Monday, September 27, 2021
HomeCulture WarsCould free-range parenting liberate the snowflake kids?

Could free-range parenting liberate the snowflake kids?

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GOVERNMENT policies enforced over the past 18 months of pandemic have been particularly damaging to children. Their schools, playgrounds, recreational activities and play dates have been shut down; many are faced with the threat of non-consensual vaccination; and even those at infant school are being demonised as the real super-spreaders. As a result, for both children and parents, the outside world has become seriously dangerous territory.

Not that this is anything new. For decades a ‘safety at all costs’ mindset has incrementally restricted children’s horizons. The helicopter parent has become not just the norm, but in some countries even a legal requirement. In US and Australian states letting your child play unsupervised in the park or walk home from school alone can result in a visit from the police.

Tim Gill, a play expert, regrets that children now stay closer to home than any previous generations. In the 1980s children walked to school alone or in groups, and afternoons after school were spent playing outdoors unsupervised, when they were little older than eight. But as a result of the MSM and social media pressure, perceptions of stranger danger, traffic congestion and pollution in cities, and the high proportion of working mothers, children are considered so vulnerable as to require adult supervision at all times.

One US mother describes the Covid impact. ‘The pandemic has made me more paranoid and fearful of other people.’ She is anxious about her sons falling ill, ‘because they are too young to get vaccinated’. She kept her elder son at home, even when his school re-opened. ‘We don’t go inside other people’s houses, and if we have play dates, we do them outside.’ 

A leading light in the fightback against cosseting is Lenore Skenazy, a New York writer. While respecting sensible safety measures, she believes children need more freedom to build confidence and independence, and has advocated a style of ‘free-range parenting’, in her book Free Range Kids and subsequent organisation Let Grow. She faced widespread criticism after allowing her nine-year-old son to make his own way home on the subway, and was deemed ‘the world’s worst mom’. She noticed how parents were risk-averse, afraid to let their children outside without an adult, a mobile phone or a GPS. American children were allowed only four to seven minutes a day outside in unstructured unsupervised time.

But she also noticed that some children seemed to benefit from the pandemic changes. Those who had normally had ‘over-planned’ lives were now faced with lots of unstructured time. Let Grow surveyed eight-to-13-year-olds and found them feeling happy rather than sad. Almost three quarters reported that they were allowed to do more things on their own. ‘Where we asked, “What new things are you learning on your own?” they replied, “Finally playing with my brother”. It sounded like old-fashioned kids filling their time.’

Helen Dodd of Exeter University is well aware of the societal attitudes which have led to this over-parenting, but says things need to change. ‘It’s about society’s attitudes to children being out and playing in the street, being noisy.’ Even more than better physical and social development, Dodd believes, ‘It’s about the child learning they can solve problems, make decisions, and assess risks themselves. If parents do all of that for them, at some point in their life they have to do it themselves without any practice or experience’.

It’s difficult to see this philosophy catching on, at a time when even adults are finding the outside world a more frightening challenge. But in Switzerland, even during lockdown, Skenazy’s description of more relaxed, ‘free-range’ parenting is the norm.

Family life in Switzerland can be a whole new experience for foreign-origin parents bringing up their young children, in both city and rural environments. By custom and law, it’s a very child-centred society, but in a demanding way, affording children greater autonomy but also expecting more responsibility than these incoming parents are accustomed to.

Clare O’Dea, as a young mother transplanted into these new surroundings, lists many things that Swiss parents do differently. Maternal and baby care is second to none. Only 13 per cent of mothers with young children work full time, and childcare other than via grandparents tends to be frowned on. Children are well equipped with clothing, toys, sports equipment and gadgets, but frequently on a hand-me-down basis.

Children are rarely driven to school. Forest days and playgroups often take place outdoors in all weathers. Motorists always slow down for children, by law, and at the start of the school terms, big notices remind pupils of their obligations, especially in cities. Early schooling is wholly play-orientated, with no demand for accelerated learning. Remedies for minor illnesses and childhood scrapes tend to be old-fashioned, often homeopathic, even herbal teas. Later schooling leads very quickly to work experience, with two thirds of young people taking up three- or four-year apprenticeships. 

Every locality is well provided with play and activity facilities, and playing fields, swimming pools, sports halls, libraries and music schools proliferate. There is substantial support provision for any perceived learning difficulties, and around half of all children receive some type of therapy. Most notable of all is the richness of cultural and traditional life regularly fostered at home, in schools and in the communities. Samiclaus and Schmutzli, Fasnacht parades and masks, and traditional singing and dancing are enthusiastically encouraged by parents.

The result of this can be revelatory for foreign parents. One father said that for his child, ‘it made him really more independent. And also more mature, I think, and responsible’. Alexander Renggli, from the Swiss Foreign Ministry, sees this early independence as a tie-in with Switzerland’s political system of direct democracy. ‘Maybe’, he says, ‘it’s also part of a fundamental political value we have here. It’s what we call self-responsibility. You’re expected to grow up rather quickly, or at least to take responsibility, and be responsible for yourself.’ It can be an anxious lesson for these parents to learn, but the children take to it quickly, and it encourages their natural drive towards personal autonomy. If they don’t at first succeed, they’re not put off. “Nothing bad happened, so I can try again”.’

This philosophy is also strongly reflected in the continuing popularity of the Swiss Scout Movement. Their primary goal is the holistic development of children and young people, fostered through their seven steps: rules and promises, team work, personal development, rituals and traditions, participation and responsibility, outdoor life, games and play activities. Leaders are often teenagers themselves, they have regular away-stays, and girls and boys have equal expectations. These are high: making camp, outdoor survival and trekking, skilful use of their Swiss penknives, and endurance in the elements – including diving in the lake, dealing with snow and storms, and guarding campfires at midnight.

It’s unlikely that such a cultural shift would go down well with the safeguarding-obsessed parents of the UK and US, but what a difference it could make to the calibre of young people growing up in the West. And yet – doesn’t it all sound nostalgically familiar? When Skenazy was criticised, she was vilified as being a revolutionary. No way, she claims. She’s old-fashioned, a conservative!

Helen Dodds believes the pandemic has actually given parents a one-off opportunity. ‘We’re talking about children’s freedoms, play and access to outdoors more than we have for a long time because of the pandemic. So if there was ever a moment to really think about what children need, now’s the time.’

Bring it on.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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