Thomas Friedman Endorses Free-Range Kids (Sort of)*

Readers — zdarnkidft
Here’s a sit-up-and-go-yikes oped
by Thomas Friedman of the The New York Times. Friedman sort of specializes in these, but this one talks in particular about how we are facing a “401k future.” That is: Unlike the salad days of long-term jobs and pensions, we’re in a new era of morphing and even disappearing jobs, so we are now responsible for constantly re-inventing/marketing ourselves, even as we must secure our own long-term solvency:

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it.

What will? Being flexible, resourceful, creative, brave and ready to roll with the punches. Which sounds like any kid who has ever organized a neighborhood hide and seek game — especially at night! As self-reliance becomes the goal, Friedman says, the value of mentors and role models will rise: “Indeed, parenting, teaching or leadership that ‘inspires’ individuals to act on their own will be the most valued of all.”

Does that sound like helicopter parenting to you?

Didn’t think so. I believe he just endorsed Free-Range Kids (though perhaps without realizing it!). – L


*Free-Range Kids will rule the world, say Friedman. (Just not in those exact words.)

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24 Responses to Thomas Friedman Endorses Free-Range Kids (Sort of)*

  1. Natalie May 6, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    I love Friedman. I don’t always agree with him but he’s certainly thought provoking. I remember when this article first came out and I thought of this site, but for a different reason.

    It’s articles like this which add to the stress and paranoia over kids’ education. “Will my children do well? Will they be able to get a job, buy a house and support a family? Will they have a lot of debt after college? Will they be employed in such a way that they can pay it off? Will they be living pay check to pay check?”

    And these are all valid worries, they’re not manufactured for the sake of more site clicks.

    Friedman is right in that companies can be picky now and only hire people with x amount of experience in lieu of on the job training. There’s a lot of competition. And if Americans don’t have the experience/education, then the Chinese and Indian students that come here will.

    And so, as he says, you have on-line access to your kids grades, homework, etc. to ensure your child does well, you become more involved. And this is what pushes some parents into helicopter mode. It’s one thing to ensure your child works hard to get good grades. It’s another to do the work for him, to ensure he gets good grades, to fill out his college applications, to register your child for courses.

    So here’s a question: it’s all well and good to be free-range when your child is 7, and you can pat yourself on the back when they’re able to navigate the neighborhood on their own. It’s another to deal with a sullen 17 yr old that has no interest in his own education. What do you do then?

    Does anyone here have teenagers? Kids in college? Anyone dealing with this problem? There’s a lot of talk about how helicopter parents deal with situations like this, but what of the free range approach? Most discussions here center around younger ages.

  2. Natalie May 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    I ask because personally, teenagers scare the sh*t out of me. At 6 and 2 1/2 my daughters are cute now, but I remember what I put my parents through. And I was one of the “good” kids.

  3. Jen May 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    @Natalie–I wish I had the answer for you (my daughters are 13 and 10), but I have given some thought lately to the dilemma you raise. It’s hard to back off when the stakes are so high. But you can’t force a kid to want to succeed. I tell my girls that one of the things I want most is for them to have choices and that working hard and doing well in school will allow them the opportunity to do what they want to do with their lives. Sometimes they seem to be listening, other times not so much 😀

    Friedman sometimes annoys me–many of his analogies are awfully tortured. But the 401k parallel is a good one, I think. One of the tricky things about being a parent today is that the world is changing so quickly–faster than it ever has before–so it’s harder than ever to prepare for the future. Gone are the days when getting into law or med school guaranteed a pretty comfortable life. Nothing seems secure. The free-range philosophy of letting kids figure out how to navigate the world seems to fit the times better than the alternatives.

  4. Natalie May 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    I’ve got just one word for you, are you listening? Batteries.

    But seriously, there really isn’t a secure approach. I’m a big advocate of STEM careers. I try to do a lot of K-12 outreach when we get the opportunity, especially for girls. But certain industries are more stable than others. And there’s no way to really predict what will be of need 20 years down the line. You can only guess.

