656: Reasons to Let Our Kids Be Free Range Kids With Lenore Skenazy

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Reasons to Let Our Kids Be Free Range Kids with Lenore Skenazy
Wellness Mama » Episode » 656: Reasons to Let Our Kids Be Free Range Kids With Lenore Skenazy
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The Wellness Mama Podcast
656: Reasons to Let Our Kids Be Free Range Kids With Lenore Skenazy
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I’m very excited to share today’s episode with you! I’ve followed Lenore’s work for over a decade and she’s been a big influence in how I parent my children. You may have heard about her on national news networks like the Today Show, the Daily Show, MSNBC, and more after she let her 9-year old son ride the subway alone. That one subway trip earned her the title of “World’s Worst Mom” by those who disagreed with her parenting decision.

We talk about her experience being thrust into the limelight this way and how it brought about the birth of her book Free Range Kids, which has since turned into a movement. Lenore has lectured everywhere from DreamWorks to Microsoft, and schools across America. She’s also the co-founder and president of a project called Let Grow (which I love!).

In our age of constant news media, a litigious society, and helicopter parenting, it can be shocking for some to think that leaving our kids alone more can be a good thing. Lenore discusses how creative play alone and with other groups is vital to social, emotional, and mental development in kids. Why organized sports and adult led after school clubs don’t cut it and why kids need time to be bored. How this ties in with the rising depression and anxiety rates in children and what we can do about it.

I’ve learned so much from Lenore and I’m sure you will too!

Episode Highlights With Lenore

  • How she initially rose to fame by letting her child ride the subway alone and how she got the title “America’s worst mom” because of it
  • The way we got to a point where we’re afraid to let our kids do things that many of us remember doing
  • Crime is lower now than when we were kids so why are we more worried?
  • Two big things that happened in the 1980s that shifted parenting in the US
  • Big factors that have influenced why we have more fear around parenting now
  • Why we all have the desire to keep our kids safe but the downsides of an over curated childhood
  • The negative effects of over curated childhood for children
  • Why more kids are having depression and anxiety and how kids feeling underestimated can contribute to this
  • How too much control is harming children and why kids need an internal locus of control
  • Independence, responsibility, and trust all help contribute to this internal locus of control for kids
  • What the Let Grow Project is and the free resources they have
  • How to rewire your own fears as a parent to feel safe in letting our kids have more independence

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from WellnessMama.com, and I am so excited to share this episode with you because I am here with someone whose work I have followed for a very long time, at least a decade, and she has been instrumental in shaping some of the ways that I parent my kids. Or more hands off, I should say, in parenting my kids. And it was an honor to finally actually get to chat with her. Her name is Lenore Skenazy, and she rose to fame after her newspaper column called Why I Let My Nine Year Old Ride the Subway Alone created a Media firestorm, and she got the nickname America’s Worst Mom, which we talk about that story a little bit today. But she went on to write a book called Free Range Kids, which turned into a movement. And she has a blog with a ton of resources, by the same name as well.

She has lectured everywhere from DreamWorks to Microsoft to schools across America and the Bulgarian Happiness Festival. You may have seen her on TV, on the Today Show, the Daily Show, or her own reality show called World’s Worst Mom. And she’s now the co-founder and president of a project called Let Grow, which I love and I’m so Glad We Got to Talk About, which is a national nonprofit that promotes childhood independence and resilience. She lives in New York with her husband and her beloved computer.

And in this episode, we go through everything from her story and how she got that nickname of America’s Worst Mom, how we got to a point where we are afraid to let our kids do things that many of us remember doing. We talk about how crime is lower now than when we were kids, so why are we more worried? We talk about two big things that happened in the 1980s that shifted American parenting and other factors that have influenced why we have more fear around parenting now. We all have a desire to keep our kids safe but she talks about the downsides of an over curated childhood and the negative effects of this for our children, including things like kids having more depression and anxiety as a result of feeling underestimated.

We talk about how too much control is harming children and why kids need an internal locus of control. She talks about independence, responsibility, and trust that help contribute to this internal locus of control and how we can rewire our own fears as a parent. So if feel safe in letting our kids have more independence. I really enjoyed chatting with Lenore, and I know that you will enjoy this episode as well. So let’s jump in. Lenore, welcome, thanks so much for being here.

Lenore: Oh, Katie. It’s fun. I just tried your toothpaste last night. It took a leap of faith to put something black on my toothbrush, but then I have to say pretty good. So I’m happy to be with you.

Katie: Well, thank you! I’m so glad you’re here, and I have followed your work probably since pretty close to the beginning. I’ve known of you for a long time, and you were definitely instrumental in shaping some of my parenting approaches. So it’s truly an honor to get to chat with you. And I think we’re going to get to delve into some topics that are very applicable to the moms and parents who are listening.

And if you don’t mind, for backstory, I would guess a lot of people have heard of you, but you kind of rose to fame really rapidly overnight, right, about letting your child ride a subway alone. I was actually just in New York, and my daughter had to ride a couple of stops by herself, and I thought of you because of that moment. But you also got a pretty unfortunate nickname because of that. But I actually love it because I think it has shaped a lot of great conversations. But maybe for a backstory, just walk us through what that initial article was and what that initial probably media hailstorm was like.

Lenore: Okay, Katie. Thanks. And first of all, kudos to you and your kid. That was a big leap. Hooray. So many years ago already, our nine year old son, our younger of our two sons, me and my husband, started asking us if we would take him someplace he’d never been before and let him find his own way home on the subway. And since we live in New York, we thought about it and our older son hadn’t asked, so it hadn’t been something that had come up yet. But we decided, okay. And mostly because we’re on the subways all the time and they might not be the cleanest things around, but we think they’re safe and they’re efficient, and 6 million people ride them every day, so we said yes.

