivia,” she greets a new playmate, adding under her breath, “I saw what you did with Gumby.”
So now, with your loving help, your child has practiced eating lunch, broken your heart and detached herself from reality. But can she detach from you?
Not yet; not so fast. First, “Give your child a picture of you to keep in her supply box,” says another parenting site. “Write love notes in her snack bags.”
Television producer Jane Charlton actually tried that one year, to cheer up her daughter. “The notes said things like ‘Don’t forget we love you!’ and ‘Have a good time!’ I was trying to be nice,” Ms. Charlton told me in a phone chat. Unfortunately, this brought little comfort to her daughter. “She said that every time, just as she started to feel happy and get involved with something, she’d find a note and it would knock her right back.” Pretty soon the girl was bawling.
What an almost-perfect mom and an absolutely perfect reminder: When it’s time for your kids to go, let them.