Ten years ago, Lenore Skenazy didn’t think she was starting a movement. She just thought she was letting her 9-year old son ride the subway, alone, through New York City. She didn’t give him a cell phone, and she didn’t trail behind him. And for doing so, she was decried as “America’s Worst Mom” on media outlets and in parenting forums.
But something else happened too. The group Free Range Kids was born — an online movement dedicated to giving kids the freedom we enjoyed as children. A place to publicize how kids are far safer than when we were growing up, and it’s not because of helicopter parenting. A place to show how kids, when given more independence are happier, enjoy better mental health, and learn how capable they truly are.
But it wasn’t enough to decry legal interventions into kids walking their dogs or babies left in cars for thirty seconds. Skenazy didn’t just want to raise awareness. She wanted to change the world. So, along with an executive director, she launched the Let Grow Project.
Let Grow is almost scary in its simplicity, a premise that makes it easy for teachers and other educators to implement. Kids simply agree to do something they’ve never tried on their own before. Suggestions range from climb a tree or get themselves ready for school to write a letter, trick or treat with friends, or do odd jobs for neighbors.
Kids pick something. They go home, and with parents’ permission, do it. Then they come back to school and report on the results. The website offers all the information to start the program, from project instructions, letters to parents, student handouts and worksheets. Let Grow takes up almost no class time.
The results are nothing short of astounding.
In one sample of 33 students, Skenazy tells Scary Mommy that 56% of kids reported being happier. They saw an immediate 10% drop in parental anxiety. In a school that implemented the program, a principal driving home saw kids outside playing for the first time in the 15 years she’d been working and driving the same route.
“Kids do it. And when they do it, it breaks the ice almost completely,” Skenazy says. “It changes the parents almost more than anyone. They’ve been so afraid — all our old-time milestones are buried under this glacier of fear. Everyone knows that by 10 you could have a paper route … by 13 you could babysit. This unburies these milestones … the parents are so happy that they see their kid for real. People say things like, ‘I underestimated my kid, I didn’t see she’s growing up, I’m so proud.'”
Moreover, Let Grow doesn’t just change one family. From experience, I know that being a Free Range parent is lonely. You can send your kid out to play, as Skenazy says, but are there’s no other kids to play with, it gets boring pretty fast. You can let your kid walk to a friend’s house, but the other parent insists on walking them home. Let Grow doesn’t change parents one at a time: it seeks to change whole communities. Moreover, as Skenazy says, it’s not just about raising kids who can walk up the street without fear. It’s about raising confident humans who can trust other people, who believe in themselves and in community. It’s about democracy.
Dana Blumberg agrees. A Free Range parent outside of Chicago, her eight-year-old walks to school and bikes the neighborhood alone. She described her daughter as more “responsible and independent and confident” compared to other kids her age. Blumberg has heard stories about second-graders not allowed to walk to school two blocks away, about parents so paranoid they hold their nine-year-old’s hand while the kid showers — they could slip and fall, you know. These parental fears are what Skenazy is trying to free us from. She’s trying to let us see that our kids are capable of so much more than we believe.
Enter the Let Grow playgroups.
The Let Grow playgroups encourage schools to keep playgrounds open early or late for mixed-age play, with adults present but not intervening, not solving conflicts, not organizing games. This type of play, Skenazy says, teaches kids empathy, how to deal with disappointment, and how to compromise.
“That’s how you learn to solve problems and get along with other people,” she says. “You can’t raise problem solvers if you’re always solving their problems.” They argue this type of mixed-age play is crucial for development, and according to Let Grow founding member Dr. Peter Gray, “is more nurturing, less competitive, often more creative, and offers unique opportunities for learning.”
“When we went and filmed the schools, one kid said, ‘Before play club I didn’t have any friends, but now I do.’ Three fifth graders befriended this kindergartener,” Skenazy says. “Everyone is playing and can be friends. These are the building blocks of a happy adult life. It’s democracy. It’s preparation for life and democracy and even college.”
So what’s holding us back? Only 105 kids are abducted, on average, by strangers every year, and only 9 killed — obviously nine too many, but an infinitesimal number. Are we afraid of neighbors calling the cops? We need to know our rights as parents, which is why Let Grow includes sections on how to change whole communities and lobby for laws that make whole cities — and even states — “free range kids” zones. Where cops aren’t called for an eight-year-old walking the dog or a six-year-old left in the car while mom pays for gas.
Because that’s where we ultimately need to go. We need to make the world safe for kids again — not safe from predators or safe from traffic, but safe from the fears and pressures of modern parenthood.
Kids need independence to grow up happy. They need a release from our helicopter parenting, from our lawnmower parenting, from the constant hovering that leaves us running from soccer practice to piano lessons to drama class. We need a release from it. We need a break. We need to step back from the micromanagement of our children’s childhoods and back into the familiar, where kids play until the streetlights come on, where a nine-year-old can walk into a gas station and buy a bag of chips, where an eight-year-old can pick out his own clothes. We need to step out of a culture of fear and worst case scenarios. Let Grow is trying to change that, one kid, one task, one step at a time.
And so far, it seems to be working.