MAUGHAN: “What is wrong with you guys?”
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: should kids be more independent?
DUCKWORTH: We are freaking out because a mom sends their kids to Macy’s on the subway when they’re in middle school?!
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Mike, there’s a question that doesn’t come from a listener. It comes from me.
MAUGHAN: Okay, I like it.
DUCKWORTH: In the simplest possible terms: Should we give children more independence than we do these days?
MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, I love this question.
DUCKWORTH: Right? I’ve been watching this Japanese reality show called Old Enough! Have you ever seen it?
MAUGHAN: I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard about it from a friend who is trying to model raising his children partly based on this show.
DUCKWORTH: Based on Old Enough!? That’s intriguing. Highly recommend seeing at least one complete episode. The first episode that I saw — some friend was practically evangelical about like, “You have to see Old Enough!” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And like, “No, you have to watch Old Enough!” I was like, “Okay!”
MAUGHAN: I do love a recommendation like that, by the way.
DUCKWORTH: I do too. I do.
MAUGHAN: Those are kind of the only ones I take.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, evangelical recommendations are usually pretty good, too, right? Like, there’s something behind the passion. So Jason and I whip out the remote control, we pull up Netflix, and we find Old Enough!, and I think this reality show in Japan — I don’t know, these episodes feel kind of vintage, so I don’t know whether it’s still ongoing. But the premise of the show is that they find a family with a really little kid. I think the first episode I saw, oh my gosh, this kid wasn’t three. I think they were two plus, but not three.
MAUGHAN: Okay so walk at one, talk at two. So they’re barely talking.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, they’re barely anything. They’re like pint sized. And the premise of the show is that the little son or daughter is given a task by the parents. And it could be, for example — like the first episode that I saw, this little boy was given the task of going to the supermarket and buying, you know, a reasonably long list of heavy items, and then coming home. The parents very clearly explained the task to this kid. And, you know, like all little kids, they’re super excited for the responsibility. And then I’m just watching the show with Jason on the couch, and our jaws were on the floor. This little boy is given a little yellow flag —
MAUGHAN: What’s the yellow flag?
DUCKWORTH: You know what the yellow flag was? It’s cause when they have to cross the highway —
MAUGHAN: A highway?!
DUCKWORTH: The highway! They have to, like, wave the little yellow flag so that the 18-wheelers and the cars have a little bit better visibility that they might know to stop. And then when they stop, he crosses the highway. And I don’t know whether he was on the shoulder — I don’t recall it being a proper sidewalk — but like, this little kid walked half a mile by themselves to the grocery store, and then couldn’t even reach things, like, had to ask for help. And then does the whole thing in reverse. I’ve subsequently watched many episodes of Old Enough! and the tasks are themselves really hard. And I think the thing that’s so startling about watching this reality show is they feel incredibly risky.
MAUGHAN: It feels a little like you’re watching Alex Honnold —
DUCKWORTH: Yes! Alex Honnold climb El Capitan without ropes. That is what it feels like.
MAUGHAN: This is so interesting. So I’m driving with this guy I don’t know super well, his name’s Jeff, and he is telling me that he’s been watching this show. And he and his wife live across the street from a bodega. So it’s nothing to the extent of what you’re talking about. But they said they would send their three or four-year-old daughter and they would write a note that would say, “Hi, my parents know I’m here. They’re watching from across the street, dah, dah, dah.” So that no one’s going to go call C.P.S. And they would send their daughter to cross the street at a crosswalk, go into the bodega, buy a few items, and come home. But they wanted to teach this independence, this ability to go out and do these things, because they were inspired by the show and said, “Hey, we want to do this too.”
DUCKWORTH: Honestly, I think what some parents — including Jason and me, honestly — we feel like kids aren’t as independent today as when we were growing up, and we think it’s a problem. So, I was totally on board — I’m sure it was, like, confirmation bias — when this article came out from the Journal of Pediatrics, which is a peer-reviewed scientific publication. So it’s not just the op-ed of Angela and Jason. The title is “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-Being: Summary of the Evidence.”