    I think a big failing of both schools and parents is that kids aren’t taught to consider careers and take more responsibility for their future early on. So what they study doesnt seem relevant, whether it’s derivatives or John Steinbeck. It’s a go to college and figure it out later approach. Later, when you’re $50,000 in debt and underemployed. If there are emerging industries that will face a derth of qualified employees, why aren’t high schoolers encouraged to consider these careers? I consider myself lucky in that I chose a major both relevant and adaptable and I didn’t go to an expensive university. But I chose it because I was interested. Not because of any special foresight.

    I think kids should be encouraged to look forward. To be told that their decisions at college DO have ramifications, and that their future is tied to them. And so, they need to take more consideration than a figure it out later approach.

  5. Jen May 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Lol! There’s a great future in batteries. . .

    If only one of my kids could develop one that would keep my iPhone going all day.

    We live in a high-growth suburban area, and our school district is constantly struggling to accommodate the expansion of the student population. We currently need another high school, and the superintendent’s plan was to open a new STEM-focused campus where students would be admitted in their sophomore year and be nearly finished with hs grad requirements by the beginning of senior year, at which time they’d begin taking college level courses with early admission to one of three state universities he had signed on to the plan. So students would graduate with not just AP credits but an actual college transcript (without paying for a year of college). Naturally the community killed the plan. It wasn’t perfect–there were some issues to address–but it was nice to see them thinking outside the box. Unfortunately, we’re back in the box again.

    It’s so true that we can’t predict what will be needed in 20 years. That’s why I think what kids need most is to be adaptable–to be able to figure out how to make things work in an ever-changing environment. Those are the ones who will succeed (in every sense of the word).

  6. hineata May 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    @Natalie – an issue with schools is that they are part of a huge system that grinds into change very slowly. For example, nearly twenty years ago I went on courses relating to learning styles, the research about which had begun some time in the late sixties/early seventies, and was by then (mid-nineties) acknowledged to be valid. Now I’m back in classrooms, and that research on learning styles is only applied spasmodically, or at least that’s how it appears to me. And that research is now at least forty years old! Can we change? Yes, but only as much as we are able to decentralise. In New Zealand we have some decentralisation but still not enough. And from what I read about in the US, because your population is so large and diverse, you appear to have less flexibility than even we do.

    Also schools are usually isolated from what is happening in industry, at least at the primary school level, and even at secondary level. My son gets one career week a year. Through church and socially he’s exposed to way more in the way of careers advice than that, which is maybe how it should be – certainly a more ‘natural approach’.

  7. hineata May 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

    As for Thomas Friedman, he’s right only to the extent to which we continue to view ourselves as individuals independent from one another. By that I mean that it is possible to organise ourselves, through extended family or community networks, into the kind of support systems for one another that we have been looking to governments or companies etc to provide.

    As an example, following a Waitangi Treaty settlement last year (complicated, but similar to First Nations recompense settlements for previous land confiscations etc.) my ‘iwi’ (or tribe) is currently, in its three sub-tribes (hapu) forming a strategic plan for the next twenty-five years, the aim being to create our own jobs, re-invest in our own lands etc. The added benefit of the strategic planning is that it is bringing back together big networks of extended family that have lost touch over the years, and it is helping to re-establish the kind of social support that was largely lost with urbanisation after WW2.

    Maori and First Nations are tribal people, but there is no reason why European extended families could not do something of the same sort, i.e. group together to support one another, re-group in one location, or alternatively establish a base to which members return periodically (which is what a marae is). Chinese appear to support each other into business and study, from what I see within my husband’s very extended family, and many of the Gujarati people I have met do the same. I think mutual support is the norm in many cultures – a return to it would not hurt we industrial types 🙂

  8. Natalie May 6, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    A shame they didn’t go forward with the STEM focused school. Sounds like a place a nerd would thrive. There’s one about 30 min from our house. It’s a charter school I guess? Ive heard it Described as a public/private school, which makes no sense to me. I’m not sure how it works. The kids come from all over, not a specific area. If you’re willing to schlep your kid, then they can go. I’m not sure what the admissions criteria were, I don’t really understand how those kinds of systems work.
    It was pretty impressive. I helped my friend’s kid with some chemistry, they were learning at a college level.

