When my daughter Ava was in the sixth grade, she asked if she could walk to school by herself. The walk was idyllic, woodsy suburban, and one she and I often did together. I thought it was a great idea, a healthy walk before school would allow her to feel at home in the world outside our yard. I walked that distance — in freezing snow — when I was much younger. And my own walk to and from school, encountering friends along the way, holds vivid childhood memories.
I had a moment of worry. This is my baby. Visions of her missing, kidnapped, or alone and hurt flashed through my mind. But I controlled myself. I held my tongue, reminded myself that if I wanted her to grow into a competent adult, I had to let her take steps toward self-reliance when she was ready for them. The walk was in our own neighborhood, and she had a cell phone and could call me if anything scared her. “Great idea!” I said. “Let’s see what Dad says.”
I had an inkling her father would not like it. He agrees with me in theory about freedom in childhood but flinches in practice. Still, I was not prepared for the intense horror of his reaction, the calls to his sister (also horrified) and the resulting conclusion that I had gone insane, did not love my daughter, or had no idea how dangerous the world was and should not be trusted with the care of my own children. The part that really scared me was not my husband’s army of imagined bogeymen out there waiting to hurt my little girl. It was his absolute certainty that I was crazy. Up to this moment, he had considered me the authority when it came to parenting our children. Suddenly, he was questioning my judgment in all matters.
Was I really playing fast and loose with my daughter’s life, as my husband thought? Or had he, along with many loving parents, become so fearful of what might go wrong that he was not only protecting my daughter from danger but also from growing up? My mother allowed me a lot of freedom as a child, and I credit that independence with my own confidence now. But was I romanticizing that freedom at my daughter’s expense? Are there so many bogeymen now that kids shouldn’t walk to school alone? I took a look at the data. In 1999, the last year for which we have comprehensive data, approximately 800,000 children younger than 18 went missing, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But very few — 115 — of those children were victims of the type of kidnapping we generally fear: abduction by a stranger. More than 200,000 were abducted by family members (usually one of the parents). So it seems as if my daughter is in more danger from her immediate family than from the bogeyman.
I’m not opposed to protecting my daughter, far from it. I insist she wear seatbelts and a bike helmet. I have trouble trusting babysitters. I get her immunized. These manifestations of our society’s risk aversion — from the invention of car seats to sunscreen — have saved countless kids from unnecessary injury and illness. But childhood is a temporary state. Isn’t the goal to raise competent adults? I know it’s hard to let go. But I think it’s what the kids need us to do. In fact, there is significant research that suggests that not allowing kids to experience the world unsupervised, make mistakes, get scared, figure it out, and recover leads to adults who are depressed, anxious, unhappy, and incapable. “Children are less free now than they have ever been in the history of human beings — with the exception of children who were slaves or kept for child labor,” says Peter Gray, Ph. D., developmental psychologist and research professor at Boston College and the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And this lack of freedom has a price. “Children were designed to be out playing,” Gray says. “That is how they learn to control anger and fear. I am convinced that the increase in mental disorders is caused by this lack of opportunity to develop the skills to cope with life.” A study done by Professors Jill C. Bradley-Geist and Julie B. Olson-Buchanan of California State University Fresno found that the college-age students with helicopter parents — parents who hover to avoid anything bad happening to their kids — are more likely to be dependent on others, engage in poor coping strategies, and lack soft-skills, such as responsibility and conscientiousness.
But I know that fear is itself a thing to be feared. And cultural norms surrounding raising children have gotten to the point that I needed to take my husband’s reaction seriously. So, focusing on the immediate danger – me no longer being trusted to be her mother — I did triage. I apologized to Ava and told her that I could not allow this request.
“I love you, sweetie,” I told her. “And I’d like to let you walk. I’m sure you would enjoy it and it’s perfectly safe. But the world has gone insane with fear and we will both get in trouble if I let you.” She was angry, her basic rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness denied. I felt the sting of Ava’s eroded freedom as well. But, at the time, dropping the idea seemed our only option.
This sort of argument plays out every day and in every demographic. Often, as in my case, parents find themselves at odds over whether decisions about how much supervision is required are motivated by fear — of a world full of danger and/or judgment from other parents – or love. But the problem is not just personal. As a culture, the difference between fear and love seems to be blurring. And we no longer trust each other to know what’s best for our children. This isn’t because the world is more dangerous than it was when I miraculously survived a death-defying one-mile walk to school in the third grade. The world wasn’t that dangerous then. And it’s less dangerous now. Violent crime has dropped by 48% between 1993 and 2012.
Even if the fear of bogeymen is out of control, the fear of what other parents will think of our choices is real. “There are parents in prison because they let their offspring do something someone else considered risky,” agrees Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. In 2012, a Texas mom was arrested for allowing her 6- and 9-year-olds to play outside in front of their home. Last August, a Florida Mom was arrested and charged with neglect for allowing her 7-year-old to walk to a nearby park to play. A South Carolina mom was arrested last July and her child was put in protective services when she let her 9-year-old play unsupervised in the park. Earlier this year in Maryland, the “crime” of allowing their children, 10 and 6, to walk home from a neighborhood park triggered visits from the police and Child Protective Services, terrifying the children and giving the younger child nightmares. Clearly, this is not a decision parents are trusted to make any more based on what they think is best for their own children.
