Episode summary:

Susan talks with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, about how to raise resilient, confident children. You’ll hear practical suggestions for cultivating a sense of independence in your kids, and a lively discussion about what it means to be an attentive parent.

Lenore spent 14 years at The New York Daily News as a reporter-turned-opinion columnist, and two more at The New York Sun. In 2008, after her column “Why I Let My 9 Year Old Ride the Subway Alone” landed her on every talk show from The Today Show to Dr. Phil, Lenore founded the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.” These launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement and garnered her the nickname, “America’s Worst Mom.” She got a promotion of sorts when Discovery Life tapped her to host the reality TV show, World’s Worst Mom. Lenore has lectured internationally from Microsoft to DreamWorks to the Sydney Opera House, and been profiled everywhere from The New York Times to The New Yorker. She is now president and CEO at Let Grow, helping parents to give kids the same kind of freedom most of us had — and loved.

Things you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why kids need to take risks and fail in order to grow up to be resilient!
  • How parents can encourage kids to discover who they really are
  • How taking charge of their own lives actually encourage kids to expand their social circles

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Transcript here:

Speaker 1: (00:09)

Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I’m your host, Susan Stiffelman. I’m a marriage and family therapist and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence and I’m glad you’re here. My guest today is Lenore Skenazy, the founder of Free Range Kids and president of letgrow.org we’re going to talk all about that and we’re going to have a great conversation. First, I want to just share a little bit of info. For those of you who want to know more about what we’re up to in the Parenting Without Power Struggles community, if you visit my website, Susanstiffelman.com you’ll see that we’ve got all kinds of parenting support from a free newsletter with parenting tips and news to information about my monthly membership program where I work personally with parents, and by the way, we have a great promotion going to encourage you to give this program a try. 

Speaker 1: (01:07)

If you visit Susanstiffelman.com/membership and you enter coupon code Podcast19 with a capital P for podcast, your first month will be just $1 and I host two calls a month where I answer questions or I coach parents through whatever they need help with like meltdowns or chores. Or I might work with somebody who’s youngsters having a hard time adjusting to a new baby or a teen is dealing with anxiety. You can tune in live to the calls or you can submit questions in advance. And there’s other special discounts that we offer our members. So if you could use more personal support, I hope you’ll check that out on my website. You’ll also find a list of master classes on topics like whining, crying and meltdowns with Janet Landsbury, uh, raising differently wired kids with Debbie Rieber, highly sensitive parents and children with dr Elaine Aron and a masterclass on keeping your parenting. Cool. So there’s lots of resources for you@susanstifelman.com and now onto our show. Let’s get started. This, I’m scribbling down podcast 19. Cause you know, none of us are immune from needing a little help now and then, Oh yeah. We have a lot of fun. It’s, it’s actually a very sweet community. You know, obviously everything’s confidential. Parents feel really safe. They feel very supported and they really cheer each other on lights, sort of where people tell the truth about what they’re dealing with. 

Speaker 1: (02:36)

So I think slow door. Um, I met Lenore, our guest today when we were both columnists for AOL. I was here weekly advice, mom and Lenore. I think that was just around the time your column on why I let my nine year old ride the subway alone. I had come out. Is that right? I think so. It’s all pretty archaic at this point. I’m trying to remember. Yeah, 

Speaker 2: (03:00)

it’s a blur. 

Speaker 1: (03:02)

In 2008 after her column landed here on every talk show from the today show to dr Phil Lenore founded the book and blog free range kids. These appearances launched the anti helicopter parenting movement and garnered her the nickname America’s worst mom, which led Lenore to becoming the host of a reality television show. World’s worst mom on discovery life, the 13 episode series featured Lenore visiting extremely anxious parents, including the mom of the 10 year old who still spoonfed him the mom of an eight year old who bought him a skateboard but only let him ride it on the grass. And the mom of a 13 year old who is still to come into the ladies room with humor, kindness, and some firmness. Leanora separated the parents from their children and had the kids do some tasks on their own like running an errand or learning at 10 how to ride a bike. And in the end this was so amazing, Lenore. In the end, 12 of the 13 couples relax so much that they became free range parents themselves. 

