Whose Idea Was it That Children are Fragile and Stupid?

Readers — Over and over I keep realizing how grateful kids are when we lean OUT of their lives a little and let them show us how competent they really are. I love this letter! – L. 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I stumbled on your site when a backpacking guide friend asked me what approach she should use in talking to Girl Scouts and their moms about camping and other “risky” outdoor activities.  I’ve been witnessing the changes in outdoor programs since I joined the Brownies in 1955!

My parents gave me my first jackknife when I was 8.  Mom taught me how to cross streets and how to walk against traffic so I could walk to school.  I camped out alone in our yard all the time.  Rode the city bus to downtown Bridgeport, CT, every weekend, starting at age 10.  I had the same streetlight curfew as every other kid I knew.  I learned to build campfires, cook outdoors, ride my bike, and swim.  My mom didn’t hover, she taught me.  She TRUSTED me.  I trusted me!

I handled myself just fine when I met a flasher.  It didn’t scar me for life.  I learned about death and loss and wasn’t shielded from difficult truths about being human.

I was free to fall down.  I figured out that everybody faces challenges.  Nobody rushed in to defend me in the principal’s office.

When I was 18, I had a chance to fly to Switzerland to study for a summer.  My mom said, “Go for it!”  Her favorite line as I was growing up was, “I didn’t raise any stupid kids.  Use your own judgment.”  The woman was a saint!

And I rose to the occasion BECAUSE she trusted me!

Kids need freedom and respect, training to take risks, opportunities to find their own strengths.

What the heck have we done to them except tell them how helpless and incompetent they are?

Whose idea was it that children are fragile and stupid? — Holly

Lenore here: It wasn’t MY idea…

Girls -- stand back! There's a fire!

Girls — stand back! There could be fire!

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 Responses to Whose Idea Was it That Children are Fragile and Stupid?

  1. Bobca January 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    What a great letter. Like the letter writer, I was raised in the same way, and as a military brat, the neighborhood and challenges were always changing. I raise my children the same way. My son is now 15 and my daughter is 11.

    My daughter asks…”can I make some popcorn”…we make it the old fashioned with a pot on the stove, a little oil, and some heat…and the feedback she receives is …please make some for me. She loves tomatoes, and she has been cutting her own with an 8 inch chef’s knife since she was 8. She has never cut herself.

    My son is now the computer help person in our house. I am so happy to have passed that to him. He builds computers, advises young and adult friends about theirs. He cooks for himself, when I am not making anything special, works on car maintenance with me…upgrading brakes, replacing the sound system, etc….cuts the grass since he was 10, vacuums floors. He has explored the creek and woods about a mile from home, since he was 8, and most often comes home muddy and wet, with some great stories.

    They are both competent and confident. They know that they can do almost anything. They know that when they make a mistake it is not a disaster, it is a learning opportunity. The entire family laughs at our more interesting mistakes from our past. Making mistakes is part of life. I have shared a long list of my mistake highlights, and I freely admit when I make them daily.

    I am proud of my children. They have learned so much on their own, with me & others as “coaches”. They are accomplished, with lots left to learn, and they will continue to grow throughout life, motivated by their thriving curiosity.

  2. anonymous this time January 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    I tried to hector my 13-year-old into eating breakfast and packing a lunch today. He didn’t want to, and was rightfully furious when I threatened him with punishment.

    It’s his body, after all. I taught him how to eat well. I provide food. But I’m not insisting he eat it, or pack it along with him. He’s going to have to figure out for himself what it means not to eat all day, how that affects him. I trust him to make adjustments in his strategies if they don’t work for him.

    I get pretty concerned for myself, for my IMAGE as a “good parent.” If my kid doesn’t wear a proper coat to school as a 7-year-old, I worry more about how that reflects on me and how people see me as a competent caregiver. I don’t worry that she’ll freeze to death. The battles we have over things like coats sometimes! It’s all about how I’m seen as a parent, really.

    And the food thing now. “What? You didn’t make sure your son ate a healthy breakfast and pack him a healthy lunch for school? What kind of negligent monster are you?” And yet, he knows how to make himself breakfast, knows how to pack a lunch. I’m not going to treat him like an infant just so I can look like a “good parent.”

    It’s hard to release the attachment to how we are seen. In a way, I feel I’m being a superhero parent for releasing him to make his own choices about food at this age. But I know it won’t look like that for everyone. The important thing is how I see myself as a parent. Am I living my values authentically or not? I can feel it in my gut when I am kowtowing to the judgements of others rather than boldly living my true life. And my son called me on it today. And I listened.

