Children need freedom to venture out on their own

Before she retired, my mother-in-law was an elementary school principal. Recently, a former colleague of hers became the principal at a failing charter school, which she promptly overhauled. Student performance quickly began to improve — from academics to a reduction in behavior problems.

But not everyone liked the changes. A parent called the principal to complain on behalf of her child. Parents routinely complain to principals — but in this case, the parent’s daughter is a teacher at the school.

The young teacher later explained, “When I told my parents how stressful things were, they said they’d take care of it.”

A story in last Sunday’s New York Times described a Dutch rite of passage in which small groups of children are dropped off in forests on summer evenings. Without the help of adults, they must find their way back to a base camp, usually arriving by 2 or 3 a.m.

The adventure allows children to problem-solve without adult help. And while precautionary measures are taken to ensure safety, it is also meant to be challenging.

I learned the term “free-range parenting” in 2014 when two siblings, ages 6 and 10, were allowed to walk home alone from a park in Silver Spring, Maryland. Police picked up the children and held them for five hours. Their parents were charged with child neglect, though the charges were later dropped.

13-year-old Hugo exploring caves with his brothers in 2010.

Last year, Utah passed a free-range parenting law making it legal for children to play unsupervised in parks or walk home alone. I would welcome such laws nationally. The lack of independence, such as my generation experienced as children in the 1970s, directly correlates to young adults who believe it is OK for their parents to intercede with their employers.

To be clear, adults should always intervene when a child is truly in danger or hurt. And no child or adult should ever enter a body of water alone. But the definition of true danger does not include playing at a park or walking home without adult supervision.

Studies show that no matter how intelligent a child is, those who are better supported are more often successful than those who are not. The genius child who is poor will have inferior educational and other resources compared to the rich kid with average intelligence.

But studies also show that kids who never have to overcome challenges on their own face higher rates of dissatisfaction with life, including increased rates of depression. How can children learn true independence if never given the opportunity to navigate difficult situations on their own?

In “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder,” which he ascribes to the lack of free play outdoors. Louv points out that today’s news cycles mask the fact that significantly fewer crimes against children occur today than in the 1970s. For if a crime against a child happens in one state, often it is reported nationwide on channels like CNN and Fox News, creating the false appearance of local danger.

When my big boys were young, our home was on the near west side of Akron, several blocks east of Highland Square. Together and alone, beginning at age 7 or 8, Claude, Hugo and Jules rode their bikes downtown. There, they’d visit the public library, the comic book store at Quaker Square, the art museum and any place that piqued their interest.

Over the many years they did this, nobody ever questioned why they were not with an adult. It turns out suburbanites are more likely to call police about unattended children than urbanites.

One December, I met a friend for lunch in Fairlawn. Eleven-year-old Jules asked if I’d drop him at Seiberling Nature Realm on my way. Scooping bird seed from his coat pockets, he spent half an hour on snowy paths, coaxing birds to land on his outstretched hands. Then he went into the park’s building to look at the exhibits.

A volunteer approached him and would not leave his side. In a room behind the animal displays, Jules saw a ranger and another volunteer looking at him while whispering furtively. The ranger walked over and began peppering Jules with questions before allowing him to call me on the park’s phone (I allow cellphones at age 13).

When I arrived at the Nature Realm, which had no other visitors, the ranger told me Jules could not be there without an adult. Among other things, I reminded her that it is a public place. I could have left him at a busy shopping mall and nobody would have cornered him the way she had.

The moment we stepped outside, Jules burst into tears. The ranger had terrified a boy who had just wanted to spend time in nature at a public park.

Most parents start with newborns whose intelligence is purely instinctual (feed and hold me), whom they ideally guide down the long path toward becoming competent adults. To independently navigate life, kids must experience the thrill of overcoming what once seemed daunting, either alone or with other children. Be it the first solo visit to the library, flying unaccompanied or, yes, getting dropped off in the middle of the woods at night. These experiences are essential in building confidence and the ability to succeed as an adult.