Speaker 2: (04:02)

Yeah, no, it was, it just showed me I’m that people are really capable of change and as, as hardwired as it sometimes can feel to be extremely anxious for our kids, worried about everything that they’re doing or seeing or eating or reading. And we think it’s innate. It’s not innate. It’s a worry for your kids is innate. But this extreme concern that everything they encounter is going to hurt them badly and permanently. That’s new. And um, just as just as we’re wired to worry, we are wired to exalt and love our kids and be so excited when they do something new and they show us like that they’re blossoming into beautiful young men and women or even beautiful young seven or eight year olds. Uh, that’s what the show did by by saying, okay mom, you’re just going to stay home today mom and dad and the kid is gonna go to the store or ride his bike. 

Speaker 2: (04:57)

The parents were so thrilled when they came home. Actually the mom who had fed her 10 year old in his mouth, that one, she was my first mom that I was dealing with. And in fact that boy was not allowed to do anything. He wasn’t allowed to pour his food, he wasn’t allowed to cut his meat. He wasn’t allowed to obviously walk to school or go on and overnight or ride a bike. Cause the mom was worried, both that he would fall off and get hurt or, and this loomed just as large be frustrated cause it’s hard to learn a bike, which is true. It is hard to learn how to ride a bike. But one day I took him aside and gave him a bike and he practiced and he did fall a couple of times and he wasn’t good at first, but by the end of an hour or two, he was wobbling his way across an empty parking lot. 

Speaker 2: (05:37)

And when the mom who saw this came home and her mom was at, at home, her, so the grandma was at home, she came in in the grandmother’s Russian and she says, well guess what? Mom’s Sandy can ride a bike. And the grandma goes, what are Samuel? I’d bike. And the mom goes, yes. And they’re dancing around a bike. And so this was the mom who, and grandma who wouldn’t let him ride a bike. And then moments later they were just so thrilled. So, so the idea that we’re all only one thing and that we can’t change is wrong. And the idea that, um, only overprotection feels natural is also wrong, but it’s just a lot of people don’t get a chance to break out of that over-protective mold that we’ve been forced into by a very, very risk averse society. Right. 

Speaker 1: (06:24)

Well, Lenore, it’s just great. I’m so happy you jumped in there and I, you know, just to way of letting people know you’ve just been everywhere from Microsoft to Dreamworks to the Sydney opera house and profiled on the New York times and the new Yorker and the daily show you around the daily. 

Speaker 2: (06:40)

It sure sounds like a lot when you compress 12 years into one paragraph. My God, she’s not stopped a lot of times just sitting at home blogging or making toast, you know. 

Speaker 1: (06:50)

Well, thank you for what you’re doing because you’re really, um, inspiring and providing support and guidance to families and to schools, offer kids the kind of freedom that, that children need to grow and to flourish. Let’s just talk about let grow.com because you’ve got this amazing saying that’s boldly written on the homepage. Treating today’s kids as physically and emotionally fragile is bad for their future. And ours let grow counters, the culture of overprotection we aim to future proof our kids and our country. 

Speaker 2: (07:25)

Yeah, that’s, I was thinking, I was thinking, Oh, what phrase is she going to use? I, I feel like I coined them all the time. I thought you were going to use my, my other current favorite, which is always helping our kids isn’t always helping them because it’s the same idea, which is that, gosh, there was just an article today on CNBC, uh, that said this shocking statistic, which is that something like 75% of young people at work have taken time off for, um, mental health issues. And, you know, I, I’ve taken time off, you know, every once in a while things are overwhelming. Um, but the idea that, um, that this fragility has sort of baked itself into our kids is disturbing to me. And just this last week I went to, I’m gonna explain like grow, and then I’ll say what I did. So let grow, grew out of free range kids and let grow is a nonpartisan nonprofit that says that, um, independence is an important part of growing up. 

Speaker 2: (08:24)

Kids need some independence to really, you know, grow into the fully, um, I don’t know, fully working young men and women that they can be. And so having spent 10 years talking about free range kids and going on all those lecture tours, as you mentioned, what I would see is so many people would agree with the premise that like, wow, you know, kids today just don’t get any of the fun freedom or mini risks that we used to take that we thought were, you know, looking back pretty important. They sort of shaped us into who we are. Confident and competent. Um, but nobody could change what they were doing because you can’t be the only mom who sends her kid to the park because first of all, there’s nobody else for the kid to play with and that’s boring. And then secondly, you don’t want to be judged or mistaken for somebody who, um, is negligent or doesn’t care about her kids. 

