Can Changing The Way We Parent Rebuild Our Sense of Community?

Let Grow Founder Lenore Skenazy is working on a multilayered approach that involves individual change, community change, and public policy change.
Blog Post
May 22, 2024

American children right now are safer than they’ve ever been from premature death than virtually all children throughout human history. But if you have young kids right now, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. As I research and report on American parenting culture, it’s clear that many of us have shifted into intensive and expensive norms. There’s more and more research to suggest overscheduling and constant supervision isn’t great for kids’ mental health or general resilience. However, the question I’m most interested in that gets a lot less attention is, “what’s the impact of these habits on the parents themselves and society as a whole?”

I’ve recently become fascinated by the Let Grow movement, founded by Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, Skenazy received international media attention and was dubbed “the world’s worst mom” for letting her nine-year-old ride the New York City subway by himself. For the last 15 years, she’s been on a mission to renormalize childhood independence. She described to me how she went from an author and speaker focused on parenting to working on a multilayered approach that involves individual change, community change, and public policy change. She credits the author Jonathan Haidt who recently published the much-discussed bestselling book The Anxious Generation with shaping some of her thoughts about collective solutions. Haidt is now a founding member of Let Grow’s board. He, along with Daniel Shuchman, who both did work on college campuses, approached Skenazy and said, “we're worried about kids being fragile on campus, let's try to make them more robust at younger ages.” A psychology professor, Peter Gray, joined their cause, and Let Grow was born in 2017.

Let Grow has two free programs that can be adopted by schools or other institutions like a library, church, or a Boys and Girls Club. Their signature program, the Let Grow Experience can be tailored to kids K-12. Skenazy describes it as kids “get a homework assignment that says, ‘go home and do something new on your own, with your parents' permission, but without your parents. And we give them a long list of ideas. You can walk the dog, shovel the sidewalk, visit Grandma, make pancakes, run an errand, whatever it is. And because it's a homework assignment, and because everyone else is doing it, That helps the parents step back.”

She’s seen social norms shift quickly. “If all the other fourth graders are doing something, if they are getting ice cream [on their own] and some are going to guitar lessons [alone] and some are surprising us with breakfast. If everybody's doing it, then it's normal.” Her goal is for the program to become as common as P.E., “because people will realize that this is really good for kids. It's good for their mental health, it's good for their physical health, it's good for socialization.” She says the program is also being studied as a therapy for children with anxiety.

The second free program they offer is the Let Grow Play Club, where kids are allowed to be together and play in a phone-free environment with a “lifeguard-like” adult to supervise, making sure no one is seriously injured, but the adult is not involved in planning any programming or interfering with social interactions. The curriculum for both of these programs are available for free on the Let Grow website.

Most parents today can remember life before cell phones, tracking devices, and a time when kids were allowed to hang out all summer at the community pool without a specific adult watching them, so I wanted Skenazy to help me understand how and why things have changed so much in the last few decades about social norms around how we raise kids. I’ve often mainly pointed the finger at economic anxiety as a driving force behind our hyper-vigilant and hyper-scheduled parenting styles, but Skenazy gave a lot more context to think about. Here are some of the influences she pointed me to:

The Milk Carton Era: The high-profile kidnappings and murders of Etan Patz (1979) and Adam Walsh (1981) imprinted fearfully on our culture. Both were cases of young children being snatched and murdered when let out of their parent’s sight for a few minutes. Etan was walking to the school bus by himself in New York City, and Adam was abducted in a Sears department store in Florida. More stories gained national attention over the years, usually when the victims were photogenic white kids. I remember vividly the death of JonBenet Ramsey (1996), a six-year-old beauty queen who was found dead by strangulation in her basement. Her parents were investigated as suspects, but the existence of an alleged ransom note created worldwide speculation that a stranger had broken into the family home and killed her. Her death has never been solved. In addition to these horrific stories, for nearly two decades, photos of missing children ran on milk cartons and were sent to homes as mailers, creating the omnipresent feeling that children were constantly going missing. As Skenazy explains: “It never says, ‘I was taken in a custodial dispute between my divorced parents.’ Or ‘I ran away because I was 16 and I couldn't stand my stepdad.’ It never says that, even though that's [the situation] for the vast majority of [missing children] cases then and now. Stranger kidnapping is vanishingly rare, but it doesn't seem vanishingly rare if you're seeing a missing child every time you are eating your Rice Krispies.”

