Letting kids run free makes them better adults

Since quitting her full-time job, Andrea Mara realised her kids have been living cossetted lives. And so she set about being a ‘free range parent’, trying to build kids that will be ‘can-do’ adults.

“Now, just open that jar,” I said to my five-year-old, who was helping me to cook dinner. She looked a little worried, and I realised she had never opened a jar before. Of course not — I’ve always done it for her.

It struck me as ironic that I’d spent years at work, passing on knowledge, training people, following a “teach a man to fish” mentality, but I’d forgotten to do the same at home. And as a result, my kids are missing some basic everyday skills.

It’s a drum that Bear Grylls has long beaten especcially since the the survival expert found himself under fire for leaving his 11 year old alone on rocks in the middle of water in North Wales as part of a training mission.

Writing in the London Times he responded: “When we try to strip our kids’ world of risk we do them a gross disservice. We teach them nothing about handling life.

Lenore Skenazy, founder of US movement Free Range Parenting, certainly thinks there are skills we need to teach our children so they will become more independent.

In 2008, she allowed her nine-year-old son to take the subway alone, and was subsequently dubbed “World’s Worst Mom”. Following the reaction, she started her blog Free Range Kids, to help people to take a commonsense approach to parenting.

“Free-Ranging sounds radical to some parents, which is strange, since it’s most likely the way they were raised,” says Skenazy.

Do we have a need for a Free Range Parenting movement here in Ireland — are parents overdoing the protectiveness? Stella O’Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids, certainly believes so.

“We are hovering over our children too much,” she says. “We anticipatetheir accidents, their ‘failures’ and the obstacles in their lives, and we tend to sweep these away so that our children will have a free run at everything.

"The issue with this is that children need to learn about accidents, ‘failures’ and obstacles in baby steps, so that when the bigger issues arise as they get older they can handle it without collapsing.”

As children, most of us were sent out to play with friends, only coming home when we were hungry. Free to roam streets and fields, trusted to use commonsense. So what has changed — why are parents today helicoptering kids and afraid to allow them out of sight?

“What has changed is our exposure to 24/7 media and the terrifying stories it delivers from every corner of the world,” says Skenazy.

“These images lodge in our brains so when we ask ourselves, ‘Gee, I wonder if it’s ok if I let my child walk to the bus stop by herself?’ Our brains work like Google. Up come the very few but very well-publicised stories of a tragedy 10 years ago. You don’t retrieve an image of millions of kids getting to school safely.”

Marketing is another factor. “Marketing companies have cottoned on that if they promote feelings of fear and anxiety about their children, then parents will spend to quench the subsequent panic,” says O’Malley.

“So we have elaborate ads for safety gadgets that no one really needs, and we buy a huge amount of developmental toys, books and classes so that the children will be adequately educated — even though children have never been safer, so busy and so educated.”

One parent who is trying to bring up her children the free range way is Joanne Byrne.

“To me, it is encouraging and supporting my kids to be as autonomous and independent in their lives as possible. A two-year-old can’t do all the things that a 10-year-old might, but you can start laying the groundwork from early on, so that the concept of being responsible for themselves and determining their own lives becomes ingrained,” explains the Dublin mother of two.

So what kinds of things does she do to encourage independence?

“My kids are three and six, so they’re not out hiking alone in the backwoods just yet! But we do lots of little things to encourage their independence and to support them to assess risk and make decisions,” says Joanne.

“We’ve set up the kitchen so they can access snacks and drinks themselves, and that develops a sense of power over their own needs.

“We also go out a lot with a Free Range Kids group, so they’re out in a natural environment, and we pretty much let them find their own play and explore as they see fit. That’s a great opportunity for them to assess what they can safely do — they’ll be climbing trees, messing around water, balancing on objects.

“My six-year-old also cycles 5k to school with me, another opportunity to look after himself in a supported way. They are both allowed out to play in our estate, the three-year-old in view of our window and the six-year-old in the next street over. The younger fella can go with the older fella to the other street if they stay together.”

To help build independence, Joanne advocates starting with simple steps. “Make it easy for them to get their own food and clean up after themselves. If you’re going out for the day, encourage them to pack their own bags.”

And for outdoors, she suggests trying somewhere other than the playground: “Go to a semi-wild area and let them explore on some small rocks and logs, and build up the physical and mental skills that they haven’t yet developed in soft-surfaced play areas.”

Stella O’Malley suggests some similar, age-appropriate tips (see panel.) I nodded along to all of them — going into shops alone, walking ahead to traffic lights, making breakfast.

But when she suggested leaving them to play in the playground while I go to the shops, I had to ask her about it — it’s not something I could do.“That’s why experts shouldn’t advise parents how to raise their kids — each circumstance is different,” she explained.

“And this is why parents need to take responsibility for these decisions themselves — they truly do know better — the soundbites don’t work because raising children is infinitely more complex.”

Yes free range parenting is parenting the old-fashioned way — albeit in a more deliberate, conscious way — but many of us have lost trust in our instincts.

In my house, we’ve made progress. They’re getting their food, they’re walking to (very close-by) friends’ houses alone, and they’re excited about one particular task— to cook my dinner by summer’s end. It might be cheese on toast, but it’ll come with a slice of independence.

How kids of different ages can be independent:

Age 5 – 8:

Play in the playground independently — you could go to the shops while they play. The children would of course have to be primed beforehand about what to do if they hurt themselves.

Get their own breakfast (ie cereal, milk).

Give them pocket money that they can spend without your input; let them learn the impact of wasted money. Let them buy something for you in the shop as you wait outside in the car.

Let them walk ahead and stop at the next traffic light / designated spot. Encourage them to find their way home.

Age 8 -11:

Run errands for parents, go to the shop, buy the groceries. Make a simple dinner. Walk or cycle to and from school/ activities. Spend their money independently.

Teenagers:

Contribute in meaningful ways to the household, eg do the laundry or take in the turf. Make a full dinner Allow them to attend an event if they are willing to pay for it.

Get a part-time job. Go camping with an adult staying nearby — but not too close!

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