One Mother's Recipe for Resilience

Public Domain. Unsplash / Clark Young

Or, how I'm trying to raise strong little adults, not fearful, incompetent kids.

When George Thomas was eight years old in 1926, he often walked six miles to his favorite swimming hole – alone, of course. Fast forward more than eighty years to 2007, and his eight-year-old great-grandson Edward isn't allowed to go further than the end of the block on his own.

That story was published 12 years ago, but the gist of it is as relevant as ever. Social media has made parents more paranoid than before, despite mounting evidence that this is terrible for children. It stunts their emotional development, limits their physical development, inhibits resilience, and makes extra work for already exhausted parents who cannot be expected to accompany their children everywhere.

Some parents, however, refuse to live like this. They choose not to impose such a narrow, fear-based existence onto their children and prefer to pursue independence as a primary parenting goal. But what are they doing differently? What are their daily, practical tips for raising confident, capable children? Lenore Skenazy put out the call for advice on her excellent website, Let Grow:

"If your kids are out and about these days, please tell us how you have made this happen. What factors make it easier for parents to send their kids out to walk and play and roam? Any advice or observations are important as we widen our kids' lives."

Well, I certainly have thoughts on that. I let my own kids roam much further than any of their friends. In fact, when my 10-year-old wanted to go trick-or-treating without parents at Halloween – a request I found entirely reasonable – I was hard-pressed to find a friend his age whose parents would allow him to go along. Here are some of the steps I've taken to foster independence in my kids.

Years of walking and cycling our town, rather than driving, have created familiarity with routes that my children can now travel on their own. They understand the rules of the road and how to cross a street safely. They haven't had to undergo a big switch from being chauffeured by Mom to walking on their own; instead, they're just walking the same streets they always did.

They are familiar with safe public spaces. We have spent a lot of time at the library over the years, so they know the employees there and would feel comfortable going in on their own if they needed help. Same goes for the coffee shop, the music store, and the gym where Mom and Dad hang out. These are in-between stops with familiar faces that mediate the bigger world, if that makes sense.

I have trained them to perform errands independently alongside me. I will often give them small tasks, such as going to get select ingredients at the grocery store or running into one store while I go into one next door. They handle small financial transactions, and we always have a meeting point afterward. Now that they're older, I send them out of the house to pick up certain ingredients, the mail, a library book, or the newspaper on weekend mornings.

I say 'yes' when they ask for more independence. If they want to do something on their own (such as the Halloween trick-or-treating mentioned above), that means they feel ready for it and I should encourage it. If they want to ride their bikes around town, or visit a friend, or climb a snow hill, or play at a nearby playground, I allow it. We discuss the safest route to get there and what time they need to be home, but my goal is never to squash their desire to exercise independence.

I push them to do things on their own when I know they can handle it. For example, I asked my 8-year-old recently if he wanted to walk home alone after school one day while I took his siblings to an appointment and explained that I'd be home within ten minutes. He said no, he'd prefer to come to the appointment, which was fine with me; but the fact that I asked – knowing he's capable of it – is now in his mind, and it will fill him with greater confidence next time.

We talk to the neighbors. We know everyone in the neighborhood. I figure that the more people who know my children, the safer they will be. I have taught my kids to speak to strangers, to look them in the eye, to answer politely and firmly, not to feel intimidated or fearful, and to say, "I have to go now," if they need to get out of a conversation.

The result is a sense of peace, knowing that my kids are getting better at navigating the world with each day that passes and that they won't be floundering when the time comes to move out. I'm raising them to be little adults, not overgrown children, and life will be easier on all of us as a result.