Cloistered Kids Make Terrible Adults

Hi Readers — This is just one piercing piece, from the newspaper The Age, in Australia. And while I was down there, the wonderful writer of this wonderful op-ed was kind enough to take me on a walking tour of Melbourne, which turns out to be covered with incredible graffiti! BEAUTIFUL graffiti that blew me away — and I come from the LAND of graffiti: NYC!

Anyway, I’ve taken the liberty of bolding my favorite line. (Okay – lines.) Enjoy! — L.

CLOISTERED KIDS MAKE TERRIBLE ADULTS, by JULIE RUDNER

If my parents had raised me the same way now as they did in the 1970s and ’80s, I’m sure they would attract the ire of other parents. I had quite a few responsibilities at home as well as a lot of freedom outside of it. I learned how to make lunches, do laundry, walk the dog; and pop down to the shops by the age of seven. My friends and I were regular movie-goers by about eight or nine years. By 10, I took public transport, and by 17 I hitch-hiked around Scotland. I would not trade my freedom for the world.

But children’s lives today are less free range, to use a term popularised by American columnist Lenore Skenazy, a recent visitor to Australia, who was roundly condemned two years ago after she let her then nine-year-old son take the New York subway on his own.

I loved my adventures, and feel claustrophobic for children now as the things I enjoyed have now been labelled “unsafe” or “risky”. I conducted some research in the Western suburbs of Melbourne in 2008 to find out how parents, local government staff and policy dealt with the risk of children going places on their own. In contrast to my own experiences, 68 per cent of parents did not allow their children to walk or cycle to or from school; even fewer were allowed to go to other places on their own.

While local government staff believed children should be allowed to go places alone, a variety of policies from the local to the international level discourage free ranging and foster controlled activity such as after-school programs and adult-organised sports. Part of the problem is legal liability. One interviewee in my study noted “. . . all it takes is one [incident], you know, and council could be issued with a huge writ. So it’s reality and it’s something that we need to be mindful of.”

While it is easy to blame the media, as many do, for the current state of affairs, I think the situation is more complex and dynamic. The success of media in triggering parental worry is probably because of how we define and view risk. “Risk” in everyday life refers to hazards, chances, probabilities, possibilities, victims, and decision-making or actions that we think are wrong; perhaps more importantly, risk commonly invoked images of terrible consequences.

Media focuses on the worst-case scenarios in which children and their parents experience devastating long-term effects. Unfortunately, policies and professionals provide expert voices that support the media and often use similar methods.

There are basically two simple messages that are promoted by a variety of sources: children are passive, vulnerable, “at-risk” victims to an incredible number of hazards; and children will be irreparably damaged if they experience harm. What a way to reinforce parental anxiety! Forget about the variation between children due to different life experiences and abilities, and parents’ knowledge of their own children’s abilities and personalities – all children are waiting for a traumatic event to happen! These messages seem to target parents’ concern that something might happen while feeding worry about the potential consequences.

No sane adult wants his or her child to suffer trauma, but concentrating on negative outcomes is disempowering and unproductive. We cannot control everything and anything. What we can do as parents and as community supporting parents is to help children develop knowledge and skills for interacting in the world. To do this we need to give children some freedom to develop the necessary spatial, physical, psychological, social, and analytical skills required for negotiating their environments.

Talking about potential dangers and how to deal with them is not the same as allowing children to assess and manage potential hazards first hand — just like hitting my thumb with a hammer was very different from my dad’s warning, “hold the nail this way; hitting your thumb hurts”. We can help children learn how to read their environments by teaching them the art of observing people on trams, how to anticipate cars on the road, creating a repertoire of sentences and actions if they are in a tough situation, or how to select a stranger for help if it is needed. We need to ensure children start amassing a vast library of experiences and skills because one day they will be out in the world on their own whether they have had an apprenticeship or not.

Will the kids of today have the skills to interact with the world to achieve their goals and have primarily positive experiences? In my adult life, I have come across workplace bullies and inappropriate sexual demands; I have wandered around numerous cities and found my way home safely; I have had the confidence to apply for jobs and try new things even though I was scared; I have read rowdy crowds and left before trouble started; and I trusted strangers who helped me when I needed it. I could read my environments because I had a lifetime of training that started when I was very young. Do we really want to take this from our kids?

