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Do we expect too little of our children?

On the days when Jake (10) and Fiona (7) get out of school at the same time, Jake is supposed to bring Fiona home. This just makes sense to me. There’s absolutely no reason for me to walk to the school and get Fiona when her brother is already there. This routine went fine until last week, when Jake forgot.


He was on the couch taking his shoes off, expecting me to go out and correct his mistake, when I ordered him to go get her.

This morning, the last thing I said to him was to remember to bring his sister home. I even gave him a dollar to buy her an icee on the way. So when he came home without her again I was pissed. I told him to run, and apologize to her all the way home.

While he was on his way back to the school, I got a call from my next door neighbor, Ann, that she had Fiona with her. She’d picked her up when she got her own kids. I called the school and told them Jake would be looking for his sister, and to send him home.

When Ann dropped Fiona off, I casually mentioned that Jake had forgotten twice in a row, and Ann said “Well, maybe it’s too much for him.” I thought for a second, smiled, and said “No it isn’t.” And it’s not. The fact that he messed it up doesn’t mean it’s too much, it means he needs to work harder at it.

This is not much different than when he forgets a textbook. Sure, I hate to burden the school with Fiona for an extra twenty minutes while we sort this out, but Jake has to learn how to handle these things. If we have to work on a strategy to help him remember, we will, but taking the responsibility away from him would be the easy way out.

It makes me sad how little we trust our kids these days. I came across this excerpt on Free Range Kids, one of my favorite websites. It was from a checklist of milestones, printed in 1979, to help you figure out if your child was ready for first grade. From riding a bike without training wheels to knowing left from right, it’s pretty standard stuff, until you get to number eight:

8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly free-range parent, and I definitely didn’t let my kids roam around the neighborhood alone at six years old. But the fact that many ten-year-olds I know can’t go to the store by themselves or to the playground without an adult makes me really sad.

I blame Nancy Grace. I blame all of the news channels. I blame the internet. There is so much space to fill, and news items about children being harmed are likely to get noticed, so they are all covered to such an extent that you would think children are being snatched off of every street corner all the time, that if you so much as turn your back your child will be gone. Tragedies do happen, but they really are rare. Getting struck by lightening rare. But you wouldn’t know it from the news.

Children don’t grow up in giant jumps. Kids don’t suddenly gain the ability to be responsible when they go off to college. They grow up gradually, as we release our grips on them little by little, letting them see what they can do. Did I know how to handle every eventuality when my parents started leaving me home alone with my little sisters? Of course not. You can’t prepare a child for every situation. But what you can do is teach them how to think for themselves, how to figure things out.

And when they screw up, they’ll learn from that too. When Jake got home today (the second time) he was near tears. I don’t know if he was more mad at himself for forgetting or more scared of getting a punishment, but the point is, he knew he screwed up. And that feeling will hopefully stay with him next time he has to remember something. And then when he doesn’t screw it up, he gets to feel another thing: pride.

Originally posted on Selfish Mom. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has a Compensation Level of 0. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information.

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10 Responses to “Do we expect too little of our children?”

  1. Marinka on November 4th, 2011 5:09 pm

    I think that as parents we have to trust our gut. If you know that Jake is ready to take on the responsibility of walking his sister home, then of course he should go back to pick her up.

    But I am not a free range parent, and I sort of shudder at the concept.

    My gut tells me that my 13 year old is not ready to take the subway alone. Not because she is not responsible, but because the subway is crazy. And scary. And frankly I think that no one under 40 should be taking it.

    It is a scary world out there– not because Nancy Grace says so, but because it is. (This should be read as followed by a foot stomp.)
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    Amy Reply:

    @Marinka: I completely agree that you have to look at each child individually – Jake was doing things at seven that Fiona just isn’t ready for yet (poor girl has zero sense of direction – I’m pretty sure she’d get lost on the five block walk to school). But I think most parents don’t give their kids enough credit. And I think more often we’re driven by fear of what the world will think than by what we feel is right.

  2. The Butcher on November 4th, 2011 5:17 pm

    Could not agree with you more. In elementary school I used to walk to the mall a mile and a half away, the public library about the same distance, and school more than a mile away. I am not sure I’d have let my kids do the things that I did routinely. Letting them learn from small, managable mistakes early is like a vaccine against bigger mistakes later.
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    Amy Reply:

    @The Butcher: That’s such a GREAT way of putting it: a vaccine against bigger mistakes later. Love it.

  3. Ann on November 4th, 2011 5:51 pm

    Hmmm… except when he forgets his textbook… it does not cry. You’re right … he has to be more responsible… just hard to see Fiona sad.
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    Amy Reply:

    @Ann: He cries about the textbook if he thinks he’s getting a punishment. :-)

    Fiona told me she was crying because she knew that if Jake didn’t bring her home she wouldn’t get an icee!

    But regardless, thank you for bringing her home.

  4. Heiddi on November 5th, 2011 6:48 pm

    Hi Amy,

    I agree with @Marinka’s comment about knowing one’s own child and his or her capabilities. Kiddo’s been asking for a few months now about walking to school on his own. It’s a 3 minute walk, but kiddo’s easily distracted. I told him he could start next year. And I even started to walk most of the way with him and then let him cross the street to the school. He’s in eyesight the whole time. I think that parents know how safe the community is and should let kids try things as they feel their kids can do. I know I was very different at 10, so I’ll be waiting a bit. But I know I’ll have to let go and trust him – and shake in my boots the whole time. Lol Great post!

  5. Toni on November 6th, 2011 7:36 am

    Great post. I feel bad for kids today; I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom I had to roam at that age. It taught me a lot about how to take care of myself.
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  6. the mama bird diaries on November 6th, 2011 8:57 pm

    Great post Amy. I think the nice thing about technology today is that we can give our kids some freedom and still be able to reach them. That said, I have a 7 year-old who I would not send out alone.
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    Amy Reply:

    @the mama bird diaries: Same here. Jake, ever since the first time I had to leave him home alone (for literally five minutes while I moved the car a block and he was too sick to go outside), has been asking for more responsibility. Fiona’s just not ready, though, and doesn’t seem to care. I’m hoping that next year – when they’re not at the same school and she’s not following him around – she’ll get a taste of independence and want more.