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Let Grow

New York
Why is it that helping kids so much won´t help them grow? Lenore Skenazy shares her experiences about why doing a little less is not negligent or lazy, but a vote of confidence.

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Childhood was not always seen the way it is today. For very long, kids´ place was considered irrelevant, it was only at a certain point that their role in society and family became crucial, one that should be cared for, protected and considered.

Today protection is synonym to not letting kids confront small, every day challenges. Today´s beliefs deny trust to the intelligence and strength of this millennium´s kids, and not only the families, but society insists in putting them inside a bubble too.

A mother, known as the World´s Worst Mom, dared to trust her son and allowed him to take the subway to get back home on his own. The well-known anecdote that Lenore Skenazy and her 9-year-old son starred in a decade ago in New York City set a precedence. This mom, who managed to free herself from contemporary ghosts and fears of parenthood, wrote a book, a blog, funded the Free Range Kids movement, hosted a reality show, got a new law that contemplates unprivileged kids´ security to develop their independence, and co-founded the non-profit association Let Grow.

Lenore, alongside the professionals that accompany her today on this mission, notices the huge pressure that exists in every corner of North American society to keep kids near-by, not let them move alone or do anything without supervision. She also recognizes the severity of the system that kids fall under where being a good parent is to take your kid “…in the car to Karate on Mondays, Kumon on Tuesdays, chess on Wednesday, without allowing them to set their feet on the pavement to see something or make a friend”.

We really have become convinced that the only way to look at childhood is through the lens of trauma. 

In this interview Lenore has shared many impactful anecdotes, some funny and some unbelievable. But from her interpretations on this excesses, some of which she even considers “abuses” because it transforms kids into “prisoners” of the system, she thinks it is very wrong. What´s great is that Lenore not only thinks about this, but she talks about it, takes the risk of putting forward propositions and turns her ideas into community´s acts.

We live in a society where childhood suffers too many restrictions and kids are permanently supervised. What inspired you to adopt a different stance with your son?

I guess you know I am a reporter. All my life I have been very curious about people and neighborhoods and, for 14 years, I was a newspaper reporter. Talking to strangers, I lost the “stranger-danger” gene, if I even had it. It´s not that I´m not afraid for my kid, I mean they are older now, and I´m worried that they drive cars and skateboards, all that drives me crazy. But I just never had the fear of them being out in the world and talking to people and making their way.

It sounds like you followed your common sense…

Yes, but I don´t even call that common sense anymore. Many people think that it´s common sense to never let your kid wait in the car, not even for five minutes while you go and pick up the pizza. So common sense means different things to every person, and I think that many people´s ideas are absolutely non-sensical…

In a way, my common sense is almost statistical. I mean that the odds are that the number one way kids die is as car passengers, it´s certainly not from talking to strangers or walking to school, it´s not from waiting a few minutes in the car. Those are things that I´m not afraid of, because the statistical likelihood of them happening are tiny.

Could we say then that overprotection is related to a certain lack of connection between parents and children?

I´d say that it´s probably the opposite. I think it´s a disconnection between parents and their own childhood. When I give talks, I always ask the audience two questions. One is: “What did you absolutely love to do as a child that you don´t let your kids do?” And people talk forever, I have to tell them something like “Hey, the other half of the lecture is still coming up!”

I had a frustrating discussion last week about this exact thing, where a guy came up to me and bragged about all his adventures as a kid. Then I said, “well, what about your own kids?” He said he has two boys, a 9 and a 6-year-old, and lives across from Central Park, but he will never let his kids go there because they can be snatched by anyone at any second. So I asked him, “do you happen to know that of all of New York City – which is, by the way, statistically very safe despite having a different reputation – Central Park is the safest precinct in the whole city?” That didn´t matter to him, the only thing he cared about, and this is what keeps fascinating and captivating me, is that we really have become convinced that the only way we look at childhood is through the lens of trauma. Something terrible will happen to kids, they will either die or be emotionally, physically or psychologically so hurt, that they will never be the same and it´s all our fault. We can´t even look at a kid doing something normal, or a mom leaving her child waiting in the car for literally 20 seconds while she drops off a package, and someone tells her “you know, in those 20 second your child could choke or be dropped or they could be snatched…” If we are thinking that 20 seconds intervals are too dangerous for our children to survive without our supervision, we are in a hysterical moment, and the disconnection is between reality and parents.

In this context, where it is mandatory to “not leave a child unattended or without supervision”, how have you encouraged the message of trusting children?

I started Free Range Kids when I let my son ride the subway alone, 11 years ago, and what I´ve been doing this last year is starting a non-profit organization called Let Grow Project.

