Free-Range Kids: A Parental Rant

May 24th, 2010

There’s a lot of unreasonable panic out there these days. Parents that don’t want to let their kids even walk to the mailbox because of an irrational fear of abduction. (Children are more likely to die falling out of bed than be abducted, and before anyone panics, that’s also exceptionally rare.) A woman that let her 11-year-old travel unaccompanied on the NYC subway he’d been riding all his life unleashed a huge controversy.

And there’s also this maddening tendency for some parents to be so worried about wounding their children’s self-esteem that they never want to say they’ve done something wrong, and be so positive to them.

Recent studies, as well as common sense, suggest that both attitudes are rather harmful. Terah and I are believers in letting children have “cheap mistakes”. If I see Jacob running through the kitchen about to trip over a toy he left out, I probably won’t say anything. Him crashing to the floor after running on it won’t even hurt him enough that he’ll cry, but it will probably be far more effective at teaching safety than 20 days worth of me saying “no running in the kitchen.” Of course, we’ll provide comfort for him when he’s sad and be there to support him, but also give him more and more freedom to succeed — or fail — as he grows.

This starts even younger. When he first started feeding himself, he got into this habit of throwing food on the floor. We had some “natural consequences” as a result. If his supper landed on the floor, then he would be all done eating. (Note: Jacob was always on the heavy side at that age anyway.) He couldn’t reach his supper on the floor, and we weren’t going to keep bending over to pick it up for him. Fixed that problem pretty quickly — at least until he learned that he could wait until he was pretty full before throwing his food down on the floor (at which point we added a brief time-out).

Or how about our reaction when he has mistakes. When he breaks something, whether accidentally or on purpose, we don’t give him some sort of affirmation like “Oh, that’s OK, we can fix it” or “good try; you’ll do better next time.” It is NOT OK to rip the pull-up flaps out of a book or to stomp on those peas you dropped on the floor, and there will be predictable and reasonable consequences for doing so.

As a result, when he does a good job, it’ll mean more. He, at 3, has started sounding out letters, knows his alphabet, and can count to about 15 in English and about 3 in German. And those are things we give him a “good job” about.

Two of the best things we can do for our children are: 1) be honest about their successes and failures; and 2) give them room to succeed and room to fail, so they can learn from both while the consequences mean a skinned knee or broken toy instead of a broken rib or foreclosure on a mortgage.

The Free Range Kids FAQ makes excellent reading, and discusses how many of today’s parents grew up enjoying this kind of freedom, and for various reasons are too scared to allow their children that today. Rather sad, really, especially given that today’s world is safer.

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Comments Feed4 Comments

  1. Craig Citro

    You might enjoy this link:

    http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/

    I don’t agree with all the conclusions they draw from the study, but it’s still interesting …

    Reply

  2. andre

    I sometimes say that I want everything bad to happen to my kids – in very small (and preferably supervised) doses. I think I’ll start using your expression though, it’s less cruel.

    Reply

  3. Chung-chieh Shan

    Don’t worry about other parents; they’ll eventually learn from their parenting mistakes. :)

    Reply

  4. Sven

    Hi.

    About parents who are too protective: I found the following statistic about death causes in young children/teens (up to 5-14 years) in the USA quite reassuring (well, if you find a total of about 22 deaths in 100,000 children reassuring, which not everyone might think is true):

    http://www.disastercenter.com/cdc/111riskc.html

    cu,
    sven

    Reply

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