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About this time last year, I wrote a couple of posts about helicopter versus free-range parenting, found here , here and here.  There must be something about the start of the school year and the intense focus on rules and safety that brings these issues to the forefront each fall, because I’m at it again. And now, a new term has entered our lexicon, and it’s not a good one: bulldozer parents.  No, they’re not knocking you over with stories and Facebook posts about how fabulous their kids are nor are they overtaking everything in their paths with their zealous parenting strategies.  They’re called bulldozers because they attempt to clear the paths in front of their children, removing any obstacles, dangers or hardships before allowing their little ones to travel on ahead.

We are doing no one any favors here, people. Kids — shocker here — are actually pretty smart: they can figure stuff out.  They can deal with hardship. They can be independent. And they must be forced to, in situations that are relatively safe and relatively risk-free, early in their lives or they’ll never ever be able to do it later when it really matters.  If we clear every bump and tree root from our kids’ paths when they’re eight, how on earth are they going to deal with bumps and tree roots and, god forbid, bears, when they’re twenty?

I was talking about this with a friend who works at a local university and she said she’s witnessed college students going in to their professors’ office hours to discuss a paper or grade accompanied by their mothers. Let me repeat that: she has seen college students, legal adults, old enough to fight in wars and vote in elections, who bring mommy along when they need to discuss something difficult with a professor! Hello? How is this person going to have a real job, with angry customers or clients? Or raise their own kids? Or do any of the tough things that are a part of grown-up life?

This post is driven in part by a recent reiteration of a long-standing district rule that states that only 4th and 5th graders can ride their bikes to school. I am working with a certain pro-bike city council person to get the district to change this rule and one of their stated concerns is that people backing out of their driveways in the morning won’t see small kids on their bicycles. Well, I don’t want my kids to get run over on their way to school, but guess what? I told them to look for moving cars in driveways as they ride. Just like we tell them to look for cars before they cross the street. And guess what? They do it!

I want my kids to be happy. And I want them to be successful. And, of course, I want them to be safe. But I also want them to be resilient and independent and to know what to do in difficult situations. And in order to gain those skills, they should have opportunities when they’re young to test themselves in relatively safe situations. If they’re walking to school by themselves and someone gets hurt, they should be able to figure out how to handle it: Is it minor enough that they can just keep walking and deal with it when they arrive at school?  Should someone turn around and run back home?  Is there a friendly neighbor whose house they can stop at? Figure it out, kids, use your heads and solve the problem.

If there is something they don’t like at school, a rule they believe is unfair . . . figure it out. Write a letter to your principal (our new one welcomes such student input), bring it up with a teacher you trust, organize your friends.  Don’t just stand around and whine, . . . do something.  If they can do these things now, in elementary or middle school, think of how much more capable they’ll be by the time they have to walk in to office hours (or battle) ten years from now. We may think we are helping them by clearing their paths, but we’re really stunting them and allowing them to enter adulthood completely unprepared.

And none of us want that.

This one is mostly in response to a comment I got on Facebook about how hard it is to allow your kids to roam the neighborhood or walk to school when there are so few other children around. I absolutely agree. When I was young and walked back and forth to school without my parents, I was always in a crowd of at least ten kids. And we ranged in age from kindergarten to sixth grade. That is definitely not the case today, especially in our neighborhood.  There are simply fewer kids and then fewer of those use the public schools and fewer and fewer of those walk.

Which I find rather ironic, considering the relative danger of walking to school (even totally alone) versus driving in a car. In fact, just the other day Braedan asked me about the most dangerous thing I’d ever done. I paused, wondering if I should say jumping out of an airplane or testifying against a drive-by (actually bike-by) shooter in Compton or running alone in Mexico (all things I’ve done and all undoubtedly dangerous). And then the answer jumped out at me, of course: “Driving in a car.”

I think you can sum up our different generational attitudes on safety and how we welcome (or shun) freedom by looking at porches on houses: Old houses have grand front porches that span the entire length of the house, where people would gather and neighbors were welcome and any old lady who was out working on her flowers or having her morning coffee, could watch the children as they walked past on their way to school. Now, on newer houses, we build back decks, usually behind tall fences, facing away from the street, away from anyone you don’t already know.

Maybe we all need to spend more time out in the front.

And, on a completely unrelated note, if you’re around (and especially if you work there!), I’m giving a talk tomorrow in the Atrium at University Hospitals at 10 as part of the presentation of Hyundai’s Hope on Wheels. Feel free to stop by.

Give kids the tiniest opportunity for independence and, I swear, they take it and run. My children have been transformed over the past few weeks. They play outside on their own for hours on end, while Mark and I actually get things done around the house (today, it was painting the new bathroom). Yesterday, they rode down the block to the neighbors’ house and played in their yard. Today, they went off to the school playground on their own. Well, not entirely on their own, they did have a friend who is almost ten with them. And I did make Braedan wear a watch and come home after an hour to check in.

But still, they did it. And it is great.

In light of the comments I got after my last post, I’m eager to have a broader conversation about how we allow our kids the freedom to navigate their environments without hovering (or worrying) too much. Especially in today’s world, with twenty-four hour news cycles detailing every awful thing that can happen if you dare look away. I’ll admit, a couple of times I wanted to ride my own bike over to the playground just to make sure they were okay. I mean, Austin’s still only four! But with a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old, I knew he’d be okay and held myself back.

I really think that it is perfectly okay — and even necessary — for our kids to make mistakes and get hurt. And then to figure out what to do about it on their own.

This article from Time magazine in 2009 is fabulous and funny and eye-opening (and the accompanying photo is all of those things).  But I don’t really want to have a conversation about the relative value of helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting, so much as I’d love to hear HOW those of you reading do it.

When it comes to giving children freedom (and responsibility), what has worked for you and what hasn’t? And, for those of you in the grandmother (or father) set, what has changed since the days your kids were young and do you see those changes as good or bad?

Of course, when you’re parenting two and four-year olds, much of this is irrelevant. You’re obviously not going to send your son off to preschool on his own. But for elementary-age kids, it’s the perfect time for them to develop a sense of competence and ownership over their neighborhood and their actions and their own safety and well-being. I was just about to write, “I am so glad I live in a place where my kids can do that,” but I think most of us do and may not know it. (And I think some people would look at where I live and not think that!)

Sooooo, how does it work? What do you allow your kids to do as they get older? And has that been successful? And how is it different from when you were young? (Besides the fact that we all walked to school barefoot through the snow, uphill both ways?)

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