Lenore Skenazy, President at Let Grow and Founder of the Free-Range Kids Movement, discusses how giving our children opportunities to learn independence at a young age helps them to become independent adults.

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Students are capable of making smart and safe decisions from a much younger age than current culture deems appropriate. Compared to two decades ago, what was safe, simple, and easy has become seemingly dangerous, confusing, and difficult — due largely to the media.

What’s popularized in the media, however, isn’t always the reality, Lenore says. If we want our problem solvers of tomorrow to become independent adults, it starts by fortifying them with confidence from a young age. 

In this episode, Lenore Skenazy, President at Let Grow and Founder of the Free-Range Kids Movement, explains why it’s so important to give students their independence and discusses how her movement is helping to ease anxieties about letting go. 

Keeping Your Student Safe

With advancements in technology, our students are safer now than they have ever been before. The problem, however, is that the dangers of the world have seemingly equally increased — particularly kidnapping. 

With such a sentiment, it’s completely understandable why parents everywhere are taking every precaution to avoid the worst. But the reality is much more optimistic. Despite the worry, kidnapping — a rare and unpredictable event — happens substantially less than parents think, Lenore says.

How long, on average, would your student have to wait outside alone at a bus stop before they are kidnapped? Many assume a day, an hour, or even five minutes. The reality: Approximately 750,000 years. 

Our brains focus on the standout events. So, while there are 300,000 examples of students safely going to school on their own, it’s the one negative example that we picture first that consumes our decision-making rationality.  

Trying to take actionable steps to avoid a rare and unpredictable event may help ease anxieties from media sensationalism, but it does virtually nothing to improve the safety of your student. 

While you may not have to monitor your student’s whereabouts as much as you think, that doesn’t mean other safety measures, like teaching your student to wear a seatbelt, have become obsolete. Parents must just shift their attention to what truly matters, Lenore says. 

The Unfortunate Tradeoff of Early Risk Avoidance

No matter how unpredictable or unlikely a scenario like kidnapping may be, some may wonder what’s the harm of reducing risk wherever it could exist, no matter the likelihood?

Those small moments of independence that the student would learn early on, if given the vital opportunity, will help give the student a better idea of where true danger exists when they become older.

According to Lenore, if a student grows up to think risk is everywhere, they will have a hard time gauging what a safe environment looks like — leading to an increase in anxiety and depression. A totally safe restaurant, or other public space, may otherwise elicit fear in the student.

How Independence Creates Better Problem Solvers

Think of the student who is given the opportunity to experience the world from a young age on their own: As an example, a student is asked to go to the grocery store to buy some milk. They now have to figure out the following:

  • The route to get to the store and back
  • How much money to bring along
  • What to do if the store is out of milk
  • How to deal with a public argument if it arises

If a parent, with tried-and-true methods of buying milk, decides to go to the store with the student, the student loses out on every opportunity to grow except to see the end result: Getting milk — a lesson that now may seem easier than it actually is. 

The near endless list of lessons that the student can learn is almost completely taken away if the parent overlooks the need to give them the opportunity. 

Adversity leads to better problem solvers. Without these lessons in independence, the student’s problem solving skills will develop at a much later time, and with more difficulty to acquire those same skills. 

Research Outcomes from the Let Grow Play Club

To help foster an environment where students have the opportunity to problem solve with others, Lenore formed the Let Grow Play Club. The program consists of an hour before school where a mixed age group of students free-play without electronic devices. 

A chaperone is present, but they’re only there to deal with problems that need to be addressed by an adult. Everything else is up to the students to solve. 

Through a study by a psychology PhD candidate, it was found that students who engaged with the club had significantly higher standardized test scores than students who did not participate. Lenore suggests that more schools incorporate this kind of club and do their own studies to see just how beneficial it can be to student growth. 

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Episode Transcript

Lenore Skenazy Q&A [1:44]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Lenore Skenazy, president at Let Grow and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement joins the podcast to discuss how not allowing our children opportunities to learn independence prevents them from becoming independent adults and what to do about that if you're an anxious parent like her.

