The Overprotected Kid

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The author’s 5-year-old son, Gideon, playing at the Land playground in North Wales. (Hanna Rosin)

The author’s 5-year-old son, Gideon, playing at the Land playground in North Wales. (Hanna Rosin)

In  her Atlantic Monthly article, The Overprotected Kid, Hanna Rosin writes:

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?…

Ask any of my parenting peers to chronicle a typical week in their child’s life and they will likely mention school, homework, after-school classes, organized playdates, sports teams coached by a fellow parent, and very little free, unsupervised time. Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent. The result is a “continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways,” writes Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College and the author of Free to Learn. No more pickup games, idle walks home from school, or cops and robbers in the garage all afternoon. The child culture from my Queens days, with its own traditions and codas, its particular pleasures and distresses, is virtually extinct. …

But the real cultural shift has to come from parents. There is a big difference between avoiding major hazards and making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness). We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one; remind yourself of that every time the panic rises.

Rather than reprimanding parents for being over protective Rosin encourages us all to think a little about exactly what we are doing.  It’s difficult to deal with most  parent’s preoccupation with “making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness)”.

A growing number of voices confirm that the value of unscheduled, unsupervised, open-ended activities has been exchanged for a level of control and supervision that is actually harmful to the healthy development of children. I’ve seen this in Scouting, especially over the past decade or so.  What used to be accepted as an appropriate risk is now eliminated outright and, as Rosin notes, actions that would have been considered paranoid a few years ago are now the norm. It takes more effort to maintain Scouting as a journey of discovery and exploration Scouts undertake on their own initiative rather than a tour of highly scheduled, supervised, zero-risk activities created by adults.

Rosin’s isn’t the first (but it is one of the better) articles or books written on the subject (see Free Range Kids). Perhaps we’ll begin to see the pendulum of over-protective, over-involved parenting swing back to a more moderate approach.

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