  9. Natalie May 6, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Well, I certainly understand issues of change when dealing with large organizations. My workplace has been undergoing a transformation since I started there 2 1/2 yrs ago. And they still haven’t implemented any changes. We’re definitely behind the curve, still using Microsoft Vista of all things.
    I like that your son is exposed to such a variety of professions, and that he’s at least thinking about it. When I think back to that time period, I had no clue what my parents’ friends did. I was in my own teenager bubble.

  10. Sean Eckenrod May 7, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    “If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. ” He just described all kids before schools and helicopter parents and fire and brimstone churches destroyed that ‘self’ motivation.

  11. Warren May 7, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Sean hit it on the head.
    How can someone be self-motivated when they have never been allowed to do anything?

    Too many graduates from college and high school are coming into the workforce with no real life skills. Book smarts are great, but they will only get you so far without life skills.

    We are also in an age when parents do not want a future for their kids, of manual labour, dirt, and blisters.

    Once looked at as honourable careers, trades and the like are now thought of as lowly. Trades are suffering enrollment, and with the baby boomers retiring the trades are sorely undermanned. There is alot of university degrees in the unemployment line, but there is far fewer trades people, in that same line.

  12. John May 7, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    It’s impossible to read Tom Friedman w/o remembering fantastic Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s take on him, make fun of his mixed metaphors and ridiculous insights. If that’s not for you, don’t read Matt’s column about Friedman’s 401k world:

  13. Natalie May 8, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    He had me at the Friedman unit.
    Thanks for the link!

  14. Natalie May 8, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    You can also say the opposite. life skills are great, but they will only get you so far without a degree. It’s not an either/or situation. You’ve got self-motivated/self-starters and people that are unsure about themselves and what they have to do in every work place.
    Also, as bad as the unemployment/underemployment of college grads is, high school grads have double the unemployment of college grads. They don’t have college debt, though. So there’s that. But cOllege degrees also open doors, and give opportunities that someone without would not necessarily have. And that is why people want their kids to go to college. Is there a disdain towards trade work? I’m sure some people are disdainful, but I think the main motivator is worrying about kids being able to buy a house, support a family, and send the grand kids to college.
    It has nothing to do with book smart vs life skills. Again, not either/or. I’ve had a slew of college engineering interns of varying quality, all from MIT. So they’re obviously all smart. Some need their hand held until they get the hang of things, and some hit the ground running. Some need a kick in the *ss. Literally. But life skills alone would not enable someone to do the work they did. There’s too much background that you can’t just pick up on the fly.
    They’re all going to get decent jobs though. Is it fair that a university name can hold so much weight over a lesser known institution in some instances? Not really. But that’s the world we live in.
    I agree that blue collar workers aren’t valued enough. A domestic worker or factory worker works just as hard as anyone else. But we don’t live on a kibbutz. They’re not compensated as well because they’re easily replaceable.
    As far as parents not wanting that life for their kids, well isn’t what the American dream is about? Upward mobility? Class mobility? Hoping that your kids will have a better life than you had with a salary and benefits? job security?
    Regarding trade workers, it’s not something that I know a lot about. But what you’re saying is exactly what I’m advocating. Kids should be thinking early on about what they’re going to do. If there are a bunch of tradesmen retiring and no one to fill in the services they provide, then schools should be letting kids know where the large numbers of vacancies are. Our high school encouraged kids to go to vocational school. We took a tour and were explained how our high school degree could be incorporated with vocational training. And that’s great. It wasn’t for me though. I was a math nerd. Still am.
    Also, the staff meeting is over. A world without staff meetings would be a much better place. Time to get some REAL work done.

  15. Warren May 8, 2013 at 9:57 am #


    My former father in law is a retired bricklayer/mason. In Ontario, the average age of a bricklayer is now 51yrs old and climbing.

    Myself, my skills are not classed as a trade, although you need to be licensed and to get that you have to be trained, and do 400 hours under someone with a license. We are fairly secure, as there is always going to be a need for tire techs. As long as there are tires we will be needed. I am not talking about the guys at WalMarts doing tires. They are not tire techs. We do the commercial vehicles, the big rigs, heavy equipment, and agricultural. So pretty stable future.
    To make it though, the hours are long at times, the work heavy and dirty, and in all kinds of weather. But it is good honest well paying work.

