Kids need free time, but they also need attention, boundaries and structure.
When I was a kid, we had Evel Knievel.
If you're too young to remember, Knievel was a motorcycle stuntman who liked to jump over stuff: cars, buses, canyons (although he didn't make that one). In fact, he didn't make a lot of them, which is why he made the Guinness Book of Records for broken bones.
I loved Knievel, my friends loved him, and we copied what he did. I built a wooden ramp in front of my house and tried to jump boxes and skateboards on my bicycle. I popped wheelies that bordered on toppling over. I hurtled down the side of an overpass under construction because it had a natural dirt ramp at the bottom, which sent me sailing over railroad tracks into a park. And my parents were nowhere to be found.
Call me an adventurous kid. Call me a student of life. Call me stupid.
I grew up in the 1970s, when parents didn't (or couldn't) entertain us every minute. We fended for ourselves a lot. We learned to play, fight, resolve arguments and develop executive functioning skills that serve us well as adults. As numerous studies show, that's exactly what kids need: the chance for free play in order to discover things about themselves, their relationships and how the world works. Many kids have lost that today as they go from soccer practice to dance class to homework club.
The downside is that approach also allowed me to jump things on my bike.
Kids need free time, but they also need attention, boundaries and structure. Today's parents should get credit for creating memories, for being present with their kids and for standing up when necessary to protect them—and for never, ever letting them jump over stuff on a bicycle.
But parents are caught in a cultural double-bind. If kids have too much freedom, people say they're being neglected. If moms and dads are involved in every detail, they're accused of being helicopter parents. You're judged if you do and judged if you don't. Who knows what to do?
Well, you probably do. Nobody knows your kids better than you. Nobody knows your family better than you. There will be times when you know it's important to jump in and times when you know to back away. The key is balance: a little bit of one approach, a little bit of the other.
The first step in trusting that balance is asking why you parent the way you do. If you try to prevent your kids from experiencing any failures, they don't develop needed skills, so they need more free-range time and to feel consequences of their choices. On the other hand, if you don't know much about what's going on or don't feel connected to the kids, it's probably time to butt into their business.
That balance lets kids know you're looking out for them while not getting in the way. That's the parenting sweet spot.
Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.