Teens and Freedom: How Much Is Too Much?

By Hugh C. McBride

In April, a New York newspaper columnist sparked a firestorm of criticism after revealing that she had allowed her 9-year-old son to travel alone across Manhattan. The next month, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes repeated a segment from the previous November bemoaning the difficulties employers face in their attempts to accommodate today’s over-coddled and over-protected young people.

And thus the mainstream media bookended the dilemma faced by most modern American parents: Are we giving our children too much freedom, or not enough?

‘Free Range’ Parents Push Freedom
In the April 1, 2008 edition of the New York Sun, columnist Lenore Skenazy described the circumstances surrounding her son’s solo voyage on New York’s public transit system:

[F]or weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Skenazy, who later wrote that she expected the column to generate “a few e-mails pro and con” instead found herself at the center of a heated public debate over parental responsibility. She and her son, Izzy, were quizzed on NBC, MSNBC, and Fox News. Talk radio hosts and bloggers around the world debated the child-rearing issues raised by the column, and evaluated Skenazy’s fitness as a parent.

The reaction of Canadian blogger Kelly Graham-Scherer was among the softer of the many negative responses the column generated. Skenazy, Graham-Scherer wrote, “gambled with her son’s safety” in the name of provocative journalism:

I think all writers who document their experiences for public consumption run the risk of falling prey to the desire to give people something truly gripping to read. I think Ms. Skenazy … is a savvy journalist who carefully considered how she could make a compelling statement that would focus a lot of media attention on the subject, spark controversy and ensure that her views would reach a large audience.

Citing statistics that document not only declining overall crime rates but also the relative rarity of children being abducted or abused by strangers, Skenazy and her supporters used the attention garnered by her column to advocate for a parenting philosophy that favors freedom over fear. Skenazy summarized this mindset in an introductory entry on the “Free Range Kids” blog she founded:
We are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence. Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.

So here’s to Free Range Kids, raised by Free Range Parents willing to take some heat.

‘Helicopter’ Parents Advocate Involvement
Far across the parenting spectrum from Skenazy are those whose persistence in “hovering” over their children’s activities and experiences has earned them the moniker “helicopter parents.” From the father who won’t let his 11-year-old daughter walk to a neighbor’s house alone to the mother who calls her adult son’s supervisor to complain about a less-than-glowing employee evaluation, these parents maintain what many believe to be an unhealthy presence in their children’s lives.

Mark McCarthy, the assistant vice president and dean of student development at Marquette University, told The Washington Post that the over-parenting trend of the past quarter century has produced young adults who lack the self-reliance of previous generations. “They have been the most protected and programmed children ever – car seats and safety helmets, play groups and soccer leagues, cell phones and e-mail,” McCarthy told Post reporter Valerie Strauss. “The parents of this generation are used to close and constant contact with their children and vice versa.”

Parents who subscribe to the Free Range Kids philosophy aren’t the only ones who are concerned about continued “close and constant contact.” Employers have taken notice, too, and they’re less than thrilled about what they’re seeing. As Eric Chester, president of the training and consulting company Generation Why Inc., told ABC News, “If [parents have] always micromanaged their life, then that kid is going to be dysfunctional in the workplace, regardless of what their skill set is,” he said.

This trend toward continued and intensive parental involvement has been formalized by at least one group. College Parents of America, which describes itself as “the only national membership association dedicated to advocating and to serving on behalf of current and future college parents,” doesn’t shy away from the helicopter parent label. The group’s website includes a blog entitled “Hoverings” that features a propeller as a logo and a mission statement of “Empowering you to clear your child’s path to and through college.”

Experts Adivse: Ease Teens Into Self-Reliance

Many parenting experts and child psychologists advise parents to acclimate their adolescents to an increasingly independent lifestyle by slowly granting more freedoms and emphasizing the responsibilities that accompany these liberties.

The following are five tips to keep in mind when helping to guide your child through adolescence and into a healthy and self-reliant adulthood:

  • Set limits and be clear: Phased independence doesn’t mean unlimited freedom, and (believe it or not) most teens want parameters to let them know what is and isn’t acceptable. Granting limited liberties and establishing clear guidelines are good ways for both you and your teen to gradually adapt to his increased independence.
  • Grant independence in stages: Though modern American society grants most “adult” freedoms and responsibilities to individuals the moment they turn 18, most experts believe parents should expand a teen’s rights and responsibilities gradually over time. By earning additional rights through demonstrated trustworthiness, your teen will have a personal stake in establishing what she is and isn’t allowed to do.
  • Give options instead of instructions: It may seem like an inconsequential variation, but to a teen the difference between “do your homework now” and “you can either do your homework now, or wait until after dinner” can be significant. As children pass through adolescence and into young adulthood, providing them with expanded options is an excellent way for parents to cede some control without abdicating all responsibility.
  • Don’t sacrifice safety: As Lenore Skenazy discovered, the definition of “safety” is a highly debatable one. Obviously, sending your 12-year-old on an overnight hike with no adult supervision is an unsafe idea. But what about letting him walk home from school? The U.S. Department of Education advises parents to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility – for example, making sure your child understands the rules of the road (and knows how to summon help if necessary) before allowing him to walk home from school. “The important thing to emphasize to your child is that, while he may be very healthy, death and injury during adolescence are most often caused by violence and accidents.”
  • Let your children fail: For some parents, this is the most difficult step. But it may also be the most important. Allowing your children to experience the consequences of their actions, especially when they make the wrong choice or do the wrong thing, reinforces the correlation between thoughts, deeds, and results. And letting them fail in controlled environments allows them to understand that setbacks are not only inescapable, but can also be springboards to future successes.

The parent-child relationship can be infinitely complex, and every parenting strategy needs to be adapted to the unique circumstances of each family. But parents who encourage their children to take on increased independence and who require them to live up to greater levels of responsibility help build the foundation for a self-reliant adulthood.