Back when I was six years old, the neighborhood I lived in provided the perfect backdrop for an active and idyllic childhood. Half a dozen other boys about my age lived on the same street I did and we quickly banded together to form a little neighborhood gang. We spent the daylight hours building ramps for our bikes, playing pick-up football games in my front yard, and simply scouting around the area.
The subdivision I grew up in was still under construction at the time, so there were plenty of partially built houses to explore. After the construction workers left for the day, we’d cruise down the street on our bikes to check out their work and poke around the skeletal structures rising from the muddy lots. The ones that were the most fun to explore were the two-story houses. You’d have to climb up the railing-less, unfinished stairs and when you got to the top, you were able to walk to the edge of the second story’s framing and throw stuff down on your buds.
On the lots that didn’t have any houses, we’d engage in intense dirt clod fights. We’d dig foxholes and just start chucking clods of dirt at each other for hours. One of them that came my way had a rock in it and hit me directly in the right eye. I was in the hospital for a few days and had to have surgery to save it. My only consolation was that I got to wear an eye patch for a few weeks just like “One-Eyed Willy” from The Goonies. (The eye is fine these days. Just have a really bad astigmatism in it.)
Behind our house was a giant field through which ran a little creek. My friends and I spent hours exploring the banks and gave names to the landmarks we encountered. I remember one day we got particularly brave and started to wade/swim the creek to see where it would take us. From that journey, we found a cool, secluded little alcove, and thought it would be the perfect spot for a fort. So we built one from pallets and old tires we found nearby, and thereafter spent many an afternoon in our secluded hideout.
On all these escapades, my parents knew I was out in the neighborhood, but didn’t know exactly where, and didn’t care. The only rule was that I had to be home for dinner.
Now, fast forward thirty years.
On an evening awhile back, my own six-year-old son headed out to the front yard to play, which was fine with me. But when I went out ten minutes later to tell him something, he was nowhere to be found. I checked the backyard, and the sides of the house. Then I went back inside to see if he was there. I searched through every room, calling his name. A little anxiety crept into my stomach. Now Kate was concerned too and joined in the search. We checked outside again, then inside, then outside, calling his name in ever louder shouts. I got in the car and drove up and down the street and around the block. No Gus. He had seemingly completely disappeared.
I drove around the block again, while Kate searched the house and yards for the umpteenth time. Still no sign of him.
Anxiety was quickly transforming into full-on panic. The thoughts running through my head were involuntary and terrifying: Someone had taken Gus.
I called the police and told them I couldn’t find my kid; they said they’d send an officer over. A couple neighbors started to help us look for him. I got back in the car and widened the circle of my search.
Finally, I spotted Gus. He was a few steps from his grandparents’ house, who live a half mile away. With enormous relief, I put him in the car and drove back home. The police arrived soon after. With some sheepishness, I told them that everything was okay, I had found my son.
I was left to wonder: Had I been too panicked?
In my defense, Gus had never tried, or even expressed interest in walking down the street by himself, much less walking to his grandparents alone. It was totally unprecedented and out of the blue.
But that just brings up other difficult questions.
Why hadn’t he been interested in exploring on his own? Why wasn’t it normal for him to go off, not only to his grandparents, but to play with other kids in the neighborhood, the way I used to?
Yet that’s in fact a hypothetical question, as in reality, there aren’t other neighborhood kids out and about to play with; they’ve all seemingly been sequestered inside.
And that fact brings up the most burning questions of all: What’s changed in our culture since I was growing up to create this transformation? What’s behind today’s more cautious parenting style?
The Shrinking Perimeter of Children’s Activities and Free Range
The norms of responsible parenting have certainly changed a lot in just a single generation.
Kids used to walk or bike to school; now they’re not even allowed to walk to and from the bus stop. Children who used to spontaneously gather together in the neighborhood are now set up on supervised playdates. Whereas parents used to kick kids outside, expecting them to roam and not return ’til sundown, they now prefer to keep their children indoors, or at least no farther away than the backyard.
If parents do let their kids out of the house, they’re close behind. Thus on a typical playground, you see mom and/or dad hovering next to their child — parents with arms outstretched to catch him or her should they fall off the monkey bars; parents riding down a slide with their child securely positioned on their lap.
It’s not just the physical range that children are allowed to autonomously explore which has shrunk, but the range of their allowed activities as well.
While young boys a half century ago frequently carried pocket knives wherever they went, the age at which parents feel comfortable giving their children sharp, pointy objects has precipitously increased. Same with lighters and matches. Letting your kid drive the car down the driveway while sitting on your lap? Forget about it.