Lenore, I first came across your work when you let your nine year old son ride the subway in New York city by himself per his request wishing to recreate a trip he had taken many times before with you, but independently this time. It was a conscious parenting choice and yet deemed at the time by many as negligent parenting. And since then, we've seen and you've helped highlight many similar stories where child protective services have been called on parents for making similar choices. And in response, we've seen you create a movement around the premise and benefits of Free-Range Kids with states even creating free-range parenting laws to protect parents from having their children taken away from them for engaging similarly. Thanks to your work. Is the broad premise directing your work that by not allowing our children opportunities to learn independence that we are inherently preventing them from becoming and growing into independent adults?

Lenore Skenazy: You got it. Goodbye. That's it, right? Yep, give them some independent so that they can become independent adults. We have a million slogans, "When adults step back, kids step up. Our kids are smarter, safer and stronger than our culture gives them credit for." Why did we become such nuts? That's not an official slogan of ours. But basically, the whole movement of Free-Range Kids is the... And that grew into the nonprofit called Let Grow that I run now, is Let Grow. I mean, Let Grow is like a command, like stop stunting and let grow. I never blame parents for being worried or anxious, or even helicopter’ing... because I'm one, you know?

So if you're one yourself, it seems like a really bad idea to damn everybody else. But the reason I don't blame parents is because we are living in this culture that I have to say it's really two generations ago now. When I was growing up, my mom was a stay at home mom, quit her job to stay at home, keep me safe, loved, educated, et cetera. And yet it was normal for her to let me walk to school at age five. It was normal when I got to the corner for a crossing guard who was a kid to shepherded me from one side to the other with all the power invested in him by a day glow sash to keep the oncoming traffic from killing five year old me. And that was so recent. And it's in my memory that I just wake up every day going, "Wow, it's so weird that now even the American Academy to Pediatrics has come out saying like, 'No child should cross the street alone until they're 10'."

It's like we cannot have devolved that quickly in two generations that what was normal and easy and simple and I'd say fortifying for kids a little while back is now considered too much for them to handle, dangerous and confusing and frustrating and hard and I'll just drive you even if you don't want to drive your kid to school. You're not even allowed to let them get off the bus stop in so many places without being there to walk them home. It could be two houses down and you have to be there.

So what interests me is how quickly a culture shifted from trusting kid's basic independence, smarts, problem solving skills to having zero faith in them, zero faith in any of the community members around them and thinking, "It's all up to me. I must be with them every second." And a culture has told us that. That's why I don't blame the parents. Because if your school is saying, "You have to stand at the bus stop to wait for your kid to get off the bus," that's not you being a helicopter parent, right? That's not you being a neurotic nut. It's you saying, "This is what the school told me to do. And soccer tells me to stay during the practice and birthday parties expect me to watch the kids eating all the pizza that I end up eating the crusts of and all the birthday cake that they got from Costco, which I've had last weekend and I know I'll have again next weekend." This is just the way the culture has organized I'd say parental life. The kids are there to determine exactly where you'll be spending next Saturday and Sunday.

The trade-off between risk elimination and forever stunting our kids [6:19]

Eric Olsen: So we're potentially more aware of the horrors. Maybe there's been a media shift that's let us know that we have this risk of horror and we're trying to back out of that, but we're losing potentially our children's independence or their independence.

Lenore Skenazy: That's a horror. I mean, the weird thing is, first of all, saying the horrors as if my mom was completely oblivious to the fact that she lived on earth, where there are criminals and bad things. And somehow we are so much more aware. I mean, I don't like talking about statistics. Nobody cares. But if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger... Actually, you guys are mathematicians and I'm not so I had somebody crunch the numbers for me. And the question I asked was, given the statistics of crime in America and specifically stereotypical kidnapping, like a Law & Order SVU kidnapping, how long would you have to keep your child outside for it to be statistically likely that they would be kidnapped by a stranger? And guess what the answer is? How long would you have to keep them outside at that bus stop without you there for it to be likely that they would be taken?

Eric Olsen: I think I've heard you say this before. So I'll give the listeners a couple seconds to guess before I say it. It's something like 180,000 years or something crazy like that.