And one Sunday, I took our son Izzy to Bloomingdale, the place he hadn’t been before, wandered around perfume department, and then I left him in the handbag department because you open the door to the handbag department and there’s the subway. Bloomingdale sits on a subway station. That was the point. And I went home one way and he went and he took the subway down several stops and he got out on 34th street, which people know from Miracle On. And then he took the bus across town because we don’t live in the most convenient spot. And he walked into our apartment on air. He was just so proud, so tall, beaming, because he had done something that he knew he was ready to do. And we believed he was ready to do and he felt grown up.

And I was a newspaper columnist at the time, a job that has not aged well for anybody in the journalism profession. And so I wrote a column, I don’t know, several weeks or months later, because it didn’t strike me as that big a story at the time, but I needed something to write, so I wrote why I let my nine year old ride the subway alone. And two days later, I was on the Today show, MSNBC. Fox News and NPR defending myself. And that’s how I got this nickname, America’s Worst Mom.

And I started a blog that weekend that I called Free Range Kids because I wanted to get my side out there because there was just so much hectoring and second guessing as if I didn’t care whether my kid lived or died. Note: I cared. Still do. And so my blog said that. Look at I love safety. I love helmets. I love mouth guards. I’m trying a better toothpaste. I want to do the right thing by me and my family. I just don’t know how we got so afraid to let our kids do anything on their own, especially stuff that most of us remember doing. And especially since I am a reporter, I was looking up the crime statistics. Crime was higher when I was a kid. Crime was higher in the 70s, 80s, it peaked around 93, and it’s been going down, and even though it went up again during COVID it is nowhere near the level that it was in 93. So yes, it went up, down, and then up a little, but we’re still in a much sweeter spot than you were if you were a kid in the 80s 90seven the early 2000. So Free Range Kids was just a cry, a creed occur, saying, I love having some free time and freedom and independence and trust and wasted time, quote unquote, wasted time as a child. And I think that all kids need that. And taking it away because we’re so worried for them is ironic because I’m worried about them now that they’re not getting it. So that’s the origin story.

Katie: I love that. And having been in the online world now for 15 years myself, I can only imagine what that very not gentle entry must have been like. But it brings up an interesting point, which is how did we get to this point? Because like you said, we all did these things as kids. And one kind of first principle I have with my kids is when they’re capable of doing something, I won’t do it for them anymore. Outside of, of course, bonding things like I might braid my daughter’s hair because I want to spend time with them or help them with their hair. But in general, if they can do their laundry, I won’t do it for them. If they’re capable of doing a task, I’m not going to infantilize them by doing it for them. I want to respect their autonomy. But it seems like there has been a massive cultural shift in this area even in the last couple of decades, or certainly in the last generation. So why do you think what is the reason for that? How do we get here?

Lenore: Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. So I wrote the book Free Range Kids, which is trying to unpack all that. But I know I’m talking to a lot of moms and I just want to say before I get into any of that, wow, the culture is doing a number on us. Just as we’re starting to get better jobs and better pay and respect and all that, suddenly the job of becoming a parent, of being a parent, becomes so much more time intensive and burdensome than it was when my mom was a stay at home mom and sort of spent less time with me. There are actual studies that show that moms in the 70s who were even the ones who were stay at home moms, spent less hours per week than the moms today, even if they’re holding down a full time job.

So somehow our job description really expanded and the hours that were expected to spend playing schlepping, teaching, feeding, being with them, not the joyful hair braiding, but the schlepping and the supervising has really increased. And I think there are four reasons. I mean, in my book I outlined four reasons, but I just did a second edition and I think there’s a fifth. So I’ll whip us through them because they’re pretty obvious once I say them. One is the media. When I was growing up, I mean, I’m older than you, there was like no news. There was like news at 10:00 at night and it went on for maybe half an hour and then you were done. But in the 80s big things happened.

One is that there was the abduction. In 79, there was a very case that got a lot of attention, an abduction of a boy named Eton Pates here in New York City. And what’s interesting, I read a book on the history of abductions, if you can imagine what a cheerful read that is. And the author, who’s a historian at Berkeley, said that when this boy was first taken, the working assumption on the part of the public was that he was taken by a lovelorn woman who saw this beautiful little child and decided, oh, I’ll take him home and raise him as my own. So the idea of predators was not there yet. Really, in 1979, maybe the police department was thinking that way, but the average person wasn’t. But then gradually the crime is unsolved. It’s getting a lot of publicity because it’s here in New York City. And gradually the idea that, well, maybe it wasn’t a woman, maybe it was a man. A man? Why? Well, maybe he wasn’t going to raise him. What was he going to do. And when you find out that story, it is so chilling and horrible that it is like a match to the gas tank. It is something that everybody wants to think about and do something about and prevent. And then a few years later, Adam Walsh, who was a six year old, was kidnapped and murdered in Florida. And his dad was John Walsh, who started America’s Most Wanted and also the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has a good mission, let’s save kids. But their method really did a number on us, which is that they put the pictures of missing children on milk cartons. Katie, do you remember these?

Katie: I absolutely do.

Lenore: Yeah, right. And the bad thing about that is that the milk carton simply said, have you seen me? And they showed a picture of a kid and they didn’t explain that the vast majority of these missing children were taken in a custodial dispute between divorced parents or they were runaways. So the impression you got as you ate your cornflakes in the morning and as your kids, who are now grown up in parents, ate their cornflakes or their cookie quiz in the morning, is that kids were being snatched right and left across America by marauding bands of predators. And if you let your kid outside, you won’t see him again.

I mean, Dear Abby, who was popular back then, had an article that said, like, always write down or take a picture of your child before they leave every day so you can have the description of their outfit when you’re giving it to the police. I mean, it was really it became normal to think in this very dark way that every time you said goodbye and you couldn’t see your child anymore, they might die. It might be the last time. My mom was a worried, nervous mom. I’m Jewish. We have Jewish mothers. They have a reputation. And yet she let me walk to school at age five, as she did with my sister, because back then there was a tolerance for a teeny, teeny bit of uncertainty. She didn’t have to be 100% certain that everything was fine before she let me out the door, because being 99.9% certain was good enough. And she waved goodbye and I went around the corner and she couldn’t see me anymore. And that was something that parents back then grew so tolerant of, that it wasn’t scary. It’s sort of like they grew accustomed to this.