    We’re in partnership with our kids. We have things to offer them, but it’s not a dictatorship, and it’s not a time to insist on having our way every time. Even I, Free-Range devotee, have issues with this at times. I don’t want to share power. I just want my way. But kids learn more from having a say in their lives than being directed every minute, and letting them learn is, I think, my real job.

  3. Chris Harrison January 6, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    I’m the father of a 5 year old girl who loves to join me on frequent 3-5 mile nature walks and hikes. One of my favorite things about these walks is letting her get a good distance ahead or behind me so that she is not alone, but far enough from me to feel in charge of herself. When we climb or descend massively steep hills, it’s usually her idea, and she neither asks for nor does she receive any help getting to the top or bottom. Yeah, she gets a little worn out 3 miles in or so, and sometimes I carry her a little ways, but it’s never because she’s afraid of the terrain or what she might encounter.

    It’s during these times together that I share with her stories about how I did the same thing when I was a kid – exploring creek beds for crawdads, scrambling up and down mountain bluffs, and just basically exploring the geography around me to find the pretty view or the neat hideaway or the strange animal or whatever else I happen to run into. Fear…of anything at all…never enters our conversation.

  4. Bobca January 6, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    I like the comments by “anonymous this time”. Like him, I let my children make their own decisions. My son regularly goes to catch the bus in shorts with no coat when it is 30 degrees out. He knows how to put on his coat/fleece. He chooses not too…fine by me. My daughter is not quite as warm blooded, but she almost always wears less on cold days than her friends do.

    I do not worry about what the moms will think of me. As Mr. Mom in our neighbor hood, I know most of the moms. They never see anything negative in this. They often tell me that maybe they should adopt the same philosophy.

    AtT and Chris…keep up the great parenting.

  5. lollipoplover January 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Fragile and stupid and BABIES until they are 15. I am so sick of people calling young children babies. Baby is a four-letter word to a kid, it implies that they are incompetent due to their age which most of them are not.

    “Kids need freedom and respect, training to take risks, opportunities to find their own strengths.”

    Giving incremental bouts of freedom and responsibility is a building block of parenting but one so many parents refuse to give. I always assumed my job as a parent was to work myself out of that job and to transfer personal responsibility and good judgement.

  6. Liz January 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    Answer: Companies selling safety gear and TV programs selling fear.

  7. Papilio January 6, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    “I am so sick of people calling young children babies.”

    Ah! I wondered for a while just how long a child is a baby in English (Dutch babies become young ‘peuters’ as soon as they can walk).

  8. April January 6, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Anonymous this time: I could’ve written your comment. I have to very consciously remind myself to let my kids do what I know they are capable of and let go of my fear about how I might be viewed as a parent by others. Today I was reminded just how strong kids can be. My son and his kindergarten classmates lost their teacher in a car accident over winter break – hit by a very drunk driver. Today, when the kids went back, I heard them matter-of-factly talking about what had happened. Then, they went on with the business of learning as usual with their substitute teacher. We parents were much more of a wreck, and the children so impressed me with their resilience.

  9. Mark Roulo January 6, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    “Dutch babies become young ‘peuters’ as soon as they can walk”

    We have the concept of toddler, too, and it applies as soon as the kids can walk poorly and doesn’t apply after age two or so.

    Baby is a bit vaguer (especially for the last kid in a family).

    So, typically (but with lots of “slop”):

    Infant -> Toddler -> Child -> Tween -> Teen -> Young Adult

    Baby can run from Infant to Child, but very rarely for Tweens and older.

  10. Kay January 6, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    It’s really hard when one is talking to a mother who had to have a big discussion with her husband about leaving their 11 year old home alone for 20 minutes while she picked up her younger children from school and I’m talking about leaving my 11 year old alone for a few hours watching his younger sibling.

    I don’t have a sitter anymore, she’s unavailable now, but they really don’t need one either. I only used one because I go out of town at times and my husband works 45 minutes away. A prime example of “going through the motions” because I have been leaving them home to do local errands for a couple of years now and they do fine. They know what to do for emergencies, etc. They actually behave better when I’m NOT there, go figure. I just hope this doesn’t bring any trouble from some over-zealous busybody who thinks it’s too young. My best defense is that the Red Cross offers baby sitting courses starting at eleven.

  11. hineata January 6, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    Not sure who decided kids are fragile but am happy to see that the idea hasn’t caught on greatly in NZ, at least over summer :-). Have been in two camping grounds during our current trip- one of them huge, 3000 or so people – and in both and the adjoining public beaches kids from around four upwards just wander everywhere (usually in groups). The only time you saw parents tagging along was if the kids were very young.

