She Let Her 9-Year-Old Walk Across Central Park without An Adult
A nervous mom finally gave her son the freedom he wanted — that she’d pretty much wanted for him, too. But it took a little push from me —
I’d just spoken at a parenting event on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That’s the fancy part of New York City recently profiled in a New York Magazine article titled “Meet the Manhattan Parents Who Won’t Let Their Teens Outside Alone.”
The article quotes some moms who still walk their adolescents to school, and one who admitted her son doesn’t know his way around his neighborhood — at age 14.
What hath COVID parenting wrought?
These parents blame the pandemic for pressing pause on the freedom they would have gradually been giving their kids. But of course, fear is not a new phenom in modern day parenting. Even before the pandemic, only about 10% of kids were walking to school. Fewer and fewer were allowed any time on their own. The Children’s Nature Network found that today’s kids spend just 4-7 minutes a day in outside, unsupervised play.
So these are not Tom Sawyer times. And yet, Vicky Feltman, a mom of three boys, heard my spiel about today’s crime stats (despite an uptick in 2020 and 2021, still far lower than the ’80s and ’90s). AND the importance of free play (Mother Nature installed the play drive so kids would learn how to get along and solve problems). AND the fact that depriving kids of independence is starting to seem on par with depriving them of vitamins, or a decent education: A staggering loss, when it comes to kids’ mental and physical health.
What it took to let go.
And so…she loosened up. When she dropped a note to say she’d let her 9-year-old walk across the park with a friend — but no adult — just a day after my talk, I was so excited, I called her up to ask some questions:
LS: What made you finally let go?
VF: I felt like you provided kind of the little nudge I needed. Just after I let my 9-year-old walk across the park my husband said, “I’ve been pushing this for years now” — which is true. He’s much more relaxed about letting our kids do things on their own. So I let my son walk with a friend whose mom had also been at your talk.
LS: Wow! Did I flip the entire Upper East Side?
VF: Well, my friend told another parent what we’d done and she looked at her like she was insane.
LS: Okay, still some work to be done. How did your son and his friend react to this first solo walk?
VF: They were SO proud of themselves. This was on a Thursday and every Monday and Thursday they have sports practice like half an hour after school ends, so they said “Can we do this EVERY Monday and Thursday?”
The incredible joy of an un-chaperoned walk.
LS: I’ll answer for you: YES! Any other breakthroughs?
VF: I had my 11-year-old walk his brother, who’s six, to school. The 11-year-old walks himself to school already, but this was good for both of them. The 6-year-old was thrilled and the 11-year-old saw it as a kind of new responsibility. I think he needs that.
LS: What did I say that helped you get brave?
VF: Well, my husband had certainly been pushing this. But hearing it from an expert felt validating. Another friend who was at the talk, she has a 6th grader who engages with a lot of people on the street and that makes her nervous. But she said after the talk, “I need to let her kind of figure it out.” That’s a positive step.
LS: The DEFINITION of a positive step!
VF: Everyone walked away feeling like: Okay, I need to loosen the reins. I kind of feel like maybe the tide is turning a little.
What is the next step?
Here I asked Vicky if she and her fellow moms would ask their schools to start doing the Let Grow Play Club and The Let Grow Project and she said she knew SHE’D be asking, in part because of something she’d noticed on her own:
VF: My youngest stays at school till 4:45 and it’s some kind of organized activity, but from 4:45 till 5:30 it’s unstructured time — the kids are just playing. And he’s always begging to stay.
KIDS KNOW WHAT THEY NEED: FREE TIME, FREE PLAY, and SOME INDEPENDENCE. They are begging for it, like parched travelers in the desert.
THE GOOD NEWS IS: It’s a lot easier to let go once you realize this is a character-building gift to the children you love. And it’s even EASIER if you do it with a like-minded parent (or through your school). To get the same kind of confidence Vicky got, look through the resources here at Let Grow, or the crime stats, or the Journal of Pediatrics piece by Let Grow Co-Founder Dr. Peter Gray on how a LACK of independence leads to poor mental health.
Then step back and watch your kids go — and grow.