They built a trust muscle, and that’s a muscle that has disappeared, in part because of the media. The media took these horrible stories. They started law and order. Actually, there’s a Law and Order episode based on my son where he doesn’t come home safe. It’s just gross. And the TV and all the media now social media and whatever comes next is not there to inform you or educate you. It’s there to make money, for the most part. And so whatever gets the most eyeballs gets the most play. And there’s nothing more upsetting than the story of a white middle class kid kidnapped by a stranger. So you see that over and over again, even through the Liam Neeson movies and beyond and Facebook posts by moms who think that their child was almost abducted because somebody looked at them at the grocery store and seemed evil.

And the last piece I’ll say about the media is that just as the John Walsh story and the Aton Page stories were becoming big cultural touch points, it was the beginning of cable television. And that meant that instead of that half hour, at the end of the day, there was 24 hours to fill with stories. And of course, you have to come up with something that’s pretty gripping for people to keep watching and watching and watching. I’d say now, today it’s more politics, but back then, it was a lot of missing children. So the media is one reason that we’re so much more afraid than our parents.

And I’ll whip us through the other three, because the last one is something I’d like to chew on with you. We live in a litigious society. People start thinking like lawyers, am I going to be sued for this? Is this okay? Should I have a trampoline? What if the kid falls off? Is it my fault? Is it trampoline’s fault? Is it the kid’s fault? It’s just you start thinking about everything in terms of risk and how much you should have been aware of it, and then once in a while, there’s a horrible story that makes you think, my God, I do have to be thinking like this. In New Jersey, the most recent story for me, it’s like two years old already. A kid fell off a slide at a playground, broke her arm. I’m sorry about that. But the parents sued the school, and they won because their lawyer claimed that the slide was at a 35 degree angle instead of a 30 degree angle, 35 versus 30. And therefore it was obscenely dangerous. And the fact that it had been there for years and years and kids hadn’t fallen off, the fact that there’s slides all over America that are at a 35, not 30 degree angle doesn’t matter. This proved, quote unquote, that the school was neglectful negligent, and the school district had to pay them $170,000. So you start thinking like a lawyer because you hear these stories.

Third, we live in an expert culture. I know people think I’m an expert. I always say I’m not the anti expert expert, but I’m just sort of like a mom and a reporter smooshed into one. But the experts are always telling you’re doing everything wrong. And there are magazines filled with crazy advice because people like me who are paid by the word have to fill it. I mean, I usually show people examples of there’s a hug, how to in one of the parenting magazines that shows you how to hug your child like you wrap your arms around them. It should be 3 seconds. I mean, nothing is too granular or absurd for an expert to tell you about.

Once I was being interviewed myself for an article about getting kids outside or playing in the mud or something like that. And the reporter who I felt for, because I’ve been the reporter before, said, okay, how about some tips for getting your kids to play in the mud? I’m like, no, I have every faith that every human on earth can figure out how to get their kids into the mud. And I actually have every faith that the kids are going to want to be in the mud the minute you open the door and there’s rain, so you don’t need a tip. But we’ve gotten so used to being told everything to do and watch out for and oh my God, this could cause cancer. This could cause your child to fall behind. This is the greatest thing to do. One of my favorite examples of over parenting being shoved down our throats was a parents magazine article on how to read aloud to your kid. And I wish I had a book here, but I don’t. Oh, I do, actually. The book by my colleague Jonathan Height, and it said to count the number of words on the cover because that way you’re teaching math along with reading. And I’m like, if there’s anything that could turn you off more from reading, it’s like, wait a minute, I don’t even know how many words are in this title, and I have it next to me. People don’t count the words in a title. It doesn’t make you engaged.

So experts are there sort of making the project of raising children way more labor intensive and way more sort of balance beam and one step this way and one step that way, and you fall off and there’s alligators down below, and your kid will never get ahead. And then the last reason is that in a marketplace economy, which we have, people will try to sell you things. I don’t blame them. And the easiest dollar to get from any person on this planet is a dollar from a worried parent and telling them that you’ll make them safe. So if you can scare a parent, that the wrong book or the wrong kind of coffee or whatever is going to hurt your kid. Maybe you’re not giving your kid coffee. But the point is that if you can make a parent worried about something, you can sell them something. And so we’re always being worried by the marketplace so that we’ll buy more. So those are the easy sort of obvious reasons, I think, that we’re so much more afraid. But if you’ll indulge me, and I feel like I’ve just been nattering along. I have a fifth thing that I want to talk about with you.

There’s a study I read a long time ago that said when things are going well or for families or individuals who feel pretty successful, they feel they made that happen. Right? I studied hard. I worked hard. My golly, I never took a vacation. Whatever you feel like, okay? I made that happen. People who are in more dicey circumstances recognize the role of fate, right? Like, everything was going great, and then there was a hurricane, or I was doing fine, and then my mother got cancer, and so right when I was about to launch, I had to go home and take care of her, and it never happened. So I feel like we’re being told more and more that we do have control or that we can have control.

And I think technology has made this even a bigger belief, because you can tell what the temperature is going to be tomorrow at 11:15 A.m., and you know how many steps you took. And now you can tell all that stuff about your kids. You can tell immediately what their grade was on the Spanish quiz. You can tell literally their fever from several states away. You can tell how many steps they took. You can pinpoint them on a map. And it feels like we’re being told, if you don’t pay attention to those things, your child is in danger. But somehow, if you do pay attention to them, your child is fine. Even if you know where your child is, if something terrible happens, you’re not there. So there’s this terrible tension between the idea that you have near Omniscience in a way that no human being ever had until now. I couldn’t tell where you were on a map. It was in Harry Potter. One of the cool things in Harry Potter, remember, he gets the Marauders Map, and it’s so amazing. You can see who’s at the candy store and who’s in the bathrooms, moaning Myrtle or whatever. And that was fiction not that long ago when J. K. Rowling wrote it. And now it’s just everyday life. And if you’re not paying attention to that, you’re not a good enough parent. But if you are, somehow the idea is that because you can tell everything that’s going on in your kid’s life, you can fix, prevent, or save them every single second. And that’s an enormous burden.