    Summer as it should be – Christmassing on the beach :-).

  12. Really Bad Mum January 7, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    Sometimes I can see how some might think kids are stupid… Like when my son (9)decided it would be a good idea to wrap a band aid(sticky plaster) around his you know what and couldn’t get it off, or when the girl thought she would bend down while skateboarding at top speed to see how fast the wheels where going…. But fragile? Haha yeah right, never met a child ( unless seriously ill) that is fragile,

  13. Aimee January 7, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Regarding kids coping with death & loss: my father-in-law passed away two years from brain cancer. At his diagnosis he was given just 3 months (largely due to some other serious chronic health conditions he already had).

    Shortly after we learned about this, we talked to our then-10-yr-old about his grandfather’s health situation. I learned recently that our son was the only one of his cousins to know about his grandfather’s failing health in a timely fashion. The other kids were told things like “Poppa didn’t sleep well last night” (when he spent Christmas Day in his pajamas & robe) or “Poppa just gets confused because he has so many grandchildren” (when in fact the tumor was causing serious cognitive and motor control problems). Several of the children (many even older than our son – one in high school!) weren’t told that he was dying until the very last day when they were brought to say their goodbyes at the hospice care home! Our son was grieving, but those kids were a wreck. I felt that it was wrong to withhold that information from the children. And it made the experience VERY lonely for our son (who is already an only child) because all the time his grandfather was sick and dying, he could talk to us (his mom & dad) all he wanted to, but he couldn’t discuss his own feelings with his peer cousins.

  14. pentamom January 7, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    Just to help refine the idiom for Papilio: people will refer colloquially to the “baby” of the family for the youngest sibling, regardless of age. It could even be used, for example, for the youngest of septuagenarian siblings. In a case like that, of course, no suggestion of immaturity is intended or inferred. It’s just a different meaning for the word “baby,” obviously related to the main meaning, but understood to be different.

  15. EricS January 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    I think pretty much everyone born pre-internet era, was raised the same way. I started walking to school on my own at age 6. As many kids did. I had a pocket knife around that time. Having learned to cook at that age, I was already using a knife. Of course my parents TAUGHT me as well. Do’s and dont’s. Commonsense and logic. If I got hurt because I didn’t listen, I wasn’t babied. “See what happens if you don’t listen” is what I heard. Yes, they mended me up, and kissed me on the forehead. But the stern lesson of “using my ‘coconut shell'” stuck. We learned from our mistakes. Mistakes we were allowed to make. We experienced what the world had to offer, without our parents hovering over us. In hindsight, I know that our parents worried too. But not nearly as much as they do now. Most likely because, our parents trusted us to remember what we’ve been taught. And we had the confidence and street smarts to fend for ourselves. From the time we were old enough to walk and speak coherently, our strings were cut, and we were on our own until mom and dad got home from work. And we all survived and thrived all these years. If it worked for us, and our ancestors before us, it’s good enough for future generations as well. Don’t try and fix what isn’t broke. Because most times than not, you end up breaking it, and fixing it becomes much harder than you realize. And remember, kids aren’t things with replaceable parts. When you break a child, he/she becomes broken for life.

  16. EricS January 7, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    @April: That is how kids are, given the right guidance at an early age. Children have always been resilient, imaginative, and very perceptive. Our parents, and our parent’s parents knew this. Hence the way were raised.

    Only now do most parents see children as fragile and incapable. They don’t know how wrong they are. And treating their children as such only weakens them as they get older. They end up becoming what their parent’s fear. The sad thing, is that many of these parents, once the child is 18, they push their child out of the nest. Expecting them to know what they have never been taught.

  17. Papilio January 7, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    @Pentamom: OK, thanks. So it is more normal to keep using that word. It reminds me of my mother who still calls her two younger sisters ‘the little ones’, even though the youngest turned 50 last year 🙂

  18. Melanie January 15, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

    I’ve had the fun experience of trying to let my 8 year old be independent and having child Protective Services called on me twice in the last 3 months for leaving her home alone. We’ve been doing it from the beginning of this school year for an hour or two at a time a couple days a week. Someone apparently thinks this is awful and I’ve had to deal with people coming into my home to evaluate us, coming to her school to interview her and explaining in an extremely condescending manner that while it isn’t illegal, it is unusual and we have to make sure she’s safe. That’s why I’m here! This is my job as a parent to make these decisions.

    Does anyone have any suggestions about how to deal with this? It’s exhausting and I’m tired of defending myself to everyone but I’m not willing to tell my daughter that I no longer trust her by making her go to a sitter everyday, just so someone doesn’t think I’m a bad parent.