Lenore Skenazy: It's more. It's 750,000 years, but at least you're in the hundreds of thousands of years category because a lot of people think a day, and a lot of people think an hour, and many people think five minutes. And of course that's sort of... You guys are out there figuring out numbers. Figure out a way to make numeracy happen because so much of what we're basing our daily lives on is this fear that something that is extraordinarily rare and impossible to predict, it's both unpredictable and rare, we think we can avoid by doing certain things. And it becomes almost like OCD, like if I touch my computer three times, then somebody will send me a check. Maybe that'll happen. "We need donations." There. Count to three.

But the fact of the matter is, you can think that you've kept your child safe because you've driven them to school every day and never had the feedback that they also would've been safe if they'd walked to school, but you never did that so you don't know that's also extraordinarily safe. I mean, it strikes me as so ironic that we are living in what seems like the end times, but compared to any other generation of children dying of disease and car wrecks and diptheria and polio and smallpox and farm accidents, it's a very safe time. It just doesn't feel safe to us. And we keep doing more to make the .0001 chance .00001.

Managing the risk tolerance of free-range kids parenting [8:58]

Eric Olsen: Yeah. A lot of this does feel like risk tolerance. Terrible things definitely happen, the odds of terrible things happening maybe statistically low, yet removing unnecessary risk when possible feels reasonable…

Lenore Skenazy: Wait, I'm sorry. That is right. I think to remove actual risk... I mean, I'm like Ms. Remove actual risk. Put on your safety belt. Use a helmet. Use a car seat. Get your kids vaccinated. Get yourself vaccinated. Get a car with airbags. I mean, I guess they don't sell them without airbag. I mean, but those are the things that are more statistically likely to hurt you than a rare and random and horrific event. Your brain works like Google. This is the problem. Your brain, if you ask your brain, "Is there a good Mexican restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens?" where I live. And my God, up comes, "Yes, there's Tulcingo. There's [inaudible 00:09:59]," whatever. There's all these great places. And you don't even have to go to page two of the Google results because there's five restaurants that all look delicious and cheap.

But then if you ask your mind, "Is my child safe waiting at the bus stop?" Let's go back to there. And then up in your brain pops, "Etan Patz, he was taken from a bus stop. And Jaycee Dugard, she was taken from bus stop." One was in 1979. One was sometime in the '80s or '90s. So the results that are populating that front page of your query are actually the worst things that have happened over the course of 50 years and 50 states and they're all on that front page. And your brain thinks, "Well, if it's on the front page, it's relevant, right? I asked, 'Is it safe?' And up comes Jaycee and Etan."

And so how can we be rational? I mean, that's really my question. It's so hard to keep a grip on what really makes sense in terms of giving your kids some independence when the easier something is to recall. There's something called the availability heuristic. The easier it is to recall something or to bring it up on that search engine page in your brain, the more likely we end up thinking it is. Even though the reason it showed up is because it's so unlikely we have pictures. We don't have pictures in our brains of the 300 million children who have gone to school since Etan in '79 and not been kidnapped.

So it's a losing battle until you realize, "Wait a minute, there's no such thing as perfect safety and there's no such thing as zero risk, but there's also no such thing as like no trade off." Because if you're driving your kid to school... I mean, first of all, statistically, that's the number one way kid's die. It says car passengers. But also what are they missing out on? There's these three professors at Georgetown University now who are trying to get an NIH grant to study whether American children are getting their independence so late that they've missed the window, the developmental window when mother nature expected the brain to be encountering many risks and confusions and getting lost and having arguments and all this stuff that calibrates the brain to understand what is a real risk and what is a minimal risk and what is really scary and how much you can tolerate.

They did this preliminary study where they asked the same questions of college students in Turkey and Russia, presumably a little less obsessively terrified for their kids than us, and parents... Or no, kids, sorry, college students in America and Canada. They asked them, I didn't see the actual questions, but things that are kind of normal every day things. Like, you're alone by yourself in a cafe at dinner time, is this dangerous or not? The American and Canadian kids kept thinking that normal things were risky and dangerous because they hadn't developed the calibration that tells you not everything is dangerous because they've been told when they were young that everything was. So there's something dangerous about that. You don't want a child going forth into the world thinking that everything is too much.