But I think it’s one of the reasons why we can’t even tolerate the .001% chance that something could go wrong. Because there’s very little aloha left for parents whose kids do suffer something. Because why weren’t they paying enough attention? Why weren’t they reading his texts? Why weren’t they with him? Why did she let them go to that place? So between the Omniscience and the unforgivingness of the culture, the mommy shaming and blaming. I think we are even more nervous all the time about our kids and more certain that we must be somehow watching over them in person or electronically. Otherwise we’re doing it wrong and they’re going to get hurt.

Katie: You brought up so many important points and I love that last one. I think this one has not been talked about as much. And I think all of these together really have shifted so much. And I remember conversations with my grandma before she died and she was in her 90s and just how drastically different she thought about parenting. And I feel like so many things you’re right, there’s so much more pressure on parents today and probably so much more fear wrapped in. I also love that you use that term that people in the past had more tolerance for uncertainty. I mean, at a small scale, I certainly remember learning how to drive and going to school or going to wherever, and my parents couldn’t call me, they couldn’t track me. They had to just trust that I was going to get home safely around the time I said I was going to come home.

And I think it is of course, a desire of parents to want to keep our kids safe. I think that is rooted in a good thing. But I’ve always kind of thought of this on a sliding scale type perspective. Like with babies, we obviously do have to be very hands on and keeping them alive, keeping them safe, but when they’re adults, we’re not involved hopefully in their day to day life and keeping them safe, they’ve hopefully learned how to do that themselves. So it seems like it needed to be a sliding scale, getting them to as much as possible, that autonomy and that independence as early as possible. So they have all this time to practice it while we’re still there to help them if they have questions. But it seems like this wanting to keep our kids safe has now morphed into this parenting approach that has become all consuming. And I think a lot it’s easy to think, well, keeping them safe is good, so the more safe the better. And maybe we don’t consider the downsides to that. So maybe talk about some of the downsides of this over curated, oversafe childhood that we’ve created.

Lenore: Okay, with the caveat that people think I’m the anti helicopter mom. And I always say I’m part helicopter on my own mom’s side. And also I’m not anti helicopter parent. I’m anti a culture that has made that the norm and enforces it with a steel fist. In fact, there’s a piece on our blog so now I run Let Grow, L-E-T-G-R-O-W which is the nonprofit that grew out of free range kids. And at the Let Grow blog today, there’s a piece about a librarian who was outraged that a mom let her six year old look for books for six minutes. So six and six in the children’s room of the library while she wasn’t there. And the librarian said I could call the cops, but she didn’t. And there’s so much going on. There is, first of all, this anger at the mom, this idea that an unattended child is such a weird thing that there must be something wrong. Even the word unattended means that we assumed that a normal state of a child is constantly attended next to their mom. I know you have a lot of kids. You can’t be next to six kids at once, right?

One’s in the teen room and one’s in the Tween room and one’s in the children’s room. Does that make you a bad mom because you’re going between them, or God forbid, you want your own book? What was I going to tell you about why this is so terrible? What was your question? The long term project, basically, of gradually letting go. So it’s very hard to let go in a society that is telling you that it’s abnormal, unattended, and sometimes illegal to take your eyes off your kids, and that if you do, you’re a bad mom. And I just wanted to give one little cool historical fact here because I’m talking mom to mom. There’s a book called all the Single Ladies by a woman named Rebecca Traister, and it’s about how so many of the cultural movements, abolition and the women’s right to vote, even the aspca so many of them, were spearheaded by single ladies because they didn’t have children to take care of in an era before birth control. And so you either had a huge group of children or you could lead a movement. And so she goes back sort of tracing the role of moms and women throughout history, and she found that right after the Industrial Revolution began, when there were finally some minor labor saving devices for women, maybe instead of having to rub your clothing against a washboard now, you could do a ringer. Maybe that was the great improvement. Or maybe there was light bulbs instead of always having to light the gas lamps and then deal with the filth from the flames.

She said as soon as that happened, there were all these books that flooded the market on how to be a good housewife. And they said things like, there’s more to setting the proper table than you might imagine. And so they turned a normal, easy thing you put the fork here and the knife here into a much more elaborate and time consuming activity for the mom’s woman. And so that’s all I’m saying. It just seems to me we should be very suspicious of the demands, the new and excessive and egregious demands made on moms just as we’re getting ahead. It seems like an underhanded way of keeping us down. But you were asking about the downsides of too much protection or too much of a curated and cultivated childhood and I hear I have to flip it on you and ask you what did you get out of just goofing around with your friends after school as a kid?

Katie: Yeah, absolutely. I love that you are asking that. And also to your point, I think you’re right. It’s this new feeling that we’re supposed to spend all of our time with our children, which was one of those concepts that was foreign to my grandmother. And she intuitively had this idea that that would actually harm them because they weren’t going to have time to get bored or to have to figure out how to work through a tough situation where a friend didn’t like them. And I think back and yeah, I rode my bike for miles and miles and miles after school with my friends and we certainly didn’t always get along and we had to figure out how to navigate those social dynamics. And I learned some great lessons early on. Like if I am a jerk to my friends, they don’t want to hang out with me so maybe I could be less of a jerk. And then they all want to play with me and things like that that I feel like now get taken away from kids because the parents kind of scoop in and help mediate the situation. Or we definitely got bored or tried to make perfume out of flowers or make mud pies or build a fort in a bush and those are things I feel like a lot of kids maybe don’t get to experience in today’s world.

