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Are our children overprotected?

By Alice Bradley

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.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • LGraves65

    June 27, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    One summer I took my son, then six or seven, to the doctor. While he was there for an illness, the doctor commented on the fact that his knees and shins had bruises and scraps and scabs. In my mind I was quickly mounting a defense to the charges of abuse that I was sure were coming when he said, “I like to see that. Kids shouldn’t have smooth legs.”

  • Hey You

    June 27, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Great, great post Alice! I deal with this at my house all the time. I am the parent that lets him climb, run, and try new things. My Husband hovers over him with fear that he will hurt himself. On the other hand, I worry about germs, diseases, and learning disabilities, and The Husband reminds me that he is fine. Between the two of us, I think we have a good balance. I do worry that he will not get to do so many of the fun things we did, remember the merry-go round at the park? When is the last time you saw one of those?

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    June 27, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    What cracks me up are all the people who insinuate that, by homeschooling, I am overprotecting my kids; yet my children are the ones who are able to run about free of adult supervision several hours a day.
    And, yes, the key to not being too overprotective is not to watch too closely. That goes for chores, also – if I actually saw how my kids do the dishes, I probably wouldn’t let them.

  • kim

    June 27, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    So timely Alice! We allow our girls, 7 and almost 9, to walk to their friends’ house on the next court during daylight hours. Their friends’ parents, who are from a less freaked-out country, allow their girls, 11 and almost 9, to walk around the corner to the video store.
    Yes, the video store is on a busier road, but they don’t actually get any closer to that road than the sidewalk. Still, I definitely hear about it if my father or brother happens to see them walking there unaccompanied. I talked to my husband about it, thinking maybe we should ask the other parents not to let them do that when our girls are there, but he pointed out that their backyard actually backs up to the video store, and that they’re not crossing any streets to get there. So we’re letting them do it, bad parents that we are.
    We lived in the country when I was a kid, and had the freedom to roam all over the woods and through the creek and the cow pastures, and sometimes even to the “little grey store” three miles away. (The kind with little Coke bottles that you could return for a nickel and get one more bonus piece of candy.)
    At Grandma’s house in the city (small city, but with LOTS of stores we could walk to) we’d go all over by ourselves: the playground two blocks away, the store four blocks away, or even Dairy Queen about 12 blocks away. I have so many good memories of those times. I really hate to deny my girls those joyous moments of freedom, that clutching of a change purse and savoring the thought of all the wonderful things they might buy ALL ON THEIR OWN.

  • all things bd

    June 27, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    My girls are 5 and 8, and I get horrified reactions when I share with friends that they are allowed to walk to the neighbor’s house unattended. The neighbor’s house is TWO DOORS up. Often, the six kids in our neighborhood play outside without a grownup. What’s gonna happen with SIX KIDS running around? Who is gonna try anything that resembles wrangling cats?
    Give them more freedom I say. I agree that there’s more danger coming from those they know than from strangers.

  • AnneM

    June 27, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Like Hey You, we are a split family. People often comment that I’m so relaxed about things with my daughter, she must feel so free and confident, etc. And I say yeah, that’s only because my husband would like to wrap her in bubble wrap and sit her next to the Faberge eggs, so I have to pull way back on my particular issues or else she’d never be allowed to leave the house!

  • lizneust

    June 27, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    The childrearing book I like – in fact, the only one I like and haven’t thrown away in disgust – is “The Blessing of the Skinned Knee.” It addresses this very point of giving your child enough latitude to experience life. The author, whose name I’m not remembering, bases a lot of her thoughts and theories on the Talmud. But I’m not Jewish, and I still found the book extraordinarily useful in trying to figure out my role in safely parenting my children without OVER parenting my children. As a bonus, it’s quite a slim volume and she is quite funny (God wouldn’t have put “honor thy father and mother” in the 10 commandments if he thought it was going to be easy.)

  • JessicaAPISS

    June 27, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks for this great essay.
    I am a big fan of Lenore Skenazy and I hope I have the bravery when my kids are able to venture out of my nicely-tended nest to experience the world that I let them be free range.

