Why American Kids Will Not Rule the World

Hi Readers! Christine Gross-Loh’s articles on HuffPo have been generating a lot of attention — with reason. She’s great! Thanks to her global perspective, she can attest that the worry and hovering so common in America represent a distinct and unusual type of parenting, not just the “instinct” many here feel it is. Meantime, she’s is a mom of four and author of the just published book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. Visit her at www.christinegrossloh.com! -L.


When our family first moved overseas to Japan, I was stunned to see so many little kids out on their own. The first time I saw a six year old getting on a train by herself, I actually thought this was negligent parenting. (It’s understandable: I had come straight from America, where this kind of thing was totally unthinkable.)

But it didn’t take long for our kids to become used to a freedom they had never imagined being able to experience. Of course, for me there were still jarring moments that reminded me that I’d come from a totally different world – like the time my friend told me she was having her son take the bus to a new location, kind of far away, for soccer practice. Instead of doing what I assumed she would — writing down the directions for him and pressing the correct change into his hand – all she did was hand him a transit map.

When we returned to the US five years later, our kids – who became used to walking a mile to school from the time they were in first grade, and going to the park any time they wanted to meet up with friends – were confused by a culture that kept giving children so many messages that not only are they not capable, they are fragile and must be bolstered constantly. We kept wondering: why did that father over there praise his toddler son for riding a merry go round (“Good riding!”)? Why did those grandparents over there lavishly praise their little granddaughter for….drinking water? Why did that eight year old not know how to butter his own bread because he wasn’t “allowed to use a knife?”

Soon after my return, an American college professor told me how she showed her students some photos of a recent trip to Japan she’d taken. One photo was of a group of first graders, all wearing the same yellow hats that all first graders do there when commuting to school in Japan. The yellow hats are a signal to the community around them: “Look out for us.” But the professor’s college students – products of a culture that had taught them to be suspicious — gasped. “Here in the U.S., those hats would make those kids a target!”

It’s obvious we’re experiencing an erosion of trust: in what our kids can do and in our wider community.  Fear instead of trust prevails even though statistics show so many of our fears about safety are overblown, and research shows us that the greatest safety protection we can give children is to give them practice in exercising their judgment and competence. Children in many countries are encouraged to hone this competence because it’s considered such an essential way to raise kids who can keep themselves safe.

This is what’s most ironic: although we often think of so many other nations as less free than our own, and we love the idea of raising independent, free kids, somehow we’ve gotten it backwards: our children are the ones who seem to have the least freedom and least capability, all in the name of protecting them. Change won’t come overnight, but in the meantime we can ask ourselves, are there small steps we can take, empowered by the knowledge that there is surely a child somewhere, somewhere in the world who is doing these things too?

Small steps like these:

-Letting a five year old child ride a bike around the neighborhood by himself

-Letting an eight year old take some pocket change and go into a store to buy herself a treat (one that she chooses)

-Biting your tongue when you automatically start to say “be careful” or “good job.”

-Teaching your four year old how to use a knife and a cuttingboard

-Encouraging a preschooler to climb a tree

It’s eye-opening to hear what other parents do to give their children a more Free-Range childhood. What other suggestions do you have? – Christine

Japanese kids in their yellow hats. Photo from Fodor’s Travel Guides.

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