What if instead of teaching our kids to fear the worst we let them learn how to handle it?

It’s hard not to hover over our kids and grandkids, but when they are less free they are also less creative, less physically healthy, more cautious and apparently no less likely to die or be maimed or abducted by strangers.

Now I find out. Now – after decades of trying my best to keep the kids safe from harm that was mostly not there. I’d feel worse about it, but once the kids started moving out we began hearing stories of what they actually managed to accomplish under our “watchful eye.”

I should have made them all walk to school, like I did when I was a kid. They could meander along the route most likely to yield caches of Coke bottles, stopping at Martha’s Liquor to trade them for candy before continuing on to school.

M & M Liquor
It’s M & M now, but back when I traded Coke bottles for candy it was Martha’s Liquor.
On a good day, it was sugary bliss for this sweet-deprived kid. Dad says no candy. I must have candy. I will find a way. Who wouldn’t want their kid to have this kind of lesson in self-sufficient ingenuity? And then…

I think about how we dove into dumpsters behind apartment buildings to get those bottles. We hopped fences into and out of strangers’ backyards. The liquor store was our candy store.

Would I have been okay with my kids doing what I did? :O

Generations of change

Amanda & Julian
Amanda & Julian, five years ago. In less than five years, this’ll be for real.
Julian is 12, and about to enter seventh grade. He’s a typical kid in many ways. His custodial parents (daughter Amanda and son-in-law Josh) are also typical in some ways. In others, they buck the trend.

TV and video games are around, but they’re the first thing to go if Julian gets in trouble. “Trouble” usually amounts to nothing more than an inability to control his classroom socializing – annoying for his teachers, but not a real problem in my view.

Julian is a voracious reader. He’s a friendly, outgoing kid who’d rather hang out with other kids. When no other kids are around – often the case these days – you’ll more often see him with his nose in a book than his thumbs on an Xbox controller.

In our area (Amanda, Josh and Julian don’t live far), there aren’t really any parks or playgrounds a kid could walk to and find other kids to play with. Just the thought seems bizarre these days, at least around here.

Lack of parks isn’t all there is to it, but if you ask me, what’s actually weird is being a kid and having no good place to play in your own neighborhood.

Most if not all of the parks in our county have playgrounds, but I don’t often see them in use. Fields for organized sports teams dominate. If I might one day agree to tax dollars for parks, it sure as hell wouldn’t be in this county.

Julian in his baseball uniform
Julian’s mug adorns one of my favorite fridge magnets.
There’s no such thing as a sandlot or pickup ballgame around here. Parents either spend hundreds of dollars per year to sign their kids up for baseball, soccer and the like, or the kids spend the equivalent amount of time in front of one kind of screen or another.

Julian is less into sports than he is the simple enjoyment of being part of a team. He has his moments of glory; more often he’s in the outfield, dancing to whatever song plays in his head. Amanda and Josh feel they owe it to him to provide an opportunity for Julian to play on a team – especially since he’s an only child.

Not that it makes any difference, but I think they also realize that in comparison to their own childhoods, it’s more difficult for kids to find community where they live. Some of the challenge is undoubtedly the nature of neighborhoods throughout the majority of middle-class Southern suburbia. Most aren’t really designed to be neighborly.

Only in recent years have developers in any significant number included things like sidewalks (where kids once rode Big Wheels, played hopscotch or simply wandered) and front porches large enough to hold more than an empty rocking chair or two (in a contrasting color, matched to the shutters, because it looks inviting…even if you’re not actually invited).

Not neighborly.
Note the coordinating rocking chairs on the narrow front porch. They’re not for you. We do have sidewalks, though. On one side of each street.
Mostly, it’s too little, too late.

In Southern California, where I grew up and where our two oldest spent the first few years of childhood, kids were everywhere and outside seemingly all the time. When the kids were little there wasn’t a park within a reasonable walking distance, but our front and back yards sufficed.

Even then, though, we parents had begun to hover.

How to be a good parent

Good parents knew precisely where their kids were at any given moment, I believed. We also knew the kids they were with and, if they were away from our own home, we made sure we’d done some sort of supervisory handoff with the other parent.

Most of the kids in our neighborhood didn’t participate in organized sports – at least, not at the time the older kids were small. Even those that were on sports teams had plenty of social interaction and physical activity outside of those teams.

Amanda - Tee Ball
Amanda’s one year of organized sports. Isn’t she cute? #unbiased
When the trend toward organized sports started, and my kids’ friends began disappearing on a regular basis for practice and games, I felt bad. I signed Amanda up for tee ball, even though she wasn’t really into it. It made me feel like a better parent.

That’s where most of my wrong-headed parenting decisions started: I felt better, because it is the opposite of what my parents did.

Even though a lot about my parents’ decisions and practices was unarguably wrong, not everything was. My mom’s preoccupation with what were certainly all-consuming problems led me on adventures I wouldn’t trade if I could.

Yet I still tried to shield my kids from the darker side of having so much freedom.

A good parent would have protected my sister from being molested. A good parent wouldn’t have left vodka where I could find it. A good parent wouldn’t have allowed me to be beaten by bullies. A good parent wouldn’t leave their kids to go out drinking. A good parent would have known that I was sneaking out of the house at night.

Well, maybe not – I moved like a ninja. Still do, sometimes.

Freedom Fest

Two summers ago, Brian and I attended the weeklong Porcupine Freedom Festival. Held at Roger’s Campground in the White Mountains area of New Hampshire, the festival celebrates and facilitates freedom beyond what most of us are allowed in our daily lives.

