As a surgeon, my husband deals with very real life and death situations on a regular basis. As a result, he’s had to remind me on a number of occasions when I’m in modern-parent freak-out mode that “it takes a lot to die.” From our toddler having an allergic reaction to tree nuts, to our six-month-old baby being admitted to the hospital for RSV, it’s been comforting in a strange way for him to tell me that. And sure enough, they both survived just fine.
Worry, Worry, Worry
Yes, we modern parents tend to worry about a great deal of things, but I’m not entirely convinced all those worries are worth the lost sleep. For starters, there are the dangers of food (GMOs/BPA/MSG/trans fat/high fructose corn syrup/food coloring/gluten) and then, of course, physical safety (helmets/hand sanitizer/grocery cart covers/car seat positioning/crib safety/water safety/playground safety/vaccinations). We’re also more than a little preoccupied with our children’s “enrichment” (translation: lots of adult organized activities with adult supervision). Parents today can’t even feel okay about checking their email on their phone at the park for fear of not appearing “engaged” or missing out on their little one’s childhood.
Which Pinterest-worthy birthday party theme should I choose? Is my child dressed well enough? Are we signed up for the “right” extracurricular activities with the “right” people? How can we pay for a Disney vacation? What do I need to do to get my child into the best college possible? Will any of these things really matter in the long term?
Truly–to what end are we exhausting ourselves with these worries? A 100% guarantee that our children will be safe/healthy/successful/happy? I think not.
Nobody gets out alive
Another one of my husband’s favorite phrases comes to mind: Nobody gets out alive. Nobody leaves this life without experiencing some level of embarrassment, disappointment, fear, failure, heartbreak, pain, injury, and yes, ultimately death. No matter how hard we try, we simply can’t prevent it. And in fact, one of parenthood’s greatest ironies is that what we sometimes think of as detrimental to our children may actually be good for them (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger), while things that would seem to ensure their happiness or success may inadvertently cause them unhappiness and failure later in life. (Hence, the term “spoiling”.) (For an excellent book on this topic, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.)
And yet, there’s this inexplicable feeling among parents today that they need to know where their child is at all times, have plenty of “good” activities planned for them throughout the day, and do everything within their power to ensure their happiness and success. A typical child’s life today involves school, homework, organized play dates, extracurricular activities, sports teams coached by fellow parents, and very little unsupervised play and exploration of the world around them. To let a child wander aimlessly around the neighborhood until dark would be considered child endangerment by today’s standards. And that one shift in our parenting standards is illustrative of the massive shift in all the others as well. Our children can’t be left alone to experience life unsupervised. It’s too dangerous. They can’t handle it. They might get hurt. As a result, research is showing that those same overprotected and overindulged children are actually having a harder time than previous generations dealing with life in the real world once they grow up and leave home.
Life in the 70’s
Interestingly, despite trends showing that crime against children and crime in general is down from the 70’s when I was a kid (with the sad exception of family related abductions due to an increase in divorces and broken families), it seems that modern parents are more paranoid and overprotective than ever. Seriously, can you even imagine telling your school age child to just go outside and not come back until dark? And yet, this was reality just a generation ago.
While preparing for this article, I posted this request on social media to those who grew up in the 70’s with me: “Anyone have a funny story or example from your childhood that would be considered parental negligence/child endangerment by today’s standards?” Here’s a sampling of the responses:
- riding in open truck beds, riding in the back window of the car, riding from L.A. to Las Vegas with cousins in the trunk of the car (inside), driving a tractor at age 10, hanging their head out of the car window (lots of “car” stories)
- walking to and from school alone at very young ages for fairly long distances, sometimes at the suggestion of teachers or principals when mom didn’t show up
- a 3-year-old brother being left to nap in a motorhome in the Disneyland parking lot for an hour only to wake up after 15 minutes and wander around until being noticed and taken care of by park security (no police or child protective services called) and being left alone in the car as a baby to take a nap while mom went grocery shopping (windows down, but again, no police or child protective services called)
- biking several miles to a nearby river to go swimming with siblings at ages 6, 8, and 10, and biking alone to the local 7-11 to get a favorite 25 cent candy (the infamous candy cigarette)
- getting dropped off as a 3rd grader at the local skating rink while mom ran errands, and taking the city bus to the movies with friends around the same age
- spending the day on horseback in the mountains with friends as a young teen
- finding dead animals in a nearby river bed and examining their insides with a pocket knife (while spending the day wandering around aimlessly outside)
- fighting with siblings over who got to sit next to the stranger (the hitch hiker Dad picked up) in the non air-conditioned station wagon with no seat belts
I could go on and on. By far, the number one theme that came up over and over again was the simple freedom to roam around free outside for hours on end. (Unsupervised. Until dark.) The crazy thing is, this was the rule, not the exception. Some of my fondest memories from childhood would absolutely be considered child endangerment by today’s standards: figuring out how to climb on top of our elementary school, exploring a large construction site where a church was being built, putting pennies on the railroad tracks and waiting to see if the train would flatten them, riding my bike (sans helmet) to the city pool for the day with nothing but a towel and $1.50, climbing to the top of the empty corn crib and rappelling down the side of the barn from the hay loft on my grandparent’s farm (typically barefoot, no less), and the best: riding in the back of the family station wagon with the seats down all the way from Illinois to Florida every other Christmas to visit my mom’s family. (Sleeping bags, the View Master, coloring books, Mad Libs, and McDonald’s for breakfast. It was a kid’s dream come true.)
