THE BLOG
01/27/2015 06:08 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Free-Range Parenting Debate Misses a Critical Point

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The social network is abuzz with the news that parents in Silver Springs Maryland have been accused of being irresponsible because they let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk to a park a mile away and return home all by themselves. Somebody thought this was not OK and called the cops. As a result, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are being investigated by the Montgomery County Child Protective Services. The debate about it continues to rage. I know that many other psychologists are weighing in on the appropriateness of this form of parenting, but I'd like to use the story to make a point that is much bigger than whether or not kids should be allowed to "Free-range."

Here's my point: Kids can't grow unless they are allowed (I would say encouraged) to visit what I call the frontier of their competence. Most kids live in an adult-constructed world. In classrooms, learning goals and the means to attain them are created and managed by adults. Differentiated instruction or student-centered learning are admirable concepts, but the truth of the matter is that external forces shape, control and limit the experience of school. This reality leaves little opportunity for children to journey to the actual edge of their abilities -- that place where their confidence is momentarily shaken by the challenge and then bolstered by mastering the task.

Outside of school, kids have very few opportunities to do things over which they have much control. If you think about it, the list is extremely short. Because of this, kids don't have the opportunity learn how to self-manage or self-repair. When push comes to shove, it's more likely that over-controlled children cry and crumble than rally and rule.

Why do we see such a burgeoning number of kids with anxiety or anxiety disorders? I'll tell you what I think: It's because they have not been judiciously and purposefully inoculated against difficulty, and when they stare it in the face, they overestimate the size of the challenge and they turn and run or try to hide. Since kind-hearted parents and teachers find it painful to see kids in discomfort, they collude to put kids in situations where they look happy doing stuff that's, well... easy.

Here's an interesting piece of information which has relevance here. Steel is made harder, stronger and more elastic by a special heating and cooling procedure. Without this annealing, it's brittle and prone to fracturing under strain. Similarly, kids who are not consciously tempered, that is, made more flexible and resilient by monitored exposure to stressors, are cracking and breaking in record numbers across this country.

Sports, private lessons, tutoring, homework and even play time (oh sorry -- play dates) are controlled by adults. I get it: Schedules are tight, everybody's crazy-busy, and uber-planning wards off intra-familial chaos. In sports, kids are expected and taught to win, but it is not often that they are consciously taught how to handle losing. In fact, their exposure to failure is mollified by hollow praise and "trophies for trying." Kids who are made to feel good and safe at the expense of learning to live with challenge and stress are headed for trouble.

Even the strongest advocates of the free-range parenting movement would agree that turning kids loose to roam unmonitored through unknown (and potentially dangerous) territory is like signing your kids up to compete in the Hunger Games. You'll recall that there are many more losers than winners in that competition! Kids don't come equipped with the skills of a Katniss Everdeen, able to deal with every danger that is thrown at her with incredible courage and skill. What Jennifer Lawrence's character does exhibit is the ability to do something positive with the stress created by the threats that are hurtled at her. A survivalist if ever there was one, this nimble and talented young woman quickly converts fear into the neurochemical fuel that her body and brain need to quell the inborn, protective fight or flight response. In this way, she's able to face challenges with exquisitely honed executive functioning skills that keep her alive.

Free-Range Children and Competent Students: What's the connection?

Most advocates of responsible free-range parenting talk about the need to create a wide zone of safety around kids' forays into the unknown. Keep them alive, but give them room to explore and encounter challenges that require threat assessment, decision-making, action-taking and evaluation. Having these kinds of experiences, both in the neighborhood and in the classroom, turn kids into adventurers and explorers who seek the next frontier and face it with a sense of excitement, a feeling of competence, and the confidence that says "Bring it on!"

I have written and talked much about the impact of stress on kidshttp://www.jeromeschultz.com. In school, where learning and growing is a primary goal, kids need to be guided by talented teachers to the very boundaries of their competence. Facing and mastering new material promotes psychological toughening. It's like building muscles at the gym. If we lift the same weights every time, we don't increase our strength. Without a personal trainer, we're likely to try a weight that's way too heavy for us. We feel something pull, wince in pain, drop the weight, and most likely--stop going to the gym.

The same phenomenon can occur in school. High stakes testing often requires "heavy lifting." Unless kids are strategically taught to find their "edge" -- the point at which stuff gets too hard -- and given the skills and support to work through it, two things happen; They stay at a level of work that allows them to feel the pleasure that comes from doing something they can do fairly well, and they avoid challenges. Sometimes, they like being in the safe zone so much that a teacher can't get them to stop, switch directions and head off into some unfamiliar, anxiety-producing territory. Too often, when kids are asked to do something that they believe will be too hard, they crumble. It's then that we see the tears, avoidance, opposition, school refusal, acting out -- that are all the predictable consequences of unabating or excessive stress. They act in these ways not because the work is too hard, but because they believe it will be, and because they lack the fortitude to embrace the challenge and turn it into a success. I believe that we are seeing the dramatic rise in kids with anxiety (or anxiety disorders) because they have not been adequately prepared to handle things that come their way, and they crash and sometimes burn at the thought of facing a challenge over which they believe they have little control.

With a change of thinking and a different approach which costs nothing -- we can get kids from "I can't, and I won't," to "I can and I will." It's pretty amazing to watch this happen. Free-range parenting, which gives kids controlled exposure to just a little more challenge has some lessons to teach us. Let's listen and learn.