And to a certain extent, we are sort of seeing that. We're seeing a lot of wonderful young people feeling very anxious, availing themselves or not of a lot of the... I've talked to somebody who was telling me that their college used to have seven mental health counselors. Now they have 40 and can't keep up with the demand, and that's not just COVID. And so the idea that if you're just with them all the time and saving them and keeping them safe, you might be keeping them safe from crossing the street improperly, which is my big fear. Don't let them cross the street improperly. Teach them how to look both ways. But you're not necessarily preventing anxiety or depression, which there's a little sort of natural immunity to that once you've dealt with some things on your own and realized it's not so big of a deal.

I will shut up in one second. I just want to say it's sort of like learning a language too late. Kids go shoot up in size. They grow, grow, grow, grow, grow until seven. And then they grow a little slower from seven to 12. And then they shoot up again. The theory is that that's the time when they're supposed to be being socialized, when the brain is just supposed to be taking in all these experiences. And then after 12, not only are they entering puberty and growing taller, that actually becomes the same age when it becomes harder to learn a language. The idea is that at some point your brain is a little less ready for something. It's a little less ready to just take in language and learn it. You can learn it later, but it'll be harder and it'll be with an accent and it might not be as fluent or fluid.

And so the same thing with risk assessment. If you've missed that window when you were supposed to be learning it, it's not like you're doomed, but you could have been getting something all along and you missed the boat.

Why independence is so important in breeding problem solvers [15:00]

Eric Olsen: I think you're speaking to this trade off of who we think we're preventing the statistically impossible from happening, but what our kids missing out on is so critical, especially that independence piece. At Art of Problem Solving and on the Raising Problem Solvers podcast, our goal is to raise the great problem solvers of the next generation. Why is independence so important in breeding specifically problem solving and problem solvers?

Lenore Skenazy: Well, think about what's involved in independence. Independence is, "Can you go to the store and get me milk?" as opposed to me driving to the store and bringing you in with me and getting milk. First of all, you have to figure out how to get there. "Oh my gosh, this street is broken." I can't imagine the street broken. Okay, so say you get to the store successfully. "Huh? They're out of milk" or, "I forgot to ask whether my mom wanted whole milk or not." So you have to decide, "Well, what do I usually like? What do they serve in schools? They serve 0% milk or something. Okay, I guess I get that. That's what I always have." I give you the guy $5 and I get change back. "This looks like the wrong amount of change. 

I'm a problem solver. I know my change for god's sake. Or there's somebody in line in front of me who's having an argument and I watch that happen.

I mean, basically life is unfolding when you have some independence and you are dealing with all the little blips along the way as opposed to being passive. A great analogy for this is whether you're the driver in a car or the passenger. I barely drive so I'm always the passenger. I don't know how to get anywhere, right? And other people do because they're paying attention. When you're paying attention and expected to do something and make something happen, that's very different from waiting for something to be given to you. And you're not solving any problems if you're simply waiting for something to be given to you.

Lenore interrogates Eric about his anti-social childhood [16:46]

So Let Grow, the organization that grew out of Free-Range Kids, is not only very, very excited about the idea of giving kids more opportunities for independence and making sure that parents feel happy about this. Everybody else is doing it. They're not the nut. We're also trying to give kids more opportunity for old fashioned free play. And here, I must pause to ask you, Eric, what did you do in your free time as a kid? I hope nothing illegal.

Eric Olsen: Wandered the streets from 9:00 to 5:00 until after dinner time. By streets, I mean a tucked in subdivision. Didn't cross busy roads too much, but was out and about. My parents were unaware of my happenings for about eight hours straight every day in the summertime.

Lenore Skenazy: So you just wandered? You walked for eight hours or did you do anything else?

Eric Olsen: Bike. Bike was my... My rollerblading got big when I was in middle school. But yeah, I eventually got old enough where I could walk to the Dairy Queen, buy baseball cards, wander the neighborhood trying to find other kids to engage with.

Lenore Skenazy: Engage. Engage? Did you engage or did you play?

Eric Olsen: Most kids had video games. Sega had just came out. I just was a laggard. So it was mostly me looking for kids playing basketball and trying to... Or looking in windows and seeing kids playing video games and trying to figure out if I could get invited in.

Lenore Skenazy: How did you problem solve?

Eric Olsen: I was probably shy and a little anxious and reserved. And so I was waiting for invites, but I was trying to plant myself in places where kind kids would invite me into their fold.

