What Are 'Good Risks' for Maturing Children?

Yesterday, my 8.5-year-old son gave me a hug and told me I was the best dad in the whole world. We were just out for a walk with the family – I hadn't bribed him at all. He was just feeling love. But an hour earlier, he'd hated my guts.

Apparently, I hadn't "saved" his progress through a game he'd been playing on my iTouch. His bedtime the night before had forced him to pause the game halfway through, and he had (at that point) a perfect score. Not realizing this, I'd closed the app and hooked it up to the charger. In the morning, after not enough sleep, too little breakfast, and some reading of the sports section in the newspaper, he wanted to return to his game. When he discovered his progress hadn't been saved, he blamed it on me, and was furious. He ran to his room. I heard bumping or knocking. After a few minutes, I went to check on him. He was bonking his forehead against the wall, lightly, but repeatedly. I begged him to not hurt himself and stop. I tried to give him a hug; he wasn't ready. He ran out the front of the house, wearing shorts and a T shirt (no shoes or socks), and ran off.

There were three directions he might go – down the block, around the block, or into Golden Gate Park, which is across the street. If he'd gone around the block, I could give him his space. But would he go into the park? Without shoes or socks? I guessed he would not, but he knows his way through the park, and he is becoming just independent-minded enough that I realized he might.

For a good six months, he and I have had no fights at all. But suddenly this was the second time in the same week he'd concocted a reason to be mad at me.

The night before, I'd been on CNN with Campbell Brown discussing overparenting and the slow-parenting movement that has arisen in response. My fellow guest was journalist Lenore Skenazy, author of . Skenazy became famous for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. He'd been begging to do it – begging to be dropped off somewhere in Manhattan and be allowed to navigate his own way home. So she'd left him at Bloomingdale's with a subway map and $20, no cell phone. She didn't tail him. He made it home fine, but when she wrote about the experience, she was branded "The Worst Mother in the World."

I suppose I was on CNN to provide a critique. I was supposed to say that every study has shown parental involvement is good for kids, not bad for kids. And I was supposed to condemn Skenazy. But while I wouldn't let a 9-year-old navigate the subways alone, I just didn't feel like criticizing or judging her. Instead, I talked about a theme that's been mentioned on this blog several times: I said that every time parents lay down a rule for their children, they ought to devote an equal amount of time to considering ways to encourage their independence and responsibility. This advice emerges from the research on teen lying; parents who are lied to the least set a few rules, enforce them clearly, but in other dimensions support their children's quest for autonomy. As Joe Allen and I discussed here a couple of weeks ago, kids need to learn the difference between good risks and bad risks. As teenagers they'll turn to bad risks (drinking, sex, drugs, dangerous driving) if they're never given opportunity to take good risks.

So there I was, the very next morning, and my son had run from the house.

I waited a couple of minutes for him to return. When he hadn't, I figured it was important to make sure he hadn't run into the park. I invited our dog into the car; my son's sister wanted to come too. We found him down the block, just five houses away. He was sitting on their steps, sulking. When he saw us, he ran to the bottom of the hill and around the block. I'd had moments like this as a child, too.

We followed him. "Dad's not mad at you!" his sister yelled out the open window. He kept sprinting. Just when I wondered how long this would go on, he stopped, came to the car, and got in. I considered saying something about safety, but lately I've been thinking about not fighting his sporadic shots at independence. So I just drove him home and suggested I make him more breakfast.

I'm aware that it's begun. A couple of years ago, my son was intimidated by peers and challenges. Now he's confident and adventurous – and I can see in him a need to find outlets for this new exploratory energy. He can barely tie his shoes, but he wants to travel the world. He can barely cut food with a knife, but he wants to (and will) eat every novel ethnic cuisine that restaurants can offer. I'm wondering what kind of other good risks I can encourage him to take, and what responsibilities (not just around the house) he can take on.

I had a brainstorming moment on this same question with parents at a middle school in Marin last week. Some of the following ideas were tossed out:

  • Encourage kids to attend a sleepaway camp where they don't know anybody.
  • Encourage them to volunteer at an organization where they are exposed to other adults.
  • Put them on sports teams unrelated to their school, with kids from other schools.
  • Let them visit cousins and aunts and uncles without you around.
  • Encourage them to try new extracurricular activities they're not already good at.

We admitted this wasn't a very robust list, so I'm asking readers to share their ideas.