  • ozma

    June 27, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    I first walked to my friend’s house–a block away, by myself, when I was three.
    When I was three, I also walked to the store that was a mile from my house. This was quite an adventure, actually. It wasn’t supposed to happen. I had come back from my friend’s house and seen my mother driving away. This freaked me out and I thought she might be going to the store. So I walked there. Through an alley, no less.
    At four, I would leave the house in the morning (sometimes before my parents woke up) and come home at dusk. I’m pretty sure my mom must have inquired as to my whereabouts at some point during the day. I was at my best friend’s house, which is where I always was.
    Of course, I went the six or so blocks to school by myself when I was five. My mom walked me there on the first day to make sure I knew how to get there. She taught me to look both ways before crossing the street, and then I was on my own. Until I was seven and started taking my sister with me.
    I freaked out last week when I saw my daughter go outside of the play yard at school, on to the sidewalk, over to the firetruck during a school festival. SHE LEFT THE ENCLOSURE. OH MY FREAKING GOD. She’s four. I wouldn’t let her go anywhere or do anything.
    I do let her climb the boulders in Central Park. She’s fearless there. It’s quite odd–she’s a bit of a scaredy cat except when it comes to those boulders and I freak but I let her do it for the very reason you mention.
    I’m sure my parents would probably be arrested or something now. But everyone was doing it then. Where we lived, anyway.
    I’m a mess, though. I’m not independent or confident or anything like that. So I dunno. My brother came along later, when we lived by a much busier street and the whole tenor of things was different in this neighborhood and he did not go out on his own and I think he is just fine. So maybe this is more scare mongering about our scare mongering? I truly do not know.

  • Laura

    June 27, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I completely agree and do my best to let my children have freedom. My 6 year old walks home from the school bus stop by himself. My 4 year old is allowed to play outside while I stay inside to fix dinner. (How sad that these are “freedoms”.) But, I had a scare recently when my 2 year old fell off her older brother’s twin bed. I was letting her bounce a bit–bouncing, not even really juming– and she was having a grand time. Then she fell off the bed, knocked herself unconscious and had to be transported to the ER via ambulance on a backboard. Took years off my life (but she’s fine). And oh, the guilt. I was kicking myself for being so relaxed. Now I struggle more than ever with this issue. My husband (like others mentioned above) is super protective and would never forgive me if something really bad happened on my (more relaxed) watch. Anyway, this is a tough issue.

  • cagey

    June 27, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    I should not admit this, but I judge activities on a scale of Death vs. Injury. So yeah. My kid is allowed to jump on the couch and the bed. Would I be proud if he broke a bone? Or scraped a knee? Um, no. But I think we are a happier household with me not screeching at him every minute. Also, when I do screech at him for truly serious situations? He tends to listen.
    Also, Lenore Skenazy has a great blog called Free Range Kids – definitely worth reading.

  • Johnna

    June 28, 2008 at 7:31 am

    I watched my then-4-year-old son have his first bike crash several months ago. He was riding down a hill on the sidewalk. I saw him begin weaving, and all I could do was watch! I must say I was so happy to see him leave the sidewalk and land in a pile of leaves. He was scared but unharmed. I rushed to him and complimented him on his quick thinking and how perfect it was to crash onto something soft. He was sort of proud too. Even though we both knew landing in that pile of leaves was a wonderful accident!
    I think you are right and I applaud you!

  • Steph.

    June 28, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    I think I’m a little more likely to try your level of freedom with my kids too. Actually, my son’s almost 9 and playing sports has really been a lesson for all of us. We’re learning to let go and let him make his mistakes and be disappointed and let him handle it–even when it isn’t the best way to deal with it. Then, we talk about it after and what he might have done or might do next time to have better results. It’s so hard because you want to rush to him and tell him what to do, based on your own experiences, but really they have to find their way on their own…scraped knees and all.

  • houndrat

    June 28, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Yeah, I’m an eye-averter, too. I know my kid won’t die a horrible death from a few skinned knees, but darned if I have the cojones to actually watch it happen.
    I’m constantly reminding myself to bite my tongue instead of letting loose with the constant stream of “Be carefuls!”, etc. I’m glad to read I’m not the only one who finds this challenging.