Changes in Media: A couple factors converged to make childhood danger and abduction part of the country’s regular content diet. The huge popularity of a mini-series about Adam Walsh led to TV execs looking for more kidnapping stories to tell, just as cable news was coming into existence and needing 24 hours of programming. America’s Most Wanted, hosted by Adam’s father, John Walsh, began in 1988 and ran for 24 seasons. With dramatic reenactments of crimes and ominous voiceovers, the show presented a world that made it feel like dangerous criminals were lurking around every street corner in America. By the 1980s, there had been significant changes in the standards of what kind of violence could be depicted on TV for entertainment after successful legal challenges to some of the TV industry’s self-governing regulations. “I talked to a television historian who said that there's not one episode of Law and Order could have been shown with the old broadcasting rules [that were in place from 1952-1983.]”

Rise in Litigation: As our society has gotten more and more litigious, schools, institutions, and parents have started thinking more and more like lawyers. Organizations that care for children feel compelled to do everything possible to mitigate risk. Skenazy references a school district in Richland, Washington where the spokesperson for the school district said, “‘we read that swings were the most dangerous equipment,’ so that’s why they don't have any. Merry-go-rounds are also gone and they don't have any teeter-totters left. When you start thinking like a lawyer, nothing seems safe enough. And it also starts feeling like you could be blamed for something being unsafe, so you start projecting ahead to the courtroom.”

After giving me this great history lesson, I asked Skenazy to share more ideas about how we’re influenced as parents today. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Lenore Skenazy: Another reason we're so much more afraid is that we live in an expert culture. So there's all this advice on how to do things that you already know how to do. I don't know how you put it, but basically, the way we parent is very similar to OCD [Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.] 'If I just do everything every day, every single thing, maybe my child will live. If I turn off the stove and check the door three times, and follow him to the bus stop, and make sure he gets on the bus and then make sure I can track him, [etc etc.] And that's the only 'good' way to be.’ It really reminds me of OCD. And I think the only way to break that is the way you break OCD, which is through exposure therapy to an alternative.

Then of course, we live in the free market. The easiest dollar to get from any human being is the dollar of a parent who's afraid for their kid. Especially if you could say, 'I'm gonna save them. I'm gonna keep them from falling behind. I’m going to keep them from getting hurt.' So yeah, so the marketplace is out there. There's baby knee pads. There's helmets for when they're walking. And so between the ability to track our kids, know where they are, all the information that gets electronically sent to you from the school about your kids grades and sometimes their behavior, and the school buses that let you know whether the kid got on or off. You're omniscient in a way that no human being has ever been until 15 years ago. And I don't think we're ready for this kind of omniscience. And that tension [and too much information] is driving us crazy. Because if you can know everything, when something bad happens people will say, 'why weren't you paying attention? How did she get lost? How come she fell? Why weren't you there?'

Then there's less and less sympathy if something does go wrong. So all this information that should be relaxing us is actually making us feel very nervous.

Katherine Goldstein: You've made me think about some things I hadn't fully considered.

I think that there's a lot of good research out there on the importance of fostering independence in kids. We're seeing that's becoming more and more part of the conversation. What I see less discussion about is how fostering kid independence is good for parents and good for society, because it frees up adult time from unnecessary micromanagement that allows us to be more fulfilled as parents and be more part of our communities. So what are your thoughts on that?

Lenore Skenazy: Yes! That is my thought. You are right. The problem now is that children have no independence, which means that parents have no freedom. But it really is a collective problem. The idea is that all children must be supervised by their parents. First of all, that means that all you can have is one child per parent, right? And that the parent can't have a job. So it’s a backdoor assault on feminism [and women being in the paid workforce.] And there's a blindness to the idea that there is no trade-off for the kid being constantly hovered over and for the parent being required to provide constant supervision of the child.

