Teaching grit? It sounds oxymoronic to me.”
Grit, resilience, character...whatever you want to call it, Lenore Skenazy thinks our children don’t have enough of it these days. But where she differs from many in education – and former education secretaries – is her promotion of the idea that children have to develop the ability to bounce back from negative experiences by themselves, rather than be “taught” that ability.
“It’s almost hubris on our part that [we say] ‘We can do this better than you, we’re gonna tell you how to do it.’ How do you learn? ‘I can fall in love better than you, I’ll fall in love with this girl for you?’” she asks. “You get resilience by normal life. You get lost, you have to find your way back. You don’t hit the home run, you get another chance. If you just give kids a little free time, they develop this on their own, you know?”
It’s an idea she’s tried out in practice. Back in 2008, Skenazy wrote a blog about leaving her son, then 9 years old, at Bloomingdale’s in New York – at his request – so that he could get back home by himself. It was a task he completed without incident or trauma.
“He was really proud that he had done something on his own. He felt a little older, he looked a little older,” Skenazy recalls.
But when she wrote about this experience for a column in the New York Sun, few shared that pride – the resulting fallout saw her dubbed “America’s worst mom”.
She admits to being baffled by the reaction.
“I want them [Skenazy has two sons] to live long and prosper, I want them to live to a ripe old age and I do care about that. And so we used car seats and seat belts – and when they played games they had mouth guards and helmets. But I did trust them to be part of the world, and to make their way. And if they got lost, I thought that was OK, too.”
Nearly 10 years on, Skenazy has become a crusader for what she calls “Free Range Kids”, an attempt to work against a society that has become overly obsessed with safety. She hopes that schools will take up her cause by getting children involved in the “Let Grow” project, where children are invited to do one thing that they feel ready to do that, for whatever reason, they haven’t done yet.
“It could be walking the dog, making dinner, going to pick up something for your little brother at the store,” she explains. “It’s just anything that’s independent that I think we would’ve done without a second thought when we were younger.”
Seven schools in the US state of Long Island were so taken with this idea that they have set it as a weekly task for their students.
“The transformation is so weirdly gigantic on the part of the kid, but more important in a way on the part of the parent,” Skenazy says. “When the kid comes back through the door and they brought the bread for dinner, it’s like they came back from the new world. ‘Guess what. There’s a place over there, I’m gonna call it America!’”
The benefit of this scheme, Skenazy says, is that it enables schools to play an active role in helping children to develop resilience without the school needing to dedicate any classroom time or cash to the effort – a stark contrast to the pricey and time-consuming “character education” interventions on offer to schools. And, she says, giving children time to get out of “student mode” can help them sow the seeds for success in later life.
A period of 'free play'
As an example, she cites a conversation she once had with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in which she asked him what he enjoyed doing when he was a child. After coaxing him beyond his original answer (“Nothing… I played?”), he had a very specific memory about growing up in Florida.
“He said, ‘Come to think about it, what I would do is walk along the sidewalk and pick up the fallen fruit, the oranges and lemons. I would put it in my little red wagon, and I would pull it along, and sell it.’*
“And I was like, ‘It’s almost like you were a middle man selling other people’s stuff that you were dragging around the neighbourhood. Is that what you’re telling me?’”
Another way of allowing children to have these sorts of experiences, Skenazy suggests, is for schools to arrange a period of “free play”, preferably after hours, where children can have unstructured recreational time within school grounds with an adult “somewhere on the premises, who can swoop in if there’s blood”.
“Kids are capable of [dealing with] the scraped knee but also of dealing with everyday frustrations. I’m not talking about physical bullying or persistent bullying: I’m talking about the everyday, give and take, Sturm und Drang of making a game work or playing out on the playground. We need to believe that kids are more capable than our society keeps telling us they are.”
A trial of free play, at another Long Island school, seems to have gone well. “The principal of the school, she said: ‘This is so fantastic.’ It was like she couldn’t believe it. Then the superintendent wrote back and said: ‘This is a game changer.’ And in a way it is, ’cause now they make up their own games.”
Skenazy likens society’s instinctive negative reaction to opening children up to the possibility of risk to the story of King Midas – who was given the opportunity to have everything he touch turn to gold.
“King Midas said, ‘That sounds great.’ The guy offering the deal said, ‘Well, think about it twice before you say yes. Everything you touch will turn to gold.’ He’s like, ‘No no, I want that. I can’t wait.’ And so he gets it and obviously, it’s horrible. He touches his children, they turn to gold. It’s a disaster.
“I think we’re that way with safety. ‘We are gonna make the world really safe.’ ‘OK great, we could make it perfectly safe.’ ‘That’s even better.’
“It’s like, think about it. Do you want things so safe that nothing ever happens? Nothing bad, not even a bruised knee?”
The result, she says, is that children don’t know how to deal with challenges when they reach the less-cosseted world of higher education or the workplace. This lack of resilience is also, she feels, contributing to the rise in mental health issues being reported among young people.
Her message to teachers is to fight for change: the system is simply not set up to enable children to take those risks. But she says that we must force it to adapt, not so we can put children in danger, but to help them live happy lives. And that includes not only what we let them do outside of the classroom, but also how we teach them inside it, too.
“We keep thinking that we can do something for them,” she says. “First, we have to make them geniuses, now, we have to give them grit. You just have to stand back a little more. Why do we think that kids need so much more structure and supervision, two things that we would’ve hated as kids?”
Ultimately, she says, if we don’t change, we are denying a child’s basic rights.
“I think freedom makes people happy,” she says. “And that’s what we’ve taken out of our kids’ lives.”
*Amazon was contacted to confirm this story but no reply was received before going to press.
Sarah Cunnane is deputy head of editorial content curation at Tes. She tweets @Sarah_Cunnane