Let the kids run free – Spiked
Why do children no longer play outside without adult supervision? Most do not do this before the age of 11, according to new findings from the British Children’s Play Survey. This is two years older than the age at which their parents’ generation was allowed to do so.
I remember playing alone in the street when I was nine years old. I had a bike and had all kinds of nonsense with the other kids in the neighborhood. During school holidays, we would go out in the morning and only come home to eat. The more independent we were, the better. Plus I’m sure our parents were happy we got rid of their hair for the day.
Eleven looks very old for this to happen for the first time. At this age you’re already starting to enter your teenage years, and you don’t really play the same way nine-year-olds do.
Why are parents today so afraid to let their children out of sight? This is not a new question. American author Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow (an organization promoting childhood independence) and leader of the Free Range Kids movement. She sparked controversy in 2008 when she let her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone and then wrote a column about that. Skenazy has been called America’s ‘worst mom’ and has been charged with child neglect and abuse. Still, she managed to overcome the negative reactions and start a real discussion about giving young children more freedom. She tried to reassure parents that cases of child abduction, while terrible, were very rare.
But even though many people in the US and UK agreed with her, the problem remains that many parents don’t trust their children to be alone. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote in The hug of the American spirit on how helicopter parenting produces a generation of immature and intolerant children. They argued that today’s children mature more slowly than previous generations. Without a doubt, this is because children grow up much more sheltered than they did in the past.
Children may now be using the Internet (and online games) to satisfy their curiosity about the world. That’s good – the internet is full of interesting things. But it is absolutely vital for their social skills and personal growth that they are outside, meet other children face to face, and find themselves in environments that are not fully controlled by their parents or teachers. This is how children develop their own identity. They need to be in wild, open spaces where the unexpected happens.
The dynamic between different generations is how history is made. The generation of the 1960s rebelled against what its members saw as the suburban boredom of their parents’ generation. That said, it’s likely that all their parents’ generation wanted was stability and calm after the chaos of the Great Depression and the two world wars.
What are we creating for future generations? How will they react to the world we have built? Will they have the confidence to step out and face the world as bravely as previous generations did? We still don’t know how significant the lingering effects of the lockdown on children will be. But after this long period of enforced isolation, we need to let children know that the world is not a scary place to hide, but a place full of fun, adventure and opportunity. They need to know that they have to go out and find their place.
Alison Gopnik, an American developmental psychologist, has written a brilliant book titled The gardener and the carpenter, in which she uses the metaphor of parents as gardeners. Like gardeners, parents are there to raise their young in the most conscientious way possible. But, above all, they must also understand that living things cannot be totally under their control. A carpenter may be able to shape inanimate wood the way he wants, but there isn’t much a gardener can do.
It’s amazing to watch children grow up and develop their own personalities. We just need to be confident that this process can happen without anxious parents worrying about their child’s every move. Fortune favors the brave.
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