###

Julie Rudner is a lecturer in the Community Planning and Development Program at La Trobe University, Bendigo campus. La Trobe, in partnership with the University of Wollongong, is part of an international project researching children’s independent mobility in Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania, and Indonesia, associated with the Policy Studies Institute in the UK.

 

So I couldn't resist this photo. Sue me. ('Roo me?)

 

 

24 Responses

  1. I totally agree and grew up this way, too, but I also understand the worry and feel the “push-pull” when my children want to do something that could POSSIBLY be dangerous.

    For example, when my eldest was in 9th grade a few years ago and was invited to high school parties with juniors and seniors, my husband and I first said, “No way”. It took us a while to realize that our daughter needed to be exposed to situations — in small doses — where other teenagers were drinking, etc. (within reason), so that she could learn to handle them… It was either that or keep her home and risk her possibly “going round the bend” in college, unprepared, with limited social experience. It was SCARY for us, but it has turned out to be a good decision. We let her go enjoy the parties and figure them out. If she was not doing well in school it would be another story, but she is an amazingly responsible, together girl. Always has been.

  2. They may start out as kids but our job is not to shelter them from life’s experiences. I’ll consider myself a successful parent when my kids are adults and can manage without needing me as a crutch. I’ve met many kids who aren’t allowed to leave their gated communities without adult supervision. I don’t know what’s more sad, the look on the boy’s face when he realizes his friends can’t go to the park with him or the look on the friend’s face when the boy is riding off on his scooter.

  3. Everyone wants a nation full of responsible adults. This includes adults that take care of their families, use their money responsibly, know when to take a risk and open a business, are able to intact with others in their communities to solve problems, that teach kids how to be positive, polite citizens, be a le to navigate the global economy, and much more.

    But where do these adults come from? You can’t expect a kid that never had any freedom or responsibility to be able to do these things at 18, or even 21! How do people think we get Police, soldiers, entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, explorers, doctors and lawyers? All of these roles require hard work, risk taking, and good judgement. These attributes don’t spring up when a kid gets older, they have to learn them in the real world.

  4. Dr. Phil is right when he talks about a parent’s job. He says that a parent’s job isn’t to raise a child, but to raise an adult.

  5. @Staceyjw: I know many politicians who honestly believe that it’s the State who should educate citizens, the State who should manage and distribute its citizens’ wealth, regulate every little aspect of any sort of business going on within its borders, always intervene whenever two citizens’ interests collide…
    And millions of people vote for them. After all, we have to admit that working hard, taking risks and making good judgements looks like too much effort.
    No wonder my country is coming to pieces, right?

  6. Just yesterday my 5yo said,”do you remember Charlie in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory? He went on a walk without his mom. I wish I could do that some day.” I kid you not! She then listed all the places she could go by herself if I let her. I promised her soon she could walk around the block by herself.

  7. Took the words right out of my mouth. Hopefully more and more people will grow to have the same understanding and less fear of the world. Just like some former helicopter parents turned free range, people can change, they just have to choose to.

  8. I’m making it my personal mission to eliminate the word “dangerous” from my vocabulary unless I’m talking about something REALLY dangerous — like running in the street or doing a risky activity without the appropriate caution.

    Knives are not dangerous. Climbing a tree is not dangerous, though if the tree is not strong enough or the kid wants to go too high, I will forbid my kid from doing it. Setting off fireworks while practicing good safety methods is not dangerous. Crossing the street with appropriate caution is not dangerous.

    If I had a nickel for every time I heard a parent say something was “dangerous” when they meant “you have to be careful doing it,” “you shouldn’t do it alone,” “it’s not something you should play with,” or “You’re not old enough to do it yet,’ I’d be rich. But that’s danger inflation, and it teaches kids that the world is full of dangers, rather than risks and challenges. There are real dangers, but they are not found every time you turn around.

  9. This was brought home to me several years ago when my son said he wouldn’t go into the army because it was too dangerous. (He was about 8, so he wasn’t making a life decision, just expressing an opinion.) I felt like I’d blown it. Whatever you think about whether a kid should go into the military, it shouldn’t be “because it’s dangerous and I won’t do anything dangerous.” That might have been my first wakeup call about the whole Free Range thing, though I didn’t know what to call it then.

