How To Let Grow During A Pandemic
- Interview By
- Liz McDaniel
“Children Walking Alone,” warned an alert I received from the social media site nextdoor just as I sat down to write this piece. “Dear Parents,” it went on. “Please have an adult accompany children "taking a walk" even around the block. Although our neighborhood is one of the best for families, there is always "a chance" a child may be taken-- in a heartbeat. Don't let it be your child (or children)!”
Before I discovered Lenore Skenazy, I would not have questioned the logic of a post like this. I’m a mother of two daughters with the usual ticker tape of worries that something terrible could happen to one of them, and worse, that I might “let it.” But thanks to Lenore—who I tracked down after hanging on every word of her conversation with Dax Shepard on his podcast Armchair Expert— I came to this post with a fresh perspective.
Forget the fact that, actually, the chance of an American child being abducted and killed by a stranger is close to zero, because that’s still a chance no one wants to think about. Having listened to Lenore talk— about how childhood has changed, how play need not be micro-managed and how expectations for modern parents were too high even before a global pandemic set in—I saw this post as one example of a culture that has consistently erred on the side of caution, and maybe even to the detriment of our kids.
Just in time for the new documentary film featuring Lenore, Chasing Childhood, which premieres on November 11, I caught up with her over Zoom. Our conversation left me feeling energized and empowered just as we head into a long and uncertain winter. I hope it does the same for you.
We are reaching the height of pandemic fatigue and with so many overwhelmed parents out there, have you seen an increased interest in the Let Grow movement?
I have seen it both ways. On the one hand, it’s impossible to be a "helicopter parent" now, even if you wanted to, because no one can watch their kid 24-7, and come up with nutritious snacks and fun projects and do-it-yourself activities. Nobody can do that. Especially if they’re at home also trying to work or find work. So I kept thinking that this is the perfect time, basically a spontaneous Let Grow era. But I’ve also heard it’s THE most helicopter time because parents are with their kids that same 24-7 saying, “Did you do your homework?” and, “Let me help you.” I actually don’t know which is more true. We did a survey toward the beginning of COVID because we suspected, as you’re saying, that this was going to be the most Free-Range, Let Grow time in the history of childhood. We asked 1600 kids ages 8-13 across the economic and geographic spectrum what they were learning just for fun and not for school, and their answers were the best. One kid was learning about 1940’s gangsters, or they’d say, "I’m studying bugs." I thought it was cool that kids were becoming quirky again, finally. Kids are cooking a lot more, and they’re riding their bikes a lot more, but it still sounds like there’s this culture out there that thinks that more supervision is always better. That hasn’t totally disappeared.
You talk about how it’s really well-meaning parents who are changing the face of childhood, so what are some easy, actionable ways for parents to change their behavior? What do you recommend for parents who are looking for somewhere to start empowering their kids?
At Let Grow, we offer the Let Grow Project, which is done through schools, even hybrid or remotely. Kids get the homework assignment, “Do something new, on your own.” Because it’s for school, even nervous parents step back and let their kids run an errand, cook a meal – something new. That bit of independence shows just how competent the kids can be, which changes both generations. Everyone feels more confident and, frankly, joyful. Teachers can get The Project from our site. It’s free! For COVID times, we also created the Let Grow Independence Kit. Really, it’s just a home version of the Project. It explains to parents the importance of kids doing some things on their own, and then it gives kids a list of ideas of things to do, and of course you can add your own to it. So I think that is the easiest way to get started because there’s a framework around it that explains why independence is key.
I want to take a moment to define free-play. That is what so much of your work is trying to protect. But what is it, really?
When kids are playing on their own, it’s a very different experience than if they’re in a league or a class. I’m not against leagues or classes and my kids certainly did plenty of those, but when adults and kids are together, the adults are the adults and the kids are the kids. When you take the adults away, the kids have to figure out: What are we going to do? How are we going to make the teams? Is first base the tree or the squirrel -- which is a terrible idea -- and they’ll figure it out. Or, “Who is the mommy and who gets to be the kid?”. In all of those discussions and negotiations, which can go on forever, kids are learning how to make something happen. They’re learning self-control and compromise and communication skills. They’re being creative. If it’s boring, they change the rules. That’s democracy. That’s actually kids learning how to vote and voice their opinions and get buy-in. To have adults step in and determine all that for you means you’re not actually learning those interpersonal skills. You might be learning how to hit a ball, because some professional is teaching you, but you’re not learning how to compromise or how to make sure your friend isn’t bored. That’s why free play is so much more enriching in terms of social emotional skills than just being at the soccer league.
