Scared of Letting Go?Balancing Safety and Independence
by Erin Mantz
For many parents, Halloween conjures up fond memories of the ultimate childhood fun — running carefree through the neighborhood, knocking on doors of known neighbors, full of excitement and a familiar sense of adventure. But that was then. Today, as our kids climb into their costumes, letting them step outside the house seems a little bit trickier. Even trick-or-treating on the block makes many moms and dads more anxious, concerned and cautious than ever before. Does this level of protection and caution impact our kids? We talked with experts and parents to gauge their experiences and impressions, and we found some helpful solutions along the way.
Nurturing Independence & Creativity In a Scary but Brave New World
We live in a world where terrorism and kidnapping stories are a frequent part of the nightly news. We lived through the horrible sniper attacks in our area. Some of us don't know our neighbors well — or at all. Given these factors, we should be careful when we let our kids outside! Understandably, many parents do limit — or even prohibit — their kids from playing alone outside. But what consequences does this caution have on our children?
As running around outside with the neighborhood kids becomes harder to do, children can be affected. "Playing outside is a big part of imagination and interactivity," states Heidi S. Emmer, LCSW, who works with children in her Bethesda practice. Emmer has seen how television and video games — often alternative activities to what parents remember as playing outside — can make some kids less sociable, less expressive and less interactive. But even in today's troubled times, Emmer believes parents have the power to do a lot of positive things inside the home. Proposing creative activities, doing art projects, giving kids age-appropriate responsibilities around the house, encouraging them to make choices when possible — all these actions contribute to a child's growing independence and confidence around his decision-making abilities.
McLean native Caroline Hacker, mom of 2- and 4-year-old boys, tries hard to walk that fine line of encouraging their sense of adventure while keeping a watchful eye. She marvels at how she played freely outside as a child, less than a mile away from her current home, and how her sons' experience is already so different. "Even though our area has a very small-town feel — young families even arrange for dinner delivery when someone in the neighborhood has a new baby — I wouldn't dream of letting my oldest son walk next door unsupervised or run through the sprinkler alone for five minutes in the front yard. It's hard. I don't want my sons to know that I feel the world is unsafe, but I've been face-to-face with indications that bad things do happen here." To give her sons the sense of independence they may be missing from unstructured, outdoor neighborhood play, Hacker purposely limits both television and electronic toy time to encourage more creativity and imaginary play. She sees how day care settings and preschool camps can play important roles in making kids more independent and building social skills away from mom and dad.
The Psychological Impact
Can today's kids be impacted for growing up without simply "going out to play"? Absolutely, according to Dr. Jeffrey Schaler, a professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at the American University School of Public Affairs. As we keep our kids closer, they may miss out on key benefits of unstructured, outdoor play with neighborhood peers: spontaneous interactions to build social skills and practice decision-making, chances to go exploring, time to create new games. "As they hear the world is a dangerous place and that they have to be careful, some kids can develop catastrophic expectations or come to view the world in black-and-white terms. In addition, kids are naturally egocentric. As they hear about bad things going on, they may feel responsible for them," says Schaler.
Schaler offers many other examples of how kids can be negatively impacted. Some may become more dependent on their parents or experience separation anxiety. Some may become depressed or have problems interacting with the world. Others may view their parents as somewhat helpless and take on the role of protector. Sensitive children may learn to be paranoid. Overall, it may affect kids' abilities to do what they want to do, because they view the world as more powerful than they are. The good news is, parents can do a lot of positive things to avoid negative outcomes (see "Tips" sidebar). Learn how we can protect our children, teach them to be careful and instill some independence — without portraying the world as an extraordinarily scary place.