Free-Range Kids

One of the most read and shared blogs I wrote was about the lessons our children learn from the holidays we take.  Here we are again, summer holiday time.

We only get 18 summers with our children, whilst they are children.  How you choose to spend the time matters.  We need to slow down, reconnect, breathe, spend time outdoors, read, think, laugh.  We need to take time to do the things that pass us by in the busy-ness of daily life.

This summer for me is about freedom.  Not freedom for me, but for my kids. 

Our approach to parenting has always been what I suppose you could call more ‘laissez-faire’ than some.  I don’t think we have hovered over our kids – in fact, there have been instances where people (those that don’t know us or the kids well) have looked at us in aghast as one is 20 feet up a tree and another is half way out to sea on a kayak. 

Let me tell you a story. 

Our youngest is now five.  At the weekends the kids get up and get their own breakfast and sometimes we lie in bed.  Heaven for any parent.

One weekend we came downstairs and I casually asked “so kids, what have you been doing since you woke up?”

“Oh”, replies Will (our 7 year old), “we went out on the kayak.”

Errrrr – you WHAT?!


We live on the canal (for those not familiar with Cayman, it’s an inland waterway, no tide or waves).  The boys had taken the kayak to the ocean-end of the canal whilst we were in bed sleeping.

I thought about this for a long-time.  I talked about it with my own parents.  My initial reaction (probably much like yours now) was absolutely no way can they do that.  But then I thought, why not?  They are both incredibly strong swimmers and assuming they have the extra protection of life jackets on (now a RULE), why shouldn’t they have that freedom?  What a wonderful adventure for brothers.

Aside from a freak accident I can’t think what could go wrong.  And I know we can’t go about life protecting our kids from a freak accident.  So we let them.  They continue to take the kayak down the canal.

The thing that did keep coming back to me was ‘if something DID happen to them, what would people say?’.  Of course, I know what they would say.  They would say what totally irresponsible parenting.  Who in their right-mind would let their kids do THAT (whilst they are in bed sleeping – ok, we don’t encourage this, but I think it still sometimes happens)? 

After listening to the most incredible, eye-opening and scary conversation between Jonathan Haidt and Shane Parrish (click here for the podcast) my fear around being judged or called-out has disappeared and I am busy working out how we can give our kids even more freedom

Jonathan is a social psychologist and author of “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  This conversation is a must-listen for any parent but particularly for those with daughters.  He argues (and it’s hard to argue against it) that we are coddling our kids and it’s destroying them.  We have overprotected them and we’ve denied them the most important kinds of learning experiences.  Despite our best intentions, we are creating fragile kids.  Cases of depression and anxiety among teens today has shot up, particularly for girls.  In the US the suicide rate for girls aged 10 to 14 tripled from 1999 to 2014.  Social media plays a huge role in this, but that’s another article for another day.

“As we invest more and more in our children, as we invest more and more and as college gets more competitive to get into, as we see them more as an academic project, in a variety of ways, we've deprived kids of the childhood experiences they most need, and we've replaced it with too much supervision and too many after-school activities.”

According to Jonathan, this over-parenting is an issue in the common form of middle- to upper-middle-class (i.e. you and me).  We have invested a lot in our kids, but we have failed to give them opportunities to learn from feedback.  This investment might back-fire tremendously.

Think back to your childhood.  What age were you let out to play in the street, or visit the local park?  And take an honest look at what you let your children do.  And guess what?  The world is so much safer now than it was when we were kids.  My daughter is 9.  When I was 11 I was walking to the train station, getting on a train to school, and walking again at the other side.

Jonathan talks about how he is raising his own kids.  He says:

So, we give my kids errands. And at first, it was really scary for us. I mean, that's the thing. I talked to other parents about this, about the importance of letting their kids out, and let them run an errand. You can see the terror, like, “But what if they hit by a car?” And of course yes, you should think that. But then you have to think, “Well, at what age were you let out? Weren't you riding your bicycle around town when you were eight? Weren't you and your friends going to a store when you were nine?”

I get that allowing your kids to run an errand in Cayman is not easy.  Which is why I am so excited to give them additional freedom over the summer.  My parents live a short-walk away from the centre of town so perhaps they will walk to the post office and post a letter.  Or to the shop to get an ice cream.  Little things, but things that will foster their sense of independence, purpose, confidence and self-esteem.

Like Jonathan, I want to raise my kids free-range.  “I want my kids to learn how to cross streets on their own.  I want my kids to learn some sense of being a self-governing autonomous creature.”

If we believe Jonathan (listen and see what you think), we have no choice.  We have to change how we parent today.  “We could be losing a whole generation of girls to depression, anxiety and fragility. So I think we're going to see change, because now you have an argument. Oh, yeah, what? You think I'm the bad parent? Here's the future for your daughters, or for your kids more generally. But especially for your daughters.”

The good stuff in life always comes from putting yourself outside your comfort zone.  But like compound-interest, a little freedom today increasing over time will almost certainly reap huge rewards on your children as they reach adulthood.