Saturday, January 17, 2015

Overprotected Children

Good article by Hanna Rosin at the Atlantic about the worldwide movement to protect children from harm -- taking out all the fun playground equipment, not letting them walk alone to school, all that sort of stuff -- and the contemporary backlash against it.

Rosin devotes a lot of space to research done in 1972 by Roger Hart, who followed children around a New England town to document how they steadily expanded the range of their explorations. He found little towns of shacks and forts in the woods where children as young as four played for hours without any parent in sight. These descriptions feel, as Rosin says, like accounts of a lost civilization.
In 2004, Hart returned to the same town to do a follow-up study. His aim was to reconnect with any kids he had written about who still lived within 100 miles of the town and see how they were raising their own children, and also to track some of the kids who now lived in the town. But from the first day he arrived, he knew he would never be able to do the research in the same way. . . .
At one point Hart tracked down Sylvia, one of the girls he’d filmed at the river house. “Roger Hart! Oh my God, my childhood existed,” she screamed into the phone. “It’s just that I’m always telling people what we used to do, and they don’t believe me!” Sylvia was now a suburban mom of two kids (ages 5 and 4), and she and her husband had moved into a new house 30 miles away. When Hart went to visit Sylvia, he filmed the exchange. Standing outside in her backyard, Sylvia tells him she bought this house because she wanted to give her own children the kinds of childhood experiences she’d had, and when she saw the little wooded area out back, her “heart leapt.” But “there’s no way they’d be out in the woods,” she adds. “My hometown is now so diverse, with people coming in and out and lots of transients.” Hart reminds her how she used to spend most of her time across the river, playing. “There’s no river here,” she tells him, then whispers, “and I’m really glad about that.” There will soon be a fence around the yard—she mentions the fence several times—“so they’ll be contained,” and she’ll always be able to see her kids from the kitchen window. . . . 
Of all the people Hart caught up with, they seem to have tried the hardest to create some of the same recreational opportunities for their own children that they’d had. Jenny bought a house, with a barn, near a large patch of woods; she doesn’t let her sons watch TV or play video games all that much, instead encouraging them to go to the barn and play in the hay, or tend the garden. She says she wouldn’t really mind if they strayed into the woods, but “they don’t want to go out of sight.” Anyway, they get their exercise from the various sports teams they play on. Jenny gets some of her girlish self back when she talks about how she and the boys pile up rocks in the backyard to build a ski jump or use sticks to make a fort. But Jenny initiates these activities; the boys usually don’t discover them on their own.

Among this new set of kids, the free range is fairly limited. They don’t roam all that far from home, and they don’t seem to want to. Hart talked with a law-enforcement officer in the area, who said that there weren’t all that many transients and that over the years, crime has stayed pretty steady—steadily low. “There’s a fear” among the parents, Hart told me, “an exaggeration of the dangers, a loss of trust that isn’t totally clearly explainable.”
I can explain this “loss of trust”: it happens because people no longer know their neighbors and rely on the news for their notion of what is happening around them rather than talking to people. The news tends to turn very rare events into commonplaces, so that people end up worrying about things like stranger abduction that are rarer than lightning strikes.

The puzzling thing about all this is that most of the parents I know feel as ambivalent about attempts to make children safe as Rosin does, and quite a few of them are adamantly opposed. I once mentioned to the men I play basketball with that I didn't think my kids knew how to organize a pick-up game, and this produced a passionate response from two of them who really worry about what children have lost in our age of organized activities. Rosin tosses out the standard line about over-scheduling:
Ask any of my parenting peers to chronicle a typical week in their child’s life and they will likely mention school, homework, after-school classes, organized playdates, sports teams coached by a fellow parent, and very little free, unsupervised time.
But this absolutely does not apply to my children and I don't think it applies to most of their friends, either. My kids have oceans of free, unsupervised time. The thing is, they spend it in front of the television or the computer screen. My 12-year-old is perfectly happy to spend ten hours a day watching videos of other people playing video games. Rosin mentions that one of the contemporary parents studied by Roger Hart builds forts with her children because they won't do it on their own, and this is my experience as well.

So whatever is going on, it isn't simply that kids don't play together because their parents won't let them. I spent years trying to chase my three older kids out of the house to play, but they generally came back in five minutes later, and by now I have pretty much given up with my younger two. My older ones did eventually start roaming into the woods, but not until around the 8th grade.