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, July 28, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Teach children respect and politeness for all

Where and to whom we are born is the ultimate crap shoot. No matter your circumstances, one human is not intrinsically better than another. Minority parents tell their children they are as important as their white friends. Working-class people also understand this. We are hard workers doing whatever we can to manage life well.

Neither of my parents have college degrees. When my father was old enough to collect Social Security, he quit his job of many years as a cashier at a Circle K. My mother worked as a waitress, a secretary and a baker. Both told stories of rude customers.

Modeled behavior is more powerful than encouragement or admonishment and my children observe me chatting with workers wherever I go. To further ensure my kids will never condescend others for their station in life, they have worked in the service industry.

Claude spent a summer at Chipotle and found it the hardest job he’s ever had. Hugo worked at Old Carolina Barbecue his last years of high school. And this summer Jules, who worked with biologists on bee research the past two years, has two retail jobs in Michigan.

These experiences underscore three important lessons.

Lyra and Hugo with our new friend, Matt Dean, who served us at Bitty & Beau’s cafe.

Number one: Acknowledge people. Ask your server or cashier how their day is going. Rather than asking an employee, “Where is such-and-such?” Start with, “Excuse me, can you tell me where…” or “Hi, how are you? Do you know where I can find…”

Even when employees are talking to each other, acknowledge them. At my Acme, many of the cashiers and baggers are high school students who banter with one another. I jump in and joke with them, too.

Get off your cellphone. When people talked on their phones while ordering barbecue, Hugo coyly annoyed them for being rude. “I’m sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” he’d ask over and over.

Number two: Give praise. Everyone, myself included, is quick to let management know when we have a complaint. But what if we were just as eager to share a positive interaction? An employee who made an extra effort to be helpful or friendly?

I often lodge compliments in grocery stores. Things can be hard to find (especially when they remodel your Acme), prices might ring up wrong or not at all. The employee who handles requests and issues with aplomb is an asset to their employer.

Positive feedback makes a difference with raises and promotions. Rightly so, as employers know few customers will stop to give accolades. So when they do, it carries extra weight.

Number three: Say please and thank you. Working-class kids know not to treat adults as servants. When learning language, I taught my children to answer questions with either “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.”

Children over 5 should not say to an adult, “I’m thirsty,” but rather, “Can I have something to drink, please?” When told the former, I raise an eyebrow like an old school marm and respond, “Is that so?” If they don’t catch my drift, I suggest they try asking.

Handwritten thank-you’s are priceless. I keep a box of cards in the console of my minivan. Before I picked her up on the last day of camp in June, I wrote notes in the parking lot to Lyra’s two counselors, telling them how much I appreciated their kindness and care.

Some professional jobs are also in the service sector, and these people, too, appreciate acknowledgement for a job well done.

My divorce cost my ex-husband and me about $100,000, mostly from our retirement funds. We once paid a highly respected mediator hundreds of dollars to help sort things out. When we left her office, my then-husband said, “See you in battle.”

Three years into the miserable process, we met with the Summit County Domestic Court’s mediator. I’ve seen only a handful of people who are as skilled at bringing contentious negotiations to resolution as Magistrate Deborah Smith Cahan. In an hour and a half, we had an agreement that stuck. And as part of my motion for divorce, it was free! If only we’d seen Magistrate Smith Cahan first…

Eternally grateful for her help with what once seemed irresolute, I sent Magistrate Smith Cahan a thank you. As one of the most stressful times in life, divorce court is full of good people behaving badly. I came to learn Magistrate Smith Cahan is widely respected for her magic-like mediation skills with divorcing couples.

Years later, I ran into her at a grocery store. She told me in all her years mediating for the court, she’d received just six thank you letters, including mine.

Life is never too busy to acknowledge the people who pass through your life and to commend those who make it easier or better. Nobody is too busy to say or write “Thank you.” Not only do these simple measures brighten the days of those you meet, but doing so will put cheer in your heart while also making you a few new friends. I guarantee it.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 14, 2019.