Sunday, September 11, 2016

Raising A Free Range Child in the Modern World

This past summer my boys got to enjoy a couple carefree days exploring their grandparents' woods and pond. They spent an entire day undisturbed, building the framework for a hut and sharpening sticks into daggers. I only interfered long enough to make sure they ate. At the end of the day they were dirty, tired, and happy. It was a rare taste of freedom to explore the world on their terms that modern parenting seems void of. I want more of these moments for my boys, for all children.

Fear seems to rule parenting these days. I get it. There are horrible people out there who harm children in unspeakable ways. There are nosy neighbors who call CPS over a child playing alone in the yard, no matter the age of the child. Things can happen, and fast, though statistics show that our fears, for the most part, are anomalies. We are afraid that our kid is going to be the one in a million and we'd have to live with that guilt the rest of our lives. So how can we provide the freedom of exploration to our children within a framework that best protects them?

When my brother and I were growing up, we'd be gone for hours, playing in drainage ditches with the neighbor's children, exploring fields and forests, and climbing trees. It was a wonderful freedom and it taught us a lot about our world. I'm sure it also gave Mom a break. Our explorations are some of my favorite memories as a child. They instilled a sense of independence and a love for the natural world that I still have today. What has changed? Certainly not the risks involved in such free play.

Lenore Skenazy, a leader in the movement to reclaim childhood freedom describes the reasons why children are no longer as free to roam as they once were. She says we live in a hyper media culture where stories about hurt and endangered children quickly grab our attention and play on our fear. We have also become a culture of experts who judge others and the way they parent.

Our society seems to hold the view that children must be protected from all risks of injury. Here's the thing, risk taking, independence, and discovery all lead to increased confidence. Our fear of our children being harmed could be creating fearful children who avoid risk taking and are void of the kind of creative thinking skills needed to succeed as an adult. Overall, children are better at assessing risk than we give them credit for. They are not the fragile, inept little beings we label them as.

 So what can you do in this modern world of limitations, especially if you live in an urban area? First of all, allow your child plenty of unstructured time. Give him or her unsupervised access to things like scraps of wood, a hammer, and some nails. Let an area of your back yard grow wild for exploration and fort building. My seven year old can spend hours playing with the dog or the chickens in the overgrown shrubbery while I am in the house cooking or writing for my blog. Yes, kids need to spend time with their parents, but they need time without us as well. Let them get dirty, scrape their knees from running, climb trees and get stuck, build forts, and sharpen sticks into daggers. Give them room to explore their world on their terms, without an adult standing over them telling them how the world should be. After all, they are tomorrow's problem solvers and if we don't give them the chance to figure smaller things out on their own now, how can we expect them to work out the larger things later?

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