Past generations had far more geographic freedom to roam, play, and create adventures, and the lessons kids accrued from these experiences were vital to their development into competent adults. With apologies to Robert Fulghum, all I really need to know I learned from experiencing unsupervised activities such as walking to school, spending all day playing in the woods, and crossing busy highways.
Today we have developed a protective and danger-aversive approach to parenting, cutting deeply into children’s autonomy due to fears about abductions and perceived dangers, despite data to the contrary. 30 years ago there were no mothers holding umbrellas over their grade school kids at the bus stop, parents calling up college professors complaining about big Johnny’s D in their class, or mothers and dads showing up at their 20-something’s job interview.
Kids used to leave their house in the morning and not return until the street lamps came on or parents rang the dinner bell. We were out and about playing in the street, woods, and riding our bikes miles away to find friends or a pick-up game. We owned BB and pellet guns, fireworks, army knives, and cheap bikes with two speeds, fast and faster. Kids were able to cross highways on foot, and most of us held jobs starting by age ten. We rode hand-made go-carts down steep hills with no brakes; no guts, no glory!
The following are some of the lessons we learned from these endeavors:
1. make our own decisions and immediately experience the consequences, good or bad, of our actions
2. initiate, create, and make things happen
3. solve our own problems and conflicts
4. supervise ourselves and create our own rules (who can forget picking sides by two people grabbing a baseball bat)
5. playing with kids older than us meant things weren’t always fair or equal, but we learned to deal with it and keep going
6. street smarts, meaning self-reliance, taking care of ourselves in a variety of situations, critical thinking and problem-solving, handling money, and making our way in the real world of city buses, mass transit, crossing streets, finding our way without GPS, and dealing with strangers
We were able to challenge ourselves out in the real world and make things happen, all ingredients for developing grit and self-efficacy. This is what far too many kids are missing these days, putting them at risk for not developing self-reliance and the ability to handle the normal ups and downs of life once they leave the nest. The common denominator of self-efficacy, self-motivation, self-responsibility, and self-determination is self, not mommy and daddy.
Think long-term and determine what your end in mind is for your children, and let that guide your parenting decisions, not fear. Look for ways to give children more autonomy, freedom, and unsupervised down time to play, create, and initiate. If you’re unsure if your child is capable of activities like crossing the street, teach them, let go, and watch the learning ensue.