As a middle-aged parent I find myself reminiscing with my children and friends about how things were when I was growing up. I’m sure you’ve experienced these moments as well, and like me, can’t believe you’ve started echoing your own parents with these nostalgic phrases. As startling as this realization is, I believe there are practices from the past that would benefit kids today and help them in practicing independence.
When we were growing up, our parents gave us a lot more freedom. We were often gone most of the day, playing with friends and running around the neighborhood. Our parents may have left us at home if they had to run errands and wouldn’t worry that we would burn the house down or runaway. As kids, we didn’t fear being left alone or worry about walking to a neighbors’ house without supervision. (And cell phones were non-existent)
Today, however, parents have tightened the reigns and rarely let their children out of their sight. When they do let their child ride their bike to a friend’s home, most parents ask that the child call to check-in upon arrival and departure. I rarely see children playing at the playground without supervision, and while I understand parents want to protect their children, this practice robs them of the chance to gain independence and learn crucial problem solving skills.
A major factor impacting parents’ need to protect is the perception that there are an increasing number of sex offenders who might abduct or harm their children. This perception is false. The rate of child abduction is no higher now than it was 40 years ago when we were playing on the playground. In fact, most child abduction cases involve a family member.
Children are more likely to be harmed or sexually assaulted in their own home or the home of someone they know, than in a public place. These abductions often occur in the midst of a nasty divorce or when there’s feuding between family members. In addition, missing children are often missing because they runaway from their homes or foster care placements. One statistic indicates that the risk of a child being abducted is much lower than a child suffering from a heart attack. Naturally, parents don’t worry about their child from suffering a heart attack because it is such a rare event; but parents are constantly concerned that their children could be a victim of abduction.
While child abduction is real and serious, there is a cost to overprotecting our children that we should consider. As parents, it is our job to protect, but it is also our job to teach. One of the first steps to teaching them independence is giving them opportunities to operate without supervision.
Through these experiences they will have the opportunity to develop decision-making skills and become more comfortable experiencing life’s conflicts. Children will become independent through a series of trial and errors; which means sometimes we need to let them fall.
If Mom always supervises Susie on the playground and intervenes whenever she is using the playground equipment in a risky way or faces a confrontation with another playmate, how will Susie learn what to do when Mom is not around? With Mom’s help, Susie never gets hurt and her disagreements with others are usually short-lived. On the other hand, Susie also never learns that using the equipment improperly is dangerous and she may never develop the interpersonal skills to manage conflicts with friends. It is important for parents to allow children to gradually make their own choices. It is also valuable to use these teachable moments to discuss those choices.
I’m not recommending we let children run around with no restrictions; I just want to remind parents of the valuable skills and lessons we all learned from natural consequences and experiences.
The skills that kids should begin to learn in childhood further develop in adolescence and help them become successful and independent adults. It is not always in your child’s best interest to strip of their independence just because you constantly fear the worst. It is tough to let go, if you grant your children some freedom, you might be surprised by the positive choices they make.