So when should we leave our kids home alone? When can they walk to school on their own? Can they bike to a friend’s house? Play in the park without adults? There are few laws that govern any of this. A few states specify or offer guidelines as to when a child can be left home alone, but they don’t agree with each other. In fact, if the laws on this topic are any indication, it’s clear that — culturally — we are miles apart. Kansas, weirdly, recommends age 6 as the age of independence, while Illinois (just as bizarrely) rules that parents must wait until their child reaches age 14 to be left alone in their home.
Since we clearly don’t agree and are willing to incarcerate parents who get it wrong, this is an area that calls for serious discussion. “It is definitely a trend toward fear,” says Epstein. “I have tracked the laws and regulations over a period of about 400 years. It started after the civil war and accelerated in the 60s. And that trend continues — with considerable acceleration — into today.”
Even if this concern for children’s safety seems good for children, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests it’s not good for the adults they will one day become.
“I have done a lot of research into child development in other cultures – in the hunter gatherer cultures we evolve from,” says Gray. “After the age of 4, children want relationships with people who aren’t their parents. They want other models of what it is to be an adult. The normal child environment is largely age mixed. We have changed the child’s world so completely in recent years that they see only other children the same age and parents and teachers. That is a limited sample of humanity.”
Both Epstein and Gray see a correlation between this increase in protectiveness in children’s lives and mental illness in adolescence and adults. “There has been a parallel trend of increasing mental health problems among young people,” says Epstein. “I think they are connected. The infantilization, increase in restrictions, overprotectiveness, and so on are causing such an increase in mental health problems that 49.5 percent of our young people are diagnosable with at least one behavioral or substance abuse problem.”
Epstein and Gray both recommend bucking the trend toward overprotection. Instead of keeping kids under constant vigil, they suggest looking for avenues for unstructured play with other children in a wide range of ages.
There is a small but growing trend in this direction. “Mike Lanza wrote Playborhood about what he did to counter this trend,” offers Gray. “There was no one for his three boys to play with because the other kids were never outdoors. So he put all his playground equipment in his front yard. Since he recognized the value of age-mixed play, he also put up a basketball court and some electronic games to draw the older kids in. He told his neighbors what he was doing and all the neighborhood kids came there to play. The older ones taught the younger ones. And from there, they explored their neighborhood together.”
Lenore Skenazy, who rocketed to fame as “America’s Worst Mom” when she allowed her 9-year-old son to take the New York subway alone, has written several books on the topic. Her app (for iOS and Android) helps parents find other parents who allow their kids to go outside alone.
In retrospect, I wish I had stood up for my daughter’s right to walk to school. The next year, she was no longer interested. In fact, it took me years to persuade her that leaving the house unsupervised was safe. And I can see how her childhood experience compares to my own and that may well lead to a different adulthood, though she started out as freedom seeking as I was. My daughter explores our town alone at 16; at that age I went to Europe alone. When I reached college, I had no problem living on my own and handling adult decisions. I wonder if my daughter will feel similarly prepared.
Indeed, there’s evidence than many in her generation are struggling with the transition to adulthood. In addition to the surge in mental health problems that Epstein sites, the study by Bradley-Geist and Olson-Buchanan shows the problem of parents stepping in to take care of even the smallest problems kids encounter doesn’t end when kids go to college, and as a result college students are not gaining the skills they need to survive as adults. Adults are moving back in with their parents in record numbers, according to a Pew Research Center study. In 2012, 36 percent of adults ages 18 to 31 lived with their parents, which is the highest rate in 40 years. Gray sees these statistics as a logical extension of kids who were never allowed to fall down, pick themselves up, manage their fear, and learn that they can handle the world on their own. When children feel they are trusted, he explains, they learn things on their own. “But if they aren’t raised that way, and you send them suddenly out into the world,” he says, “They aren’t prepared.”
Humans learn by doing. If our parents don’t let us learn, we grow up incapable. Ray Charles changed the face of American music, redefined rock and roll, and encouraged many other blind and black musicians to pursue their dreams. Rather famously, his mother did not overprotect him. She insisted he do chores (including ones we would now consider dangerous, such as chopping wood and lighting the fire, even for children who can see), help others, and figure things out on his own, even though he started losing his sight when he was 5 and was completely blind by 7. She knew he needed to be prepared because life, for a poor, blind, black man, was going to be hard and she could not always be there to help. In fact, she died when he was 15. He was blind most of his life. But he was never incompetent.
I wonder what would’ve happened to him if his mother had been shamed or scared into keeping him “safe.”
Want more? Read what the experts have to say about raising self-reliant kids here.