Lenore Skenazy: Okay. So you worked around a problem being shy and not having your own video game system to get yourself to where you would be interacting with another human, right? Of your own volition. I mean, it wasn't like your mom dropped you off and organized the play date and told you when she'd be picking you up. You made something happen. And then tell me about the basketball games. Everybody was fair. It was easy. Easy to make the teams, easy to decide if that was a foul or not?

Eric Olsen: No, it was a competitive. It was competitive for mostly white school district, at least. And so, yeah, there was gamesmanship and trying to make a roster of limited spots and finding kids who you were similarly scoped with so that you could practice well with them. Again, none of this was conscious as a kid to me, but looking back at it, I can attribute reason to it.

Lenore Skenazy: Not just reason. Tell me what you got out of a game, like maybe a game where something went wrong or where you're lost. Tell me what you got out of it.

Eric Olsen: Well, if you want to get me down on the couch, the terror of making my father who was a college basketball player, disappointed in my performance was the chronic fear in my head. But yeah, we grew up in Chicago during Michael Jordan's reign. And so you would watch bowls games on TV the night before, then try to recreate the events that you saw.

Lenore Skenazy: Okay. How did you find these friends and how did you decide if there had been a foul?

Eric Olsen: Hmm. Yeah, we relied on the honor of the non cheating kids and there were usually vigorous debates based on our own perceptions of reality at the time.

Lenore Skenazy: What does a vigorous debate mean? A fight?

Eric Olsen: No. "Foul!" "No, it wasn't foul." "Yes, it was." "No, it wasn't." "Yes, it was." "No, it wasn't." And then whoever was angrier you probably just gave in to that person.

Lenore Skenazy: Interesting. What if they were always fouling and lying? "Oh, it wasn't a foul."

Eric Olsen: ​​I think we would not invite Neil. I mean, I have a guy in my head so let's call him out. We'll leave his last name out.

Lenore Skenazy: Start googling, friends. Eric was in Chicago. Neil was... He was in a white neighborhood.

Eric Olsen: I was voted most likely to become a rapper in my 6th grade class. And that should tell you the demography of that school. Yes, we would not invite Neil back to play the next day. This is more at a school playground during recess type environment.

Lenore Skenazy: So then what ended up happening to Neil? I'm actually curious.

Eric Olsen: Neil became a skater and joined the skate kids. Boy, now you have made me feel terribly guilty that I've encouraged this path. Although skateboarders learned such a great deal of resilience, but he was probably better off that way.

Lenore Skenazy: ​​It's so interesting. I mean, you just talked about a bunch of problems that were solved, right? I mean, you had a chronic cheater, right? You had to get rid of him somehow.

Eric Olsen: In Eric's faulty memory, yes.

Lenore Skenazy: Right? You did. And then he had to do something so his life wasn't horrible. Since he didn't... I guess he wasn't willing to play basketball without cheating, he found something that he could do on his own, which is skating. And then he found another community of people that he fit in with. He's probably the rapper now. He's probably Eminem we're really talking about, right? So all I'm saying is that in free play when there isn't an adult saying like, "That was a foul." I don't even know how basketball's played, but like, "You get a time-out or you get a free pass on whatever it is." What you were doing on a daily almost minute by minute basis was figuring out how to make something happen, keep it happen, keep it happening. And then there's always bad things that do happen. Somebody cheats, somebody falls, you miss the ball, you disappoint your father forever. And then you have to roll with those punches.

And so the difference between free play when kids are figuring things out on their own... And I particularly love free play when it's a bunch of different ages of kids, of mixing it up and figuring things out on their own because there's all these different dynamics. The older kid passing the ball gently to the younger kid because what's the point of wording it over him if he's five and you're 12, right? And then the five year old not crying because he's with you and he doesn't want to look like a baby in front of the 6th graders. And so that's executive function. And if there's an adult there, generally, first of all, everything is segregated by age, which is the only segregation we still think is fantastic, which it isn't.

And then the adult is better at almost everything than the kids. They're certainly better at organizing things and solving problems and jumping in and coming up with a wonderful solution and telling people what to do. Therefore, they think that they've gotten to the point of the game, which is the fun. But mother nature put the fun at the end and made you sort of jump through all these hoops of frustration tolerance and compromise and waiting your turn and holding it together and explaining the rules and getting buy in and voting whether this was fair, all of that before you could even start the game. And those were the lessons that she wanted you to learn. And I would say all those lessons are problem solving.