Speaker 2: (09:15)

And so, um, around us has grown up an entire web of stuff for kids to be doing before and after school, whether you’re poor, rich or in between. There’s always some afterschool program that they’re in that’s supervised by an adult. And then they come home and there’s more supervision and there’s the homework log and the reading thing that you have to write in. And there’s, there’s tutoring and there’s practice and there’s teams. And I’m not against any of those. And in fact, did a lot of them with my own kids. But, but kids need some empty time and which they can just do something not for a coach or a trophy or a teacher just because it interests them. And when they find those things, drawing or you know, practicing tennis against a wall or jacks or, um, photography, whatever it is, writing, uh, that’s when kids sort of discover who they are. 

Speaker 2: (10:07)

And they also discover all sorts of things like, um, patients because they have to keep practicing and focus because it interests them. And if they’re playing in a group and they’re gathering together to organize a game, they discover leadership. And, um, companionship and, uh, communication and creativity. So, uh, how do you give that free time and freedom back to kids if, if everything is so organized, you need to, you need to be part of a group that’s doing it. And so when let grow began about two years ago, our goal, um, free range kids changed minds but let grow is aiming to change behavior. And the easiest way we’ve found to change behavior is by having an entire class of kids at a school or even an entire school, send kids home with the let grow project, which is a homework assignment that says go home and do something on your own. 

Speaker 2: (11:04)

You know, it can be anything. It can be ride your bike or you know, run an errand. It can be as simple as, you know, one week it could be trying a new food or just list or sitting with somebody else at lunchtime who you normally wouldn’t sit with. So when I went and interviewed a bunch of third graders and seventh graders, um, in this past week who had been doing the let grow project, we’ve done the let grow project for an entire year the year before. What I discovered is that until, until this assignment, and this is gonna sound weird, um, one third grader said that she would come home every day. Now she’s a fourth grader. She would come home every day and watch TV and I said, and now, and she said, no, she does things now. She makes tortillas. She likes to bake. You know, she’ll meet with a friend, she’ll draw. 

Speaker 2: (11:51)

And I was like, why didn’t you do before? And she said, well, when you’re a kid, of course you don’t know that you can do things. Oh my gosh, isn’t that interesting? And the kid sitting next to her was another fourth grader and had done this project like 20 times the year before in third grade. Said that he was very anxious kid. Um, according to his teachers. Um, so he said that he started, he tried climbing. There’s a rope that hangs from his backyard tree. And I S. and he said he tried climbing it. I said, well, could you? He said, no, it wasn’t very good. I said, did you only try it once? He said, no, he’s been trying now, you know, he keeps trying. And I said, how about before was when, when was the, when did you get the rope? And he said, the rope had always been in the back yard. 

Speaker 2: (12:34)

So it’s almost like the ignition, the key is in the ignition, but it hasn’t been turned. And we’re as parents, we don’t even recognize that. I mean, I didn’t recognize that until the kids said this, that kids don’t think that they can do things on their own. They’re just sort of inert. Um, and, and I don’t blame parents for not turning this on because as we’ve said, first of all, there’s all these expectations that kids are always supervised. And then we’re just constantly told that the second you aren’t with your kid, they’re, you know, they’re, they’re either in grave danger, you know, that if they’re not supervised, they’ll be, it’ll be kidnapped. And if they’re not in a teachable moment, then they’re just like lying fallow. They’re like, you know, veal or something. There’s nothing happening to them. And so, um, when that’s what we’ve been taught to do as parents, to watch them all the time and to be sure that it’s us or some other adult teaching, prodding, helping, doing, we don’t even recognize the kids on their own can, can learn a whole lot from just being curious and following their curiosity. 

Speaker 2: (13:37)

And kids don’t learn it either. So it’s just been a revelation to me how, how little kids are doing on their own. 

Speaker 1: (13:45)

You know, I’m just thrilled to hear you talking about this because one of the tenants of my work is that we’re not really just raising children, we’re raising adults [inaudible] and that independence is one of the greatest skills or qualities that we can cultivate in our kids. So this idea of us having to kind of confront or process our own discomfort. Many parents identify themselves as good parents when they are supervising, when they’re providing, when they’re orchestrating or organizing activities for their children. We’ve kind of been led to believe that that is sort of what a good parent does. And that if you leave your child to wander around the yard for a while and complain that he or she is bored, that you’re failing in some way. Let’s talk for a minute about this concept of independence. Um, and what it might take for a parent to, to make that leap or to work with the resistance or the fear that they have internally to allow that to happen for their child. 