  • Lisa C

    June 28, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    I really needed to read this post. I KNOW I’m definitely one of those over-protective parents. I don’t want to be. I’m trying to change. But sometimes I forgot I have a problem when I compare myself to my mother-in-law, who threw away an entire plate of cheese and rewashed all the apple slices in a bowl when she saw a fly in her kitchen. She didn’t want anything she served the grandchildren to have any germs on it.
    I think my greatest difficulty is letting them be disappointed. I’m trying to parent differently with my second, so when he lost a balloon at a fair, I didn’t get him a replacement (even though they were free, and the balloon man was about a hundred feet away). It about broke my heart (because I’m a total sensitive wimp), but I felt like it was important somehow for him to experience that disappointment. He was only 2-and-a-half, but he talked about that balloon for days. I still believe it was significant experience for him. Something of his own.

  • Sonja

    June 29, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    I’m currently reading a book called “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin De Becker. He does a great job of explaining the differences between actual and perceived dangers to our kids.

  • gray matters

    June 29, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Ok, I know I’m supposed to say “Yeah, absolutely–let ’em ride the subway, send them into public restrooms in bus terminals alone, screw helmets, we never wore them…” but the truth is I can’t. Alice, you make a great point about the perception of increased danger vs. the reality of it, but no one can argue that we live in different times–at least those of us in more urban environments.
    Wendy Mogel’s book “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” is one of my all time favorites. Although I think she’s referring more to emotion “bruises” vs. physical ones. It’s every parent’s instinct to protect their kids against those.
    So I’m all for giving my son opportunities to experience a sense of accomplishment and exhilleration or even disappointment and failure, just not in a potentially life-threatening way.

  • Meghan

    June 30, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    I worked for a year as a special ed teacher in a VERY affluent Chicago suburb. We CONSTANTLY had parents requesting testing for their wonderfully average children because they were not straight-A students. This was the kind of high school where older siblings were attending Ivy League schools and my students drove brand new Mercedes convertibles while I was happy to have my 5 year old Jeep. The class-rank race was cut-throat and it was the helicopter parents who were looking for anything to give their kid the edge. The other part of it was they would much rather their kid be labeled as learning disabled so they wouldn’t have to accept that their kid was just a B-student. (“It’s not Ashleigh’s fault that she’s getting B’s, she has a learning disability you know.”) It was so sad, what’s wrong with getting a C or B?! The one class in college that I received a D in is the one I learned the most from, and the one I worked hardest in. It’s ok to fall at or below the average, and the kids are learning nothing by having their kids talk with teachers and inflate their grades.

  • Cassandra

    June 30, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Such a hard issue. I read a book a while ago called Child’s Play that attributes the problem of obesity to this lack of children getting out and about. How just 20 years ago we were all outside playing all day until the streetlights came on. Now kids are stuck indoors with little or no activity – and we wonder why so many kids are overweight?

  • Holly@aiminghigh

    June 30, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Great topic.
    I think a major contributor to this over-protectiveness is due to the fact that most of us don’t know our neighbors…let alone someone a mile away.
    When I was a child, we were given freedom to roam as long as our chores were complete, and we let our mom know roughly where we were headed. The thing is, we knew many of our neighbors by sight AND by name. Most cars driving by were driven by someone we knew or at least had an idea of who he/she was. (And where he/she lived.)
    I remember one time riding my bicycle to the beach (helmet-less and using no hands…the only way to go!) While at the beach, I had a serious fall off a log resulting in a severely smashed big toe and splinters all over my foot. Someone who saw me hurt myself, took care of the immediately needs I had and then drove me home. We picked up my bike later without fear that it had been stolen…the neighborhood knew it was my bike.
    Now what? My children don’t even play in our front yard unless I am out there too. We have lived in our neighborhood for nearly six years and know only two of our neighbors just a little bit. We have tried to get to know our neighbors. The problem is…no one is ever home! It’s not only an over-protective society now, it’s an over-commited one as well. I don’t believe this is healthy for the next generation. And, I believe, if we were home more, we would make a greater effort to know our neighbors, thereby increasing the chances we would be more likely to let our children have a greater radius to explore.

  • Yvonne

    June 30, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Dirt, scrapes, bruises, bumps…those are signs of summer around here. I am glad that my girls (6 & 8) as well as their neighborhood pals prefer being outside rather than in front of a tv or computer. They run, jump and sometimes fall. Sure I want to protect them and I dislike seeing them get those minor hurts but they are learning something I can’t always teach…confidence, balance, personal limits and courage.

