Tag: Childhood

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.

Friday Five: Toys!

Been a while. Christmas is upon us. I was shopping yesterday for Sal 11000 Beta as well as her various cousins and was thinking about some of my favorite toys as a kid. So about a Friday Five on that? What were you five favorite toys as a kid? Doesn’t have to be some expensive thing from Toys R’ Us. Could a be a bike, army men, refrigerator box, puppy. Anything that showed up under your Christmas tree or at a birthday and gave you years of joy.

My five?

Fisher Price Castle: They don’t make they anymore because the people are small and they’re worried kids could choke on them. But this was a fantastic toy, especially because the parapets were the perfect height for army men. My brother and I got years of enjoyment out of this.

Anything Star Wars: We had small die-cast vehicles and the action figures, of course, and a very awesome Hoth base that had falling ice bridges (also good for army men). I can close my eyes and hear us skittering the die cast models across the kitchen floor and a voice says, “You idiot! You realize what those would be worth now?”

Lincoln Logs Today’s Lincoln Log kits are, frankly, an abomination. They include about six long pieces and 407 little one-notch links. The sets call for building houses that consist mostly of towers of the little links with a few crossbars so they don’t fall apart unless breathed on incorrectly. Screw that. Give me a tub with 200 pieces and I’d be happy.

Lego ‘Nuff ced. Lego was so well made that even decades of marketing and management have yet to screw it up.

Cardboard Bricks My parents bought these when I was every young. They were basically sheets of cardboard with bricks drawn on. You folded them up into the correct shape and built stuff. My brother and I painted controls on them when we built spaceships and stacked them up for army men.

What were your five?

Won’t Someone Think of the Childrens

The indispensable John Tierney has a great article up at the NYT asking an important question — are we making playgrounds too safe? Across the nation, swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and even teeter-totters are vanishing. But…

“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”

We have a nice playground near my house. Sal 11000 Beta was terrified of the high slide at first; now loves it. She’s regularly crossing the monkey bars and loves the swings. And I’ve watched her overall confidence grow along with her physical confidence. I’ve also noticed, however, that she’s frequently the only kid there.

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

I talk a lot on this blog about how people can’t succeed without the freedom to fail. The same applies to kids — in school, in life and on the playground. You can’t learn to climb without the occasional fall; you can’t run without the occasional stumble; you can’t make friends without the occasional rejection. Dealing with failure, difficulty and even pain is one of the most important skills to learn. And, thanks to silly lawsuits and a paranoid culture, we’re insulating our kids from that, raising a generation of fat terrified kids.

Seriously, check out this article, which describes parents fretting about their children riding buses, going into the woods without walking talkies and swimming without a lifeguard. They’re responding by, among other things, forbidding kids from holding their breath under-water.

So no breath holding, no swimming without a lifeguard, no unsupervised play and don’t even think about getting on a bus alone until you’re old enough to drive. At which time you will no longer need the bus in the first place.

Or consider this story about the hyper-regulation of Colorado preschools, where a child’s life is regulated down to the race of the dolls they play with. TV time is restricted, teachers are forbidden from eating fast food near kids and whole milk is banned. (Although whether this is more child paranoia than ridiculous job-justifying over-regulation is debatable).

This is insanity. We can not protect kids from life, either with our personal behavior or with our regulations. As Penn says, the world is not made of nerf. You’re going to get cut; but not too deep if you’re careful. Childhood is a time to enjoy life, to be free to explore and yes, to fall and get hurt. It’s not a time to be put into a prison built of lawsuits, regulations and parental hysteria.

Back in the real world, I blogged earlier this week about Leiby Kletzky, the hassidic boy murdered the first time he tried to walk home on his own. You can read the statement from his parents here. Even after the unthinkable, they still have more perspective than 90% of the people out there.


I can’t imagine what these parents are feeling:

On Wednesday, [parental fears] did come true for one Brooklyn family, as the body of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was found dismembered two days after he disappeared on a short walk between his day camp and where he was supposed to meet his parents. The boy, who had implored his parents for permission to walk home from camp alone, got lost and ran into a stranger who, the police said, kidnapped and killed him.

For parents across New York City, the tragedy set off a wave of fear, self-doubt and sometimes fatalism, not seen perhaps for 32 years, since Etan Patz, who was 6, vanished after begging to be allowed to walk alone to the bus stop, just two blocks from his home in SoHo.

There’s a lot of blaming the victim going on, with people saying, “How could the parents let him walk home in this day and age?!” But you know me. I’m a huge fan of Lenore Skenazy’s blog. I think we coddle kids way too much. I constantly note that the crime rate it the lowest it has been in half a century. So I find myself agreeing with Ta-Nehisi:

I think the boy’s parents will spend much of their lives questioning themselves. I am so sorry about that, mostly because I don’t think they did a single thing wrong. I was walking home by age seven, and on mass transit by age nine. I suspect a lot of you have similar stories. Moreover, there is no 100 percent protection for children. This is, by far, the hardest reality for a parent to reckon with.

Having a child is like watching your arm split off from you, grow its own brain and then do whatever it feels like. On some level, it’s still yours, but you can’t control it, you can’t save it, and you can only, within reason, really protect it.

Exactly. 8 years old is not too young to walk seven blocks in a very safe neighborhood. Something like this happens only 50-100 times year. It is dwarfed by the number of children taken by car accidents, drownings and their own evil murderous parents. Here’s what I said on Skenazy’s blog:

The proper response to this is defiance: to not let one sick evil individual force all of us to live in fear and terror. Every day of every year, 60 million children go out into the wide world. Of those, maybe a hundred have something like this happen to them. Is preventing this kind of thing worth raising a generation of terrified, helpless, out of shape kids? Better to teach them how to be aware of their surroundings, how to recognize danger and how to ask people for help. The only way to absolutely prevent this is to chain your kid in the basement.

I once got into an argument with a fellow parent about this (he was of the “my kid can walk to school when’s he’s in college” school of parenting). Toward the end of the argument, he threw out what he thought was the trump card: “It’s my job to protect my kids.”

But he’s wrong. It’s your job to raise your kids. It’s your job to bring them up to be functional, independent human beings who can take care of themselves. As someone who works in a university, I’ve seen the kind of kids helicopter parenting produces — timid, helpless individuals who can not deal with even minor setbacks or difficulties. They can’t talk to a professor about their grade; mom and dad have to do that. They can’t seek out a scientist to do work with; we have to come to them. And their personal lives are a wreck as they either can’t approach the opposite sex or are too childish to conduct a relationship properly (e.g., go to a store and buy birth control).

Kletzky’s parents did the right thing. That it ended in a horrible tragedy is not of their doing.