Oct 24, 2023
New research from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that even though 84% of parents of 9-11 year olds agree that “children benefit from having free time without adult supervision,” only 33% of parents of 9-11 year olds would let them walk or bike to a friend’s house.
This is very much a modern-day parenting paradox. We want our children to experience independence, and yet our own fears about the world stifle opportunities for our children to stretch their literal and metaphorical legs, which is why chapter 2 of my book is titled “Scary versus Dangerous: Addressing Anxiety and Safety in the Digital Age” and is dedicated to unpacking this challenge.
Earlier this summer, my tween wanted to walk to a friend’s house by herself. The friend lived less than a mile away, but it would involve crossing a pretty big street, and Sylvie does not have a phone.
I’ve been working hard to manage my own anxiety as a parent, trying not to be consumed by the click-bait, fear-inducing stories that make the headlines and social media feeds. Because in spite of what that 24/7 algorithm tells me, things are actually much safer today than in previous generations.
In spite of knowing all this and understanding the importance of giving kids opportunities to do things on their own, I am a product of a fear-based culture.
It’s not like we hadn’t let her venture out on her own before.
Sylvie had been walking to and from school by herself or with a friend all year, or down to the local bakery for a snack – but this was a new route in a different direction. She, of course, wanted me to give her my phone to take, but I declined. I knew that she would be far more distracted (and therefore less safe) having an internet-connected device in her hands than walking by herself to her friend’s house.
It was actually Sylvie herself who came up with a rather quirky and ingenious idea to show me that she did indeed know how to walk to her friend’s house without a phone and without my assistance. She pulled up Google Maps, street view, on the iPad. She found our house. Then, she proceeded to “walk” me to her friend’s house, narrating the entire route:
“First, I pass Miles’s house, then turn down this hill where we went sledding that one really snowy winter, walk to the bottom where there is a crosswalk with a signal [the busy street I worried about], then wait for the signal, cross and pass the house that you think looks like a library, then past that really huge oak tree that hangs over the street, then turn right on this street, and her house is this blue one.”
I was impressed. A few things I noticed:
This was a great example of Living Your Life Out Loud, one of my favorite tips to give about narrating our use of technology and how it helps (or hinders) us.
It was also a great example of tech-intentionality– using the device as a tool to demonstrate a skill.
In visually mapping out her route, Sylvie also demonstrated great situational awareness, showing me that she was familiar enough with our neighborhood to be able to identify familiar landmarks.
She also demonstrated strong executive function, listing out the steps (literally) she would have to take to get from our house to her friend’s house.
She also recognized the importance of being safe when crossing the street (my biggest fear).
It’s important to state that this wasn’t just something Sylvie figured out in that one moment.
There were a lot of smaller moments that led us to this– the fact that we walk in our neighborhood a lot, that I point out funny landmarks when I drive, that she doesn’t use a device in the car so she’s building situational awareness, the fact that she’s a very visual learner and remembers quirky details, the fact that *I* made it clear that we believed in her ability to walk independently by having her get herself to and from school all year.
It is the culmination of these experiences that led us to this Google Map moment.
The other really important thing that happened was that I let go of my (algorithmically-induced) fear about safety and getting lost and kidnapping and the state of the world (all inflated fears) and realized that by trusting Sylvie to trust herself I was helping build her confidence and skills in such a way that I was paradoxically strengthening her sense of safety and security in the world.
Children do not grow up and feel safe because we shelter and protect them from all harm throughout their childhood; instead, children feel secure when they know they can trust themselves and because adults they trust have given them opportunities to build resilience.
As Lenore Skenazy, one of my favorite thinkers on this topic states, “A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.”
The hardest part of all this isn’t letting our kids have these experiences. The hardest part is not giving in to our disproportionate parental fear and anxiety about the world. I’m writing these words as much for myself as for all the parents out there:
Being afraid of all the bad things that could happen doesn’t actually keep my kid safer. In fact, it can do the opposite.
Parents, today I invite you to loosen the ropes of fear that hold you tight. What can you do this week to give your child an opportunity to step into independence – to push them slightly out of their comfort zones (and your own)?
What support do you need to keep your anxiety from becoming an indication that you do not trust your child to do something on their own?
This is not easy. But it is very important. Let me know how things go. We will change the world one small Google Map moment at a time!