And so until we get back to kids having some free play mixed stages without an adult organizing every single step of the way, they're going to be missing out on it. I always think it's like we took the wheat germ out of the bread and we gave kids this fluffy white bread, because it's easier to chew and it's more delicious and why not do this? It's like, "Excuse me, missing something. You took out something that was a little chewier or a little harder that turns out to be crucial for fortifying young people."

And so Let Grow recommends that schools do the Let Grow play club. All our materials are free so it's not like I'm sitting here hawking something, although I'm hawing it but it's free, which is keeping the school open before or after school for mixed age free play. There's an adult there, but they don't solve the problems. They don't organize the games. If you come up to them and say, "It was my turn or whatever," The teacher says, "Thank you for letting me know. Gee, thank you for letting me know." Or I heard another teacher who says, "Is this an adult problem or a kid problem? Because if it's an adult problem, we should probably go to the principal." And they go, "No, no, we'll figure it out." Because kids can figure things out, but we keep taking away their opportunities to figure things out. And then we wonder why aren't they problem solvers. That's why.

The positive academic outcomes from unstructured play [24:53]

Eric Olsen: I love that connection between unstructured play and problem solving. In fact, your Let Grow play club recently saw some really fascinating and promising research outcomes about this connection. Can you speak to those?

Lenore Skenazy: So we had two PhD candidates, psychology PhD candidates this year studying Let Grow. One was studying the Let Grow project which we talked a little bit about and I'll talk a little bit more again. Then one was studying the Let Grow Play Club, which is what we were just talking about. Mixed age, no devices, free play before or after school with an adult like a lifeguard, but not like a teacher. Not being like a teacher or coach just standing back. And so the PhD candidate studied the standardized test scores of there were about 79 kids who wanted to be in the electoral play club. They could only let in 30 something. So you had, I'd say, extremely similar demographically kids who were in the club and who were on the wait list.

What she did is she looked at everybody's each individual scores before and after to see how many points each one of them went up. So it's not like who always had the As and who aren't. Yes, it's each individual kid how much they went up. The kids who were in play club had significantly higher math and reading scores than the kids who were on the wait list. And I don't even get that because they had so little play club. They had one hour a week, and it was before school. But I was talking to the professor who was supervising the PhD. And he said when there's a change like that, it's called significant because there isn't something else that explains it. So that's it.

And I'm hoping maybe somebody out there, you math geniuses out there or growing math geniuses, study this some more. Do it at your own school. Start electro play club and just check kid's grades before and after on the standardized tests. These weren't even grades. These were literally standardized tests. So it was all standardized.

How anxious parents can raise free-range kids [27:05]

Eric Olsen: It's really exciting and really interesting. So Lenore, I'm an intellectual believer. Free-Range Kids was one of the very first parenting books I bought and read when my daughter was born. The premise of free-range parenting makes complete sense to me, but my colleague, Jessica and I, were actually talking about this a while back. And I referenced myself as a free-range parent. And she immediately replied, "No, you are not."

Which I immediately realize is also kind of true. I philosophically believe in the need for my daughter to get these independence reps to grow in her autonomy. And yet I run anxious as like you admitted that you sometimes do. And I'm often/always nervous for her safety. Help us parents out who want to reconcile that intellectual belief in free-range parenting with those emotional and constant feelings of protect them, keep them safe, protect them, keep them safe.

Lenore Skenazy: Right. Right. Parents have always been hardwired to protect them and keep them safe. We don't eat our children. We try to raise them. But what's new is all the things that we're considering as unsafe. I mean, we've just added from... If you read Parents Magazine, they had a cover story on the hidden dangers in your home. One of them was the laundry hamper. I mean, because... I don't even want to go in there. It's so stupid. But anyways, the point is that like, it's this natural desire to keep our kids safe, upon which has been super imposed, just a world of things that are 99.999% safe that all the magazines and the parenting books, I got mine, make you scared about. So it's natural to feel you want to protect them. It's unnatural to feel like everything is out to get them, which is how we feel now.

