Summer! Yea! Time for parents to, well, keep working, and for lucky kids to bolt outside in the morning and not reappear until dinner — sweaty, happy and bursting with stories.
Oh, wait. This is 2019.
Time to get the kids in the car and drive them to their supervised camp program, then to Target, then home to Snapchat until dinner.
While our intentions are good, most of us know a tight leash isn’t the best way to raise resilient, confident kids. But how do we let go?
Minnesota native Diane Redleaf has a suggestion: Practice. The Stanford Law School-trained attorney is the legal consultant for Let Grow, a new nonprofit created by Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement. Redleaf elaborates below.
Q: You live in Chicago now, but your ties to the Twin Cities are many.
A: I grew up in Highland Park in St. Paul, attended Carleton College, then moved to Chicago after law school. My parents, Rhoda and Paul Redleaf, and two siblings, Andy and Karen, still live in the Twin Cities and are very active members of the community.
Q: Tell us about Let Grow.
A: Our mission is to make it normal, safe and legal to give children reasonable independence. While I work on the legal part of the mission, the organization works to help adults, both parents and teachers, trust kids to engage in free play, to problem solve and take other steps toward independence and resiliency by letting them do activities and have their own adventures. We have a Let Grow Project in 100 schools and a Let Grow Play Club. All our materials are free. There are lots more resources and activities for parents at letgrow.org.
Q: Is activity No. 1 “The Art of Backing Off?”
A: Lenore likes to say that kids aren’t fragile; they are “anti-fragile.” They are built not just to withstand some challenges, but to grow stronger once they do. Doing a little less for our kids is not negligent or lazy. It’s a vote of confidence in them.
Q: And a vote of confidence in those parents who already allow their kids to enjoy some freedoms, much like they did growing up?
A: Our constitutional democracy recognizes that fit parents need to have the right to make decisions about how they want to parent. We cannot have a system that constantly second-guesses parents in basic questions like, “Is my child ready to play outside?” When you put a Big Brother out there watching, it has a chilling impact on how people parent, but it’s not helping the kids, either. The main thing kids want is to be viewed as competent and capable.
Q: How did you meet Lenore?
A: I’ve been a family defense lawyer for nearly 40 years. I started to consult with Lenore around 2015 because I was concerned about government overreach and labeling of parents as “neglectful.” We started working together informally after the highly publicized Meitiv case, in which two young children in Silver Springs, Md., were taken into police custody and their parents were charged with child neglect for allowing them to walk home from a park. After Utah passed the country’s first “free range” law, Lenore and I started working together on a model neglect law that recognized the rights of children to reasonable independence. In December, I took on a more formal role.
Q: But wasn’t the Meitiv case rare?
A: Not at all. Another big case, one I had a direct role in as a lawyer, was that of Natasha Felix, who let her children, ages 11, 9 and 5, play in a park right next door to her house. She could see them out her door and checked on them every 10 minutes. But a passerby thought the kids were unsupervised and called the Department of Children and Family Services hotline. It took two years for a state appellate court to finally overturn the finding of neglect against her. I have handled many cases like that.
Q: Is most ire directed at moms?
A: Yes, moms are the most frequent targets of police and child protection who issue the “bad parent” label. Some of it is an anti-feminist agenda which blames mothers and expects them to have their eyes on their children at all times, even when that is the last thing kids need. The mother is “neglectful” and the father in this joint decision isn’t even investigated. I had one case where a woman parked her car, ran in to get a Starbucks and could see her child the whole time. She was berated by the police. She said her husband did that all the time and was never stopped.
Q: How do you think we got here?
A: Lenore points to an upswing in “vigilante culture,” or the parenting police. The prevalence of cellphones allows anybody who thinks a child shouldn’t be outside to readily call authorities, and they do. In years past, they would just go up to the kids if they had genuine concern and deal with it directly.
Q: So kids stay indoors. What are the dangers of that?
A: Obesity rates are rising, as are rates of anxiety and depression; there’s also unnecessary fear of their world. Despite a commonly held belief, the world is not more dangerous today than in decades past. In fact, America is experiencing a 50-year low in the crime rate.
Q: How do we get back to the common sense middle?
A: We let kids try one new thing and then another. And we build a community that supports this idea and puts it into practice. If we have the expectation that this is reasonable parenting, we’ll see others follow suit.