Porcupine magnet.
Cute & capitalistic children at PorcFest easily suckered Brian into buying this refrigerator magnet.
Kids freely roamed the campground, making new friends, riding bicycles or simply wandering and exploring. A couple of entrepreneurial little girls – elementary-school age at most – walked around peddling refrigerator magnets they’d made with their dad’s 3D printer. The combination of cute and capitalistic charmed many a festival goer into forking over cash.

Off and on throughout most of our week at the festival, I thought about how much fun Julian and his cousin Alex could have if they were there. As crowds swelled during peak weekend attendance, some appeared who were more intent on in-your-face displays of freedom.

Do I care if someone smokes joints like they were cigarettes? Not really – just keep your smoke away from my sinuses, thanks. Oh, and the dude who rode around on a four-wheeler flying the Confederate stars and bars – yeah, I appreciate your freedom to be an inconsiderate racist jerk. Thanks for bringing shame on the 1,000+ other attendees. Now get out of my face.

Despite a few inconsiderate losers, it was glorious to have the freedom of buying from people creating and selling all manner of food, services and products without license, tax or any sort of middleman or permission (save the $40 they paid the festival for the vendor space, anyway). It’s rare we’re in a crowd of like-minded people talking about topics on which we mostly agree. At the festival we were surrounded by hundreds of them at any given time.

Even as I reveled in this freedom, seeing the pothead and the racist and thinking about the kids encountering either gave me pause. Sooner or later they’ll run into both types, if they haven’t already. They have to learn how to deal with people doing things we’ve said are bad. Sometimes they will do the bad thing themselves. I know this. Yet it’s uncomfortable.

Letting go

Last weekend, Julian returned from Arkansas. He spent most of the summer there with his mom. While she was at work, Julian and Aiden, his 15-year-old brother, were charge of their two younger siblings.

This summer, Julian had more freedom and responsibility than what’s normal for him when he’s home. Amanda and Josh were glad for it, and I agree it was a good thing. It’s a step closer to how they and I grew up. Except at 12 we were probably in charge.

With two more weeks before school starts for Julian, the thought of leaving him home alone didn’t sit well with Josh and Amanda. Or grandma. He’s been at our house this week, and next week he’ll stay with Josh’s mom.

Julian at the splash pad
Julian was glad to accompany me to the splash pad we missed out on while camped at Little Tallapoosa.
When Josh came to pick up Julian on Monday, we chatted about how different our childhoods were compared to Julian’s. How free we were to roam, play and experience. The scrapes and sometimes harrowing experiences we got ourselves into and out of (usually).

We agreed these experiences were good for us, shaping who we were and how we handled things as teens and later adults. How more freedom would be good for Julian was another point of agreement. And yet…

“I can’t just leave him alone,” Josh said. “I can’t do it.”

“I don’t want to either,” I replied.

What to do?

In the ’70s and ’80s, I encountered all kinds of scary situations. Bullies. Probable pedophiles. Drugs. Alcohol. Porn. Viscous dogs. Trains. Fire. Sharp objects. Power tools. Bicycle accidents. Tarzan ropes. Underground forts. Rattlesnakes. I got out of most with little or no injury.

Not all of my siblings were as fortunate.

Because I bounced between the extremes of a harsh, controlling father and an overwhelmed, inattentive mother, I wanted to protect my kids from people and things that might bring harm. I also wanted to shield them from others who might encourage or facilitate dangerous behavior, lest they make their lives difficult or impossible as my sisters and I did.

I hovered a lot in the ’90s when the older kids were growing up. Even more when I became a parent again after Brian and I married. The excuse grandmas often gave for watching us so closely – “Things were different when I was your age” – was and is true. But not in the ways we think.

Statistically speaking, kids are safer than ever. Societally speaking, we are hobbling our kids. And grandkids.

How do we stop freaking out and start helping our kids and grandkids grow into healthy, independent beings? I’ve heard Free-Range Kids advocate Lenore Skenazy speak. She’s a ranter, for sure – but her arguments are solid:

We like to think that there’s no downside to keeping our kids this “safe,” but we’re not keeping them safe from diabetes, or flab or, worst of all, looking back on their Wonder years and seeing a screen.

Kids need to know how to keep themselves safe, but they also need time to play, to explore. So, teach them how to cross the street , teach them not to go off with strangers, and then: Send them out.

They’ll come home when the streetlights come on looking (and smelling!) like something very precious. Something you’ve cherished all your life:


2 thoughts on “What if instead of teaching our kids to fear the worst we let them learn how to handle it?”

    1. Honestly? I think it fell victim to our proclivity for consumerism.

      While it’s generally a good thing to have more options, we as a society haven’t yet figured out that it’s often better to decline to buy solutions to life’s challenges.

      There’s always someone willing to sell you a fix for a bored, under-performing, uncoordinated or (insert “problem” here) child, or to turn an average child into an Einstein. Before long, that thing becomes the norm as people stop questioning the sales pitch from self-interested promoters and start keeping up with the Joneses in yet another aspect of life.

      And then whole industries – complete with jobs, fringe benefits, trade associations and sometimes even unions and lobbyists – become ensconced around that thing. Once that happens it would take a sustained, concentrated and herculean effort to change.

      The refusal to buy into societal norms is the biggest reason I admire parents who take their kids on the road full time. It’s too late for our own kids, but I hope we have at least caused them to question more and buy less ☺️


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