The summer of the free-range parent

After being cooped up during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, kids need a long leash to roam and explore

When Scott Sampson was about 4 or 5, his mother took him to a frog pond. He scooped up several tadpoles, with their “bloblike bodies, and long, slimy, transparent tails,” he writes in his book “How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature.” Captivated by these creatures, he recalls, he waded farther into the water until it went over the tops of his boots. Sampson, who is now a paleontologist and author, says that “many years later, my mother told me that she started to object but thought better of it.”

This summer, parents need to be more like Scott Sampson’s mother. It is time to silence our concerns about kids getting messy, stop following kids around with bottles of hand sanitizer and extra masks, and start letting them explore the world on their own. It’s time to embrace our inner free-range parent.

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The past 16 months have been hard on children. It is not just the learning loss, though the fact that 2 million kids were missing from school this year does not bode well for future academic success. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 31% increase in mental health-related doctor’s visits for kids in 2020 compared to 2019.

In an article published in February, NPR found after conducting interviews with providers in seven states that “more suicidal children are coming to their hospitals.” Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric emergency psychiatry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of Northwell Health in New York, has seen a slight increase in 10- to 11-year-olds attempting, but the majority are teenagers. The number has doubled from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020 at the emergency room at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, in California, says psychologist Marisol Cruz Romero. Kids have suffered from the isolation of the lockdowns — and many are looking forward to going back into the world — but a year of being at home has also instigated or exacerbated anxiety about social situations for many children. 

As parents, we need to use this summer to get things back to normal, says Lenore Skenazy, but not just pre-COVID-19 normal, pre-helicopter parenting normal. Skenazy, the founder of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, says that she doesn’t blame parents for their hovering, especially not this year. “It’s the culture that does this.” 

A recent study in England, for instance, found that over the course of one generation the age at which parents think it’s OK to let kids play outside by themselves has increased from 9 to 11. “Eleven? That’s a year younger than Juliet when she married Romeo,” Skenazy jokes. As Anita Grant, chair of a group called Play England, told the Guardian: “Adults’ protective instincts are not helpful when they restrict and control exploration, creativity and a child’s natural instinct to engage with their environment freely.” 

Even before the pandemic, many parents were searching for perfect safety for their children. Accepting even the smallest risk became intolerable and COVID-19 made that worse. It’s nothing short of a miracle that this disease has not affected children very much at all. Kids ages 1 to 17 are more likely to die from — among other things — cancer, the flu and heart disease. How much effort do you devote to preventing your kids contracting these other illnesses? Never mind. Don’t start thinking about it now.

It’s time we started to weigh all the risks to kids instead of just the ones in the headlines. The risk to kids from obesity, depression, anxiety that have come from keeping them home, in front of screens and 3 feet from the refrigerator far outweigh the risks of sending them to play with their friends outside. 

And Skenazy says: “If we’re worried about social emotional growth for kids after this year, nothing turns the key in the ignition better than independence.” So have your kids climb a tree, play outside with friends or go to a store alone. Tell them to come home when the streetlights come on — or if they really have to use the bathroom.

Or send them to camp. “Kids really need badly what most camps have to offer right now,” says Audrey Monke, author of “Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults.” Getting kids outdoors and ensuring they have lots of face-to-face contact with other kids and young counselors is really important for putting them back on track to physical and emotional health.

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Monke is a big fan of sleepaway camp and has been running one for 35 years. She says that being away from parents for a few weeks allows kids to “form their own relationships, speak for themselves and make their own decisions.” Even something as simple as deciding whether they want vanilla yogurt or strawberry or whether they want to make a friendship bracelet or try ceramics is important. “Parents in the rush of life these days make all those choices for kids,” says Monke. This need for efficiency — “just eat the flipping yogurt already!” — may sound familiar to anyone trying to juggle home-schooling with a job this past year. 

Along those lines, Monke says there is another reason that kids should go away to camp this year. “Parents are fried and they need a break.” Maybe it sounds selfish, but Monke says “Breaks are important to a parent-child relationship. You miss each other. You realize you can do some things on your own.” And then after a few weeks, “you can be refreshed and ready for more family time.”

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.