After ten years of talking to people and writing my blog, I realized how crazy our country has become and that no matter how many people agree with me, even those who want to bug the system, are stuck inside of it. You can´t be the only one who sends your kid to the park, because there is nobody in the park for them to play with.

If we are thinking that 20 seconds intervals are too dangerous for our children to survive without our supervision, we are in a hysterical moment, and the disconnection is between reality and parents.

I think that, as much as Free Range Kids changed these sorts of conversations or changed a lot of minds, Let Grow is dedicated to changing behavior. We are trying to do this by means of people, through groups, because you can´t be the only one, so we´re doing these two initiatives in schools and they seem to be working, they are very popular all of a sudden. What is great is the Let Grow project, where teachers tell the kids to go home and do one thing on their own they haven´t done yet; it can be walking the dog, making dinner, going to the grocery store, walking to a friend´s house, riding their bike, or going to the library. Things that, I´m sure, you did as a kid all the time, and I did them too. But our milestones have become so covered in the dust of fear that we can´t even see them, they´re buried under layers of terror; Let Grow blows away some of the dirt over these milestones so that parents try them. Once they do see their kid walk the dog, or come home from a friend´s house, or run an errand, they, the parents, are the ones who change the most.

The kids are proud and happy that their parents trusted them and they are exited and want to do more. But it is the parents who finally see that their kid is capable, competent and safe, which until then they haven´t seen, because they have not been allowed to let their child out of their sight. Then, if the whole school is doing it and a couple of kids are going to the park alone, and a couple of the moms are bragging about their kid who got the cake or the kid who got the whole dinner, then it starts changing the community and we start seeing children outside again.

At the end of the last school year, a school´s principal told me that two weeks after they had done the Let Grow project, she was driving home her normal route in the neighborhood and she saw one kid on the skateboard, one kid on roller-skates and two kids on bikes. In her 17 years as a principal of an elementary school in that very neighborhood, she had never seen a child outside without a parent. What I mean is that it happened that fast! You say: “Go do it!”, and they do it, and then suddenly it´s normal again. So, Let Grow is dedicated to pushing parents to make the behavior change that will then continue after they get it once. Once you get to see your kid walk, you don´t tell them to go back to crawling, it just doesn´t make sense; once they see their kid out and about, it doesn´t make sense to say: “you have to be in the car with me, I do not trust anyone, I do not trust you, I do not trust the world”.

That on one hand, and on the other hand the Let Grow Play Club, which is open before and after school for free play, without any adult intervention. There are some adults in the premises in case there is a broken bone or something like that, but kids have to come up with something to do, make their own fun and decide if the ball is in or out, they have to seek their own arguments.

All this is because outside there is almost no chance for the kids to actually play. They do organized activities: there will be a clown at the birthday party and then there will be a coach at the little lake; but there won´t be a chance for them to come up with a whacky new game, or to figure out how big their teams are, or to have any kind of normal direction over their own minds. When schools are open, parents trust them, because they´re not sending their kids to a park, they´re sending them to school, which they trust, there is an adult and kids will be off their devises.

As much as Free Range Kids changed these sort of conversations or changed a lot of minds, Let Grow is dedicated to changing behavior.

Peter Gray, one of our founders, says that mixed age play is something that has been taken out of our kids´ lives, and having kids play all together seems like a weird experiment. But until now, throughout our history, children of all ages have always played together. That´s how the older ones learned to throw the ball a little softer to the little ones and empathize. And the little ones don’t want to look like babies in front of the big ones, so even if they are about to cry, they hold it together. All these are the social-emotional skills that kick in when kids are playing, and that do not, when kids are in an activity that an adult is organizing and problem-solving for them.

Those are the two big things. It’s not simple to tell the kids to go home and do something on their own and have kids play, but they are both missing from American childhood today, and the easiest way we’ve seen to bring them back is to enlist the schools to get them going.

I have a couple of questions about that. In what way do you deal with the fear and insecurities of contemporaneity that prevent them from giving more freedom and trust to children? Do you have special programs or workshops to talk to parents at the Let Grow Project?

At Let Grow we´re doing a couple of things. Our biggest thing is pushing these school initiatives, because I can talk to parents about fears, about the fact that the crime rate today is lower than when they were growing up, the rate of 1963, when parents played outside, they were less safe than their kids are today. But none of that has gotten me anywhere, and I’m really tired of it after 10 years of talking about it. The only thing I´ve seen that breaks through parents´ fears is pushing them to give their kids some independence that they might not feel ready to give them.

