Posts Tagged risk-free childhoods

Bad Parenting Diseases Spread to Social Services

Published by — Healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.


For years I cringed, watching my brother-in-law drive my super-athletic niece to her elementary school.  It was three blocks away, in safe, famously affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of D.C..  Not so long ago, kids walked to school.  Older kids walked kindergartners.  And thus children began learning how to manage under their own steam.

I might have argued that the drive was a serious disservice to my lovely niece, except that the practice wasn’t his decision, really.  It was a community norm.  In a triumph of bad ideology over common sense, parents’ cars snaked around the block.  Several school staff had to manage traffic and ensure kids were dropped only in front of the school so they weren’t hurt running between cars.  The Principal was often out there.  Greeting students in the morning is nice, but protecting them from convoys of unnecessary cars was a weird use of her time.

It gets worse.  Parents’ fierce clinging to the myth of Stranger Danger has now taken root in culture.  Across the nation Child Protective Services have begun investigating parents for neglect, based on this long-debunked idea.

“I am not lost.  I am a free-range kid.”

Most recently, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s 10 and 6-year-olds got about half way to school when they were stopped by the authorities.  Again in Montgomery County — that hotbed of troubled neighborhoods — people had ratted these kids out to the police as being “unsupervised.”  But rather than tell the busybodies to buzz off, Protective Services threatened the Meitivs with removing their children unless the couple signed a “safety plan.”  Their lawyer’s review is pending.  The couple happen to be scientists with the National Institute of Health, presumably quite capable of effective risk assessment.  In fact, they were so keenly aware of bucking the fear-driven norms, their kids carried laminated cards with contact info and assurance that the kids are “free-range” and know what they’re doing.  But the kids had grown used to their autonomy — going to the park, the store — and forgotten their cards that day.

It goes on.  Last summer a Florida mom was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son play in a park near the house.  Also last summer, a South Carolina mom was arrested and jailed for “neglect” because her 9-year-old was playing in a perfectly lovely park while she went to work at McDonald’s.  How are kids of any parents going to learn autonomy if social services is against it?

Good parents are those who are working themselves out of the job.

By the age of 18, every parent’s precious darlings had better be making good choices, all on their own.  But healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.  In teaching it’s called “release model.”  An adult teaches a lesson — like walking the proper route to the school together.  Then the adult supports from a slight distance, and finally releases the kid to go solo.  Trusting kids to adventure ever further into the world is preparation for the challenges of being responsible for themselves as young adults.

Otherwise they become among those who bomb out in college, unable to handle newfound freedom (drinking), manage their time, be on their own, or just tolerate making mistakes.  Note this nutty story of the rich kid, 30 years old, who appears to have killed his father for threatening to reduce his monthly allowance.  He went to Princeton, for heaven’s sake; what was he doing with an allowance at his age?  Rich or poor, everyone need to learn self-reliance.  Police, schools, social services and parents all need to be eyes on the street supporting kids’ autonomy from that slight distance.  If public services buy into fear-driven insanity, we’ll end up raising a generation of young adults who’ll be dependent on our support for the rest of their lives.

The body politic has panic disorder.

Bad stuff happens.  We can’t prevent that.  We can wish it away, or act all insulted when it happens.  But kids get sick and die despite the best efforts of medical science, for example.  Somehow the parents before us accepted that fact, however painful.  But that one kid who had the bad luck to break something really serious falling out of a tree isn’t proof that tree-climbing should be banned.  This is organizing for failure.  It’s like keeping a kid sit safe in his room to guarantee he’s alive when it’s time for him to run the 50-yard dash.

Panicky parenting is a form of narcissism.  Parent narcissists want reflected glory and won’t take the chance that their kid gets burned taking a healthy, calculated risk.  Conversely, good-enough parents successfully work their way out of their job.  Young adults might rely on them for help or advice.  But neither their survival nor success can continue to depend on Mommie and Dadsums.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Eliminating Risks for Kids Kills Important Learning

Published by  — We aren’t doing kids any favors by protecting them from everything.  Kids need appropriate risk in their play.

Recently I was commiserating with one of my favorite colleagues, a woman whose job smushes her face daily in the unfortunate habits of modern parenting.  We regularly exchange solutions, possible partners, and books that might help ease the scourge of over-protective, enabling, anti-resilient parenting and schooling.

