Friday, September 18, 2009

HOW to raise a Free-Range Kid

Last Sunday The New York Times explored the question "Why Can't She Walk to School?" looking at the modern trends that have resulted in many kids leading highly-supervised, sheltered lives. The article tells one story about a well-meaning neighbor who drove a 7-year-old girl home from a playdate only five houses down the block, on the same side of the street. We are starting to talk about these issues and how we might change, thanks in large part to the Free-Range Kids movement started by writer Lenore Skenazy. I appreciate Lenore's work and the feeling that it's time to turn things around, empowering our children to explore the world. After all, that is the work of growing up, isn't it?

However, there is an incredibly important piece to this puzzle that calls for more attention: the information and skills that parents and kids need to develop, in order to let kids experience more freedom.

I asked my mentor, Kidpower International Executive Director Irene van der Zande, to co-author a response to the NY Times piece with me. Kidpower has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and has provided personal safety training to over a million people worldwide. I am very proud to play my part in bringing Kidpower training to my home state of North Carolina. Here are our thoughts about the vital skills component needed to raise a Free-Range Kid:

How to Raise a Free-Range Kid

The Free-Range Kids movement is making an impact, leading parents to realize that most important question they should be asking is not whether or not to allow their children to walk to school, but how to prepare their children to do so safely and successfully.

If we lock our children up too tightly in a misguided attempt to protect them, they lose out on the chance to develop the capabilities they need to grow into competent, independent young adults. However, just letting children go on their own in the hopes that they will know how to protect themselves from potential dangers puts them at unnecessary risk.

The reason that parents feel so unsafe that they are driving children home from play dates down the block is because they need better information about how to teach their kids to navigate the world independently. This is why Kidpower International has worked tirelessly for twenty years to teach personal safety skills to over one million people worldwide. Our approach is skills-based, success-based, and never uses fear as a motivation. Instead, we practice role-playing the safest choices in a wide variety of situations.

Parents tend to focus on fears of kidnapping, but there are many more common child protection issues that are related to the scenario of walking home from school: crossing guards, safe sidewalks and roads, and the significant yet often ignored issues facing millions of children who return to empty houses, where they are left unsupervised until their parents come home from work.

It is too easy to forget the downside of not letting our kids develop independent skills. Kids may be so protected from situations in which they have to say “no” to bad things that they do not have many opportunities to say “yes” to good things. What they need is plenty of opportunity to practice, little steps at a time, in situations that are safe to explore.

Sleepovers, summer camp, kid-organized sports games, experiences with babysitters, visiting family, and community service outings can all be steps to independence if we give our kids the skills to handle these activities without hovering over them.

When we keep our eyes on the future, the path toward independence becomes clearer. When you look at a ten-year old girl, you can picture her in six years, getting into a car to go on a date with a classmate whom her parents might not know well. This is actually a high-stakes situation, one in which she will need to be able to assertively state what she wants, be prepared to take care of herself, and even be ready to ask for help if things go awry.

We want her to be ready for dating when that day comes, and the practice steps along the way don’t have to be scary. Independence may not look just like it did when we were kids. The days of Mom shooing kids outside to let them roam, saying, “Come home when you hear the dinner bell ring” are probably over.

But that makes it all the more important for parents to look for opportunities to practice. Parents of younger kids can teach children how to state what they want by ordering their own ice cream cone or slice of pizza. We can consciously make a plan to teach our kids how to walk to a friend’s house or school, rather than being complacent in our habit of driving everywhere. We can preview the route, walk with them at first, and talk about ways they could get help if they needed it. Then we can take the brave and conscious step of letting them do it on their own.

We will never eliminate uncertainty from life, but there is an answer to that worried parent’s question, “How can you argue against ‘just in case’?”

We can tell children and ourselves, “We are going to practice until you are ready to do this on your own!”


Irene van der Zande is the Executive Director of Kidpower International. Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., is the author of "Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family" and Center Director of Kidpower North Carolina.

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