Are We Thwarting Our Children’s Instinct to Explore?

Needless to say, the topic made for fun water cooler talk this week?. We somehow never tired of sharing our exploits from those years – many exploits our parents to this day don?t know about. (Maybe we never want to give up owning those secrets.) They involved most of us running outside the second breakfast was done and only coming home during warmer days for lunch, dinner and bandaids. We rode dirt bikes at insane speeds over narrow root-lined paths (all without helmets), climbed trees higher than we?d ever admit to our mothers, and got ourselves regularly soaked in muddy creek water. Bee stings were a rite of passage as were eating insects on a dare, getting your first stitches, and instigating the occasional skirmish over certain kid principles. By today?s standards, I?d venture, we?d all be considered ruffians.

Beyond what used to be the typical rough and tumble antics of childhood, however, some stories revealed more compelling dimensions of youthful curiosity. Two brothers would mill around the congregants of a local church (they didn?t attend) on Sundays to make their way to the back door, where they regularly hid rocks or sticks in the door jam and then returned to explore after everyone had gone home. They would walk quietly through the rooms, visiting the empty auditorium, kitchen, gym and sanctuary. There was never any shortage of curiosities to examine in the after-hours darkness where they wouldn?t disturb anything but observe, wonder and bask in the ever present risk of being caught.

Along a similar vein, another neighborhood set of children would every summer day for years traverse a path in the woods and round a 10-foot high fence where they?d fortified a ledge to sneak into the local Catholic cemetery. They?d wander for hours comparing the oldest headstones, observing the numerous statues of angels and saints, admiring the flags and flowers, thinking big thoughts over the stones in the ?children?s garden? where kids their own ages had been laid to rest. Sometimes they?d get bored and hike back to their swing sets, and sometimes they?d be chased back in a thrilling, fearful rush by the cemetery caretaker with his shotgun – or two snarling boxer dogs. Those kids never so much as left a lollipop wrapper on the grass or disturbed a single flower. And no matter how many times the police patrolled their street (they hid their smiles as their mothers wondered why) or how far that fence was extended, they would always create another way in.

It?s funny how much nostalgia these ?out of bounds? childhood adventures tend to evoke, but I think it speaks to how seminal these experiences are in our development. For kids, these kinds of escapades are not, as we so often assume, to wreck or even ?fool around,? but just to observe and wonder at what they see. It?s their time to test physical limits, explore their worlds, sense big questions, even face painful realities of life that adults try to hide from them.

To a child, a walk is never just a walk. They don?t think in wholly pragmatic terms as adults often do. We?re focused on schedules. They?re trying to open up a poppy bud and thinking about Wizard of Oz. We think of tetanus when we see an old dump (not a garbage landfill) like the ones they had in New England where I grew up. They see hours of sifting through ancient treasures they could collect and show off to their friends. We home in on a hundred dangers that could hurt the little people we love. They just feel their innate instinct to play and move through their own environment. Is that too much to ask?

And that?s where emails like this come into play.

I have been a fan of Mark’s Daily Apple for years. Recently my husband and I got in trouble with Child Protective Services?for allowing our kids to walk home from a playground without adult supervision.

This reader?s story is one among a growing number these days, and it?s spurred a movement called free-range parenting. Lenore Skenazy, author of the blog ?Free-Range Kids? (and book of the same name) is often cited as the movement?s most visible leader. Those who support the movement see it largely as a response to the trend toward ?helicopter parenting,? parenting styles that encourage hovering and over-involvement.

Several years back, Skenazy got in hot water herself for letting her son (then 9-years-old) take the subway alone. Her message, in her words, is to balance our fears against realities:

Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don?t have to be quite so terrified! It?s an attempt to figure out how we got so much more worried for our kids in just one generation, and to separate the real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell.

She?s right that things have changed – considerably – in the space of just a few decades. The stories we exchange reveal that, as does our hesitancy we have to let our kids do what we did….

In the late 1960s 41% of kids walked or biked to school, whereas today that number is a measly 13%. One survey showed kids play or explore outside for an average of thirty minutes per week, with half of parents citing safety concerns. To boot, time in outdoor spaces is more often spent in adult-directed, organized activities rather than free play and exploration.

All of this begs the question: where is the ?new? balance between offering our children unfettered, healthy exploration and just irresponsible parenting?

As a parent, I get it. We moved from ?urban? Santa Monica to Malibu precisely because I found myself walking my kids down the street three houses to bring them to a play date. Something felt wrong about that.

The fact is, it?s not just about urban or suburban or rural. I?ve known kids who grew up roaming miles of metropolitan streets and never had a run-in with any significant threat. But I?ve also read tragic stories of kids vanishing while they rode their bikes down a dirt road of their tiny farm community. It?s also about the nature of a particular neighborhood and the people themselves – how much neighbors watch out for kids, including everyone else?s kids. It?s about how well people know each other, how much they prioritize the community, how law enforcement works in a given area, and to an extent how savvy and self-confident kids themselves are.