  • Ellen

    July 2, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    When my daughter was in 10th or 11th grade, I let her ride the Metro (subway) by herself to an all-day, outdoor rock concert. Other parents either thought I was either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid.

  • Lori

    July 5, 2008 at 8:52 am

    I read an interesting article months ago that suggested we were a country less likely to go to war because we were once a nation with many sons, and now each family has “just one son”. Perhaps this overprotection is a function of us waiting to have children (the years of longing), we worked VERY hard to get them (the years of infertility treatments), and we have far fewer children per family. Losing even one is losing the entire concept of family for many of us. Children are no longer foregone conclusion for every woman, so the children we have are far more cherished. Perhaps, JUST MAYBE, we are raising a society of people who will respect life and their fellow man? Children filled with self-esteem and a respect for friendships and their elders? Just a thought!

  • Crabmommy

    July 6, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Yo Alice. I think Nation of Wimps is very compelling stuff. And the Ritalin bit is quite fascinating and freaky; there are psychologists who posit that over-cautious, hyper-scheduled, hyper-invasive parenting plays a role in the ADHD thing and that instead of pushing Ritalin, there are alternative solutions involving robust outdoor play and rough-housing with Dad! Who knows, but it’s certainly thought-provoking. I used to tutor kids and a lot of them got “special dispensation” for various disorders that I don’t think they necessarily had…
    I’m caught –like so many modern moms, I think–between wanting to chill out with my kid and freaking out over what she’s getting up to. I’m sure this book will get a lot of flak and yank many a chain, but I think she’s touching a nerve we can all feel.

  • Crystal

    July 14, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Like Meghan, I taught in an affluent suburb, although I taught in a suburb of Boston.
    At least 1/4 of my 3rd grader’s parents walked their kids TO MY ROOM each day. Because they didn’t trust their kids to walk 50 FEET by themselves. In 3rd grade, I walked a half mile to school by myself every morning in a town that was nowhere near as affluent or clean or safe as the one I was teaching in.
    I have also seen SO MANY kids on 504 plans (basically an IEP lite) just so their kids could get more time on tests so they could get their little A+’s instead of god forbid an A- or a WORLD ENDING B or C.
    I’m a big fan of the Free Range kids blog and while I don’t know that I’ll be that relaxed, I’d like to think I’ll let my third grader walk to class by herself. I might even go insane and let my K student do it after the first day!

  • Brandy

    July 15, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I have fond memories of doing all sorts of stuff on my own when I was well under 10 years old. Hanging out by the creek, playing in construction sites, walking all around my town with a friend or two, playing in stairwells of buildings, heck my mom used to give me a note to bring to the store so they would sell 5 year old me cigarettes. Which was not uncommon thing amongst my friends. The only time I ever gave them a scare was when I accidently went to a church youth group for the day. Would I let my children do these sorts of things now? Some of them maybe…some of them no way jose! I think it depends on the kid and their street smarts and where you live. Bad things can happen anywhere though.

  • cb

    July 23, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Like Brandy, my mom used to send me to the store with a note so that I could buy cigarettes for her. It’s nothing short of shocking to think of that going on now.
    I had major freedom when I was young. As long as I was home around the time it got dark, I could go anywhere I wanted. We lived in Culver City for a while and I remember taking the bus all the way to Venice Beach with a friend, just to walk around – we were probably 8 or 9 years old. (Which would have made it 1986 or 1987.)
    Like many of the parents above, I think that those freedoms helped turn me into the confident woman that I am now. Also, like many of the parents above, I hope I can use that confidence to allow (force!) myself to be similarly lenient with my son when he gets a little older. He’s 3 now, and I have recently, purposely started trying to curtail the “Be careful!”s and “Watch out!”s.

  • sc

    July 24, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    I’m Canadian and definitely this is a trend that I see happening in some of the more affluent neighbourhoods in the main cities, where parents have the time (and money) to watch and provide for their children all of the time. Their kids become another way of keeping up with the Joneses. But, I’m still surprised by some of the comments above. Maybe it has something to do with the American dependence on the car and the lack of sidewalks in many places. Walking and riding bikes are not an option in many of your cities. At least that’s what I hear from many of my American friends and that was my experience in Rochester NY, where I had the misfortune of living for almost a year. I think parents need to advocate for safe urban spaces (like sidewalks!) for their kids to safely play in/on.