A longer leash — a better relationship

Today’s guest blogger is Beth Harpaz, author of the funny new book about raising teenagers:


 13 Is the New 18…and other things my children taught me while I was having a nervous breakdown being their mother.


by Beth Harpaz

     Recently I got together with a friend and mentioned that the night before, I’d been up late cleaning my teenager’s room because I couldn’t stand the mess. When he got home, he was upset and insisted he would have cleaned it himself.
     My friend wasn’t interested in that part of the story. What she really wanted to know was: what time did he get home?
     Honestly I wasn’t sure. It was after midnight, but I wasn’t watching the clock.
     “Didn’t he have a curfew?” she asked.

     Um, no, I admitted. 
     “But where had he been that he was getting home so late?”

     I didn’t know that either. With friends, I supposed. I mean, it was a Friday night, no school the next day…
     By now I felt embarrassed. What was wrong with me? I let my teenager go out without telling me where he’s going? I let him stay out as long as he wants? I must be crazy! Don’t I care where my son is, who he’s with and what he’s doing?
     Of course I care. Sometimes I ask those questions, and of course he’s not out on school nights. But the truth is I give him a long leash. And so far, he hasn’t abused it.
     See, we made a deal, this kid and me, that he could have his freedom as long as three standards were met:
     –No Cs and Ds in school. A bad grade results in immediate remedial work. 
     –No getting in trouble. I never want phone calls from teachers, neighbors or, God forbid, cops.
     –Any commitments you make, you keep. That includes an after-school job he’s had for three years, attendance at family events, and help around the house, like babysitting his younger brother or walking the dog.

     I realize this might not work in every family. Every kid is different, every situation is different. But my son, from the time he was small, was very independent. He wanted to walk to school alone in third grade, and nagged me so much that eventually I let him. He took the subway when he was 10 to get to middle school, and after three days of my accompanying him, he insisted he didn’t need a chaperone. I quizzed him about his route, but he knew it cold. Then I asked what he’d do if someone scary was on the train.
     “I’d find someone who looks like she could be my mother, and stand next to her,” he said.
     That struck me as a good answer. From then on, he rode alone.
     At age 13, he wanted to travel. He’d only been to sleep-away camp once for five days, but he came up with the idea of going to
Australia. We found a youth group and signed him up (and honestly, it didn’t cost that much more than summer camp in New Jersey). Another mother cried at the airport as we said goodbye, but I knew my son was ready. Besides, truth be told, he was pretty obnoxious at 13, and we needed a vacation from each other.
     I’m happy to report, now that he’s 16, we get along fine. And one thing I’ve learned is that giving your kids freedom doesn’t necessarily mean they behave any differently from other kids, but it may help you have a more honest relationship.
    One night my son and a friend told me about a party they were going to. I wasn’t thrilled about the neighborhood, but I didn’t stop them, I just warned them to be careful.
    That night, I ran into another mother. I told her my son had gone off to some party, and she said hers was spending the evening at the home of another family.

    The next day, my son told me her kid at been at the same party he was at.
    He asked me not to tattle, so I didn’t. But if one of the benefits of giving kids their independence is that they tell you the truth, that’s a deal I’m willing to make.


Too much self-esteem?

Turns out children are feeling pretty good about themselves lately. Maybe a little too good.

As reported on the website Connect with Kids (http://www.connectwithkids.com/), a  study by researchers at San Diego State University found that high school seniors are bursting with more self esteem than a generation (or two) ago. For example, in 1975, 49% of them believed that they will be successful at their job. Today, 65% do.

It’s nice to feel confident and instilling that “World, here I come!” attitude is actually a Free Range Kids goal. But (there’s always a but) instilling baseless self-congratulation is not. And I have to admit, it’s a fine line figuring out when to say, “What a wonderful letter you wrote for grandma!” and when to go, “Do you think you could possibly put one OUNCE of effort into your thank you note?”

It’s not just parents busy dealing with praise inflation, either. The other day I was on a field trip with my fifth grader to a museum all about the American Revolution. The guide had the class study a painting of Washington and his troops, and then she asked, “What do we see in this picture?”

Up went a hand: “Queen Elizabeth!”

The guide smiled encouragingly. “I don’t think the Queen was here in America…”

You don’t think so? Jeez– I KNOW so. So should the kids! That’s what the field trip was for, right? Learning some history. The Queen was NOT in this picture. In fact, there were no WOMEN in the picture. In fact, it was a picture of MEN fighting a WAR in AMERICA against a KING who, by the way, was not married to Queen Elizabeth and who also was NOT in the picture because he was back home in ENGLAND.” God forbid we should roll our eyes and say, “Hey kid — back to the history books!”

Although that may start happening soon. My sister-in-law lives in a school district to end all school districts in suburban Chicago and the superintendent there, Eric Twadell, is worried about the same issue: Too much praise for too little anything. In an editorial in the high school magazine (glossy as Newsweek) he wrote, “For too many years educators have worshipped at the altar of self-esteem theory, wrongly believing that if we simply help students feel better about themselves, their reading, writing and arithmetic will improve. Nothing could be further from the truth.”


It’s not that I’m all for instilling low self-esteem. I don’t believe in squashing egos or squelching the curiosity. Encouragement is good. But maybe the antidote to meaningless praise is not a surfeit of discouragement but more opportunities for kids to really succeed at something, instead of just being told how great they are.

That’s where Free Ranging comes in. A kid who goes and gets the family’s groceries really has done something in the world. Ditto, a kid who makes the dinner. Ditto a kid who goes and brings grandma her card instead of just scribbling a note and having mom drop it in the mail.

There are a lot of things kids used to do that garnered them the kind of self-esteem we have taken to artificially instilling with pats on the back for not-very-special “specialness.” Send kids back out into the world with tasks to complete, new situations to navigate, even those old fashioned trees to climb and self-esteem will come as naturally as bug bites and bumps. That way when we say, “Good for you!” we’ll mean it.

And they’ll know it.