So how do you get over that feeling? I wish you could get over it by talking to me or by reading my book or look in the blog. It turns out you can't. I mean, this is a hard lesson for me to learn. I let my nine year old ride the subway and we were discussing he's 24 now. So it took a long time for me to realize like, just talking about this issue, throwing statistics at people, none of it matters. Telling them about what about the window of opportunity for learning risk. Doesn't matter. The only thing that changes apparent at all is the experience of letting go and seeing their kid do something independently and the joy, the thrill of having that happen. But how do you have that happen if you can never let them go?

So the Let Grow project is a way, it's a project that a school assigns kids. Either one teacher in her classroom or a whole school or a district or whatever. The Science people, they assign kids this thing. "Go home and do something new without your parents." And that is what changes you, because when you see your kid coming back with the milk or they went to a friend's house or they walked home from school by themselves, whatever it is, it's like the Grinch. At the end of the Grinch your heart grows three size bigger instead of going like, "Oh, my kids. He's so... I shouldn't worry, but I'm worried, worried, worried." Instead of that, it's like, "Look at my Bernie. Look at Daisy. She's so great."

And that's because as much as we're hardwired to worry, which I agree we are. We are also hardwired to know, like the reason you have kids... This is depressing. But the reason you have kids is so they'll be around when you're not. Let's just put it bluntly. And until you see them do something without you, all you know is that they're going to be fine because you're there with them. You know? I mean, you haven't had any contrary evidence, but when you see that they're going to be fine without you, instead of feeling like, "Well, I'm nothing," you feel elated. And I've seen it happen over and over again.

There's a psychology professor who's a professor/clinical psychologist who is just starting a study using the Let Grow project. All I heard about so far was the first week, but I have to tell you, this is it. I hate to say that I'm putting all the psychologists out of business because what happens is, he had parents of a 10 year old, they were older parents. They were terrified and they wouldn't let their kid do anything. The kid was getting very anxious too and so they came in for this therapy. They heard, "Oh, you're supposed to let kid do something alone. What do you want to do, kid?" He decided he wanted to walk home from school by himself. "Okay."

The mother was so anxious that she could not go to work that day. She stayed home because she was incapacitated with fear. And then she heard from somebody who saw her kid walking home that he was going the wrong way, but she didn't run out to the street. She just waited. And sure enough, the kid found the right way home. He came home very happy. She was happy. She was proud. The next day he wanted to do it again. And that day she went to work. I mean, that's how quickly it changed. And later that week, this is the amazing thing. He took a train ride. Not a subway ride. A local like a commuter train, five stops. I don't even know how many miles that is, but that's five stops on a commuter train by himself, a kid who was terrified before.

And so, as deep as the fear feels, it's not. I mean, I did a television show. You can look up World's Worst Mom. It's on YouTube now where I went to really very anxious parents' homes and sat with them while the kid walked to school or rode his bike or went on an overnight or whatever it was. And 12 of the families changed to the point where like I collected their letters afterwards when the cameras weren't there. "Dear, Lenore, now he's going to bike camp. He's sleeping..." It was so amazing to me who's not a psychologist to see how quickly something that seemed deeply ingrained and innate changes.

Eric Olsen: Maybe leave us with some next steps there. It feels like that parent taking that baby step or seeing that first step has a continence change for them. So for parents who are listening, they're looking to give their kids more independence reps, they want to expand their kids' freedom in order to expand their problem solving, what are some of those next step baby steps?

Lenore Skenazy: Well, I'm going to be a broken record here. "What's a record?" Nevermind. But the point is that like, it's so hard to be the only person sending your kid out, to wait at the bus stop, to walk to soccer, to go to your math camp. And so I really recommend if you can't get your school to do it... The materials are free and it's good for kids. There's a lot of anxiety around now so I would recommend maybe bringing some of these ideas to your school. All the stuff is at Let Grow. But if you can't get a school to do it, or if you're in a pod or whatever, try to get a couple of other parents on board with you to try this.

And you could do something as simple as Saturday morning three of your parents are going to go sit at Starbucks and your kids are going to go further down the mall and then come back to you. Just something that renormalizes it or normalizes it for you and for some other parents at once so you're not the crazy parent and that you have a little coterie beginning this.