MAUGHAN: Wait, so mental well-being goes beyond mental health?
DUCKWORTH: I think they pretty much mean mental health. It’s actually an incredibly — um, I don’t want to say opinionated in a bad way, but it’s a bold paper.
MAUGHAN: So they’re basically saying: because kids aren’t independent anymore, their mental health is declining.
DUCKWORTH: Pretty much. That is the bold conclusion of the authors. By the way, none of them are pediatricians. They’re psychologists and anthropologists. So they study the human mind and culture.
MAUGHAN: I like that perspective.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know. It’s like a nice combo, right? So let me tell you a little bit about what they pieced together because it’s a little bit of a patchwork quilt. First they say that there is a crazy increase in mental disorders among children and teenagers.
MAUGHAN: I think that’s like — everyone would be like, “Uh huh.” My mind initially goes immediately —
DUCKWORTH: Because of the pandemic?
MAUGHAN: Well, to the pandemic and social media. If you had asked me, “Why is mental health declining among children?” The two things I would have gone to are not this idea of independence, but rather social media and the pandemic.
DUCKWORTH: I think a lot of people think that there’s a mental health crisis because of and since the pandemic, but I think it’s actually important to know that increases in anxiety and depression among young people far preceded the pandemic. Some people would say that there is a decades-long trend toward increases in mental health struggles among young people. And that is, of course, more than the couple of years that have passed since the worst part of the pandemic and the pandemic itself. And many people would argue that it can’t just be social media because social media came on the scene in force more recently than the beginning of this trend. And actually these three people — Peter Gray, David Lancy, and David Bjorklund — who boldly state that not having enough independence as a kid could be a causal influence on your mental health, I think they would say, “No, the trend matches kids not having enough autonomy.”
MAUGHAN: You know what’s interesting? There are some people who hypothesize that it’s because so many of the people who are parents now were raised with parents not being involved enough, that their reaction is to be way too involved now, and that’s leading to some of this lack of independence in children.
DUCKWORTH: One important thing that you just said is that parents are actually spending more time with their kids these days than they used to. And I mean that historically. So like 150 years ago, people spent less time with their kids. That’s partly because they were just surviving, right? Parents didn’t have all this time to hang out with their kids. These days also people are having way fewer kids. Like, super way fewer kids.
MAUGHAN: Oh, of course, of course.
DUCKWORTH: So then each kid gets so much time.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, which can be good or smothering. And it sounds like this article is going to tell us we’ve moved too far towards smothering.
DUCKWORTH: Look, I, like I said, was already biased to completely agree with the conclusions of this report, but I will give you my enthusiastic summary of what they said. So what these researchers do is they first document or just summarize what, again, is a little bit like “no duh” at this point, that there is a rise in mental disorders among young people. It far precedes the pandemic and it really precedes the real coming on the scene of social media. They then say that in the research that’s been done, there’s also been a clear decline in autonomy in kids. Like a kid being allowed to cross the street and go to the bodega and buy something. Or I’ll use a personal example: When we were young parents and Amanda and Lucy were, um — I’m trying to think how old it was that we let them do this. Possibly even preschool, but certainly by kindergarten and first grade — we lived across the street and down the block from a great playground, Narberth playground, one of the greatest playgrounds in the world. It was amazing. It had like real sand. No hyperbole! It had all that old-fashioned playground equipment that they don’t put in playgrounds anymore because like —
MAUGHAN: I was going to say, it had a metal slide that when you got on it, you burned your legs.