Suddenly and out of the blue, her face registered thrilled shock.  As if a white egret had miraculous perched at the next table, she whispered:  “Did you see that?”

I waited a discreet moment to glance over surreptitiously.  Three adults were talking while a kid amused himself with a book.  So what?

Apparently, she told me whispering, the boy had been restless – like most kids would have been – and had started rocking about in his chair.  Sure enough, he tumbled to the floor.

But here’s the miracle:  Without more than a moment’s skip in the conversation, the adults glanced over to assure themselves that he was in fact okay, and let the kid get his own butt back into the chair, with no to-do.  They skipped the thundershower of cooing concern.  He was old enough to know better than to be rocking around like that.  They didn’t act like he shouldn’t have gotten hurt.  We all have to learn certain lessons several times.

The boy must have been embarrassed, because by the time I looked over he was conspicuously into his book.

My friend and I marveled at this public example of good parenting!  Let the kid learn from with natural consequences.  With risks come tumbles.  If you fall, fail or screw up, learn a lesson.  If you need to amuse yourself for a bit – because life can’t always be about you – what materials do you need?  If you’re in a public place like a coffee shop of if the adults want to talk, you need to pipe down for a while.

He also had an excellent sticky bun, so he was well compensated for his patience.

More than anything now, American kids need to learn resiliency.  Hyper-protective, enabling parents don’t help.  Resiliency is about grit, the ability to tough out boring or difficult stretches, to bounce back from mishaps and failures, to learn from them, to sooth and entertain yourself.  These are skills that help kids be successful over a lifetime.

Risk-free childhoods are totally getting in the way of the way kids learn naturally.  I’m not suggesting being harsh to them or putting them in harm’s way.  Just let them meet adversity and cope.

Research funded by a German insurance company revealed that kids who grow up in super-protected environments are likely to be accident-prone adults.  Well, yeah.  If your body and ego have never been bruised by falling off your chair, your body and ego haven’t learned to warn you about the dangers of rocking.

Other research is beginning to suggest that babies compulsively put stuff in their mouths as an evolutionary adaptation. They’re immunizing themselves against the bacteria of their home and land.  Again, by sterilizing our kids’ environments against the risk of infection, we set them up for allergies later on, literally.

We’re heading back to school soon.  Surely the learning experts will give kids opportunities to develop some grit and personal responsibility there.  When kids suffer natural consequences, won’t teachers guide them through bouncing back and lessons learned?

Gosh, no.  Thanks to the American lust for liability lawsuits, the habits of anti-risk parents have infected schools.

Schools have sterilized their play areas so they bore the pants off of kids.  The only benefit of most schools’ play spaces is that absolutely nothing exciting can happen.  Thus no law suits.

A school near me is across a very quiet street from a nature preserve.  That land could be a fabulous learning lab or fun place for recess.  Nah.  The school can’t risk getting the kids across the street, never mind policing them in open nature.  To let them loose and insist they come back at the sound of some whistle is unthinkable.

Although, building a set of rules with the kids and staff together, including consequences for breaches, would give the kids a message of trust.  Learn responsibility or we’ll yank your freedom until you learn not to abuse it.

Many schools no longer have anything like recess because they are panicked about not using the time to drill for tests.  Discovering the world first-hand is a waste of school time.

Furthermore, freedom and opportunity might lead to bullying.  Rather than teach the kids social-emotional skills like empathy, listening, and expressing yourself effectively, adults eliminate free social time altogether.  Which teaches what?  Granted, social skills haven’t been public schools’ job historically, but so?  It is now.

For the record, Finnish schools, the international darlings of education, give their kids frequent breaks and places to run and roam.  They play outside, minimally supervised, even in rough weather.

Taking risks is learning the hard way, which is fine.  Risks help emerging adults become healthy, resilient, mindful, empathetic learning-sponges.

We’re going about the business of learning bass ackwards.  By trying to eliminate risk, we silence curiosity and the resulting natural consequences.  Then we force-feed kids learning for which many have little or no taste.

Let them fall, fail and flounder.  But be there as a guide and resource.  That way we’ll get better results, of all kinds.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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