When you recall your own childhood, chances are the happiest memories will be the times when you were allowed to be free. Free from parental supervision and endless questions of ‘what are you doing?’, free to play for hours creating complicated games and imaginary worlds and free to explore outdoors. Today’s children will be unlikely to treasure memories like that: only 21% of today’s kids regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents, who regularly played outside as children.
It might seem safer to take your children to school and it might seem that you’re giving your children lots of opportunities by shuttling them to after-school and weekend organised activities with adults in charge. But kids need more than supervised exercise: they need freedom to learn for themselves. They need to organise their own activities and not just follow adult direction. They need to solve their own problems, negotiate the social world of other kids and grow in self-confidence, test themselves physically and learn to trust their own decisions, all without adult interference.
Our job as parents isn’t just to protect our kids but to prepare them for the ups and downs of real life. Experts say our ‘cotton wool’ risk averse culture actually risks children emerging into adulthood unprepared for life.
Childhood expert and author of No Fear: Growing Up In A Risk Averse Society, Tim Gill says:
“Children and young people have the potential to be more resilient, responsible, capable and creative than we give them credit for. Yet their lives are becoming ever more scheduled, controlled and directed.
If children are to enjoy and make the most of their lives, we need to revisit and revise our ideas of what a good childhood looks and feels like. We need to reconnect children with the people and places around them, and with the natural world on their doorstep. We need to support parents, so they feel able to give their children some of the freedoms that previous generations enjoyed when they were young.”
Ways you can give your children more freedom
1. Trust your children. If you think your children can walk to school safely and they want to, then let them.
2. Tune out the fearmongering and vaccinate yourself from contagious, anxious parenting. The worst that can happen isn’t going to happen (despite the scenes in your head). More accidents happen to children in the home than outside.
3. Teach children how to do things for themselves. Once they’ve mastered something, don’t do it for them. It can take time and patience showing them how to tie shoelaces or make a cup of tea - but it will make everyone’s lives easier in the long run and increase their self-confidence and freedom. Show your children how to help around the house and how to work simple household appliances. Even a toddler can help with tidy-up time.
4. Try not to over-schedule their lives - especially in the holidays. A day with nothing planned isn’t a parenting failure, it’s much-needed freedom for your child.
5. Let them make mistakes. That’s the only way they’ll learn - and have fun. So the water went over their wellies? Big deal.
6. Teach your children road safety and where and when to cross in your local neighbourhood. Don’t leave it until they’re about to start the walk to secondary school. Road confidence means they will gain confidence to soon be able to go to local friends’ homes under their own steam.
7. Give your children simple local missions. You’re the best judge of when they are sensible and confident enough (remembering to dial back the what ifs...). Start with down the street to post a letter, moving on to crossing roads by themselves. They will be buoyed up by your trust and their success.
8. Accept that it’s natural and healthy for children to take risks. Only by learning that they can climb that tree (and get back down again) will they increase in confidence. Do you want your child to be an onlooker to life or get stuck in and try new things?
9. Do talk often about stranger danger in the home and staying safe online. Your aim is to future-proof your child to make sensible decisions by arming them with knowledge and experience.