Lenore: So now I have to just pinpoint one little thing. Make perfume out of flowers is so interesting. And one of the things I often like to do with people and I’m going to do it with you now since you gave me that in, is to ask what did you do as a kid that you’re still sort of doing today? Because I love seeing that through line just for fun. What silly thing interested you? Not for a grade, not for a teacher, not for college.

Katie: Yeah, well, I was fascinated by Entomology as a kid and I was the nerdy kid who went to entomology camp and had a bug collection and was out at night in the woods looking for very specific types of moths. And then actually my first job was working in an entomology lab categorizing mites, which led to an interest in chemistry because I was hanging out with these interns in other departments, which has been really helpful actually in things like formulating toothpaste now in my adult life.

Also, the DIY side, even though that was mud pies and homemade perfume, became super instrumental and something I did with Wellness Mama for a decade of how to make DIY laundry detergent or lotion or makeup or anything. I feel like one strength my parents really had was letting us pursue anything we were curious about. And this is. Something I carried into my kids. So the only two unlimited budget items in my household budget are books and anything that’s a curiosity based learning thing. So if the kids are interested in chess, they can buy a chess set. If they’re interested in books, I will never say no to them buying a book. Or they might be interested in art or pole vaulting or whatever it is. I let them just have the creative freedom.

Lenore: Are they interested in pole vaulting?

Katie: They are. I’ve got four who are highly competitive in it, and they love it. But more importantly, they have a great, amazing group of friends there, and the community is really solid and awesome, but they’re also getting to learn things like the value of working hard and consistency and having to really put in the effort, which has been awesome to watch.

Lenore: And the power of gravity.

Katie: Yes, very much so.

Lenore: Pole vaulting. Wow. It’s the first person I’ve talked to who has four pole vaulting children and possibly the last person I talked to who has four ball. It’s just an unusual that’s like things that people don’t know about me. Wow, that’s so cool. So I think the DIY stuff, the mud pies, I mean, you’re still making mud pies, right? I mean, you’re selling them, they’re refined. They sure they pass some kind of FDA test, but that is something that you took from childhood. And it wasn’t like you were in school for mud pie making, and it wasn’t like your mom came out and said, oh, Katie, you’re making mud pie. It’s here, let me if you make it a little looser and if you add a little glycerin, I mean, it was just you.

And so finding something that turns you on, it it’s rare that it’s going to be something exactly that somebody else figured out. It’s rare that it’s going to be just chess, ballet, or lacrosse. Right? And so I’ll just tell you my thing that I did as a kid that I don’t see myself still doing today is I spent a lot of time looking for four leaf clovers. It has not helped me at all, although I do think I’m kind of lucky. And then the other thing I spent my time was with trying to make a phrase that other people would use, and now free range kids is in the dictionary. So I don’t think it’s coincidental. I think there’s something that if you have enough free time and it’s not all online. I’m not against all online stuff, but you can’t all be online. Some has to just be interacting with kids in real life and the world in real life.

But you will find something that is so quirky to you that it may just launch your entire career. And if it doesn’t launch your career, first of all, who cares? I don’t think I would want to be a professional four leaf clover finder if there was such a thing, but it gives you an interest. It gives you a hobby. It gives you fellow people who are also interested in bugs or I loved rocks way back when. Free time is this time for kids to figure out what turns them on. And every graduation speech in every high school and college and maybe the middle school and grammar schools, if they have them too, is all about find your passion, follow your passion. But unless your passion is chess, lacrosse, and whatever else I said Boy Scouts, you’re not finding your passion. You’re finding things that you like to do. But we’re too quirky to only have time in adult organized activities.

The other thing is, adults aren’t as creative as kids, so they come up with, like, 17 things you can do, and kids come up with a million things you can do. I’m going to go look for moths at night. I mean, there’s not a moth at night class, right? So if you want your kids, the number one thing, according to Ipsos, this large research company that parents want, is for their kids to have a passion, something that they absolutely love and you just got to give them. I mean, that’s what free time is for. It’s for finding it. Now you’re going to see a husband traips across the back, because I found him too another thing I love for most of my life. So back to the doctor. We want to find out how he is. So the alternative, the sort of curated childhood that we’re being presented today by everyone from the schools to the parenting magazines and Vice book is like, get your kid enrolled in a sport or this or that, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is something different between being like, let’s say at a Little League, which I think is fine, and organizing your own game of baseball with five of your friends and three are older and one is a four. Year old who’s tagging along. And you don’t have any choice, because if Jim has to bring his brother home, then there’s only three of you to play. So in an organized game, a game that’s organized by adults, they choose the teams. They tell you who’s playing what base, they tell you when the game starts and ends and whether the ball was fair or foul and who’s bringing the snack. And what they’re allowing for their snack, donuts seem to be on the no fly list.

The kids are learning how to hit the ball and maybe how to field and also how to wait their turn. But when you’re organizing your own game, you have to figure out, well, let’s see, there’s five of us, so the teams aren’t going to be fair. Maybe Tracy can play both the catcher for both of them. And what are we going to do with this four year old? We’re going to have him be the foul ball catcher. And all the interactions that have to go into organizing any kind of game or any kind of fun are the reason that Mother Nature put the play drive into kids. Because the drive to have fun is so fierce. And so it’s like the drive to find a mate. It’s innate and it must be met. Otherwise there’s terrible frustration, which I think is all the depressed kids today.

And the reason that drive is there is so that children will learn how to get along, how to come up with a solution, how to deal with something frustrating. Like you were saying, not be a jerk. Because if you’re a jerk, nobody will be your friend and play with you. And so to smooth the rough edges of humanity and to give kids all the bad experiences as well as the good experiences, because life is a warp and wet. There’s all the good things, all the loving home and the happy trips to Disneyland or whatever. And then there’s the frustration and betrayal and not making the team and forgetting your lines at the play and dropping the ball at the last minute. And together you’ve woven a nice safe net for children because they know the good things are good, but the bad things are something that they’ve handled.

