Letter: Jim Dunning, Ashburn

Editor: Neil McNerney asks us an important question about raising our children in last week’s column “Are You A Lawnmower Parent?

But shouldn’t fostering self-reliance and independence begin earlier than sixth grade and without dependence on adult supervision? I look at Neil’s four closing suggestions in this essay and can’t help but think that by sixth grade it’s too late—and that the solution is wholly founded in top-down management by the adult, which undermines the goal.

If my child is not well on the road to resilience and self-direction by the time they’re 11 or 12, that ship has sailed.
Self-reliant problem-solving must be a way of life, not an adult intervention. Peter Gray, Boston College research professor, wrote in 2011 about the significant contribution unsupervised, childhood free-play time makes to our ability to problem solve and manage life’s challenges, an important element of childhood now absent: “The most noticeable and probably greatest decline [in play] has occurred in children’s outdoor play with other children. Anyone over forty has witnessed this change firsthand. In the 1950s and 1960s, and to a lesser degree in the 1970s and 1980s, it was possible to walk through almost any North American neighborhood—after school, on weekends, or any time in the summer—and see children outdoors at play. Today, in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.”

We recognize this major change every time we “like” a wistful social media meme about riding bikes and catching fireflies all summer that laments the loss of the idyllic childhood many of us recall. This nostalgia obscures, however, the most important gifts those adult-less adventures gave us—hours and hours of opportunities to solve treehouse engineering problems and preteen social engineering challenges on our own. Not only have we taken away our kids’ bikes and kick-the-cans, we’ve taken away the mistakes and failures of fixing flat tires and dealing with skinned knees.
It’s we parents who have done this. Not TV or iPhones or computers, but conscious decisions to constantly supervise our kids or have others do it for us.

Is it any wonder that shortly after we stopped letting our kids out of our sight—ever!—adolescents have experienced significant increases in anxiety and depression? I can only imagine what dealing with life as a teen must be like when you never learned how to do it as a seven- or 10-year-old.

The empathetic Lawnmowering here is not a cause of a problem, but a consequence of and reaction to the problem we caused a decade earlier in our child’s life.

Neil McNerney’s suggestions are useful as interventions, but shouldn’t we be raising our kids from the outset to be confident problem-solvers?

After all, we most surely want creative, self-reliant students heading off to classrooms of orderly parallel rows of desks and centers where time for exploring the value of wrong answers is absent. Right?
Jim Dunning, Ashburn 

One thought on “Letter: Jim Dunning, Ashburn

  • 2018-09-26 at 11:03 am
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    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Jim. I agree that the earlier that children learn to be resilient, the better. The fact is that those reading this column probably already have kids at many different ages. It’s never too late, in my opinion, to work on these concepts as a parent. I didn’t begin to work on some of these concepts until my oldest was around 9 years old. Even at that age, I believe he benefited quite a bit!

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