DUCKWORTH: I think it did, and it had all the other things like that. But Jason and I let Amanda and Lucy walk down the block by themselves, there was a big stop sign, so it wasn’t a highway like in Old Enough!, but it was a street, there were cars, we taught them to look both ways, to carefully cross the street, and then walk into the playground. And then when they were done, do it all backwards, right? And, I’m not saying they did that every day. I’m not saying we never went with them. I’m not saying we didn’t have an au pair who often went with them. But as early as we could stomach it, we wanted them to go to the playground and to come back by themselves. And what this research is saying is that that is bucking the trend. That the trend is toward more structured time. You know, instead of going out and playing ball in the street, let’s sign you up for Little League and I’m going to drive you there and I’m going to drive you back, like, very supervised, structured, parent and adult-driven time.
MAUGHAN: I come from a family of six kids. And—
DUCKWORTH: Definitely bucking the trend.
MAUGHAN: Bucking the trend even back then. And my mother would claim, and accurately so, that she was a chauffeur for 20 years of her life. But I remember one time when she was like, “Hey, I need you to take the bus to tennis lessons.” And I was full panic. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know that there was an actual bus stop, so as we’re driving by the place I, like, pull down on the cord to tell it to stop and he keeps driving, not even that far, and I like run up to bus driver and I was like, “Hey, I pulled the cord. I need to stop back there.” And he’s like, “Hey, kid, there are these bus stops. It’s going to stop at the stop. And then you walk back there.” And it was good for — like, I think the —
DUCKWORTH: You still remember that.
MAUGHAN: Oh, it was so ingrained in my memory because it was such a panic-inducing moment, but once you do it once, then you get it. But I can literally picture the street, everything, because it felt like this major moment in my life.
DUCKWORTH: It was a major moment in your life! And I — I remember when Jason and I made decisions like that, that other parents of kids of that age thought we were crazy. But, I generally believe the principle of letting your kids cross the street as early as they can cross the street. I think that’s an important parenting philosophy.
MAUGHAN: So many times I think the motivation for not doing this stuff is that we’re obviously — and in many ways, justifiably — afraid of what could happen, right? You can get hit by a car. There’s strangers who have ill intent, et cetera, et cetera. But the data is pretty interesting. Very, very few — it’s about 1 percent, I think — of abductions happen from just like a random stranger.
DUCKWORTH: Is that right? One percent of kids being abducted — like every parent’s nightmare. Like, you’re at Walmart and then your kid wanders down an aisle and then you’re like “Oh my gosh, where are you?” And then a stranger takes them. That’s like one out of a hundred?
MAUGHAN: So let me read this. Reuters, back in 2019, published an article saying “kidnapped children make headlines, but abduction is rare in the U.S.” And in fact is continually dropping that a child is abducted by a complete stranger. I actually misquoted. It’s 0.1 percent.
DUCKWORTH: Whoa, like one in a thousand! Oh, that makes me feel so much better.
MAUGHAN: It’s obviously an unbelievable tragedy anytime it happens, but this stereotypical kidnapping where a kid is just taken in Walmart or walking home is incredibly, incredibly rare. Point-one percent. In fact, there has never been a safer time to be a child. And so I think sometimes, we convince ourselves because something is a really big deal or gets a lot of news that it happens all the time. And I think that’s what’s led to people maybe pulling back from doing some of these things.
DUCKWORTH: Economists and behavioral economists would say that, yeah, there’s this availability bias. You read a story or you watch on television about one infinitely terrible thing and then it takes up this larger importance in your head than it should. And, again, not to say that it’s not infinitely terrible, but then you’re like, “Oh, I can easily bring to mind — it’s, like, really available to me — this really salient story.” And then you use that as a heuristic to make guesses about how likely it is to happen in your immediate future and you get it wrong.
MAUGHAN: I think also it’s because parents, maybe they’re overprotective of their own kids and therefore may be overly critical of people who do apply this. Have you heard of the term “free-range parenting?”
DUCKWORTH: I have heard of that term. Is it the phrase that was invented by this one mom in New York City?
MAUGHAN: Oh, I don’t know.