Because of course, if you're doing that, you can't be doing much else other than scrolling through your phone. It atomizes the nuclear family even more. So everything becomes individualized and very expensive in terms of time and money because if you're not watching [your children] directly, then you have to hire somebody. So that’s one of the reasons that Let Grow is trying to make it easy, normal, and legal to give kids back their independence.[ We are advocating for laws] that say that you're allowed to let your kid do things so long as you don't put them in serious and obvious danger. We’ve lobbied and gotten these laws passed in eight very different states with bipartisan support: Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois, and Montana. [ Ed note: If you are interested in what the childhood independence laws are in your state and if there are set regulations about the age children are allowed to be left home alone, check out this resource from Let Grow.]

In five states, it passed unanimously. So that's a law that's good for me, but it's also a great law for the single mom who's working two shifts and she knows that her 7 or 8-year-old, maybe even her 6-year-old could come home with a key, go inside, eat a snack, do her homework, and that's not neglect either. So the assumption that children need constant supervision hurts those who are the go-getters who want to get ahead and those who are struggling, who don't have extra time or money to spend on unnecessary child supervision.

Making good public policy benefits a huge range of families, but in the absence of that public policy, it feels like it's much riskier for parents of color, and parents who are poorer to do these independence challenges, compared to more resourced families. I love the public policy level of this, and the community level, but when we're working on the individual level, how do we bring more people along with us? And how do we mitigate some of those risks for families who are more at risk of things like child protective services being called on them and their children being potentially removed from their homes for neglect?

This is exactly why we are trying to pass these childhood independence laws. So we're getting there, but throughout childhood, [26 to] 37 percent of all American children will be the subject of a child protective services call or investigation. But if you're black, it's 53%. So it is crazy. So there's a lot of people working on this issue from the side of child protective services reform as well as mandated reporting reform. Poverty is not neglect. Just like independence is not neglect. So when it comes to what your independence challenges are, that is completely dependent on you, your parents, your neighborhood, and what you know. And that's why I'd say, if you're in a neighborhood where you're afraid of crime or you're or you are afraid of being reported, then you [focus on independence activities inside the home.] You make pancakes for your family. You give your baby brother a bath. You do something new that's a little more independent that shows that you're more mature than you were yesterday.

In addition to the historical context you’ve given, I think all of these things have eroded because trust in our society has gone down, and we have lower trust in institutions. And we don't know our neighbors.

How do you think rebuilding trust and building up community ties in a larger sense could help the childhood independence movement? Or could the childhood independence movement build up community ties?

I do think it's [symbiotic.] What I've heard a couple of times is that in places that have done the Let Grow Experiences and kids have been walking to school or going to the store, is that it becomes normal to see them outside again. And it's not because their moms are terrible or drug addicts or irresponsible. I think trust is the keystone of everything we're talking about. You have to trust that your kids are reasonably intelligent and reasonably resourceful and reasonably human and that your fellow humans are all those things.

So one of my favorite topics are the problems around summer and summer camp. Because we won't let kids do things on their own, like go to a public pool. For example, at my community pool, you have to be 14 to be left alone there, which I think is ridiculous. So everybody sends their kids to summer camp. It's really expensive, and it's hard to get in because so many people need it in order to work And then if you choose to not send your kid to summer camp, they have no friends to play with because everyone else is at summer camp. And they aren’t allowed to go the pool or mall by themselves because the institutions themselves ban it. So how do we as individuals tackle these like multi-layered problems?

So that's another collective problem. We’ve recently republished a story about how one neighborhood created a summer camp where the older kids in the neighborhood help the younger kids. It does involve work. You have to find people and you have to figure out a time, and you have to figure out a place, but people have done it in some places. Another idea is to have block parties so that everybody on the block gets to know each other [so people feel more comfortable letting kids hang out independently in the neighborhood.] We have to redevelop the trust muscle between our neighbors. And then what you're talking about is creating a much better society, not just solving a childcare problem.