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.


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