DUCKWORTH: Because years ago — and I can’t remember how I found out about this mom in New York City and I can’t remember the context, but she was talking about how she sent her son on an hour-long — I don’t know, it was like, go to Macy’s and buy — it was basically the equivalent of Old Enough! And by the way, note that in Old Enough!, these kids in Japan are two and three.
MAUGHAN: Carrying home gallons of milk. That’s what I’m picturing.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. You know, like 10 pounds of beef bones or something, right? And we are freaking out because a mom sends their kids to Macy’s on the subway when they’re in middle school?! Like, I do kind of wonder whether we’re like bubble wrapping our kids?
MAUGHAN: What I think is fascinating in this outgrowth is, because there are people like you who believe that maybe we’re bubble wrapping kids, this idea of free-range parenting — I always laugh when I say it because when you go buy eggs at the grocery store, there’s like “free-range chickens.” But Utah, where I live, was the first state in the country to pass a law protecting what’s called “free-range parenting.”
DUCKWORTH: What? I got to get my list of reasons I want to move to Utah out. Wait, hold on. I’m putting it down. All right, go.
MAUGHAN: Well, first of all, we consider you an honorary Utahn as is.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’m an honorary Utah-ian.
MAUGHAN: Come on. Now you’re not anymore. You just ruined that.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, is that a thing? Utah-ian?
MAUGHAN: No, just Utahn. U-T-A-H-N. Utahn.
DUCKWORTH: Oh it’s a thing. All right, Utahn. I’m adding that to my list of things that I want to say when I get to Utah. All right. Go on. What’s the law say?
MAUGHAN: So this free-range parenting law defines what neglect is not. So basically that you can let your kids play or walk to and from the park, all the examples that you’re using, and Child Protective Services can’t be called. Because if I want to parent my children that way and have this kind of Old Enough! concept, you know, there are maybe aggressive people who are going to say like, “Hey, you need to get Child Protective Services called on you.” And so that’s where these free-range parenting laws are coming up to say, “Wait a minute. You can parent how you want, but I’m going to be able to parent how I want, which is not neglect. This is actually probably the most healthy thing I can do, because otherwise” — like you were saying before, there’s all these mental health issues. There are way more problems that come up by bubble wrapping kids than by letting someone walk to a park.
DUCKWORTH: I think there’s something so judgy inherently — like, I remember thinking Jason and I got it exactly right. And, wherever you are, you are going to judge the people who are not where you are so harshly. And we did! We were like, “Oh, those parents are too protective, and those parents are not protective enough, but we’re just right.” You know, Mike, this conversation is making me wonder how our listeners think about independence in childhood. We want to know how much autonomy you think is safe and appropriate in this day and age. Record a voice memo in a quiet place. Make sure your mouth is close to the phone and email us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like the show and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend. You can also spread the word on social media, or leave a review in your favorite podcast app.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela and Mike discuss how to give kids more independence.
MAUGHAN: I actually love the idea of living in a society like that.
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about how much independence parents should give their kids.
DUCKWORTH: You know, Mike, in that journal article that I suggested to you, one of the studies they talk about really would, I think, give some confidence to these legislators in Utah. It’s an international study. There’s, I think, 16 different countries, none of which are the United States. I’m not exactly sure where the sample came from. But what the researchers did is they tried to quantify how much freedom kids have to just travel around in their neighborhood or the city, if that’s where they live, without an adult. And so they had these surveys for parents about different things that they do or don’t let their kids do. And what they find is that, first of all, across the board in these different countries, they’re always finding that parents put limits — and actually, you know, reasonably stringent limits relative to historical standards. But secondly: that some countries are a lot more liberal than others in terms of what parents let their kids do. And since you don’t know the sample of countries, I’m not even going to make you guess which country —
MAUGHAN: I was going to guess the Nordics.
DUCKWORTH: Okay! I was going to say, that’s unfair, but I asked Jason this question, and I didn’t tell him either. And he was like, “Scandinavia?” And guess what? Yes, you are both right. Bingo. Okay, wait. How did you guys know that? Finland is, by the way, number one. But how did you guess this area of the world?