A U.K. survey demonstrated that the two biggest fears parents have are kidnapping and traffic. I think every parent to some extent feels their heart drop with the mention of either. Media channels latch particularly onto the former, and these tragedies do exist, but The National Center for Missing or Exploited Children states from their latest comprehensive review (1999) that while 200,000 children were abducted by family members, stereotypical ?stranger-danger? kidnappings amounted to 115 that year. Your child has three times the chance of drowning in a pool.

At issue here is how much risk we?re willing to accept for the benefits of exploration. I think first we need to recognize that most people probably have an inflated sense of the ?risk” and no understanding of the advantages. As a result, they don?t view letting their kids explore the world worth any risk at all.

Psychologist Peter Gray cites the importance of risky play (which I believe could also include exploration) for the development of emotional regulation. Research also shows that play facilitates maturation of executive functioning skills – the skills that will help children discern good decisions and organize their behavioral responses when challenged.

When children learn to face minor challenges with success and self-control, they build the confidence to handle additional, more substantial risks. Is it fair to say that walking home a few blocks with a sibling in a safe neighborhood might work the same way?

Likewise, research shows that when kids avoid risky or scary situations (and thereby never get to see that they can do what they?re afraid to do and understand fear as a ?manageable emotion”), they can actually become more anxious as a result.

So, what can you do if letting the kids wander to their hearts? content isn?t a realistic option for your neighborhood – or nerves? How can you offer them the opportunity to feel like they get to cut loose, experiment, walk the edge – and do it without the ?lame? parental hand-holding?

Seek out risks together.

Yes, you get to tag along on this one. The idea here is to learn on the job of life, so to speak. You get to be their guide not just for the safe stuff but for the scary stuff. Introduce it intelligently, let them relish the thrill and then offer perspective.

Likewise, research tells us that kids learn about dangers not from parents selecting all of their environments and choices but from discussing the actual hazardous elements of actions their kids are already in the midst of taking. The point is, kids will find ways to explore – now or later (or emotionally implode, which no one wants). Help them learn to make wiser decisions by showing them how to handle danger now – while you can keep the immediate example from getting out of control.

Check out Gever Tully?s Tinkering School and his TED talk (as well as his book which expands the same idea) on ?dangerous things you should let your kids do.” My favorite has to be ?throw a spear.? Grok would be so proud?.

Call on other guides.

Okay, here?s where you as a parental unit need to hand over the reins. That doesn?t mean pushing the kids out the door to fend for themselves but to give them space and novelty – with the supervision of another qualified individual.

The fact is, kids will do things for other people that they won?t do for their parents. They?ll listen better. They?ll put in a little more effort. The reason? Because the parent-child dynamic can take on some enabling dimensions. Kids begin to assume parents will watch out for the dangers. They?ll cover things if they (kids) really get into trouble. They?ll repeat themselves and nag seventeen times. The result? Kids get lazy and don?t learn to take responsibility for their own safety. Good choices come not just from education but from the autonomy in which they can apply them.

Likewise, parents get attuned to their kids? anxiety, reacting to it when we assume it?s going to set in. Eventually, our proactive ?response? can actually perpetuate our child’s fear. Having the child try things with another adult (somewhat intelligent, compassionate but not coddling would be nice) can help break the established pattern. A child can hear another person differently. While he might have abandoned the activity with a parent around, with a lesser known person he?ll hang on a little longer and have a better chance at learning something about handling himself in this new activity/situation. By extension, he?ll have a better chance at experiencing success and the feeling of competence that comes with it. He?ll also be more likely to remember the guidelines that helped him get there.

Find some homes away from home.

If you can?t let your kids run your neighborhood, make a choice to frequent places where they can roam within a certain vicinity. Maybe that means spending more time with a particular relative or friend. Maybe you could spend part of each weekend at a certain park where there?s enough visibility to satisfy you and enough space to satisfy them. It could also mean choosing vacations in the same spot each year where you feel they can roam within a certain radius.

Find tribal activities for them.

This is another version of calling on other guides. Remember scouting? Have you heard of Outward Bound? How about old-fashioned summer camp? (I?m talking about the old-school live in a basic wooden structure for a week with other kids and camp counselors. Snakes and bats as residents of said structure are a bonus – another water cooler story there.) The group itself is less important than the activity. Look for a mix of structured and unstructured time, lots of hours in nature, and some adventure/skill building. Summer camps in particular own their land, which means your kids are safe unless they break an arm on the obstacle course. (Kidding.)

The old school camps still allow for plenty of free rein – enough independence to explore the fields in the immediate acreage and enough time to raid the cabin over the hill after dark.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have you bumped up against this question in your parenting or watched friends/relatives who have? What?s your Primally modern perspective on giving kids the right amount of exploration? Weigh in on the board, and have a great end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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