STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There was an age growing up when my mom let me go anywhere on the block by myself so long as I did not cross the street. A bit later, I could ride my bike about as far as I could go. Surely, many kids still grow up that way, but we have entered an era of hyper-attentive parenting when adults tend to hover. Deena Prichep reports on an organization that sees value in a looser parenting style.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Seven-year-old Matthew is in the woods behind his Portland condo. It's kind of a classic childhood scene. He lounges on a tire swing, tromps over to his friend's house across the ravine.
MATTHEW RANDALL: Well, we made this path from here all the way down to there.
PRICHEP: He made the path himself, with the help of a friend, using garden shears, and they did it without any adult supervision. Matthew's mom, Laura Randall, wants her son to gain the sort of skills and confidence that only come with doing things yourself, but she didn't just toss her 7-year-old out the door with some hiking boots and garden shears one day. They worked up to it gradually with what Randall calls...
LAURA RANDALL: Experiments in independence - just those moments, you know, incrementally bigger moments, where he can choose to be on his own.
PRICHEP: Randall knows this isn't the norm in today's parenting, where kids are shuttled from one supervised, structured activity to another. Gone are the days when kids ride their bikes alone until the streetlights come on.
And Randall has encountered people who think she's a bad parent - like the man who started yelling at her when she left Matthew alone in the car for a few minutes while she ran into the pharmacy to pick up a prescription.
RANDALL: It was mortifying and frightening, and he identifies himself as a police officer. And I think oh, my gosh.
PRICHEP: Randall knows that parents in several states have been arrested for leaving kids unattended, for letting them walk to the park on their own or even walk to school. And so she was worried about what this man might do.
RANDALL: Then he immediately said something about how - do you know how many kids go missing a year? And I was like, by coincidence, I think I do know, and it's very small.
PRICHEP: They talked it out, and the man eventually threw up his hands and walked away. Randall's heart was pounding, but she felt confident defending her parenting, partly because she had connected with a group called Free Range Kids, which promotes childhood independence and gives families the information they need to push back against a culture of overprotection. Its founder is Lenore Skenazy.
LENORE SKENAZY: This very pessimistic, fearful way of looking at childhood isn't based in reality. It is something that we have been taught.
PRICHEP: Skenazy now has a new project called Let Grow, which aims to create communities where childhood independence is the norm.
SKENAZY: We have two projects that are really simple, like, almost laughably simple, but I think they're working.
PRICHEP: Let Grow is reaching out to elementary schools across the country to assign kids independence homework. Every week, the kids decide to do something on their own that they haven't done before, whether it's walking the dog around the block or making dinner or walking a few aisles over in the supermarket to get some eggs. The schools also set up Let Grow play clubs - mixed ages, no structure and no adult direction, just free, child-led play. Lori Koerner is principal at Tremont Elementary in Long Island, one of a dozen New York schools piloting the project.
LORI KOERNER: We saw a direct effect in the classroom. The children were just more self-assured and confident.
PRICHEP: Koerner says with Let Grow, kids discover skills and abilities they didn't know they had, and they also discover what it's like to fail.
KOERNER: If we don't offer them these opportunities to communicate, to collaborate, to problem-solve, then how can they be successful in a global society?
PRICHEP: And that success, ultimately, is what parents want for their kids - parents like Laura Randall.
RANDALL: There's the short game where you're sort of doing the best you can in the moment, but there's the long game. And there's paying attention to allowing a little risk because it will pay off in the long run.
PRICHEP: Randall understands that life has real risks but so does getting in a car, and most of us still do it every day because that's how we get where we want to go. For Matthew to become a confident, competent adult, Randall wants him to go outside, make his own mistakes and figure things out. And she hopes he won't be the only kid out there doing it. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.
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