One of my ideas that is so old fashioned is have a party and say the kids have to stay outside and the adults are going to be inside. I mean, that's what parties used to be. And they were more fun for both generations, right? Like way more fun. So if you can't do that, everybody's on their laptops for work. Bring your laptop over to your friend's house. Lock the kids outside for half an hour, give them a watch. They have to stay out for half an hour. And you two do your work for half an hour, a blessed half hour of quiet while the kids are in the backyard. You just have to get used to them not coming in and saying, "Mom, I'm thirsty" or, "Mom, what should I do now?" Or, "Mom, I'm bored." Or maybe dad. "What should I do? This thing got caught in the tree. I can't figure out how to open this package." They can figure it all out.

There are kids who are three years old using machetes. There's four year olds hunting, giant plate-sized tarantulas for snacks because their parents are busy skinning antelopes. They're probably not even in the same ecosystem. But anyways, the point is, actually if you look up giant plate-sized tarantula snacks, which I did on YouTube, there's an amazing video of these kids who look like they're basically four to eight years old getting these plate-sized tarantulas, getting them to come out of their little tarantula home and get killed. And then they have to make a fire because they don't want to eat them raw, because you'll die. And then they have to take them out of the fire, just boiling hot. And somehow they manage to do all that without saying, "Mom, do you have a snack? Mom, I can't reach the crackers."

It's nice to see your kids be competent and problem solving not just math problems, but everyday problems on their own. It gives your kids this boost that will help them in every sphere, presumably as well in math and on tests because they're less anxious. They're more confident in being a human in the world as opposed to a precious Ming vase being taken from place to place.

Enroll in AoPS Academy Math and Language Arts Summer Camps [36:00]

Eric Olsen: Hmm, good line. Kids can do hard things. And that's why so many families are choosing AoPS Academy's math and language arts camps for their young math beasts and grammar geeks this summer. And that's why so many families are choosing AoPS Academy's math and language arts summer camps for their young math beasts and grammar geeks. Whether you're near our 12 physical learning centers across the country, or want to learn online from our AoPS Academy: Virtual Ccampus, our engaging summer camps are high rigor, but low pressure. The perfect mental boost to help your student avoid the summer slide while having a whole lot of fun. Visit AoPS Summer Math & Language Arts Camps today to learn more and secure your student’s spot.

Lenore Skenazy Rapid Fire [37:01]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Lenore, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Lenore Skenazy: More free play, mixed age. That's more free... That's a five word response.

Eric Olsen: That's rapid. That is rapid fire.

Lenore Skenazy: That's problem solving. That's ace problem solving, right? Problem solving, AP problem solving. Thank you.

Eric Olsen: I'll give you some course credit after this. If you could go back and give your kid self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Lenore Skenazy: On the educational journey? I guess I don't even know. I would say don't worry so much about grades, but I don't know if I, as a kid self, would've listened. I did worry about grades. Maybe, as it turns out, there's more to life than college.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Lenore Skenazy: I think there's going to be more... I mean, with the surge in general and this whole idea that kids have gotten so anxious, there's going to be way more freedom for kids because a very pressured, standardized education is not working for a lot of kids and parents are very aware of that now.

Eric Olsen: And what’s your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers? 

Lenore Skenazy: Think about something that went wrong when you were a kid and the wacky or clever way that you solved it and how proud you were or how ashamed you were, but you lived with it anyway. And just realize your kids are just as smart as you even about those other... They're probably smarter than you about math. Let's face it. That's who’s listening to this podcast, but they're just as smart as you about everything else. Give them a chance to wow you.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers and we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Lenore, thanks so much for joining us today.

Lenore Skenazy: Thank you, Eric.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [38:52]

Eric Olsen: Whew, Lenore really put me on the hot seat today. Sorry, Neil. And I'm really sorry, Neil. But I really loved this conversation because this topic is something I struggle with a lot. I want my daughter to be independent and I want my daughter to be safe. And I love Lenore's language of seeing both sides of this trade off because I could chain my daughter to the wall and avoid risk all together, but there's obviously a loss there too. So maybe there are some times I think I'm acting ways to make my kids slightly safer, but I probably need to be honest and understand that I might to be making them less independent too. I think thinking about that trade off is going to be really helpful for me as I go into this next week. And may you continue your journey alongside us, raising the great problem solvers of the next generation. See you next week.

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