Life in the 10’s
So how in the world did we go from that to where we are today? I could list as many examples of “crazy” at the opposite end of the spectrum, but my favorite is this: My friend living in California had a child come home from school with a paper wrapped cookie that had a professionally printed sticky note on it saying, “This cookie does not meet our Heathy Kids Nutritional Guidelines for food to be eaten at school. Please help us follow the rules by waiting 45 minutes after school before allowing your child to enjoy it!” (Whaaaaaa???) A more serious example comes from another friend, the wonderful working mother of four with a master’s degree in speech therapy who left her sleeping baby and toddler strapped in their car seats in their minivan while she ran in to grab her dry cleaning. (She could see her children in the car from the very small storefront she was parked in front of.) While inside for a few short minutes, someone managed to call the police and she ended up with “child endangerment” on her record for seven years.
I’d love to research the sociopolitical reasons behind this extreme shift in our culture, but I’m guessing there are a myriad of influences. Perhaps one part “nanny state” and another part overprotective parents trying to ensure their children’s health/safety/success/happiness, but I also wonder if a more recent part of the puzzle might not be our current life of 24-hour news and in-your-face social media that creates a perception that the rare, freakish accident/abduction/incident/death is more widespread than it really is. Singular incidents suddenly feel like potential epidemics.
But again, simply from a safety standpoint, despite all the measures and regulations put in place on playgrounds in recent decades, and all the “stranger danger” indoctrination that has led us to keep our kids inside and afraid of the outside world, the statistics haven’t really changed much for playground accidents or child abductions. The freakishly rare accident/abduction is still just that. So why are we trying so hard to protect our children? From what?
What we’ve lost in our efforts to protect our children from every potential danger in the world is not absolute freedom from fear, disappointment, pain, sickness, or even death. What we’ve lost is our children’s freedom to explore, take risk, practice independence, think in open-ended and creative ways, negotiate with other children without adult intervention, and take full responsibility for their actions without that same adult constantly looking over their shoulder bailing them out or orchestrating their every move. There are some very healthy aspects of child development that are lost when a child loses that kind of freedom.
I have to admit, when I see young children walking alone alongside a busy road (a rare occurrence, sadly), I worry. And there is totally a part of me that feels my children’s lives won’t be complete until they’ve experienced The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Whether I like it or not, I am a product of this generation of overprotective, overindulgent, overthinking parents. It’s a part of me now, and one that I have to make a conscience effort to shake.
And how do I do that? My own little personal rebellion from this crazy mentality is unique to me, but I’ll give you a few examples I’m quite proud of and encourage you to think of your own ways to push back and give your kids a little more breathing room.
- When my two teenagers told me they purchased tickets for the Comic Convention in the city about a half an hour away from us and suggested that I drive them, I told them to figure out how to use the new train system and take it. They did, and when they were gone all day long in a big city all by themselves I was pleased as punch.
- We purchased a property that backs to a mini forest and stream and we not only allow, but encourage our kids to go back there and explore. (Unsupervised. Until dark.) My son has a huge collection of animal bones he’s collected from down there that he’s crafted into a somewhat recognizable skeleton on his bedroom floor. (Yep.)
- After we put the seats down in the back of our mini-van to transport something, I’ll let my kids play what they call “Jell-O” in the back (going “boneless” while I take sharp corners around on empty streets in our neighborhood). Yes, there have been bumps and tears on occasion, but they still beg for more. I also let my kids stand up and stick their heads out of the minivan sunroof when driving through the neighborhood.
- The last two homes we’ve lived in have both had unfinished basements, and while I like the idea of finishing the basement and creating a “cool” space for the kids to hang out in with their friends, they’ve spent many unsupervised hours down there wreaking all kinds of havoc while I’ve deliberately turned a blind eye. In our last home, they used dozens of moving boxes, Christmas lights, and other items from the holiday bins to create a chaotic sort of playhouse for them and their friends. In our current home they roller blade in the basement and paint all over the floors. I love it. The unfinished basement is the only “wild” place in our home, full of unstructured mayhem, and in this world of overprotective parents that’s what I feel like I need to protect. Not my children’s health and safety, but their freedom to explore and learn through curiosity and play.
- (Just for fun, we also like to pick up hitch hikers on occasion. Just did it last week, in fact. 99.99999% of hitch hikers really just need a ride.)
It takes a lot to ruin a child
Have you seen the documentary Babies? It follows four babies living in vastly different cultures (Namibia, Mongolia, San Francisco, and Tokyo) for the first year of their life. It’s fascinating. You can’t help but watch it and question the supposed superiority of our modern, First World style of parenting. There’s a scene where the baby from Mongolia is swaddled tightly and left alone inside the family’s humble home with their free roaming family goat. And then there’s the carefree, happy child from Namibia who is basically naked all day long. When you start to think about all the people who have ever lived throughout the history of the world, and all the human beings being raised “happy and successful” in vastly different cultures and lifestyles today, it really does make you realize that it takes a lot to die and a maybe even more to ruin a child.
Abraham Lincoln was raised in a one-room log cabin. Oprah Winfrey was repeatedly molested as a child. Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at age ten. Steven Spielberg was rejected twice by USC. Walt Disney was once so poor he resorted to eating dog food. So when you start to think that your child is somehow going to suffer because they have to share a bedroom, or because they ate a Twinkie at a friend’s party, or because they may never have the opportunity to go on a Disney Cruise? It’s okay. Really.
Of all the terrible things that could happen to our children, losing the freedom to experience life at its fullest, on their own terms, and with all the risks inherent to this world might be one of the worst and most detrimental. In all of our protecting and preventing, let’s protect that freedom and prevent our kids from the loss of it.
QUESTION: What do you think? Are parents today worrying too much about the wrong things? Are we trying too hard to protect our kids from experiences that would actually prepare them better for the real world?
CHALLENGE: Take a good look at your parenting style and paradigm when it comes to health, safety, child enrichment and parental involvement and ask yourself if there’s any room for you to stop worrying so much, pull back, and give your child a little more freedom. For their sake as well as yours.