Such observations on the increasingly cosseted nature of childhood aren’t merely anecdotal. Research bears out the fact that modern kids have a far more circumscribed life than their parents and grandparents did.
Several studies in the United States, Europe, and Australia have found that over the last 50 years the radius of children’s “independent mobility” has shrunk by as much as 90%; whereas the distance grandpa was allowed to roam from home was measured in miles, for the modern child, it’s measured in yards. According to one study in the U.K., while 80% of third-graders were allowed to walk to school in 1971, that number had dropped to just 9% in 1990, and is even lower today.
The prevalence of zero tolerance policies in schools is well-documented and has resulted in cases where an honor roll student gets suspended for bringing a butter knife from home to cut up her peach (she wanted to share it with her classmates). Some schools have even banned running and balls at recess (too likely to cause injuries), and designated games of tag and cartwheels as activities requiring adult supervision.
Beyond the anecdotes, studies, and news stories, the change in the culture of childhood and parenting is something most adults these days can simply instinctually feel. What may be harder to grasp, however, is just why this shift has happened.
What’s Behind Today’s More Protective Parenting Style
You’ve probably heard the types of stats and examples mentioned above. I know they were on my radar years ago, even before I had children myself. Remember that whole “free range kids” thing that bubbled up back in 2008, kicked off by a controversial column in which Lenore Skenazy said she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone?
I remember. It was two years before I had Gus. And like all childless folks, I had the whole parenting thing figured out. What was wrong with all of Skenazy’s critics? Kids shouldn’t be coddled! I knew exactly the kind of father I was going to be — one who let his children roam and be independent and do risky things. Free range parenting, here I come!
Like lots of certitudes I held about childrearing before I actually had kids, this one underwent a lot of adjustment once my real flesh and blood progeny arrived.
It’s not that I totally lost my pre-fatherhood ideal — I’ve intentionally sought to have my kids do “dangerous” things like hold knives, play with matches, swing a hammer, and set off fireworks. I encourage them to play by themselves in the yard (though as you’ll see below, I haven’t always been successful in this). I take them camping and hiking and fishing.
It’s just that on some stuff, like letting them roam outside alone, I’ve found a greater fear clenching my heart than I had imagined, and even on the stuff I allow them do, letting go and fighting the urge to try to prevent every bumped knee or cut finger has been a lot harder than I thought it would be.
While the trend of overprotective parenting has certainly gotten a lot of coverage, much less discussed is exactly why this phenomenon arose in the first place. Why are modern parents so protective of their children (and children in turn so risk averse themselves)?
Below are some hypotheses born from research and personal reflection:
Families Have Fewer Kids
Parents are, on average, having fewer children than they used to and this has arguably not only had a direct impact on their tolerance for their kids’ risk-taking, but indirectly influenced almost all the other factors on this list as well.
First, the fewer children parents have, the more time they have to dote on each one of them. Thus, beginning in the 19th century when the fertility rate in the West began a generally downwards trajectory, children started to be seen less as assets for household labor, and more as creatures to simply cherish and adore. They became, in the phrase of sociologist Viviana Zelizer, “economically worthless and emotionally priceless.”
Common sense would dictate that this “priceless” valuation would only go up the fewer children a family has; running, as they do, the risk of a tragedy leaving them childless, parents of only one or two kids have more to lose should something happen to them. Winston Churchill was not being facetious when he advised a friend: “You must have four children. One for Mother, one for Father, one for Accidents, and one for Increase.”
Of course, parents who have many children don’t feel as if they love each of their children any less, nor would they find the loss of one of them any less devastating than the parents of few children would.
Yet, on a subconscious level, it is likely that parents who have many children are a little more comfortable with their kids taking risks, while those with one or two clutch them more tightly. As a father of only two myself, I know I can admit to thinking that if something happened to one of them, I’d only be left with one. I can’t imagine this doesn’t latently increase the (over) protectiveness of my parenting.
There’s also the simple fact that more children means less eyeballs to go around. With two kids, each parent can have both eyes firmly on one child. With three or four or even more, parents simply can’t have eyes on all of them at all times; even if they wanted to be over-protective, they’re simply not physically able.
Both Parents Working Full-Time+Higher Parenting Expectations
More children are raised in households where both parents work full-time than ever before. Yet, paradoxically enough, both mothers and fathers are spending more time with their children, not less — even more than in the 1960s.
This may be because today’s parents, many of whom came of age in the 70s and 80s when the divorce rate was highest (contrary to popular belief, it’s been going down ever since), want to create the kind of close-knit family they didn’t enjoy growing up. At the same time, since both mom and dad are working, they feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids.
