I try not to hover. Parenting is a constant challenge to balance restriction and freedom. On the restriction side, I want to provide appropriate boundaries, offer wise guidance and coach my boys to success. On the freedom side, I want them to explore, make mistakes and get a little banged up. As 11-year-old Scotty’s mother encourages him to do in the movie The Sandlot, “Run around, scrape your knees, get dirty. Climb trees, hop fences. Get into trouble, for crying out loud. Not too much, but some. You have my permission.”
The research on the value of unstructured free play is unambiguous: It’s awesome for brain development. The anecdotal evidence on parental anxiety is also clear: It’s tough to let go, even when we’re talking about a bike ride around the block. A recent experience drove that point home and also pointed the way to a solution that works for both adults and youngsters.
As the snow began to melt last week under a bright sunny sky in seacoast New Hampshire, my boys (9 and 11) asked whether we could all go for a bicycle ride. My wife and I decided we’d rather be on foot this time and let the boys zip around in our proximity on their bikes. As I have routinely done since their tricycle days, I reminded the boys to put on their helmets, stay to the right and look both ways before crossing the road.
Good advice, but just words. And therein lay the problem. Routine words are soon ignored. Blah, blah, blah. How many of you frequent fliers out there still sit attentively and really listen to the safety demonstration at the start of each flight? Just like those well-intentioned flight attendants, I was talking at my audience, not asking for a demonstration of the target behavior.
As my wife and I neared the end of one of the side streets in our suburban neighborhood, our boys began riding back toward us, on the other side of the street. I presumed—probably falsely—that they had looked both ways before crossing. At least they are riding on the right side of the road, I mused. Then a car turned onto the street, headed in the same direction as my boys, about 50 yards behind them. Seeing my older boy begin to drift a bit from his side of the road toward the middle, my wife shouted, in a calm and helpful tone, “There’s a car behind you! Stay to the side!”
My son’s response to counsel was to drift further into the center of the street, in preparation for crossing over to the side where my wife and I were walking. No look back over his left shoulder. He just started to ride into that car’s path. This time, it was my turn to yell. “Turn back!” I pointed to his side of the street. “Right now!” It was all I could think to say, having nearly watched him get run over. My heart was leaping out of my chest.
The car drove by slowly, the boys both pulled their bikes over and my wife and I crossed to the boys’ side of the street. After some sharp words about what I perceived to have been a stupid, careless and potentially lethal behavior, I realized what part of the scenario was my own mistake. I had rarely had the boys demonstrate for me, on their bikes, how to stop, look both ways and cross the street. Once or twice maybe, when they were on training wheels, but not again. I was like the flight attendant who simply asks the people seated in the exit row whether they would be willing and able to remove the escape door in the event of an emergency. Everyone always nods politely and affirmatively. Who would say no, especially when you get more legroom?
The point is: Without rehearsing and redoing an activity, there is no way to verify comprehension or competence. Verbal reminders are increasingly useless the more they are spoken.
After I collected myself, I asked both kids to bike to the end of the street, make a full stop, show me how to look both ways, cross when it was safe, and return on the other side of the street. Their demonstration showed me that they could ride safely. I could see that they could perform the target behavior. It gave them practice. Eventually, thoughtful riding will become a habit. For now, I have a bit more confidence they they’ll do what I’ve taught them.
I know that my children won’t always speak politely, treat others kindly or behave safely. Nobody does 100% of the time. But from now on, I’ll lecture less and ask more often for a skills demonstration. Especially when it comes to safety behaviors. And yes, I’ll let them ride their bikes around the neighborhood, all by themselves, firm in the knowledge that they can actually do what I’ve asked. I don’t need any more respectfully dismissive nods from them. If they want the freedom to frolic, I need to witness what I want.
Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training, with a vision to become the world leader in online education for youth development professionals. Additional resources for camps, schools and families can be found on CampSpirit.com. To book workshops or contact Chris directly, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.