MAUGHAN: My only clue is that — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the stories — they always talk about, in the Nordic countries, they’ll wrap their kids up in the winter and have them sleep outside.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah, they do. They actually do.
MAUGHAN: And when they go into restaurants — I don’t even know how ubiquitous this is or if these are just stories — but if you go into restaurants, they’ll often leave their baby sleeping outside because it’s quiet and calmer out there than in the restaurant, and it’s just kind of this unspoken rule that that’s what you do. In fact — I, I’m trying to remember, there’s a story of a woman from, I want to say Denmark, who did that in New York City and was arrested. And she was like, “What is wrong with you guys? That’s what we do in Denmark all the time.”
DUCKWORTH: Which would be, to be clear, a bridge too far for the Duckworth family. Like, we did not leave our sleeping children on the sidewalk. But this actually brings up, I think, one of the really interesting questions, which is that maybe you can do these things if you live in Finland, right? Incredibly low crime rate, homogenous, high-trust society. When I went to Denmark — so I think it’s really not Finland in particular, but maybe this region of the world — I went to Denmark with Amanda and Lucy and Jason and our extended family, actually, a few years ago. And we were just bamboozled by the fact that people leave their bikes, with all of their personal belongings in the baskets of their bikes, unlocked and unguarded when they go into a store or have lunch at a restaurant. I mean, they leave them out for hours. And can you imagine how quickly your stuff would get stolen if you left a bike and, like, all of your stuff in the basket in the United States?
MAUGHAN: I know it’s so Pollyanna of me, but I actually love the idea of living in a society like that. Like, how beautiful is that?
DUCKWORTH: You know, nobody really for sure knows how to raise independent kids and get all these choices right. But one of the intriguing possibilities is that when you look at countries where there’s actually a lot of intense parenting at the very beginning of life when kids are really little. There’s something called serve-and-return parenting.
MAUGHAN: Is that a tennis analogy?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it’s something that doesn’t exactly work with me because I’ve never played tennis or like volleyed a ball even once, I think. But, you know, the idea in serve-and-return parenting is that when your kids are really little, the best kind of parenting is extremely responsive — even coddling, you could argue, like, lots of time, lots of skin contact. But then that builds in a kind of resilience, a kind of confidence, a kind of, like, agency. Like if you have a really secure attachment, then you paradoxically are the kid that moves away from their parent and explores things that are a little risky. And so the idea is that maybe really early in life, what we got to do is coddle, coddle, coddle, like really responsive, but then as soon as you can, allow that security to do what it’s supposed to do developmentally. I mean, the authors of that paper I mentioned, they were like, “It is inborn in kids to explore, to take risks, to do stupid shit and like jump off things and —” you know what I mean? And we are smothering that instinct because we’re kind of treating our older kids the way you should only really treat a baby.
MAUGHAN: I guess the question is — and is there research on this that says when you shift from the quote unquote “coddling stage” to the free-range stage? I know different for every child, that’s a dumb generalization, but is there a —
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, so I think if you live anywhere but Scandinavia — or Germany. I think Germany was number two. So like, if you live in certain cultures, maybe everybody’s kind of agreeing about a certain level of autonomy that doesn’t exist in the United States. But if you live in the United States, I think you might want to just question whether you’re being overprotective. I know you want a specific age, but I will say the most specific advice I could find from these authors — you know, it was a reasonably highly publicized research report because it’s bold, like I said. And one of the authors, David Bjorklund, said this: “It’s hard to fight against the whole community. But there are little things. Letting children handle some of their own difficulties. Don’t come to their rescue immediately. Make them an important part of a household. Kids want to help. And when they do, the task almost always takes longer to achieve.”
MAUGHAN: Way longer. And it’s way harder.