But if you take out all the bad things and something bad happens later on, they’re falling through the slots. It’s not a robust plan of action for the rest of their lives. So when you talk about what is lost by doing everything with and for our kids first, the amount of crazy creative things narrows to the few activities that parents have come up with. And then having adults always there, solving the problems and making the teams and organizing everything robs the children of these experiences that get them ready to deal with everyone else they’re going to meet with in their lives. Whether it’s a boss or a husband or your own children, you need to have experience and a little bit of inoculation against the frustration and the annoyance that is going to be part of life. And you know, I’ve dealt with this before. It’s not the end of the world. Here goes. So that’s why Let Grow. Our whole ethos is to try to give kids try to make it normal again, to give kids some free time and free play without adults directing everything because that’s what they need.

Katie: And I will make sure that’s linked in the show notes for you guys listening on the go so you can find it. I know there’s a lot of free resources there. I feel like this is everything amazing for two reasons. One is that understanding this hopefully takes a lot of that pressure off of parents to think that they do have to spend 100% of their time entertaining their kids and realize not only are you not harming them by not doing that, you might be helping them by giving them more time for boredom and to just play how they would play. I think back to you. I once for a lot of years, hosted a Mastermind of Families that all blogged. And my thing was we’re going to all bring our kids because I was tired of business events where kids were excluded.

And so the parents, we were all in there working on our businesses, and the kids would just go play. And there were 16 kids at the first one, and they made their own society in the woods where they built houses and had currency and had a whole economy happening there. And that is to this day, one of my kids favorite memories throughout their lives is that moment. And I think that would never have happened if we had been like, let’s plan curated activities for the kids to do while we’re working.

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But you also touched on something important that I want to go deeper on. You mentioned the rise in kids who are depressed or have anxiety, and this is really sad to hear, but also, no secret, we see these stats a lot, maybe talk about the tie in of this and this kind of a concept of being underestimated and how that ties into depression and anxiety in kids.

Lenore: Yeah, well, if you’ve ever had a job where your boss drove you crazy because he or she was telling you exactly how to do everything and making suggestions and sending it back and hovering over that’s a lot of childhood today, right? I mean, so much of childhood is micromanaged by adults that it’s a drag. And Peter Gray, my colleague and one of the other co founders of Let Grow, G-R-A-Y he’s the best. His book is Free to Learn, and it’s my favorite book, more favorite than my own book, so that’s pretty good.

He talks about how, of course, it’s depressing if somebody else is always intervening. First of all, you don’t get any flow, right? Because somebody else is always there saying, oh, that’s a good idea, try this. And it’s like, I was just about to do that. But also it means that somebody is not trusting you. And to not feel trusted is really terrible, especially not to be trusted by your parents. You want them to believe in you. I don’t know why, but that’s sort of a prerequisite for believing in yourself, having some important adult believe in you. And if it’s your parent, so much the better.

But what do I want to say about it? So the depression and the anxiety. What is anxiety? Anxiety is thinking that something bad is going to happen, that you won’t be able to handle it, and that it will hurt you, possibly forever. And if adults around you are saying, I’m going to stand next to you at the bus stop, because what if somebody mean comes along or there’s a bully or a dog or you miss the bus or whatever you can’t handle, something bad will happen. You can’t handle it. I’m here. Otherwise, the upheaval would be so horrible that I don’t think you can handle it. You’re being told that you should be anxious, right? In fact, anxiety is sort of being cultivated every time somebody is telling you that you can’t handle something and that something terrible is going to happen.

And once again, I don’t blame parents because we’ve been told that. I mean, there are schools that will not even let your kid get off the bus at the end of the day unless there is an adult standing there to walk the child home, even. I mean, I’ve heard from a mom in Pennsylvania who told me she could be standing in the window waving, and the bus will not let the child out until she comes out and stands on her porch, which seems outrageous. I’ve heard from a mom in Kentucky who told me that if you did this three times, if you’re not at the bus stop, which her father was supposed to be at the bus stop, and he missed two times, the third time, they were going to take the child off the Child Protective Services.

So once again, it’s a culture that is demanding an unreasonable and unnecessary level of protection. But there’s something called an internal locus of control, and you’ve probably heard of this. That internal feeling is like, I have control. If something bad happens, I can handle it. If I want something to happen, I can make it happen. If I’m depressed, it’s not going to last forever because there are steps I can take. I’m a competent person. I can make things happen for me. And in the world, that’s an internal locus of control.

An external locus of control is other people are determining everything about you, and you think about a kid’s life. That’s true. A parent is determining, got to get up now. You got to have this for breakfast. Got to get in the car, got to get to school. A teacher is saying, okay, take out your notebook, take out your pencils. Here’s what we’re doing. Okay? Now, there’s 20 minutes for lunch and 20 minutes for recess, which really means five minutes for recess, because five minutes to get up, get out there, and ten minutes to get them back. And then it’s off to soccer, or it’s off to Kuman. And then the reading log has to be supervised by an adult, and the homework project is often assisted by a parent, and they have to sign it. And so that’s a lot of external control of your life, an extraordinary amount that most of us adults couldn’t tolerate. I mean, it’s not evil like prison. It’s not like mean guards, but it is between all of that and being tracked, where you’re going and what you did on that Spanish quiz, it is an external locus of control.

And when you have that, you are depressed and anxious because you don’t know what’s happening next, and you don’t feel like you can assert yourself and make things better. And so the only way to get back an internal locus of control is to have some control over your freedom and your free time. And I’m not saying don’t make kids do anything, don’t have them do chores. Because I actually think also being part of a household and having meaning something to the family other than being cute and adorable and getting A’s, something like, I’m the person who takes out the trash, I take care of the dog. All that stuff is important too.

So to get an internal locus of control, kids need some independence, some responsibility, and some trust. And when we’re told that we’re not supposed to give them any of those because that’s foolish and they’ll be hurt, we’re actually getting the exact wrong message. And that’s one of the reasons that kids are so anxious and depressed. And we had a professor of psychology recently, do I think it’s a groundbreaking study. I hope that, like, you heard it here first, and in ten years, everyone’s going to go, Duh. But here’s what he did. He’s not only a professor of psychology at Long Island University, his name is Camilo Ortiz. He’s also a clinical psychologist who normally charges $600 an hour, which seems like a lot.

