Giving Freedom Incrementally

Here's Marco riding his bike on our street at age four. Don't worry - at that age, I never let him out of my sight while he rode on the street, but I did let him wander away from me a couple hundred feet or so.

“How is it that you feel so comfortable letting Marco (6) be in your front yard without your watching?”

A mom asked me this question recently. It really froze me. I mean, I hadn’t really thought about how we had become comfortable giving him so much freedom.

Marco regularly roams our front yard and neighbors’ front yards on his own. I wrote an article recently about Marco’s “home range” – i.e. the range he regularly and comfortably inhabits every day. For most kids, this range is limited to the walls of their house, but Marco and my middle son, Nico, regularly hang out beyond those walls as if they were home.

Still, this mom’s query got me to really think about how we could let him do that, while so many reasonable parents of kids Marco’s age couldn’t bear the thought that their kids are outside alone.

How did we get here?In short, we ended up here after an awful lot of repetition and incremental adjustments. My wife and I didn’t just wake up when Marco turned six and say, “OK, Marco, it’s time for you to start hanging out in our front yard on your own.” Rather, we started taking steps that led to here when he was two, and we’ve worked practically daily on his independence skills. While he’s been our focus, all this “work” has made an important impact on my wife and I, as well as on our neighbors.

So, four years ago, we let Marco chase balls down on the sidewalk in front of our house. This wasn’t entirely comfortable, and sometimes I had to yell and/or chase him down to keep him from really endangering himself. However, he learned daily from these experiences, and I’m sure that he became a bit better than other two-year-olds at self-control close to a street.

When Marco was three, I took him bike riding in our neighborhood. He would go wild sometimes on his training-wheels bike, and once again, I had to scream and chase him down quite a bit. Eventually, though, he got pretty good at bike riding close to cars.

The next year, when he was four, we started to let him play for very short amounts of time in front of our house without our watching. We lost him once and panicked until we found him behind a bush in our next-door neighbors’ yard. We reprimanded him sharply, but in retrospect, I realize that this was an important teachable moment. He began to understand how his small bit of freedom came with some responsibility. He also started riding his bike on the street with me then, and I gave him a little space to roam away from me.

I could go on and on. My main point here is that every day, I’ve kept in mind independence and self-reliance as a goal for my boys. Every day, they’ve learned and gotten better at being independent. Sure, we’ve made some mistakes, but these mistakes were never huge ones because we gave a little more rope every day.

I’ll give you an analogy. When you start teaching your children to recognize letters in the hope that they will one day learn to read, you take an incremental approach. Next, you try to get them to recognize a few words like “no” or their first name. You don’t wait until they’re six, give them a book, and expect them to read.

Likewise, independence skills require constant, continuous improvement. The word that comes to mind for me is the Japanese word, “kaizen.” Literally, it means “change for the better,” but the term has taken on incredible importance as a philosophy of manufacturing at Japanese companies like Toyota. The idea there is to scrutinize every detail of the automobile manufacturing process every day, and make small, incremental improvements based on that scrutiny every day. After many years of this in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Toyota ended up with manufacturing processes that were wildly superior to that of American car manufacturers.

Today, Marco is on the way to being the Toyota of his neighborhood in independence skills. (This is partially due to the fact that most other parents of kids his age barely even attempt to teach these skills.) He and I ride bikes 1-1/2 miles to school every day, and I’m pretty sure that if I let him do it alone, he’d do it, no problem. He knows exactly how to get to the houses of all his friends in the neighborhood, and has no problem knocking on their doors and negotiating with his friends’ parents.

However, I can’t bear to think right now of him crossing the extremely busy street by our house, El Camino Real, on his own. In addition, even though he can read some sentences with simple words, I can’t imagine his reading a Harry Potter book on his own right now. Both will come at the right time. We’ll get there.

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3 Responses to Giving Freedom Incrementally

  1. cashel says:

    Nice notes, Mike. Whenever I get questions about from concerned parents about our daughters range of freedom, my first question back is usually “what were you doing at their age?”. Invariably they realize that they had way more freedom as kids than we typically now grant as parents.

    I’m by the way currently having the opposite “range of freedom” challenge. We just spent a year in a Chinese city of 10 million which my daughters (8 and 11) learned to navigate well. Now back in Sonoma (6,000 residents, few people, cars don’t actually drive on sidewalks) my instinct is “go where you want when you want – no problemo” (which probably isn’t the right answer either…).


  2. Virginia_BaloghRosenthal_FB says:

    I grew up in Manhattan in the 60s-70s and we had a lot more freedom than kids do nowadays. I walked to school by myself (2 sides street, no avenue) beginning in the second grade. From an early age, my parents taught us to be aware of our surroundings. For example, I knew to look at the buildings’ mailboxes on my way down the stairs to see if there was a reflection of anyone hiding underneath. We also knew the merchants along the route and were confident we could duck into their stores if there was any trouble.

    Similarly, I try to teach my kids “street smarts” in San Francisco. Beginning when they were still in their stroller, I would point out various people we would come across and say “That man looks like he has had too much alcohol to drink. He probably wouldn’t hurt us, but it is better that we cross the street to avoid him.” I emphasize to my kids that the world is mainly made up of lovely people but that there are a few who want to do harm to others. so we need to stay alert and try to avoid situations. When my daughter was in third grade, I asked her to return to the restaurant where we had just eaten to see if my keys were on the table. She didn’t return for a while and I got a bit nervous. Finally, she came down the block and she said she saw a creepy guy and was waiting for him to be far gone before she ventured out herself.

    I let my kids go to the store by themselves (two blocks away) beginning when they were eight. A couple of years ago, there were a series of muggings in our neighborhood and so I stopped letting them go by themselves. My wise daughter asked how the muggings affected her level of maturity and I replied “It doesn’t, but everyone, including me, has to change behavior to suit the situation.” Once the muggings stopped, I let them resume their independent shopping.

    My son, now twelve, goes out with a neighborhood friend for a few hours on their skateboards. A few weeks ago, they both took BART to the movies without an adult. My daughter (also 12) is not quite ready to do these things. I told her we could work on it little by little (like we did with him) if she wants similar independence.

  3. Lion's Whiskers says:

    This is awesome, Mike. My daughter joined me at age 8 from another country; I started doing what you describe right away, although obviously she was older. Now 11, she happily gets herself to school, walks the dog, walks to her best friend’s house.