The Captive Child

The Atlantic has a long but must-read article by Hannah Rosin on the overprotected child. In it, she documents how children today, despite increased safety and lower crime rates, have far less freedom to explore and be kids than previous generations did. We’ve harped on this before, but Rosin cites example after example of how little freedom we allow our children and how much of what makes childhood fun (and important) is being taken away.

There are too many good part to quote selectively. But here’s a key one:

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

As an academic, I see the impact of this on young adults. We seem to be getting more and more “adults” who simply can’t function with mom and dad or some equivalent. They not only don’t object to parents calling professors about grades or coming to job interviews with them, they expect it. They expect their professors to hold their hands and cater to their every whim like their parents did.

But, ironically, given their first taste of even moderate freedom, many engage in dumb risky behavior. Only whereas previous generations’ risky behavior involved forts and creeks, these involve alcohol. That’s not a good tradeoff. Everyone has to take risks in life to realize where the boundaries are and when there fears are reasonable. Aren’t they better off taking those risks on the playground than the dorm room?

Not all college students are like this, of course. Not even a majority. But every professor or researcher I know has a recent tale of a kid who can’t cut the apron strings or who can’t function like an adult. Maybe they’ll grow up at some point. But wouldn’t it better for them to grow up a little as kids instead of trying to compress it all into four years of college?

I fear we’re fighting a losing battle on the Free Range Kids front. Our legal system massively favors over-parenting — in divorce fights, the kids are almost always given to the more overbearing parent. But there are still a few glimmers of hope that we can rescue childhood from the iron triangle of politicians, lawyers and media hysterics that have taken it away.

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  1. richtaylor365

    I get what you and the author are saying, but I wouldn’t worry too much , every generation is different and has its own set of pitfalls.

    First off, how funny that Hannah thinks women in the 70’s did not work as much as they do now, she lost some cred points with me right there. Older women, those that were around and working in the 70’s, would laugh at comparisons. They actually had to prepare meals (not just throw some pre packaged meal in the microwave for 4 minutes), they actually did dishes, went to the bank for their transactions and had to drive (or walk) someplace to shop.

    Even today, there is no monolithic approach to raising kids. I was raised by a single parent and was on my own from about age 8 on. Most working families give kids more autonomy, more responsibility, because their living arrangement demands it. I get the feeling that Hannah is one of those progressive suburban, soccer mom, non working house wives, who validates their lives by how well her friends thinks she parents. But if her daughter has only had 10 minutes of unsupervised time in 10 years, she (and her husband) are pretty crappy at parenting.

    Good parents (and these have existed for thousands of years, using timeless/proven techniques) understand that their job is to prepare the kid for adulthood and you do that by allowing him to find his own way, by allowing him to stumble and fall, to learn by his own mistakes and figure out for himself what works and what doesn’t. He has to learn for himself that cooperation, sharing, working towards an end, delaying instant gratification, and persuasion (not dictating or pouting) will advance your cause and get you what you want.

    My worry about this generation is that there are too many parents like Hannah, those that won’t let kids be kids.

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  2. hist_ed

    Time for Hist_ed public education rant (TM) number 254:
    This is reflected in schools as well. My sons’ elementary school forbids them from picking up anything on the ground at recess. My older son regularly loses his recess time because he loves to explore and experiment with crap on the ground. He gets busted for picking up pine cones. Not big rocks that he then throws at kids’ heads, but pine cones that he picks up and looks at and sometimes tries to take apart.

    A few years ago my district switched from junior highs (grades 7-9) to middle schools (6-8). I am completely agnostic about which grades should be in our school, but the attitude that went with the switch is appalling. In my department we used to have a very specific set of expectations for every grade that tightened up as they got older. By the time they hit 9th, they were treated as high school students who were responsible for getting their shit done. Now, in teaching 8th grade, I am supposed to baby the hell out of them. It’s not just things like like work policies-my newish colleagues are all former elementary school teachers who love big art projects. They teach the 1920s by having students create life sized paper dolls of flappers and making dialogue balloons with 1920s slang. They spend days researching clothes and dance styles and slang and then two or three days cutting out paper and coloring.. For 8th graders. I start with the Great flu epidemic and deal with the economics and politics that led up to the Great Depression. Also deal with Jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. My administrator loves the paper dolls-they are big and they get put out in the halls so every sees the “great work.” I’m such a mean teacher-Why in the world don’t I let my kids use fucking crayons more? It such a useful skill in the 21st century education world.

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  3. Hal_10000 *

    Rich, she hits a lot of the points you’re talking about: that the obsessive parenting seems to be much more common in upper classes while working families tend to allow a lot more independence. I can often tell that in the background of students. Often the ones who are the first in their family to go to college or come from a middle class background are the most able to function on their own.

    By “work” I think she meant more in the workplace, i.e., outside of the home.

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  4. richtaylor365

    By “work” I think she meant more in the workplace, i.e., outside of the home.

    I know that is what she meant, but it was clumsily delivered. Many moms worked outside the home in the 70’s. Today they have many more options, they can flex time, even telecommute and work at home. If being at home equates to better parenting (and to some degree I think it does) then today’s working woman has far more choices than in the past.

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