  10. I’d not heard the term cloistered kids before but agree with the message that free range is better. That’s certainly the way I was brought up. Of course environment and location has a part to play and I was fortunate to be in a place where I felt safe. However, as someone who is about to become a parent, practising this philosophy when my child wants to spread their wings could be a different matter altogether!

  11. Lola–you nailed it. I myself decry what is commonly called the “nanny state.” Right on my Facebook I’m doing a “series” of status updates–“if I were king” related posts. The one I did today, my first–I stated I’d abolish CPS intervention for anything but the most hideous cases–bruises/broken bones, drug usage, molestation, etc. Otherwise, keep the government out of all parenting affairs. Then, you wouldn’t have to worry about nosy people meddling either.

    Free-range is the way to go. I know it in my heart. I first observed this some years ago, when I first realized that I would be a John Rosemond-type of parent–that is, the type that is firmly in charge & strongly disciplinarian of children with rule-breaking. At the same time, though, I also came to strongly believe that being a kid ought to be fun, and that parents are TOO strict with their kids at the lake, park, any sort of playing situation.

    In short, a lot of modern parents have it backwards–where it regards behaving in restaurants & waiting rooms etc, they’re way too lenient, but where it regards playing situations, they’re way too strict. My favorite–the parent yelling “stop running,” and their kid is running in the PARK, in the GRASS area. My goodness, where CAN you run if not there? Are legs now dangerous?

    LRH

  12. Larry, that’s a great point. It’s not that parents are generally more or less strict than in the past, it’s that (generally) we’re lax on what parents used to be strict about, and strict about what they used to be lax about.

  13. “For example, when my eldest was in 9th grade a few years ago and was invited to high school parties with juniors and seniors, my husband and I first said, No way. It took us a while to realize that our daughter needed to be exposed to situations — in small doses — where other teenagers were drinking, etc. (within reason), so that she could learn to handle them… It was either that or keep her home and risk her possibly “going round the bend” in college, unprepared, with limited social experience”
    I don’t know. I never went to parties in high school, and I didn’t go around the bend in college. In fact, I chose not to drink at all in college. On the other hand, my brother went to parties in high school and drank heavily both in high school and college. For my kids, I think I’ll be saying no to parties in high school where there will likely be alcohol. (Yes to parties at the houses of kids whose parents we know fairly well and trust.) Once in college, they’ll do what they want, but I certainly don’t think they’ll be LESS likely to drink just because they spent some time hanging out around people who drank in high school. Kids tend to adapt the values of their peer group. I believe in giving my children responsibility and range to move around, but I reserve the right to set parameters on their peer group and the destination of their outings as long as they are living with me. My six year old is permitted to wander the nieghbourhood and go in to friends houses, but she’s not permitted to go into the friend’s house where I know violent television is playing a good part of the day. She can only play with those friends outside. She accepts these rules, because she trusts me. This sort of thing will be more of a challenge in the teenage years, but I intend to continue to make such rules – i.e., you’re welcome to have those friends over to our house, but you can’t go to a party with them at such and such house.

  14. Hello there,
    I’m new to this blog🙂 I couldn’t agree more with the whole free range thing – I used to pick up my brother from kindergarden, walk home with him (crossing streets, oh no!) and make lunch for the both of us. I was eight when we started doing this two-three days a week because my mom started working.
    Our neighbour had a key to our apartment and I had her phone number and I felt extremely awesome and adult because of this, but if I did this today, social services would probably take away my kids🙂
    My son is four years old, and goes to a kindergarden that is two minutes away. We have to cross a tiny dead end street with next to no traffic to get there and I asked his kindergarden teacher, at what age I was allowed to let him go there/let him go home by himself.
    I was thinking that they would probably OK it for the last year, before he goes to school (and I really want him to be able to go to school alone at some point), but the head kindergarden teacher looked at me like I just announced I wanted to publicly flail my kid!

    Anyway, thank you. I’m trying my best, because I really enjoyed being a free range kid. My son is alowed to do some things that he probably shouldn’t be doing yet – but it works for us so far!

    Vee

  15. Check out this anti-free-range-kids advice from today’s newspaper advice column. A busybody wants to complain about a kid using an elevator in an upscale hotel.

