Quick backstory/disclaimer: The project is named for my book and blog, Free-Range Kids, which I began after a column I wrote for The New York Sun—“Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone”—went viral. A sixth-grade New York City public school teacher read it and asked me to visit with her students.
Meantime, she gave them the assignment: do something like Lenore’s son did. Something on your own that you feel ready to do. Just first make sure your parents approve! And so her students did great things: They took their younger siblings to soccer, made dinner for their family—one kid even got herself out of bed and to the bus stop on her own, no prodding, after years of making her mom beg her to get up and get going. And after that breakthrough day? She got up on her own every morning.
Of course, kids could conceivably propose crazy ideas. One year a boy made a raft that leaked as he sailed his local pond. He lived to write the essay. But since parental approval is required, parents can and should modify plans that are dangerous (or just plain dumb).
My favorite kid decided his project would be to pick up his younger brother. So when school let out, he hopped on the city bus—first time ever on his own—and started the ride. But … nothing looked familiar. In fact, things keep looking weirder and weirder. He had no idea where he was going and, as he admitted to the class, finally he got so scared “I was ready to scream at the bus driver!”
Instead, he held it together and asked the bus driver what was happening. The driver said, “Oh! You meant to go downtown but this is the uptown bus! All you have to do is get off, go one block over, and take the bus going the other direction.” He gave the boy a transfer.
As he was telling the class this story, the boy said, “Actually, I still have it.” He got out his wallet and showed us the slim slip of paper.
“Why do you carry it with you?” I asked. After all, it represented a day of terror and humiliation. (I didn’t put it that way.) The boy just shrugged. But then, of course, I realized what the transfer really represented: freedom. Independence. Courage. He’d been scared out of his wits, on the verge of a very public tantrum, but he had triumphed. The transfer was proof. His golden ticket! It gave him the confidence to go anywhere from now on, because he knew that even if he screwed up or felt scared, he’d be okay.
“Now imagine if his mom had come with him,” I said to an auditorium full of Silicon Valley parents at a lecture I gave there last spring. “She’d have gotten them on the right bus, no problem. Would the boy remember that afternoon … forever?”
Afterward, the administrators at Oak Knoll, one of the local grammar schools, came up to me and said: we want to do a project like that. Oak Knoll’s theme for the year was confidence and clearly the Project dovetailed perfectly. So the school sent its 700 parents an email announcing the undertaking, along with some materials by me saying basically the same thing you’ve just read: Kids don’t get a chance to do much on their own, but when they do, it changes them. So why not encourage your son or daughter to do a completely voluntary, ungraded Free-Range Kids Project?