I had a television show, which was shown around the world and was not that popular, so I never got to a second season, but it was called World’s worst mom. The producers found 13 families of extraordinarily overprotective parents. One mom still fed her ten year old in his mouth with a spoon, another one let her eight year old get a skateboard, but he had to stand on it on the grass so he couldn’t make it roll; and then another mom took her 13-year-old son to the lady´s room with her every time he had to go to the bathroom and they were out on public, she thought if he went to the men’s room he would be killed or at least raped. These were parents who were beyond the pale, and yet they exemplified the idea that parents don’t let their kids do anything because they’re so worried. My job was to sit with the mom while I sent the kid out to get bread, or sit with the mom and dad while I sent the kid to skate on the park. I also sat with the mom while I let the kid learn how to ride a bicycle. I gave the kid whose mother fed him in the mouth a bike, which he had never been allowed to ride, and he learned how to ride it. At the end of my visit, which always took 4 days, the parents could not remember why they had been so afraid. The woman who wouldn’t let her kid ride a bike and still fed him in his mouth, sent him to an overnight bike camp that summer! And the woman who had been afraid of her kid ever being out of her sight, and if they ever had a bruise or needed to use a Band-Aid though that it would prove that she was abusive, she at least sent her kids into the bathroom at the rest stop when they were on vacation. These moms wrote me long after the cameras had gone to tell me they let their kids do all sorts of things on their own now, they’re so much happier, and they didn´t just fell much better, they didn´t even understand what happened before.

Mixed age play is something that has been taken out of our kids´ lives, and having kids play all together seems like a weird experiment.

It took me a long time to understand what happened too, I´m not a psychologist, I’m not a therapist, I am just a person who thinks that we’ve gone the wrong direction in terms of our perception of our kids and our country. What really happened was that reality took place of these overblown figures that were so out of control that they couldn’t survive the contour of reality.

According to your understanding, do you think that current parents have a bigger fear of being finger pointed as bad parents too?

Yeah. I think parenting isn´t what it used to be, what many of us did, get married, have kids, raise them and feed them. Now it is like: “Oh, are you using this method to put them to sleep? And are you using that method to teach them how to read? And what are you reading to them and what are you feeding them?” It all became so intensive because there are so many ways that we supposedly can get it wrong, although I think there are very few, but supposedly, if you say ‘good boy’ instead of ‘good job’ to them when they make their bed, you’re suddenly stimulating them forever.

It feels that there’s so many pitfalls that we intensely criticize whatever everybody else is doing. We do it in public too, because now we have social media, and the result is that parents are not only worried that they might be hurting their child, but they’re worried that somebody else will think that they’re not doing it well enough. And as a result of these pitfalls, the default way of raising them is to be with them every single second and watch every single thing they do.

Do you think that this radical view regarding overprotection is also related to parents´ expectations of their kids being excellent in every field?

I think that parents worry that if their kids are not excelling at something, or maybe everything, they won’t have a good life. We’ve really made parents feel that, at least middle or upper middle-class parents, and I’m not sure exactly what the breakdown is, maybe working class parents as well. But the fear is that if you don’t do well in grammar school then you won’t do well in high school, you won’t get into a good college and then you’ll be starving. Everything starts so young!

The executive director of Let Grow, my friend Tracy, was at a tennis class for children the other day. Tracy said something like, “Oh, tennis is a great sport for kids, you can put it down and pick it up again”. Tracy herself has begun playing tennis after 25 years, so she was sort of talking about that with a father. This man, who had a five-year-old, said, “Yes, and it looks so good on a medical school application!” I thought, “tennis doesn’t look good on the medical school application, nobody cares whether your kid plays tennis or not”. But this dad continued saying: “You have to start with the goal in mind”. That´s the perspective we have to look at our kids from, and think about how they´re going to be doing 20 years down the road.; and they better be doing great now or they’re going to be off the map in the future. This is making parents very anxious. Add to that the marketplace, constantly telling you: “Is your child not doing that well? Come get this program or use this reading specialist or…” The question of how your kid is doing can appear on almost anything. Do they need to be excellent?, come organically organize; do they need a new class after school?, do you need to be watching them every second?

Every aspect of children´s lives is rewritten as a disaster waiting to happen, unless you enroll them in a special class, or buy them the special toy, or use a special app, or hire a special person to avoid them falling behind or dying.

I just heard this morning that there is this new device created having the school ride home in mind. The commercial said that everything that could go wrong in that ride is enough to keep any parent up at night. I don´t think that is right. When my kids are on the bus I don´t  worry about something happening to them, but now you’re supposed to worry and so your kid gets this new GPS tracker that will let you know every time they get on or off the bus. Every aspect of children’s lives is rewritten as a disaster waiting to happen, unless you enroll them in a special class, or buy them the special toy, or use a special app, or hire a special person to avoid them falling behind or dying.