DUCKWORTH: Way longer, yeah, he didn’t say that, but we know he meant it. And then he says, “We’re often reluctant to really let them get involved. Let them help. Encourage them to help. Maybe even require them to help now and then. Let them do things that are slightly risky.” And then he has this, like, quote, “Get off that fence. You’re going to fall,” unquote. “Well, how far are they going to fall? It’s not probably going to be anything that’s going to break a bone. Let them get out and explore.” What do you think about that advice? Does that answer your question?
MAUGHAN: Well, it doesn’t give me a specific age, so no. Just kidding —
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Dr. Bjorklund, I asked you for a number.” He probably could. You know, he’s bold. Maybe he would tell you.
MAUGHAN: I have a memory of, as a child, I had to clean the bathroom.
DUCKWORTH: That seems like a family-Maughan story.
MAUGHAN: I think I’ve told you this before, but every summer, for example, we had an indoor chore, and outdoor chore, and we had to read for an hour. That was our thing. So my indoor chore was “clean the bathroom” and I cleaned it and I actually as a little kid thought I had crushed it and did a great job. And I have this memory of my older sister Christy — who’s about 9 or 10 years older than I am, 9 years I think — talking to my mom in the doorway of the bathroom and I want to go play and I’m done. And I remember Christy saying to my mom, “But it looks terrible.” And my mom says, “I know I’ll redo it.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, hold on. That doesn’t sound like what Mike Maughan’s mom would say! Maybe your mom knew you could hear her.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I’m sure she did.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe she knew that at this age, you would remember that incident. Here’s the thing that I’ve studied in my own research that complements all this. There is this term in parenting research called “intrusive parenting.” So it’s like taking over for your kid when they’re doing something that they can’t yet do, like you’re intruding on their autonomy. And you can study it in really little kids too. And the reason why you can study in little kids so easily is if you bring parents into the lab, even when they know they’re being observed behind a two-way mirror or on a video camera, parents are like — I mean, they vary and some parents, if you give the little kid a little puzzle that is very difficult or even impossible to solve and you’re just like watching them, like, what happens? You know, do they persist? Do they give up? Do they try different strategies? There are parents that swoop in like a hawk the moment the kid struggles and then they just solve the puzzle for them. It’s something that I think is striking in terms of, like, the differences in how parents interact with their kids. And in the study that I did — you know, there’s a team of people, I was certainly not the most important — but what we documented was that it’s not good, basically, when parents do this. And in particular, if your kid has certain beliefs. I think if we had just said, like, “intrusive parenting is bad,” it would have been — not wrong, but maybe not that interesting. But there’s certain beliefs that kids might have. We studied having a fixed mindset. So if you have a kid who already thinks like, “Oh, my abilities are fixed, you know, I can’t get any smarter,” then when you swoop in and finish things for them, it really has demotivating effects.
MAUGHAN: ‘Cause it’s saying to the kid, “I don’t think you’re good enough, I don’t think you’re smart enough —” I mean, is that the message they’re receiving?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, we can’t know for sure because, you know, we had a longitudinal study, but it was just like surveys of parenting style and mindset. And so we don’t really know. But I think your kid is like trying to figure out what it means when you’re taking over the things they’re doing. And I think one reasonable inference is like, “Oh, I guess I can’t do it. Why else would they take over? I guess I’m not capable enough to, like, walk down the street by myself.” And I think parents who are very intentional about not taking over and pushing their kids a little more than the kid is comfortable, or even sometimes that the parent is comfortable, are trying to send the message that like, you know what? You never know until you try.
MAUGHAN: See, I actually think the operative part is that last part you said, which is going beyond where the parent is comfortable. Because the parent has to be comfortable saying, “I’m going to let my kid walk down this highway. I’m going to let my kid fail at this assignment.” That’s hard.
