Childhood, it would seem, is different than it used to be. I know, I know, this conclusion doesn’t involve incredibly perceptive powers of parental observation; it simply requires contact with modern kids and an exceptionally long memory that reaches back to your own childhood.
But while much has been made about how we didn’t have cellphones or computers or video games back in our day, it strikes me that the biggest difference between generations rarely gets mentioned. With that in mind, I took much interest in a recent article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin, titled “The Overprotected Kid.”
You know all of this. You know it intuitively if you are tasked with raising kids in this age of helicopter parenting. And still it was fascinating to see how Rosin chronicled the changing nature of childhood. The most salient point for today’s children: They take for granted that they always are being watched. Always. Without exception. Think about it: How often these days do children go out to play without supervision and without any instructions other than to be home in time for dinner?
“Even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers — and fathers — of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to,” Rosin writes. Where childhood once meant unsupervised play and wandering in the woods and creating your own little social system with friends, it now means organized sports and organized swimming lessons and organized playdates. It now means very little unsupervised time.
That’s not necessarily good nor bad, and Rosin avoids the cliche of “back-in-my-day” lamentations. But it’s definitely different. As psychologist Peter Gray points out, the result is a “continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.”
Most important, there has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in the belief that children sometimes fall down and need to learn how to pick themselves back up. As a friend of mine once said, “If your kid hasn’t had stitches or been to the ER by the time they’re 7, then you’re doing something wrong.”
I think there’s some truth in that. Today’s parents, at least by my observations, seem intent upon providing an antiseptic, cautious, risk-free world for their children — and I’m not sure that’s the best avenue for producing confident adults. As Rosin quotes Joe Frost as writing, adults have reached the mistaken view “that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury. In the real world, life is filled with risks — financial, physical, emotional, social — and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.” The fact is, learning to navigate risks is an important survival tool.
(For our three children — now 16, 10, and 5 — our own little nose-tweak at an overprotective society was to never have gates at the top of the stairs. We have managed to get to this point without any of them taking a tumble.)
Some people, of course, would mock this as part of a “nanny state.” We have legislated all the fun out of playgrounds, in order to make them safer; we have allowed “stranger danger” to overwhelm kids’ thirst for adventure; we have allowed our own loss of trust in the world to impact how we raise our children.
Some of this is “no, duh” sensible rather than overly cautious — like strapping them in car seats instead of letting them flop around in the back of the station wagon. But much of it is nothing more than preventing kids from being kids. “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),” Rosin writes. “We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children.”
Because sometimes it’s better to teach them how to get up, rather than keeping them from falling down.