  16. Sky, that sounds like a good approach. I wondered about the other comment also — though it’s true that it’s important to teach your kids to navigate social situations without getting into trouble, is it really necessary to throw a ninth grader in an unsupervised situation with the seniors for that to happen? There’s a BIG maturity difference between 14 and 18. It seems like a key ingredient of “teaching to navigate” would be exerting enough control so that they could learn *before* they got in over their heads, and being a younger one in a group of older kids can be a lot of pressure.

  17. I rarely comment here, but I love reading Free Range Kids! I have a 2 year old, and I am borderline helicopter; FRK serves as a reminder to me to rein in my over-protective tendencies. Thank you!

    I read thisstory recently and thought of FRK: http://www.13wmaz.com/news/local_story.aspx?storyid=94122

    A group of concerned citizens are worried about a very deep ditch near an elementary school. The school system’s facilities director’s solution? Make all the kids who walked to school start riding the bus, apparently indefinitely. The city councilman for that region is quoted as saying that since it would cost too much to fill in and the kids are supposed to ride the bus now, they’re leaving it at that.

  18. That photo at the end of the article had my mental jukebox cuing up “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” by Rolf Harris.

  19. I think teenagers need to have some freedom or else they cannot learn to be independent. I think it is a little extreme to say if a teenager is cloistered that they will make bad adults.

  20. @devotchka interesting story. To bad they can’t put in culverts and put a sidewalk there. I would find a ditch that deep on a path frequented by kids a little scary. I live in Houston, and kids playing/falling into flooded ditches has led to tragedy.

    When I was in elementary school, there was a very narrow hike and bike trail on the main busy road between my school and home. It also forced me to ride my bike on the wrong side of the street going home. I only had to be on it for a block, then I could divert to saver side roads.

    One day I was forced off the road into a dry but deep ditch, when bullies on a passing school bus threw stuff at me. The driver. Mr. Murphy, stopped, helped me get out of the ditch. Then Mr. Murphy put me and my bike on the bus, turned around and drove me home. (I was banged up and there was something wrong with my front wheel).

    My parents filed yet another complaint against the bullies. But they got involved in a community movement. First they did flood control. Ditches were deepened and widen, then culverts were put in to drain rain water. Then on the newly recovered shoulder an extra wide Hike and Bike trail was developed. It runs parallel to the major roads through the Memorial Villages.

    Results
    More kids walked or rode bikes to school
    Eliminated street flooding

    Future proofed
    Even today it is safe to ride on the hike and bike trails massive SUV’s would hit you with their side mirrors if you tried to ride on the narrow street, but the hike and bike trail is set off to the side enough that isn’t a problem

    Even with the massive build up that has happened in the last 30 years, the area did not have street or house flooding during Alicia, Allison, or Ike.

  21. It makes sense…. I just made the mistake of trying to drive past the high school at school release time. Turns out that teenagers these days need a crossing guard to get across the street to their cars. That not one, but TWO crossing guards posted 1 block apart are needed. What I can’t figure out is why they’re allowed to drive if they can’t be trusted to safely cross the street. Oh, and they get ushered across safely by the crossing guards and then get into their cars and don’t signal or watch for other traffic. Good job, parents! You must be so proud! Your little Merit Scholar can’t cross the street!

  22. I’ve mentioned this before on here, but I teach at a university, mostly third year students, around the 21 year old mark. Many of them suffer from a range of anxiety disorders that prevent them from handing work in on time (hey, how about do your homework and then you won’t be so anxious?) A large proportion of them live at home (so *ahem* they are anxious, not doing their homework and have someone else doing their laundry for them). Most of them went to private schools, often very expensive private schools.

    Look, I have no doubt most of them will be fantastic adults. But at 21 they aren’t adults yet. And to me that in itself is a worrying trend. And I wonder what sort of parents they will make…where their values will lie in terms of giving kids freedom and agency and independence.

  23. I was astounded recently to read on a budget travellers advice sharing forum (www.lonelyplanet.com.au), a young woman asking about paying an agent to organise all her visas, bank accounts, tax file number etc ahead of her gap year in Australia. I just thought how hopeless are some young people these days? I mean if you are old enough to be trusted to travel half way across the world to work, surely you can work out how to apply for your own visa and bank account. I wonder who normally does these things for her at home.

  24. I’m curious to discover out what blog platform you have been utilizing? I’m experiencing some minor security issues with my latest website and I’d like to discover something a lot more secure. Do you’ve any recommendations?

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