Facilitating Character Development in Our Neighborhood: A Different Approach to Parenting

Is there some way to be a good parent other than trying to control your kids' lives?  photo credit: Newsweek magazine, May 22, 2006

Model parents of today love their kids so much, they choose friends for them. They set up play dates for them. They coach their sports teams. They work in their schools. They plan myriad structured activities for them, and then they take them there.

This is how we define excellent parenthood in the 21st century. The more involvement in our kids’ lives, the better.

I’m a bit embarrassed to say my wife and I don’t want to do any of these things. Any. We don’t want to choose our kids’ friends, set up play dates, coach their sports teams, work in their schools, or drive them to tons of structured activities.

Does this mean we’re bad parents? Well, maybe, but not necessarily.
Our oldest is four, so we’re still trying to figure all this out. We haven’t yet encountered much of the parent peer pressure that afflicts elementary school parents.

We very much want our kids to have some measure of autonomy to decide what they do, with whom, and when. Of course, we want them to be safe and smart, but most importantly, we also want them to have a strong sense of who they are and what they can contribute to the world.

William Damon writes of the crisis of American children’s lack of a sense of identity in his recent book, The Path to Purpose. He describes today’s youth as being unusually lacking in a sense of purpose in their lives. “They report an inner life of anxiety and a sense of feeling trapped in a life that is not under their own control. They feel disappointed in themselves and discouraged by what life has offered them thus far. They despair at the emptiness and meaninglessness of their daily activities.”

Madeline Levine writes of the problems of alienation in current adolescents in The Price of Privilege. The book is devoted to discussing a swelling tide of adolescents who, “indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, . . . appear to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop an inside.” Levine adds, “They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure.” Many end up very depressed, listless, or even suicidal.

Today, Levine writes that fewer and fewer adolescents

. . . are able to resist the constant pressure to excel. Between accelerated academic courses, multiple extracurricular activities, premature preparation for high school or college, special coaches and tutors engaged to wring the last bit of performance out of them, many kids find themselves scheduled to within an inch of their lives. . . As a result, kids can’t find the time, both literal and psychological, to linger in internal exploration; a necessary precursor to a well developed sense of self.

Wow… That’s a breathtakingly eloquent argument against the hyper-involved parenting approach that’s in vogue these days.

So, my wife and I have figured out what we don’t want to do, but that still begs the question, what do we do?

Well, our basic idea is to try to be facilitators for our children to find their own identities and achieve their highest potential while teaching some absolute guidelines for safety and morality.

As facilitators, we want to bring our children into challenging situations, model behavior for them, and then provide them with the opportunity to start doing parts of these things on their own. It’s important that we do this in our own neighborhood, so we can monitor and guide the process as we feel we need to.

I’ll give you an example. My son Marco just turned four, and practically every day he and I ride our bikes in our neighborhood. In a few short months he’s gotten very agile on a bike, and his judgment has improved tremendously.

He’s still a four-year-old, but his maturity on a bike is very impressive. He and I regularly cross El Camino Real (a large six-lane road) together, and my wife and I now let him ride the sidewalks and street in front of our house without our watching. We still check in frequently, but due to lots of maturing through experience, he’s proven to us that he can handle it.

In addition to riding with him, I spend a lot of time walking with him to neighbors houses for chats and impromptu play sessions. Because he’s become so comfortable in front of our house, we’ve encouraged him to go knock on our next-door-neighbors’ doors himself when he hits a ball into their yards and wants to retrieve it. So far, this has worked out quite well.

Finally, as I’ve written earlier, we’re working on making our front yard into an outdoor family room. The big idea here is that our kids will gain confidence and social skills as they entertain guests who come to their home turf without the invitation of parents.

So, we’re working hard for our kids, but we’re not doing the things that “model parents” around us are doing – choosing friends, setting up playdates, coaching their sports teams, working at their schools, or driving them to lots of structured activities. Instead, we’re trying to build a strong foundation in our neighborhood for our kids to develop their confidence and their own identities. Of course, since it’s right outside our front door, we can get involved anytime we feel we need to.

We’ll see how this works out, but thus far, we’re quite excited by the possibilities…

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4 Responses to Facilitating Character Development in Our Neighborhood: A Different Approach to Parenting

  1. knitmensch says:

    Funny. I just finished reading a book called “Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers.” It didn’t argue the opposite of what you’re saying — I don’t think the author would advocate for most of what you’re criticizing — but I think it adds another important dimension, of staying closely connected to our kids so that their main orientation in life comes from us, their parents, rather than from their peers. The basic argument is that parents, having reached maturity and having a solid, unconditional commitment to their kids’ well-being, are better equipped to nurture their kids to maturity and true individuality than are the kids’ peers — who lack both greater maturity and commitment to our kids’ welfare. It’s an argument, not for helicopter parenting or living vicariously through your children as described in your post, but for attachment parenting, strong and persisting throughout childhood and youth.