Compounding this is a culture that has emphasized the importance of loving nurture and active interaction in maximizing a child’s emotional and educational development; with fewer children per family, parents become more invested in the success of each of their kids, and have the mental bandwidth to micromanage its upwards trajectory. So while a 1950s mom often left her kids to play on their own, her modern counterpart is supposed to really get down on the floor and teach and interact with them all the time. The expectation for this more intensive form of parenting hasn’t just fallen on mothers, but fathers as well; whereas dads used to have a more peripheral function in childrearing, they’re now expected (and often desire) a more hands-on role. Today’s dads, in fact, spend 4X more time with their children than fathers did in 1965.
As a result of this combination of working parents and high expectations, when moms and dads come home from their jobs, having not seen their kids all day, they’re often not keen on their children going out to play on their own, since this will curtail the family’s only available window for spending quality time together. Parents feel like they should keep their kids close during all their off-hours, intently interacting with them side-by-side.
Even though Kate and I only work during the hours of the school day (and then again at night once the kids have gone to bed), I can attest to this phenomenon. We both felt we should be spending all our time with Gus and Scout in our free time, especially when they were very young. Now, as an unintended consequence, even though I think they’ve gotten old enough to be playing on their own, they’re still attached at our hips and want to hang out with us all.the.time.
I never would have even thought to “play” with either my mom or my dad when I was growing up, and I’ve taken to trying to explain this fact to Gus and Scout. But to little avail. I can hardly blame them for their uber-attachment — we created the issue ourselves.
Children Have Busier Schedules/More Structured Activities
Along with the desire to maximize children’s full potential, has also come a rise in structured extracurricular activities. More after-school music lessons, more sports. And it’s never too early to start. Three-year-olds take gymnastic lessons, play soccer (a chaotic herding of cats that goes under the name “soccer”), and do yoga alongside their moms. To leave your kid to his or her own devices is to let their capabilities atrophy — a decision nigh near neglect.
The result of this increasingly crowded schedule, Atlantic Monthly writer Hannah Rosin observes, is that if kids aren’t spending time with their parents at home, they’re under the eye of other adults in classrooms and on playing fields:
“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.”
When children participate in structured activities, they often not only have their teachers’ or coaches’ eyes on them, but their parents are still there too. Whereas parents were more apt to simply drop their kids off for practices (and birthday parties) decades ago, now they frequently stay as a spectator, feeling they should be there to observe their child’s progress, and just in case he or she needs them. With all this supervision, Rosin writes, today’s children “take it for granted that they are always being watched.”
While most kids may not be as well-tended as Rosin’s, between the 1980s and early 00s, the amount of time children had at their disposal declined by 9 hours a week on average. Kids empirically don’t have as much time for free, unstructured play as they used to — the kind of unsupervised play in which they’re most apt to take risks and explore their limits.
Kids Have Fewer Neighborhood Playmates
I’ve noticed that the older Scout gets, and the more she can play with Gus, the more he (and she) have finally been detaching from Kate and I and playing on their own. From this I’ve concluded that while Gus’ reluctance to play by himself likely had something to do with my coddling, it was also simply due to not having a playmate. In a neighborhood where there aren’t any kids his age, he had to wait for Scout to mature to the point that she could function as such.
Think about the times you not only did the most exploring as a child but also engaged in the riskiest activities. It was probably when you were in a pack of other kids.
While independent, boundary-pushing play is something children engage in by themselves, it really comes into fruition in the context of neighborhood “gangs.” Out from under the watch of adults, kids egg each other on into taking more risks — risks they wouldn’t have otherwise tried their hand at.
With fewer siblings and fewer neighborhood kids to go around these days, this formerly central part of the childhood experience is seemingly going extinct.
Of course, no discussion of overprotective parenting could overlook the role of technology in this phenomenon. Even if the parents of yesteryear had wanted to keep their children indoors, there just wasn’t enough to do around the house to keep them entertained. Parents didn’t want to be around bored kids, any more than kids wanted to be bored, leaving the latter to be shooed outside — if they hadn’t already headed out of their own free will and choice.
Today, with a virtual world to explore at every child’s fingertips, keeping children inside is a viable option for parents, and a welcome one for youth. Kids are entertained by their devices; parents rest easy knowing their children are safe at home.
At the same time, technology has also increased our expectations for connectedness. There was a time, so recent in history it is part of my personal memory, that people of any age could only be contacted by landline; there were wide swaths of the day where they were completely unreachable, and you accepted that.