And what he did is he decided to treat families where the child has a diagnosis of anxiety. He’s doing an experiment with or a study, I guess you’d say, with his graduate PhD candidate student, where they would only treat the child with the Let Grow Project, which is, you can get it. I’m sure you’ll put the links in: @letgrow.org. It’s a homework assignment that schools can give kids that says, go home and do something new on your own without your parent. That is literally the homework. Go home and do something new on your own without your parent. So when the kid and the parents come to his office, he says, Independence is good. Here’s why it makes kids less anxious. Internal locus of control, all that stuff. And he knows in normal cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what he would normally do if the kid was afraid of dogs or if the kid was afraid of the dark. The job is to like, well, tonight you’re going to go sleep in the dark, and we’ll talk about that tomorrow. Or you’re going to have to pet a dog, and then you’re going to have to have a dog in your room with you with no way to get out, whatever it is. Normally, cognitive behavioral therapy uses exposure to the thing that a child is afraid of.

The downfall of that is that a lot of therapists hate doing it because you don’t want to force the kid to do the thing that they literally hate. And there’s a lot of resistance on the part of the kid because I just told you I’m afraid of snakes. And now the first thing I have to do is be in a room where there’s a snake in an aquarium. The so what he’s done instead is I know you’re afraid of some things, and I’ll give you the example of there’s two great examples. I’ll give you an example of a boy who was afraid to go upstairs and downstairs in his home without his parents. He was very fearful, and the parents were very fearful, too. Only child, ten years old. But he loved trains. And so when Dr. Ortiz asked him, what would you like to do for your Let Grow project or your independent activity or whatever he’s calling it, the kid said, oh, well, I would like to take the train. And the mother’s like and it’s like, okay, well, how are you going to do that? It’s like, well, I’ll get on here. I’ll get a ticket. I know the map. I’m one of those train kids, I’m sure he didn’t know that he’s one of those trained kids, but he loves trains. And so his very first project was to take the Long Island Railroad, like, five stops. It’s about 10 miles by himself. He was exhilarated. His parents were okay with it because there was one who was at the beginning and there’s one waiting at the end. When he got off, that was okay.

The next thing he wanted to do was walk to school by himself and walk home. And this was driving the mother crazy because it was him out in the world. And she was so anxious, she took the day off work because she couldn’t tolerate the fear, right? But sure enough, he walks home from school. He actually got a little lost, but it turned out fine. I think getting a little lost is even the better than knowing your way straight home. Because then, oh, my God, something went wrong, and I was okay. And then the next day, he walked home from school again. And now the mom was at work because now that’s the exposure. The mom was exposed to something like her child in the world, and she started to deal with it. And that was the end of last year, which was that was in June of last year. September of this year rolls around. He’s starting a new school. It’s 6th grade. So first day of school, you get your locker, your combination, your homeroom, your homeroom teacher. I don’t know. You find your way around the school. And because this is 2023 and not 1958, the the school says, of course you can have your parents come with you. It’s a big day. We understand. And that kid who’d been afraid to go upstairs or to go stairs in his own home says, I got this. And he said to Dr. Ortiz afterwards, he said, you know, I was like one of the only kids who didn’t have my parents there.

Because recognizing how competent and capable he could be, recognizing how easy some of the things were that he thought were extraordinarily hard, having his parents trust him even though they were scared, all these things made the anxiety shrink and the confidence grow. And so that’s the only thing that gets me up in the morning. If I didn’t think I had a solution that’s really easy and free to some of the big problems in our country and our culture today, I would do something else. I’d write poetry, but I’d look for clovers. But in fact, it turns out that giving kids some independence and trust and a little bit of responsibility is the secret sauce. It doesn’t cost money. It’s hard the first couple of times, and it gets easier every time. You end up being able to brag to everybody else, and it’s not the be all and end all. It’s not going to cure every ounce of anxiety and depression. It’s a complicated world and a crazy country, but it is hugely impactful, and it is simple and fast.

Katie: I love that simple formula of independence, responsibility, and trust. I think those are great benchmarks to keep in mind while parenting. And I also love that you touched on letting kids feel that responsibility and feel their independence. That’s one of my other first principles of parenting, is that kids are inherently incredibly capable and that often we underestimate them. But if we don’t underestimate them, and if we can communicate to them that we feel like they’re capable, they will often even exceed our expectations.

Lenore: It’s the pleasure that’s been denied us as parents is seeing our kids blossom or surprise us or, oh, my God, he did that. It’s sort of like when your kid goes and sleeps over, is over at another friend’s house for dinner, and the mom calls you up and said, oh, yes, and he put his dishes in the sink. It’s like, what kid put his dishes in the sink? My kid? If you’re with them, you do it automatically. You don’t think about it. But then it turns out like, this is who I have. I have a growing up child, not just a very needy bonsai tree.

So here’s where I make the pitch for let grow, because it’s very hard to be the only parent who is sending your kid out on an errand or to walk to school or saying, go to the park, first of all, go to the park. There’s nobody there. They’ll turn right around and come home. But if a school or even if your kid’s class or the grade or the school or the district or the world is doing the project, then you’re not the only parent who’s sending your kid to do something. You can talk to the other parents. I can guarantee you the kids are talking to each other. I got to go get Ice Cream. Really? I had to go take out the trash. And it takes away some of the guilt and the fear because the school is not telling you what the Let Grow Project is going to be for your kid. But they’re saying, I mean, we give them a huge list, walk the dog, whatever. But you and your kids talk about it together and decide. And it doesn’t even have to be something on the list. It can be, I want you to go to Grandma in the woods with this basket. Probably a bad idea.