Speaker 2: (14:48)

Well, I think you’ve, I think you put your finger on it is, um, you know, if you, if you pick up the parenting magazines, um, a lot of times they’re filled with activities, um, because what can they say? Your kid’s going to be fine if you’re inside reading a book and they’re outside on their bike. So instead it’s like, here’s how to, you know, do this with your kid or that, and here’s how to raise a music lover. And don’t forget to talk about how the minor is different from the major key. And I was speaking with an anthropologist named David Lancey recently, and he sort of blew my mind. He’s an older guy. He’s been studying children around the world for his whole lifetime. He wrote a book called the anthropology of childhood. And he said that, um, one of the things that has changed the most in, in child rearing norms is that, um, because you know, children until there was school didn’t go to school. 

Speaker 2: (15:39)

Right. I mean, most of human history is no school and it’s not that I’m against school, but I’m, I’m gonna get to a point which is that, um, once school came in and the idea of an adult teaching a child something and the child passively learning it, um, that just became it. That started seeming like the way kids learn and we forgot. The kids generally learn by playing, by copying what they see other kids doing by trying to do what their parents are doing by, um, you know, just by exploring for fun and no big reason. Uh, but once sort of the teacher student model became the way we think of, um, all education, including when our kids aren’t in school. Parents gradually assume the, the idea that they were the teachers and their kids were students. And so, um, with our whole emphasis on college readiness and academic preparedness and make sure your kid is going to get into Harvard, almost a lot of parent child interactions started sort of mirroring a classroom where like, I’m going to show you something, I’m going to take you someplace we’re going to talk about what did you see in the diorama? 

Speaker 2: (16:44)

What do you think of the native Americans? What do you think they ate for dinner? Why do you think they didn’t deed, you know, Philemon, Yon, whatever it is. Um, everything becomes this, this tyranny that the idea that parents are always teaching sort of seeped into what was otherwise a, a sort of more, um, a less fraught, uh, relationship fraught. Because if you’re the teacher, then you’ve got to make sure that your kid is learning all the time and paying attention and that you’ve got a great lesson plan ahead of you and that you’re going to make the day important and significant and educational, and it’s a teachable moment followed by a teachable moment followed by a teachable moment. In fact, kids are always learning and if you leave them in the kitchen and they’re mixing stuff together and trying to cook something and it smells bad and it’s a disaster, that was a teachable moment too and you weren’t there. 

Speaker 1: (17:31)

You know I, this is just so, so joyful for me. Here. I did a class and also a podcast with William sticks root and Ned Johnson on the self-driven child. And I adore and love them. And I did another one with Thomas Armstrong on restoring a child’s passion for learning. And all of these things sort of play into each other, which is when we deal with our own internal concerns or confusions or what we’ve been fed or read and allow our children the space to kind of be, to follow their own lead to be a little bit more independent. It’s better for everybody. And then we, we won’t even get into it today, but we’ll, we’ll have to do another episode. Um, because then there’s anxiety and I’m seeing this alarming increase in children and anxiety. Um, and we know that there’s a correlation with kids and let’s just say a minute or two about that, that relationship between anxiety and, 

Speaker 2: (18:29)

yes, let me, let me, so, so interviewing these kids, so I was interviewing the ones who’d done the third grade, uh, let grow project and the seventh grade let grow project. And the project is the same. Like we said, a kid goes home and has to do something on their own. So the thing that surprised me about, um, the seventh graders is that they were talking about what they were doing on their own now. And some had joined teams and some were gonna go to the, you know, some went to the park with their friends now. And it was so fun to talk without their parents around. But, but what, you know, I knew that they would be doing new things and feel more confident, which is obviously an antidote to depression or anxiety because you feel confident. But the thing that, that I didn’t know until I talked to so many of these kids and it kept coming up and they weren’t listening to each other. 

Speaker 2: (19:13)

So it kept coming up independently as it were, uh, was that they’d made more friends. And I was like, how, how does the let grow project help you make more friends? It’s just, you’re just learning how to like, run an errand or pay for a slice of pizza or, you know, do something. And they said, well, and one girl explained it this way and I think that she explained it well. She said that before the let grow project, when she’d see two kids talking and maybe she wanted to join them and try to become friends with them or you know, at least hang out in the conversation. She’d go up and they’d be talking and she would feel too embarrassed to join in. And so she would sort of mutter something and like hang her head and walk away quickly. Very embarrassed and self conscious. 

Speaker 2: (19:55)

Um, but because of the project, somehow she got so confident that she felt like, what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe, you know, let’s try a new experience. And, and she just found herself making more friends. And then the other kids were saying things like this too. And I think, I think that thing that they had internalized was what’s the worst that could happen? And what I find strange about our culture is that that’s, that’s sort of the opposite of what we’ve been taught to think. Even as parents, we’re usually going to, like, we’re doing what we call worst first thinking, going to the worst case scenario first and proceeding as if that’s likely to happen. If I let my kid walk to the bus stop, she’ll be murdered. I’ll be on TV saying I thought it was going to be fine. You know, nobody will stand up for me. 

