Are our children overprotected?
As we walk to the playground, Henry yells to his friend, “Let’s race!” And they do. Down sidewalks that are bulging and splitting from the tree roots underneath, two semi-coordinated boys flail their legs downhill, shouting with glee. Behind them, I cringe, and wonder who’s going to scrape his knee this time.
But I keep my trap shut. If he’s going to fall, I think, he’ll fall. Usually he doesn’t. And if he does, so what? Carefully stepping through life is not going to get him anywhere. Should I sensibly point out that the sidewalks are bumpy, and that he’d be better off racing on a more forgiving, even surface, like the playground we’re about to enter? I don’t think so. The occasional scraped knee is not the end of the world, and he needs to know that. I truly believe that one of the best things I can do, as his parent, is show him that he can survive disappointments and mishaps. That suffering some pain at the end of a really fun race is less tragic than never racing at all.
According to Hara Estroff Marano, this belief puts me in the minority of parents. In her book “A Nation of Wimps,” Marano, an editor-at-large at Psychology Today, argues that parents today are so afraid of anything negative befalling our children that we raise them in virtual cocoons. And, to put it mildly, we’re not doing them any favors: protected from any danger or risk, children grow up timid and dependent. By not letting them fail, we also fail to allow them to succeed. Parents, Marano argues, are bizarrely over-involved in children’s play and academic lives, even going so far as to “have their kids declared defective” so that they can get Ritalin prescriptions and special accommodations for testing and school, in order that they might enjoy every available advantage. (I haven’t read Marano’s book, so I can’t say what evidence she provides of this rampant Ritalin use, but that particular example seems outrageous to me. What parents would have their child take medication they knew the child didn’t need?)
There’s no doubt that children are kept on a shorter leash than they ever have before. The UK’s Daily Mail recently published a story examining the relative freedom of four generations of children in one family. The children of each subsequent generation were given less and less leeway to wander and explore their community. The graphic of the story really drives the message home: while the great-grandfather, at age eight, could roam six miles to his favorite fishing hole, the his great-grandson today, at the same age, isn’t allowed to leave his yard.
But let’s not place the blame for all this overprotectiveness solely on the parents. We are besieged these days with stories of child abduction (even though abduction rates have decreased in the past few years) and molesters on the prowl (even though most of these crimes are committed not by strangers but family and friends). Our 24-hour news networks require a constant stream of warnings and directives to keep our attention, and no one attends to warnings and directives more than parents. In this climate, even if a family wanted to give their child more freedom, it isn’t practical. As the mother in the story mentions, other children aren’t out and about, so even if her kid could venture beyond his yard, who would join him? And what would the other families say if they saw her boy, unattended?
Take a look at Lenore Skenazy, a journalist for the New York Sun, who wrote in a column about allowing her nine-year-old to take the subway by himself. He had begged for the opportunity to figure out his own way home; she knew he was more than capable of navigating public transportation or asking for directions if he was lost. So she let him. He made it back home, safe and sound, and exhilarated by his accomplishment. The reaction to her column ranged from awe at her bravery to outrage, with many responses calling for her imprisonment or the removal of her child from her care. Apparently choosing to trust in your child rather than give in to irrational fear is an irresponsible decision, these days.
I look forward to finding out what Marano’s solution is for parents in this kind of environment. Meanwhile, I won’t put Henry on the subway alone just yet, but he can run on all the sidewalks he likes. I may avert my eyes, though. If he’s going to fall, I don’t want to see it happen.