In the age of GPS and smartphones, our expectations have vastly changed and heightened. We expect to be able to touch base with anyone at any time. This expectation has undoubtedly carried over into how we raise our children. Not being able to contact your kids for hours was normal for my parents’ generation; for my own, it can seem strange, and scary.
Fear of Litigation
In 1978, parents of a boy who became paralyzed and brain damaged after falling from the top of a playground slide sued the Chicago Park District, eventually settling for $9.5 million dollars seven years later.
Thereafter, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a “Handbook for Public Playground Safety” that offered suggestions for making equipment safer. While only meant to serve as guidelines, park managers around the country, fearing similar ligation, spent the next several decades zealously transforming playgrounds into tamer, safer — many would say more sterile — romping grounds.
Just recently the playground closest to our house ripped out its configuration of multiple monkey bars and metal slides, installing in its place some plastic, prefab doohickeys mounted atop a platform of rubber matting. What’s funny is that half of the new, ground-level apparatuses are designed to spin, the designers seemingly believing that the nausea induced by dizziness could substitute for the flutter of fear provoked by height — by actual risk. Funny too, that the kids still try to use the equipment in “dangerous” ways for which it was not intended — climbing on top of it, rather than following its predetermined functions. You can change the equipment, but you can’t totally change the heart of a child.
Litigation-inspired policies and spiking insurance premiums for schools and clubs are certainly working to flatten the landscape of that heart, though. Zero tolerance rules for weapons, bans on soccer and football at recess, Scout manuals filled with more safety disclaimers than requirements have taken much of the surprise, risk, and fun out of childhood.
Fear of Busybodies
It’s not just lawsuits that people have to fear these days, but the nosiness of their neighbors as well. Even if you want to let you children be a little “free range,” it’s became such an anomalous choice, that it is likely to be met with the disapproval of one’s peers (and even one’s own parents and in-laws, who, though they raised you that way, no longer feel it’s an appropriate approach to childrearing). More worrisome still, is the possibility that these onlookers could call the authorities on you.
Within a single generation, behaviors that were once commonplace have become illegal acts of child endangerment There have been well-publicized cases where concerned citizens have actually called the police to report the fact that children were walking alone in the neighborhood; their parents consequently had to endure accusations of neglect and an investigation by Child Protective Services. Other parents have been charged with felony neglect for letting their 11-year-old son play in the backyard alone for an hour and a half. Parents have even been charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after leaving their child unattended in a locked car while running inside a store for a few minutes.
Even if one’s hands-off approach doesn’t become criminally dangerous, it can be socially so. If you’re the parent who’s sitting back while other mothers and fathers hover around their kids, you run the risk of being considered an unfit caretaker. While a scowl of reproach should be easy enough to brush off, the pressure to follow new childrearing norms is pervasive, and subtly influences behavior. Even those who find the new norms silly, feel pushed to fall in line.
Fear of Crime, or, More Accurately, the Illusion of Control
One of the most obvious causes of overprotective parenting is the idea that while it was okay for kids to be by themselves thirty or forty years ago, the world is just a more dangerous place now.
We’ll delve into specific stats as to whether crimes like abduction have really gone up or down when we continue our discussion of this topic next week. I’m sure, though, that I don’t need to even insert a spoiler alert before saying that the world is in fact not a more dangerous place than it was when I was a boy.
Why does it feel like it then?
Many would point the finger at the rise of 24/7 news networks and websites, and their relentless, sensational coverage of kidnappings, rape, murder, etc. As this thinking goes, even though crime has actually gone down in most places, we feel like it’s gone up because images of violence and tragedy fill our screens and are constantly in our faces; more bad things aren’t happening, it just seems like they are because they’re covered to an extent disproportional to their occurrence.
While this argument is often forwarded, not only in regards to crimes against children, but to explain why people feel the world is getting worse in general, I’ve never personally found it all that convincing, as the idea that we’re consuming way more news than we used to just isn’t historically accurate.
While folks didn’t have the internet a century and a half ago, newspapers did come out in multiple editions a day; you could grab a paper morning, noon, and night, and sometimes in-between when something really big happened. And the stories the papers carried in this age of “yellow journalism” were just as sensationalistic, if not more so, than they are today; if you don’t believe me, check out the offerings of the nineteenth’s century’s National Police Gazette. So while the citizens of yesteryear were not wholly as plugged-in as we are, their appetite for news was just as large, and fed quite regularly.