Speaker 2: (20:38)

That’s sort of the norm. And um, and instead just by getting out of their comfort zone and trying new things, failing, because of course the time you try new things, you’re always going to fail and then you can get better. But it was just the idea of, you know, having to do things right and perfect. That’s, that’s its own straight jacket, you know, that will make you not try anything new because you, you’re going to fail. And then once you break through that, wow, the world is your oyster and people are there to be friends. When one kid wrote that, he was afraid to go into a store because it was filled with strangers, right? This is a seventh grader who is afraid to go into a store by himself because everything has been written in these horrible terms of like, you know, people you don’t know, they could hurt you, you could be embarrassed. 

Speaker 2: (21:23)

And then there were so many kids who were afraid that they wanted to go and try to get, you know, a Coke at McDonald’s. But what if they got the change wrong? What if they spilled their money on the floor? What if people were behind them, angry, waiting for them to hurry up. Everything was written in terms of what could go wrong and cause intense embarrassment. And that strikes me as anxiety. And then once they did it and maybe they screwed up or maybe they got it right, but it’s like, Oh, it’s not that big a deal. I mean, all of life is realizing, huh, people aren’t that interested in what you’re doing. And they’re not that concerned about whether you’re good or bad or something. Cause I don’t really care that much at all. So just do it. And that’s what the kids were doing. 

Speaker 2: (22:04)

Fabulous. Fabulous. Fabulous. Um, gosh that time has flown by. I always like to wrap up with a tip. What’s one thing that we can encourage crass to try and in the week ahead? You know, there’s so many tips that it drives me crazy. I have to think of one but I think maybe, um, the most, uh, the most useful one might be this week when your kid asks, can I do something on my own instead of automatically saying no, you pause. Um, but I was thinking about that before I started this conversation cause you were asking for a tip and then I realized that one of the things that I, I had come to recognize this past week is, is kids not asking if they can do something because like that third grader said, I didn’t realize I could do something. So I would say maybe what you want to do is, is this, if your kid isn’t asking, um, think about something that you love doing when you were your child’s age, whether that was, you know, going outside, riding your bike, anything that you enjoy doing on your own with a little bit of free time and um, and let your kid do that. 

Speaker 2: (23:14)

You know, just say, Hey, if you want to go outside or here’s some chalk or um, go to the, you know, I need some the paper towels, you know, here’s two bucks. Can you go to the store? Just maybe even do the let grow project on your own, which is give, you know, go over some ideas with your kids. If something they might do, be able to do on their own or want to do on their own and choose one and then let them, it’s just, you will be as happy as your kid. I mean, I, I actually asked the kids, is it, is this a project for you or your parents? And they didn’t get it. They said it was them. But I think it’s really for the parents because you go from worst first thinking to look at my kid. 

Speaker 1: (23:52)

All right. So that’s a great tip. Um, and of course if you don’t live in, in a place where your children can, you know, get to a store easily, then you can always park in front of the store and have them run in for the paper towels. So don’t take it literally 

Speaker 2: (24:06)

right or, or go to a neighbor and come back with something that you need from them. Yeah, $100, whatever. 

Speaker 1: (24:16)

Um, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation as much as I have. I encourage you to please, uh, keep listening, subscribe to the podcast, leave a rating or review. Tell your friends. Again, Lenora’s website is let grow.org and if you’d like more of my support or you want to take advantage of the special parenting with that power circles membership program, offer that Susanstiffelman.com and gosh, thank you Lenore Skenazy for the work that you’re doing and for being so fun and light and clear as you kind of create space for parents to too. Once again, I think, listen to their instincts and trust themselves a little bit more 

Speaker 2: (25:00)

and trust the kids and trust their communities. It is hard. We really have, um, fear shoved down our throats by, you know, the media and a litigious society and all the experts. And it’s, it’s hard to, it’s hard to recognize how much our kids can do and thrive on their own until we actually let them. So, um, I never blame quote unquote helicopter parents because I’m part helicopter on my mom’s side. So it’s just, uh, it’s just fun to recognize what kids are capable of doing when you step back. 

Speaker 1: (25:31)

Yeah. Great. Thank you. Thank you everyone for tuning in. I look forward to joining you on our next episode and meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. I’ll see you next time. 

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