DUCKWORTH: I’m not quite at the highway for two-year-olds thing. I mean, I’ve watched that Old Enough! episode more than once. It actually makes me laugh out loud, kind of nervous laughter — I mean, you cannot do anything tonight, Mike, except for watch this episode of this kid like crossing — I will find it and I will send it to you. So I’m not — I’m not quite at that stage. But like, you have to recognize in your own life — you know this and I know this — you know, you never grow without a little discomfort. And not only do parents have to notice that about their own kids, maybe you have to be a little uncomfortable about what you’re allowing your kids to do. Maybe if you’re totally, 100 percent sure, maybe you’re not in the space that you need to be either.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I know I’ve shared this with you before, but my oldest brother, who’s a doctor, said that one of the key things to being a great doctor is developing a high tolerance for other people’s pain. I wonder if the same thing is true as a parent. You have to develop a high tolerance for your own children’s discomfort and letting them be in these hard situations. I think maybe the other thing is, again, going back to this idea of the catastrophizing that we do is so statistically unlikely.
DUCKWORTH: Mm, the one in a thousand.
MAUGHAN: You know, the worry that my kid’s going to kidnapped.
DUCKWORTH: Your kid’s going to, like, cross the street by themselves and they’re going to get hit by a car and they’re going to die.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, which again is an unbelievable tragedy.
DUCKWORTH: Like, infinite. Let’s just say infinite because I’m going to speak as a mom. Infinite.
MAUGHAN: The costs are infinite. The risk or statistical likelihood is low. That doesn’t mean that there’s not this really hard balance that parents feel or have to go through in terms of granting their children more free range. We’re not making light of that at all, but rather to say, it’s just so statistically unlikely that maybe the damage being done is worse by not giving any freedom out there and, you know, I hate to say this, but the likelihood that someone’s going to be abducted or abused or anything like that is much more likely from someone that they know than from some random stranger.
DUCKWORTH: Right. And, you know, if you just think practically speaking, there’s so many opportunities to provide some amount of risk taking. I mean, in my elementary school, which was Woodcrest Elementary School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we had a playground and I will not name her name, but I remember the kid who fell off the playground and actually did break her arm. And they immediately took the playground out. They took out the jungle gym.
MAUGHAN: Oh, gosh, the whole thing?
DUCKWORTH: The whole thing. There one day and gone the next. And honestly, they did, I think, the wrong thing. It’s like, “Oh great, now no kids will break their arms.” But we would literally sit out on recess, there was nothing to do at that gosh darn elementary school, we would just sit out on the barren field. And I guess we’d try to — you know, we figured out how to play tag or whatever, but like, can you imagine taking out a playground jungle gym because one kid went on the monkey bars, fell off, and broke their arm? I certainly think now that it was ridiculous.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, it’s that overreaction. I think it’s a really fair point that in this idea of free-range parenting, yeah, guess what? Something’s going to go wrong. That doesn’t mean that you overreact and throw the baby out with the bathwater.
DUCKWORTH: You know what it really makes you think about? It makes me think about self-determination theory. So one view is that all human beings have three fundamental motives. One is the need for competence. One is the need for belonging. And one is the need for autonomy. Maybe this is just a reminder that these are human needs and even little kids have them. And so if we never let them cross the street to go to the playground by themselves, or to cross the street to go to the bodega, or to, like, take a risk and ask the bus driver, like, “What the heck, I was supposed to get off back there?” Like, how competent and how autonomous are we allowing them to be? You know, one of these three co-authors, Peter Gray, said in an interview on this research, and I quote, “I think the first thing for parents to do is to have a conversation with their children. ‘I’d like you to have more freedom. What are things that you don’t feel free to do right now?’” And so I think that advice — just ask your kid, “what are things that you don’t feel free to do right now?” — I think that’s the best advice there is.
MAUGHAN: What a beautiful question.
DUCKWORTH: And I think I’m going to ask Amanda and Lucy, who are now definitely old enough to have autonomy, I think I’m going to ask them.
