When I compare our parenting decisions to peers and neighbors' we tend to be near the far end of thinking our kids are ready to do things on their own. I don't see other first graders (6y) unaccompanied at the park or crossing the street, and it was only this year that our third grader's (8y) friends started ringing the doorbell to ask if she could go out and play, while she's been going over and ringing theirs for a couple years. Last year when we gave permission for our second grader (7y) and kindergartner (5y) to walk home together the school said yes, but somewhat reluctantly and they didn't remember this situation with a kindergartner before. [1]

It's reasonably common for people to point at the past for examples of this level of independence being normal. Reading older children's books the kids wander everywhere, my dad walked to school and back alone in kindergarten, and articles comparing child walksheds by generation are evergreen viral content. The phenomenon of declining children's independence over time is well documented. But what I hadn't internalized until seeing it recently was that even in the US there is still much more variation than I see in my daily life.

A few weeks ago I brought the kids along to a dance I was playing, and we stayed with a couple who lived adjacent to a farm. They're on good terms with the farmers, and one afternoon they brought us over to look around. While I knew it was common for farm kids to have more independence and responsibility, it was different seeing it in person.

The farmers have several kids, and we ran into their 9yo moving soybeans for storage. They drove past us in a large tractor pulling a short train of wagons, and lined it up carefully with a hopper. They had another tractor set up with an unshrouded power take-off for an auger to get the beans up into the bin. After transferring the beans in the first trailer, they moved the train up to unload the second. All of this was completely on their own, and they moved like someone who had done this many times.

I'm not saying I'd let my kids operate serious machinery unsupervised at the same age—this is dangerous work even for adults—but it illustrates how wide a range there is in what different people consider appropriate and normal levels of independence and makes me feel less like I have extreme views.

[1] The school is about 120 years old so they definitely have had many kindergartners walk home before, but apparently not within institutional memory.

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We were also the only ones where our kids were going to kindergarten with 5 and to school in first grade. And the kindergarten wouldn't let them go back alone despite it being really close by with no street to cross. It's a progressive forrest kindergarten (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_kindergarten) so it's not for lack of autonomy on site.

Yes, it was different in other generations but often because it was necessary not because the kids were comfortable and ready for it. Forced autonomy can have problems too. We use a step by step program - like Jeff seemed to do too - the made sure the kids are ready for it, comfortable with it and have the skills to execute reliably.

I definitely intend to give my future child a lot of independence and outdoor roaming experience. I loved exploring natural spaces as a kid, and wandered far and wide. At four I happily climbed trees three or four stories tall and looked down at all the 1 floor buildings around. I loved volunteering at the historical farm near my home, working with the draft horses, milking the cows, playing on the haystacks in the barn. I have fond memories of my grandpa teaching me to drive his small tractor on his little farm when I was around 9. My younger brother was somewhat less adventurous than me as a child, and has been rather a helicopter parent with his 3 year old so far. Hopefully he'll lighten up a bit over the next couple years.

There is certainly some trade-off point though. I also had friends who were even more adventurous than me as teenagers, and some of them came to unfortunate ends. I think that being more free to explore when I was younger helped teach me caution and a sense of my own limits that served me well in my teenage years.

A factor for why children are becoming less independent in the US might be car-centric city design. With unsafe streets, and no way to walk to school, friends or after-school activities, parents have no choice but to drive them around. Not Just Bikes has a great video on this


I'd be interested in someone with legal expertise weighing in on whether the farm example is in violation of child labor laws. There are special regulations and exemptions for farms, especially run by a parent or person standing for the parent, but a nine year old driving that tractor seems very likely to be illegal to me. I broadly agree with all the stuff about letting children roam, and it comports well with my own experience, but tractors in particular can be very dangerous and 9 seems very young to be doing genuinely independent ag work like this. Would be interested in other people's thoughts.

Even when the US considered banning kids from doing dangerous work on farms they still were planning to exempt children on their own family's farm:

The changes do include a legal exemption for farm families that would allow children to work on the farms owned by their parents. But it would still affect many small farmers who hire kids in the summer or who have extended family members work on their land.