  16. hineata May 8, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    Warren has some valid points here. My husband is a tradesman, with advanced papers – he did a 3 year diploma in Malaysia before working there, so was fully qualified before he got to NZ, though had to resit trades papers here, before doing the advanced stuff. My point is that through the GFC he was in no danger of losing his job per se because he installs and fixes lifts, and no matter who he has to work for, there are always lifts that need fixing. He also earns more than two thirds of white collar workers because of the ‘danger elements’ associated with his job. We are encouraging our son to look at doing a trade before he does uni, so he always has that ‘back up’ plan. Any job that requires ‘hands on’ is usually going to be a safe bet, and many such jobs have either transferable skills or can be spun into a business.

    Whereas, as a teacher I could run a tuition business I suppose, or run a business in something else entirely, but in my opinion the knowledge is not as easily transferable.

  17. Natalie May 9, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    That’s a good thing. I’d like people to be more proactive about their futures.

  18. Warren May 11, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    One of the problems, that stems from helicopter parenting, is the workers they have created.

    Myself, and my clients, have seen the new generation of worker, and we are not impressed. They come to us with their sense of entitlement. Here is a list of some of the things they believe they do not have to do.

    1. Anything remotely close to straining their muscles.
    2. Work in the heat.
    3. Work in the cold.
    4. Work in the rain, snow, or sleet.
    5. Get dirty, greasy or whatever.
    6. My personal favorite, is the last half hour of the day is their wind down time.

    Hell my grandpa always said it isn’t a good days work without a little blood.

  19. Natalie May 11, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    Not really, you’re talking about laziness, which has nothing to do with free-range vs helicopter, but of instilling a work ethic in your kids. Which a lot of helicopter parents do.

    From what I’ve seen of my interns, if you can determine how they’ve been parented by their performance, which I don’t think you can necessarily do, you would say that the kids who have been in more free-range households don’t need as much guidance as those that were helicoptered, and need more hand holding. But that has nothing to do with how hard you work. Very few people can just coast through MIT.

    And people have been saying that for ages about kids. Nothing new. We all know that today’s kids are so spoiled while the previous generation had to walk to school barefoot in the snow all uphill – both ways.
    Except that the generation before that said the same thing.

  20. Warren May 11, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

    Natalie get off your preaching high horse. Those that make it through MIT represent a low percentage of the population. The fact that they went to MIT, in the first place, demonstrates their work ethic is established.

    And this is nothing to do with walking to school in the snow.

    This has to do with the sense of entitlement that the last couple of generations, has developed. They develope this as a matter of how they were raised. Take the blinders off, and join reality, not just your tiny little corner of the world.

  21. Warren May 11, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

    Just for the record Natalie, I do have a bit of hands on experience with this. I have been in the position of hiring, interviewing and training new and prospective employees for over 20 years. Which translates to dozens of new hires, and hundreds of interviews.

  22. Natalie May 12, 2013 at 1:34 am #

    Your experience invalidates everyone else’s because…. well, it just does. You stomp your foot and cross your arms and stick your chin out and you say so and so there!

    We’ve been through this line of “reasoning” before, and it doesn’t prove your point in this instance either.

    And really, if this is all you’re capable of in discussion, then it’s not worth having one. I don’t know what all your antagonism is for. It’s a simple difference of opinion.

    Trying to point out your sexism is one thing. That I felt I should do and I’m glad I did. It’s made every reader of this blog more aware, and that’s a good thing.

    Regarding entitlement, work ethic, self-reliance, etc, – this is an interesting issue, but I don’t feel compelled to talk about it with someone who gets so angry he can’t see straight every time someone disagrees with him.

    Not worth my time.

  23. Warren May 12, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    @poor misguided Natalie

    Slap me in the back of the head for even trying to talk to a narrow minded sexist woman, such as yourself. I should have known better. Talking with you is like beating your head against a brick wall, it feels so good when you stop.

    Go and get some real life experience, some therapy and maybe we can try again.


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