Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Raising confident, independent children

I am a fan of Lenore Skenazy, creator of Free Range Kids.  She is a little controversial - but I embrace her general philosphy - to let kids be kids.  Lenore encourages us to let our children be children like we were - she started her blog (which has since turned into speaking engagements and books among other things) because she wrote an article on why she let her son ride the NYC subway alone.  He was 9.  Her philosophy is that we can raise "safe, self-reliant children without going nuts with worry."

Like Lenore, I believe that we cannot - I repeat - can NOT - coddle our children like the current generation of 20-30 somethings were as children.   Our children have to learn to be kids like we learned to be kids - we rode our bikes for hours around the neighborhood;  sold Girl Scout cookies door to door in the whole neighborhood, not just at the houses of the people we knew; and walked to elementary school - not uphill, both ways like our grandparents, but alone or with our friends.  Not one of these with adult supervision.  

In addition to the safety risks that we try to protect our children from, I think we often over-protect our children from the emotional risks of being children as well.   We try to protect them from emotional lows, disappointment in themselves, failed friendships - all of which they will experience at some point in their lives.  I think we do them a disservice when we don't let them experience these emotions earlier in life.  

Let's take friendships for example:  it's so hard for us to let our kids manage their own friendships.  We want our kids to have a lot of friends, and - dare I say it - be "popular" (especially if we were NOT).  And we feel that somehow we have failed if they aren't.  I had tremendous guilt as a working mom when my son had so very few playdates in preschool.  I thought for sure he would be a loner with no friends by the time he was in 2nd grade.  Boy, was I wrong.  Turns out my lack of over-managing his social life then has had no effect on his current one.

My kids have a wide variety of friends - some closer than others.  I try not to interfere with these relationships.  My daughter has a new "best" friend every month.  I don't forbid her to have a "best" friend because then others will be excluded (which is the topic of the blog I read today that inspired this one).  She has to learn what having and being a "best" friend means - I can't simply tell her that having a true best friend can be one of he most valued relationships in your life.  She has to learn this on her own.

My son still plays with some kids he met when he was 5, but also with ones he met more recently.   He let a relationship "fade" over this past year with a boy who he had been quite close with the year prior.  This "friend" wasn't acting so much like a friend this year - playground hitting, saying nasty things - and my son realized that his energy was better spent on others who treated him better.

I think that they need to learn how to navigate human relationships now, so for the most part, I stay out of them.  I believe this is equipping them to be able to better navigate friendships, and all relationships, in the future.  Yes I want them to have a lot of friends.  And yes, I will step in (and I have) when a relationship turns more toxic (like when my daughter was being a bully, and later being bullied herself.)  But it is up to them to decide who their friends are, and until they need or request my help, I will step back and let them happen.  But no matter what happens, I will certainly stop short of hiring a "friendship coach." (No lie - apparently these coaches "teach kids how to be friends the RIGHT WAY."  Seriously? No, seriously??)

Yes, we need to keep our kids safe.  But we also MUST let go - it's the only way they will learn how to be successful adults.   So even if you can't imagine letting your 9 year old ride the subway alone, or even walk around the neighborhood by herself, try letting her navigate her friendships with no interference from you.  It may be hard, but I hope you realize it will be worth it.