Readers — Here’s a letter I just got from a fellow journalist I’ve met a few times, and like:
Dear Lenore: I hate to say this but I think the helicopter mommies are right. Now that I am seeing kids in college who grew up this way, I have to admit they are pretty darn perfect. They are getting into the best schools, they are well behaved, they are kind and smart and lovely, they are getting great jobs (oh yes, with their parents’ help but hey it’s working for them!) and they never seem to get into trouble.
I thought I was doing the right thing by letting my kids take the subway at age 10 and go to Europe alone at 16 but I don’t feel like those real-world things are helping them do well in areas where society seems to care most – you know, things like SAT scores and where they go to college. Sigh. And of course the helicoptered kids do eventually learn to take the subway, even if it’s a few years later than mine did.
Signed, Wondering if Everything I Hold Dear is Wrong.
P.S. Some day can you please do a blog post on this?
Dear Wondering: Before I launch into a whole thing about Free-Range, just remember that whenever we compare our kids to anyone else’s, we never know the whole story. So try to resist. And now — my response:
Teaching your kids to take the subway and travel to Europe isn’t all you’ve done for your kids — or all that Free-Range is about. It’s about encouraging their curiosity, independence and self-reliance, all of which can go hand-in-hand with being a good student, or not. But it certainly goes hand-in-hand with being a young person at home in the world rather than wary of it. And if you want examples of a Free-Range childhood leading to a “pretty darn perfect” adulthood, consider Richard Branson, founder of Virgin. On page one of his autobiography, he writes about his mom making him walk a mile home…when he was four. When he turned 12, she asked him to bike over to his uncle’s, 50 miles away. The confidence his mom had in him and the confidence he developed in himself formed the bedrock of his success.
This doesn’t mean helicoptered kids won’t be successful, too. Most kids of all stripes eventually are, even if at times they are floundering. (We all flounder!) Free-Range Kids have no reason to be less polite or hardworking than helicoptered kids, because Free-Range isn’t about neglecting, or never disciplining them. It’s just about letting them know that they are not in constant danger, and that we believe in them gradually making their own way.
That’s what seems to be the sticking point right now: You’re wondering if you can believe in your kids.
It sounds like at this particular moment, you are wishing you’d hovered over every book report and forbade every afternoon at the park, because you imagine your kids would be very different if you had. But from where I sit (and this is why we can’t compare kids!) there’s still no saying what your kids would be like. Successful? Resentful? Grateful? Suicidal? We have no idea.
But I do hold likely that if your kids could navigate Europe, they will eventually navigate the working world. (And once they do — write back!)
So if you are wishing you had “created” different kids, all I can say is: We don’t create them. We don’t even know the “best” way to raise them, because (drum roll) there isn’t any.
Free-Range does not create successes or failures. It does not create good or bad students. All it does is remind our kids and us that they are not in constant danger, that we believe in them AND the world, and that failing isn’t the end. It’s part of the process.
Which, come to think of it, is a good thing for you to remember right now, too. – L.