Professor Jonathan Haidt, co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind” and one of the three people who joined me in founding Let Grow, tweeted last week, “Today, my 9 year old daughter walked to school by herself, for the first time. A half-mile, in NYC. She’s been asking to do this for a long time; we worked up to it.”
He added, bless him, “This would not have happened if I had not met @FreeRangeKids 6 years ago. Thank you Lenore!”
You’re welcome, Jon! This was not just a great moment for the Haidt family (and me!). It is a great moment for all families hoping to give their kids a little more independence. By announcing this milestone in public, Jon is starting to re-normalize what was once completely routine: taking our eyes off our kids.
We need to hear about parents doing this, to break through the ice of fear. What I have been puzzling over for 11 years now is how come my nervous mom, who quit her job to stay at home with the kids, did not immediately go to the darkest of dark places most parents routinely go to now whenever they think about letting their kids walk out the door without a security detail: “It’s not worth it to take my eyes off my kids, ever, because if they were to be abducted, I would be bereft and it would be all my fault.”
This is what I call “worst-first thinking”—thinking up the worst-case scenario first and proceeding as if it were likely to happen. It feels natural, but actually it is a recent cultural habit. It is not “innate.” Yes, worrying is innate. Love and caring are innate. But worrying constantly about abduction, molestation and death is not innate, as we can see from our own parents, who weren’t obsessed with these thoughts, and from people in other countries, where this kind of catastrophizing has not become routine.
Many of the people responding to Jon’s joyous tweet cheered him and his daughter on. But some felt compelled to re-educate him, saying that if something terrible were to happen, he would never forgive himself. Paralyzing fear is held up as the only decent parenting option.
The fact that, as a Washington Post article stated, “there’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America” doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does discussion of the downside of overprotection—kids becoming anxious, hypersensitive and afraid of freedom, from elementary school on through college. No statistics or wise dialogue can change someone seeing a coffin in his or her brain. The only thing I’ve seen that actually works is to replace that image with something radical: reality.
How do we do that?
Parents have to be persuaded (OK, gently pushed) to let their kids go do something on their own. Walk the dog. Make dinner. Run an errand. Parent friends can gather to give one another moral support as they send their kids out, or schools can do the Let Grow Project, in which students’ homework is to do something on their own.
When the kids start glowing with pride, excited that their parents finally trust them, that changes the parents—because what is innate is the knowledge that someday our children will have to survive when we are no longer here. Until they do something on their own, all we know is that they are safe because we are ever-present, protecting them. To finally see that your kids have what it takes to make it as independent humans—to carry on when you are gone—that is a game changer.
The push comes from hearing about other parents letting go—and letting grow—and the more that happens the easier it becomes to kick the habit of constant panic.