    I wonder how this idea, of maintaining parent orientation rather than fostering peer orientation, would fit with the free-range-kids philosophy. My sense is that they’re not fully opposed, but partially orthogonal. My reading of “Hold On To Your Kids” is, in part, that by staying close with our kids and being in good contact with their peers (not choosing them, though the peers who are averse to parental contact will tend to drop away if parents persist in making contact), we give them a firmer base for becoming fully themselves than if we push them into the arms of a peer community without adequate adult presence. Healthy maturation and individuation grow from secure adult attachments.

    And those attachments can also happen with non-parent adults, like the neighbors. Thus the orthogonality. Any attachment that doesn’t oppose the attachment to the parents can also nurture the child’s growth and self-realization. Perhaps holding on to our kids and giving them freedom to roam can go together in a sufficiently strong village, where the adults are comfortable with each other and willing to step in when kids need help or guidance.

    My oldest is also four, so I can’t claim any senior or expert status here. Parenting is quite an adventure, no?

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    That’s an interesting perspective, knitmensch. Since our oldest is 4, we’ve yet to encounter the phenomenon of peer influence. I guess I’d say sure, our relationships with our kids are absolutely vital. As a matter of fact, ours is so good that I don’t even think about being shoved aside in favor of friends. Perhaps I should.

    However, I’d say that the task is to create a fabulous relationship with your kids early and sustain it rather than to compete with friends when they become important. Kids need close relationships with their friends *and* their parents. We parents have a huge head start.

    Some rebellion from parents is totally normal when kids reach puberty, so we must be prepared for that a long time before.

    The vital thing we do as parents is set the stage before kids start to get really attached to friends. If we set the stage so that kids have freedom and become attached to kids in the neighborhood, there’s a very good chance that we will know the kids and their parents. However, if we totally control them until puberty, their “busting out phase” is likely to be more out of the realm of us parents.

  3. comom says:

    I would love to hear from other parents who have older children. I believe that as your kids grow up you will feel that parent peer pressure. It is fascinating.. when our oldest was 4 I would completely agree with you.. now that our youngest is 7 oldest is 10 it is a whole new world.
    Enter the world of sports, the world of schools and testing, the world of friends, and the world of other parents. What we struggle with now is letting go and trusting that enough has been taught to our children that they will be respectful (respectful across the board I believe is the best word). I work for an environmental center so I’m always encouraging my children to take it outside.. to go explore with friends.. to find something new and come back and tell me about it. However.. as they get older another mix starts to come into that world and often I’m left asking.. am I the only parent that cares? (The kids end up at the discount store causing problems or at the very least shopping – that is not discovering nature like I suggested). When I ask i’m told.. oh my mom will let me go to the store but doesn’t want me in the drainage ditch. WHAT??
    On the other side is the sports world.. I have three kids who play sports and so we only allow one sport per season (mostly just fall and spring.. although now the world of winter sports has also become of interest). The sports world is highly competitive at a young age and very aggressive (especially in boy world.. my oldest is a girl so boy world is new but it has been shocking). I love team sports and see value in what they teach.. but also see what can happen to kids when they are pushed too hard at such a young age. There is value in learning team work and collaboration.. but when it becomes a competitive nightmare (coaches recruiting the 6 year old soccer team) i go crazy. What happened to just playing on a team when you were young for the value of the team? I don’t remember the competition hitting hard until I was closer to high school. I don’t remember pressure to make the “team” when I was in 3rd grade.. we all played on city teams. Coaches didn’t recruit that young.. teams weren’t formed to give the high school coaches a chance to “check out the younger players” (really there is a basketball team that we were told if your child wants to play in high school – this is the team they watch. WHAT?? We are in 4th grade and have never played before! But yep.. sure thing the high school coaches are there and some are coaching) Reality is that something like 1% of kids actually get a sport scholarship and academic is just as hard to get (maybe there should be college scholarships for well rounded kids who didn’t join and do everything but maintained a B average and enjoy life!)

    So I not sure how much sense I’m making.. but I guess what I’m saying is that as the kids get older there is pressure on them (and the parents) to be the BEST. They have pressure on all sides.. at school, at home, on teams, at clubs. Often at our scout meetings i put down the books and say.. take a deep breath.. let’s go outside.. watch the clouds.. spend time sitting still and doing nothing. It’s just for a few minutes.. but really needed.
    This generation has too many expectations – I think we need to let them be kids.. and as adults become kids again as well!

  4. Carol says:

    So great to hear an alternative to what we are being sold! I work in early childhood, and have seen the playdate and over-involvement phenomenon balloon. You keep doing what you are doing – by respecting your child’s judgement, you are teaching them to respect their own judgement. Teaching your kids to make discerning decisions for themselves can help them be assertive later on – when it really matters. When alcohol and drugs come into the picture. Self confidence and the ability to speak for themselves are crucial here, and developing these starts in the preschool years. Bravo to all of you parents who are smart enough to help your child start to develop these crucial life skills so young.