On one hand, there is the parents´ overprotection, but on the other hand, children are themselves afraid of moving alone, even though the experience great joy every time they take a step. What way have you found to accompany them in this process?

As I said, we’re trying to do this online with the community and in the schools, where there is a built-in community. Online we’re just trying to get everybody to talk to each other. Someone can ask, “am I crazy for wanting my seven-year-old to walk to school alone?”, and somebody else, who is already part of Let Grow, anyone can be a member because it is free, says: “No, I don’t think so, I have a girl walking herself at seven and she’s so happy!”

We are trying to create a community where people don´t feel overwhelmed by that fear that is being shoved at us. When you have a community, it is much easier to agree that it´s crazy that nobody lets their 13-year-old walk to school.

Then, at schools, a kid who is scared to, for example, run an errand on their own, and the assignment on hand is to go do something on your own on Thursday after school, and so if another friend is walking to the park, maybe the two of them will walk to the park together, or if one friend walks to the park and tells the other friend it was fun. We’re just trying to re-normalize the idea of kids doing things on their own. We’ve made it such a big deal and so rare that we have to bring along the parents and the kids, and that is why making it a school assignment is kind of genius, because they do it the same way they would write a book report.

I had a conversation with an English mother yesterday about her son, who is nine, who was too afraid to even wait in the car while she paid for gas. That came as a shock to her, because she realized she wants her child to be cautious but she doesn’t want her kid to think that the world is so dangerous that in the time it takes her to pay for the gas, something terrible is going to happen.

With the Let Grow project, we encourage kids being thrown out of the door, nothing changes behavior except crossing it. There was a big controversy a couple of weeks ago where a high school student posted something on social media. It said that students with anxiety should not be forced to make presentations to the class, because it’s just horrible for them. The message was retweeted like 100,000 times, and people said that it really was cruel, how dare schools expect kids to do something this scary and anxiety inducing! The way to cope with anxiety is not saying, “oh, it is too much for you, you don’t have to do it”. The way to cope with anxiety is to have them do it and have them realize it wasn’t as bad as they thought. In psychology there is something called exposure therapy, which is that if you are afraid of dogs, you have to hold a picture of a dog, then you have to see a dog across the street, then there has to be a dog next to you and then you have to pet the dog. So then, it’s kind of nice to pet the dog, and your fear is gone. But if I won´t even let you turn on the TV because there might be a dog show on, and don’t read the newspaper because there is a picture of a dog on page 17, and let’s not talk about cats because that can lead to talking about dogs. Your whole life is organized around avoiding this, and you end up giving it so much work power. The only way that fear gets less power is by dealing with it, confronting it. Kids have to walk to the dog, walk to the store, play outside, you have to deal with a friend who is arguing with you and you have to figure it out, not the parents. If we keep inserting parents’ or adults’ supervision in between children and the world we are making the world seem terrifying to the kids. They will wonder why there is that layer of protection between them and the world, and think they must need it. That way they never get the experience of being scared and then laughing about it. Or climbing a tree, you may be a little scared, but the next time you climb a little higher because it was exciting succeeding at something that is a little scary. That is its own reward. But there is no reward if you had been told everything is too much for you. That’s why there is extraordinary levels of anxiety among children today, it´s the big worry among the educators. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but anxiety levels are off the chart and suicide is up. I hate dwelling on that because I don’t want to replace fear with fear. It is just great to feel like you can handle things, and if you’re never allowed to handle things, how do you get this feeling?

To conclude, let´s talk about this that started as a personal motivation and has advanced in such a way that it has now become the law of Free Range Kids…

Yeah, yeah, the law of Utah…

 

Only Utah?

So far only Utah, yes. I am speaking in Texas in winter and you are reminding me that I’m trying to work with some people in Connecticut, Illinois and Idaho. I think that people around the country don’t want to have to second-guess their every-day parenting decisions. They worry that somebody will call 911 and say they saw a child unattended, or waiting in the car while her mother was off buying stamps. We can’t take away the freedom of parents and children just because some busy body with a cell phone can open a case on them. The law in Utah doesn’t say parents are allowed to abuse and neglect their kids, that is still against the law; but absent any evidence of abuse, simply letting a kid walk to school or play outside, wait briefly in the car, or come home and wait for their parents to get back, those are not evidence of any kind of abuse and neglect, and don’t require any kind of follow up by the authorities.

 

Note:

Text established by Antonia Lorenzo Iturralde

 

 

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