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.