Perhaps it’s the more graphic nature of modern news then? Old-time newspapers had black and white illustrations and later photographs; now we’ve got far more photos, plus endless video coverage, all in living color. Maybe seeing the innocent faces of abducted kids, and watching film roll of his distraught parents, brings the story home in a vivid way, and creates a much more visceral sense of fear in parents’ hearts?
Likely so. And yet this explanation cannot explain the whole story either.
In 1800, 43% of the world’s children died before ever reaching their fifth birthday. In 1961, the child mortality rate was still 18.5%. Today it’s 4.3% for the world as a whole, and a tiny fraction of that in the United States. In 1935 in the U.S., there were 450 deaths per every 100,000 children under the age of four; today there are fewer than 30 deaths per the same cohort. Many, many parents centuries and even decades ago, did not just see stories of children dying through their screens, they experienced it firsthand. In their neighbors’ families, in their own families. Visiting a cemetery from the 19th century and seeing how many gravestones are emblazoned with a heartrendingly short span between the years of birth and death, viscerally brings home how very common losing a child used to be.
Many of these deaths were caused by disease, of course, but to read the historical record is to find that plenty of children died in accidental and unexpected ways too: mishandling of tools/weapons, falling into fire, being eaten by an animal.
Parents of yesteryear thus experienced the injury and death of children in a way that was even more up close and personal than we do, and yet they were less protective of their kids, not more.
What then accounts for this paradox?
We’re surely back again to the number of children each family had; parents of a past century might have a dozen, knowing at least several wouldn’t live to see adulthood.
But there’s also a difference in worldview at work. A divergence in philosophies.
One explanation that’s been offered for the rise of overprotective parenting is that the world feels so uncertain today, and the rearing and safety of our children seems like one of the few things we can control. But it’s hard to imagine that folks living in a time where nearly half of their children would die before age five didn’t also feel like life was cruelly uncertain. The world has in fact always been uncertain; it’s just that the way we’ve responded to this uncertainty has changed.
In the past, in a time where there was less scientific knowledge and less technology, people saw life as more influenced by fate and divine will. As they could not control these forces, they resigned themselves to doing the best they could in life, accepting that the rest of the chips would fall where they would. Some suffering was inevitable.
As knowledge and technology has expanded in the modern era, so have our expectations for control. In a secular society, we see the power to shape events as resting almost entirely in our own hands. We’ve been bequeathed tools that can help our children and ourselves live longer, easier, safer lives, and this has colored our whole perspective. If science and technology can save millions of lives, could it not conceivably save them all? All tragedy, even death from old age, has come to be seen as ultimately preventable. This outlook, this myth of progress, can’t help but permeate out parenting. Why should any child have to get hurt? Why should any child die? Our faith in the possibility of complete control is profound; if we try hard enough, we can outsmart all tragedy.
Of course, this faith is only an illusion. The whims of Fate still operate as they always have. The die of chance keeps rolling. Our efforts to carefully check and contain, regulate and arrange, can assuredly mitigate some dangers, but can never quash them all. Randomness ensures the inevitability of risk. Yet our efforts to slay the indestructible understandably continue, increasing as the goal seemingly gets closer and closer, while remaining forever out of reach.
After I brought Gus back home from his ambulatory adventure, I made a concerted effort not to act at all mad at him. I didn’t want him to think that what he had done was inherently wrong. I told him in fact that I was glad and proud that he had wanted to head off by himself, and that I had just been worried because he hadn’t told me where he was going.
Despite how terrible the experience of feeling like he’d been snatched from the front yard had been, the next evening I allowed him to go back out there to play by himself.
But am I ready for him to walk to his grandparents’ house alone? I think he might need to be a little older for that.
I’m still trying to figure out where exactly to draw the lines.
Because the new style of protective parenting isn’t wholly without merit. Maybe it’s prevented an astigmatism or two. And children are spending even more time with parents, especially dads, and forging an even closer bond with them. I’m not a parent who thinks you should relinquish the role of authority in order to be equal buddies with your kids, but I like that my little guy and I do so much together. And it seems good for him and Scout too; for all the time children these days spend with adults, they seem more mature, at least in some ways, than children of the past.
Yet stats on whether protective parenting prevents injuries and abductions aren’t very strong, and the benefits of protective parenting aren’t an unalloyed good; our close bond comes at a cost.
As it turns out, sometimes when you try to smother one kind of danger, another variety simply pops up in its place.
In making our kids more safe in some ways, we’ve made them less safe in others. To this very real risk of not letting kids do risky things, and the need to balance both sides of the equation, is where we will turn next time.
Last updated: April 10, 2017