So it’s the renormalizing of independence that is crucial because one expedition to the grocery is going to be very cool and very exciting for your kid. But if all the kids are going to the market or if all the kids are back outside or there’s at least a critical mass of kids who are walking to school again, then you’ve just changed their whole childhood. And also you’ve made it easier for you. Right? Because now the kids have some independence, which means you don’t have to be treating them as if they’re babies, which is very labor intensive.

Katie: And I would guess kids probably inherently, from the people you hear from, respond very well to this and don’t have much trouble with that adjustment because they probably love the feeling of freedom. And the independence, I would guess most pushback actually probably comes from other parents when parents make the switch, or maybe that’s off base. But if that is true, any tips for parents navigating this? Especially if they have been more in that mindset in the past and now they’re shifting and other parents kind of give that feedback of this is not safe.

Lenore: Yeah, I’ve lectured about Free Range Kids and Let Grow for 15 years at this point. And I have amazing statistics about how safe it is and how bad it is if we overprotect and how good it is if we trust kids and people nod along. But the only thing that I’ve seen that actually rewires your brain and I was talking to Dr. Ortiz about that I mean, there is rewiring of the brain is seeing your kid do something on their own. Because just like we’re wired to play and we’re wired to procreate, we are wired to experience great joy when we realize our kids can be okay on their own. Because evolution wise, why do you have kids? You have them so they’ll be here when you’re not here. And until you see them do something on their own without you, all you know is they’re going to be fine if you’re there to know that they’ll be fine when you’re not there. It’s a relief and it’s a joy.

And so what I’m trying to say is the only thing that will change you and your friends and your husbands is actually letting the kid do something on their own, even if it requires chewing on your knuckles while they’re gone. And to make it easier, do it with I really think doing it through the schools is the easiest because it’s a critical mass of people. But if you can’t get your school to do it, please try to get your schools to do it. It’s free. If you can’t get your school to do it, do it with two other people, your sister and your friend, and they let their kids do it.

And by the way, ages can be mixed. It’s great to have ages mixing together. The older ones end up a little bit empathic towards the little ones because they remember what it is. And the little ones try to hold themselves together because they’re around these cool nine year olds or twelve year olds or whatever they are. But commit yourself to talking to your kids. And we even have like a home version. We call it the independence kit of the Let Grow project. It’s that you can download it and we also just started this thing, ten weeks to a Let Grow kit. And that way we just send you you can figure it out. Now it’s once a week. We say, okay, let your kid stand by himself without you at the bus stop. This is the week that your kid is going to do. I can’t even remember the ten wonderful things we have for you to do. But once a week you get an email and says do this. And they’re just there to build up that trust muscle we were talking about at the beginning of getting used to the idea that your kid is part of the world, not just your velcroed sidecar that you must be with all the time.

Once again, it’s a culture that is driving us crazy with fear and always coming up with the worst case scenarios. Why would a librarian scream at a mom who let her kid be with her? The librarian for six minutes browsing through the corduroy books who decided that that was dangerous when we all know that literally it’s not. And yet the librarian felt fine yelling at the mom because we live in a culture that has decided to dangerous everything. Literally everything.

Katie: Well, I could definitely talk to you all day and hopefully we’ll get to do a round two, maybe at some point.

Lenore: That’d be fantastic.

Katie: In the interest of respecting your time for today, a couple of last questions I love to ask. At the end of interviews I forgot to if there’s a book or number of books other than your own that have had a profound impact on your life and if so, what they are.

Lenore: And why I’m talking to mom so I can say it. Little Women. Did we all read Little Women? I feel like I reread it a couple of years ago and I was like, I hadn’t realized how much of that I had absorbed into my entire life outlook until I reread it. I realized, like, oh, all I’m doing is channeling Louisa May Alcott with my whole life down to trying to put on plays. So, of course, that’s great. You heard me mention earlier the Peter Gray book Free to Learn. It really talks about how kids learn the most when they’re excited and that’s often when they’re playing. And so we take play out of their lives and replace it with things that look like play, but they’re not even going to be learning as much as they learn when they’re just goofing around with each other. I held up this book just to illustrate the idea of how awful it is to count the number of words in the title. But the coddling of the American Mind is by Jonathan Height is the one who came up with the idea of us creating Let Grow, the Nonprofit, and Greg is another genius, too. So this is a very popular book about fragility in young people and the bad ideas that are circulating and how to get, like, the idea that we are fragile and the idea that there are only good people or bad people. It’s just sort of some big concepts that make you reconsider what’s wrong with American culture, including like, the whole political war stuff, which just drives me nuts. So I’d say those three. And I always love fairy tales, for what it’s worth.

Katie: Awesome. Well, I will link to those in the show notes as well, along with your books and Let Grow. And lastly, any parting advice for the listeners today that could be related to everything we’ve talked about or entirely unrelated life advice that’s been helpful to you?

Lenore: I guess I’d say that there’s a, get mad, right? I wake up mad at our culture for making us afraid that our kid waiting at the bus stop is in danger. Or that they can’t get off the bus without somebody like us being there. Or that anything that they look, see, watch, hear, read is so dangerous it’s going to hurt them and corrupt them for all life. Humanity has been around for Homo sapiens 300,000 years, long before there were warnings on everything and laws that said six year olds can’t be at the library. I mean, we’re in the flowering of civilization. We’re in one of the safest times in human history, and we, rather than appreciating it, are being told by our culture to be afraid at all times and to almost undermine our kids by teaching them to be afraid and that only we can save them all the time. Look around with those eyes of like, what is my culture doing to me? Why am I being afraid? Who is foisting this upon me? Who’s making a profit and fight back? Because it’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to your kids, and it’s pointless.

Katie: I love it. That’s perfect place to wrap up for today. Thank you so much for your time and being here. It was truly a joy to get to chat with you, and I’m so grateful for the work that you do. For all of you listening, please go check it out. All the links will be in the show notes. Thank you for being here.

Lenore: Well, thank you, Katie. Thanks a lot.

Katie: And thanks as always, to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did, and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of The Wellness Mama podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

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