One of the points I was really interested in in your conversation with Dax was this notion that intensive parenting really came about as women were starting to enter the workplace and “have it all.” You compared it to the 1950’s when a lot of household chores became easier so all of the sudden you had to set the perfect table and keep the perfect home, and I was just blown away by how true that seemed. Can you talk more about that?
When I was reading Rebecca Traister’s “All The Single Women,” one interesting factoid was that just at the dawn of the industrial revolution, when there were the first labor saving devices for the home, that’s when they started to publish books on how to keep the perfect home. And they really upped the standards for what was good enough housekeeping. So suddenly I have more free time because I’ve got a vacuum cleaner, but I have less free time because now I have to fold the napkin perfectly to set the perfect table. And it just seemed like, “Let’s keep women busy with something so they won’t rebel.” Similarly, in the 1970s, when fewer women were working outside of the home, they spent, across the board, 7-9 less hours per week than college educated women do now on childcare. That’s basically a work day that has been added to the week for moms today in terms of what’s expected of them in mothering or child-rearing. That struck me as extremely suspicious. Because just as more women are going to college, and achieving closer parity on pay, and rising through the ranks, suddenly the demands of them as parents, as mothers, have also crept up, making it seem like we need to spend more time focused on our kids and less time on our careers and, if not, you’re a bad mom. I did a talk once for all the women partners at a huge law firm and what I wanted them to know is that it’s not slacking to trust your kids with some unsupervised time. It is not being a bad mom to expect your kids to walk to school or make a sandwich or entertain themselves.
So "helicopter parenting" has become the norm?
Helicopter parenting is a nebulous idea and everybody thinks that they’re not doing it and somebody else is. I feel it’s an insult because it’s just a way of telling moms you’re either a slacker or a helicopter. Is there no good mom out there? I don’t slam the idea of helicopter parents because a) who knows what that actually is? And b) in some ways, our culture is forcing us to helicopter. If you want your kid to play outside and there’s nobody else to play outside with, then you’re stuck playing with them or taking them to soccer. I’ve heard from so many moms who tell me they let their kid go three houses down to play with a friend and the other parent walks the child back at the end of the play date and says, “She came by herself, but I was so worried." There’s always this implication that if you’re not watching them every second you don’t care very much. There’s this very judgmental thing out there that leaves parents afraid of doing too much, or too little. You don’t want to be judged. So I just wish we would judge a little less. We talk about all of the mom shaming, but I think there’s a lot of moms who will literally support you and the deal is that you support them. And you’re never going to be at exactly the same place on everything, but to give other moms the benefit of the doubt. That’s the real key.
You also draw a parallel in your book between the Let Grow movement and the Women’s Rights Movement. What is it that you're fighting for?
My husband always calls the Let Grow movement a civil rights movement in that kids used to have the run of the land. They would go out for hours, they would make their own fun. At some point they could get a little job. They weren’t under constant lock and key or constantly under surveillance from some technological device. Then, supposedly out of concern for their safety, we constricted their lives to the point where barely any kids get to have an entire Saturday where you get up in the morning and hop on your bike and go to the library and then to play ball, go the park and start a lemonade stand then come home at 7 at night and gobble your dinner and then go out and play flashlight tag. We say the reason we’re not allowing them to do any of that is we’re so concerned that something bad will happen to them. That reminded me of all the women who rolled up their sleeves, Rosie the Riveter style, and we saw how incredibly competent and confident they were. They were trusted with being part of the world. And then after the war, we said, “Oh no, for your own sake, you really should be back at home and you’re going to have a lot of appliances.” But the women started saying, “Why am I so bored?” So the women could climb out of this, they could recognize this false premise that somehow, though they’d been fine out in the world, achieving and being part of things, suddenly that was unsafe. But children can’t say, “We deserve more freedom! I like going to the park and playing with my friends. I deserve the chance to ride my bike.” They can’t really speak for themselves. So all I’m trying to do is renormalize the idea that kids can do some things on their own, that they’re not in constant danger and that, in fact, the free-play that we were talking about, or letting your kids do things on their own -- these things are great for kids and when we take them away, it’s “the problem that has no name.”
This wonderful seventh grade teacher on Long Island had her students do twenty Let Grow Projects throughout the year because she’d never seen kids so anxious in her twenty years of teaching, and the things that changed in them were just so enormous. A girl who was allowed to put her sister on the bus one morning said, “I felt really important to her and important to someone.” These are kids who were being given everything and always helped and always assisted and always loved, but never trusted. To do things on their own changed their lives.