This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, when Angela introduces the Japanese reality show Old Enough!, she says that the episodes “feel kind of vintage” and that she doesn’t know if it’s still ongoing. The show, which features children ages two to five years old going on their first solo errands, has been airing on the Japanese network Nippon TV for over 30 years, since 1991, and is still producing new episodes. Old Enough! became an international sensation when it first aired on Netflix in 2022.
Later, Mike cites a 2019 Reuters article, saying that only 0.1 percent of child abductions in the U.S. are perpetrated by strangers. In fact, that figure refers not to abductions but to the much larger category of children reported missing to the F.B.I. The information we have on those missing-children cases is incomplete — the circumstances of the disappearance are only recorded around half the time. In those cases where we do have information, the vast majority of kids — around 95 percent — ran away rather than being abducted. But Mike is right that child abductions by strangers are very rare. In cases where children are abducted, it’s typically by a non-custodial parent — and not a stranger.
Finally, Angela asks if the term “free-range parenting” was invented by a mom in New York City who sent her middle-school-aged son on a subway trip to Macy’s. Angela is right that the term was coined by a New York City mom, but she misremembers some of the details. In 2008, Lenore Skenazy wrote a column in the New York Sun describing how she let her then nine-year-old son, not yet in middle school, make his way home from Bloomingdale’s alone via the subway and bus. Within days, the story became national news and Skenazy was dubbed “America’s worst mom.” That weekend, she started a blog called “Free-Range Kids” — and later wrote a book of the same name. Skenazy also founded Let Grow, a nonprofit working to give kids more independence.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on what it means to be successful:
ANONYMOUS: Up until I was 25 years old, success mostly meant making my parents proud, doing well at school, getting a high paying job, and everything else they wanted me to achieve. During my early 20s, I was a year deep into my Ph.D. program, dreading having to get up in the mornings. This forced me to completely change my definition of success. My current definition of success at 28 years old is living a life where you look forward to getting up in the mornings, whether it’s because of your family, your friends, your career, your hobbies, etc.
Thanks to that listener, and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on how much independence parents should give their kids. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Does “manifestation” actually work?
DUCKWORTH: “I’m gonna write myself a check for $10 million and I’m gonna be the most successful comedic actor in the universe!”
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: Such a Taylor Swift thing. I’m the problem, it’s me.
- “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence,” by Peter Gray, David Lancy, and David Bjorklund (The Journal of Pediatrics, 2023).
- “Parental Intrusive Homework Support and Math Achievement: Does the Child’s Mindset Matter?” by Daeun Park, Elizabeth Gunderson, Erin Maloney, Eli Tsukayama, Sian Beilock, Angela Duckworth, and Susan Levine (Developmental Psychology, 2023).
- “Children Today Have Less Independence. Is That Fueling a Mental Health Crisis?” by Caitlin Gibson (The Washington Post, 2023).
- “Yes, the ‘Old Enough!’ Kids Really Think the Camera Crew Are ‘Electricians’,” by Charlotte Walsh (Tudum by Netflix, 2022).
- “Kidnapped Children Make Headlines, but Abduction Is Rare in U.S.,” by Jonathan Allen (Reuters, 2019).
- “Utah’s ‘Free-Range Parenting’ Law Said to Be First in the Nation,” by Meagan Flynn (The Washington Post, 2018).
- “Mother Who Left Baby Outside New York Restaurant in 1997 Says Arrest Was Unjust,” (The Guardian, 2017).
- “Children’s Independent Mobility: An International Comparison and Recommendations for Action,” by Ben Shaw, Martha Bicket, Bridget Elliott, Ben Fagan-Watson, and Elisabetta Mocca (Policy Studies Institute, 2015).
- “I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone. I Got Labeled the ‘World’s Worst Mom,’” by Lenore Skenazy (The Washington Post, 2015).
- “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone,” by Lenore Skenazy (The New York Sun, 2008).
- “Should You Give Kids an Allowance or Make Them Get Jobs?” by No Stupid Questions (2022).
- “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting: 10 Years Later,” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- Old Enough!