At the 20-acre farm of Julie and Scott Wilber near Boone, Iowa, for example, Drew, 14, and Jade, 12, could still do any work their parents ask of them under the changes. But the Wilbers' employee, 15-year-old MacKenzie Lewis, would be prohibited from driving the four-wheelers used on many farms, mowing grass or working around animals.


Love this post. I am going to use the comments to air out some thoughts I have. But I am not disagreeing with you on anything to be clear. I am more trying to collaborate by presenting my similar world view.

I fully agree with you that independence levels seem to be trending towards less independent.

When deciding for my kid, I try to use the heuristic: " what choice would I make if I had unlimited time and resources?" That choice is usually the best, but it is always unreasonable. The beauty of this heuristic is it then forces me to admit to myself that I am compromising, or at least weighing my needs against my children's. Now taking care of yourself is taking care of the family and a net gain for everyone involved. It's not selfish to say you are making this calculation. But, I think ignoring the calculation is a bit dishonest.

I remember your sleep training post. I honestly feel like if I had unlimited time and resources, I would hold my baby every day until they are old enough to have a discussion and make sure they understand that I am one room away if they need anything. Spoiler alert, I still ended up sleep training my baby at 1yo because I we could not juggle work/sleep/health with a baby that just couldn't sleep without us. I did my research and I think there are benefits to sleep training, but to me it feels weird to say I am doing it for the kid when I just so happen to also get a huge quality of life improvement. I find it more true to say, in a perfect world I would stay up with my baby as they sleep on me... But I don't live in a perfect world and I need to sleep/work/function to take care of the family soooo, sleep training it is! It sounds cold, but I feel like it's more honest than "I am doing my child a favor by sleep training them".

With the independence levels. I feel like my unlimited time and resources answer would be to allow my children to feel independent while also never letting them leave my sight. Anything less than that does seem like a compromise. The best decision for me and my family may be to let my kids play at the playground by themselves while I do dishes in my house a block away, but that is a compromise from watching them from the car nearby. I think it can be the right decision, but I think it should be framed as me making a compromise/tradeoff calculation instead of "I am giving my child the gift of independence".

I don't want to belittle the importance of fostering independence, or promoting self soothing (I'm regards to sleep training). But I think they are often used to fully justify a decision when in reality they are a small variable in the balancing act between what is a perfect decision and what is a actually feasible.

If you accept my premise that "the importance of fostering independence" is something people say when they really mean "we are making a decision based off what is best for our kid and what we can feasibly provide them" then you may accept my next statements. The next portion is also the opinion I most weakly hold, it just ties the thought together ...

A more connected world means a more judgemental world where everyone is comparing themselves to others. Kids and their self image aren't the only thing effected by the internet, parents are too. Some parents can hire a house cleaner, work only 20 hours a week, hire a nanny during the day, so that if they want to stay up all night with their baby they can. In the same way teenage girls compare them to the Instagram influencers, parents compare themselves to the incredibly fortunate families who never has to worry about sleep training. Everyone is pushed to these unattainable standards where parents are shamed for having their kids walk a half mile to school. This section is starting to sound a bit "kids these days", so I will end it but you get my point, it's the internets fault.

We get so much pressure to do the unlimited time and resources thing even though we do not have unlimited time and resources. We are forced to either say, "welp I don't have those resources, but I'm doing the best that I can!" OR we say "actually what I'm doing is healthy" (i.e. I'm fostering independence, I'm giving my baby the gift of self-soothing). In my opinion the former is closer to the truth.

We are all just trying our best to maximize our children's happiness.

Jeff, thanks for your post. I want to make it clear that I'm not disagreeing or accusing you of anything here. I am more going off on a tangent. I described "independence" as a variable in everyone's equation and what you are pointing out here is that everyone weighs that variable differently. Therefore I see your post as a great example that even with the same equation different families arrive at different correct answers based off how they weight their variables. I love all your child-based posts recently and you inspired me to think about this deeply enough to write this really really long comment.

Might also be interesting to look at this from a Learned Helplessness point of view. Especially with helicopter parenting. Perhaps children aren't learning to solve their own problems independenly. I wouldn't be surprised if this contributes to the mental health epidemic.