What is this about? Is it mainly because with cable TV and video games it is just more fun to stay inside now? Is it because the declining density of children in the average neighborhood means fewer potential playmates? Is it because some kids are crazily overprotected and over-scheduled and this leaves the rest lonely and bored? Are safe playgrounds just a lot less fun? Has the sick fearfulness of so many American adults spread to children? And is it true, as some fear, that the anxiety issues of today's young adults stem from their overly safe, excessively supervised childhoods?

There has to be a better way. We shouldn't let a minority of worryworts ruin childhood for everyone, and maybe we need better ways to encourage children to get out in the world and build, explore, and discover for themselves.


Shadow said...

Don't forget all the laws designed to ferret out "neglectful" parents. You live in Maryland as do I, so I am sure you are aware of what recently happened to the Free Range parents here in our state.

These laws exist, at least in part, as a consequence of the overreaction of which you speak, but now that they exist they are as much a part of the problem as the other ones you mention.

These parents are playing with fire. If anything happens to these children, something as simple as an injury at the playground, they will be up to their eyeballs in trouble with the state. Who wants to lose their kids? And then there is the public labeling.

Shadow said...

No edit button?

G. Verloren said...

I hear this sort of thing a lot from older commentors, and I always shake my head somewhat, because typically while they pine for the nostalgic activities of their own youths, they simultaneously ignore, discount, or outright oppose more modern "fun" that kids willfully engage in.

Modern kids do spend a lot less time outside than they did a couple generations ago, but there's far more involved in that change than just fear.

Technology certainly plays a major role - toys and entertainment objects have changed drastically. The rise of home computers and video games alone is a major contributor, but there are other technological factors at work. Television - once relegated to a dozen or so channels with limited broadcasts on large, expensive boxes - has since became cheap, space efficient, and flooded with available programming, twenty four hours a day. And both of these major developments were just since the 1980s, really.

Climate control is also a factor. For most Baby Boomers, central air conditioning was something only the wealthy had when they were kids, and even window units and the like were expensive. Running around outside in the heat and humidity makes sense when the alternative is sitting in a stuffy house with no AC or other meaningful circulation - especially if you don't have any indoor-only, relatively quiet entertainment like TVs, video games, computers, et cetera (because Ma and Pa aren't gonna put up with your noise in the house) . You can either sit quietly in the house and broil, or run around and actually have fun outside with the chance of a breeze and maybe playing in a creek, sprinkler, or vandalized fire hydrant.

G. Verloren said...

But there's still more to things.

There are practical factors like changes in economics, infrastructure, and law. There are less tangible factors like changes in social mores, education, and lifestyles.

First, economics. Modern entertainment has a greater variety, availability, and afforability than previous. Kids simply have more options available to them, with greater capacity to maintain their interest, and at cheaper prices. The Baby Boomers didn't have too many things to do for fun - they could maybe see a movie, or watch a television show, but those were scheduled events that cost money and had limited variety. In contrast, playing outside was spontaneous, free, and was limited only by one's imagination.
But today, kids have much easier access to activities that allow spontaneity and variety at low cost. Perfect example? Minecraft.

Infrastructure is another concern. Parks and open spaces don't exist in the same number and quality that they used to. Simply put, there are fewer places to play outdoors, and they're harder to get to, so naturally fewer kids do so. Civic design is simply different than it was during the Baby Boomer years.

Legal concerns are also a big factor. Not just the way we deal with liability today, but also worries over things like criminality. Remember back when gangs were this huge problem? Remember the "crime wave"? Remember the years before the "War on Drugs", when the attitude toward hard substances like cocaine was casual acceptance? Remember the societal backlash against all those things, people demanding the police and the government do something about it? Well guess what - they did. And the natural consequence is less kids on street corners, and more kids indoors.

On to social mores - it is no longer common for a family to have one working parent and one stay-at-home parent. Heck, a lot of families are outright broken, with divorce rates up and single parents being far greater in number. Being a latch-key kid is relatively common compared to the Baby Boomer years, and as mentioned neighborhoods are less cohesive and more insular than before.

Education and lifestyle is a factor, with kids having less free time, more homework, less recess, more time spent commuting. This also ties back into the social mores - young parents are often busy working on their own educations, especially since the expectation of a college degree is so much stronger than it used to be, particularly for women. With parents less able to watch them or drive them around, indoor entertainments are preferred.

There's also the question of cost - for many poor Americans, buying a kid a video game system is worthwhile because it means Ma and Pa don't have to worry about where the kid will be or what they'll be doing while they're busy working their second jobs and the like.

G. Verloren said...

But perhaps most important of all is this - what do the KIDS think?

While the older generations lament "The Death of Fun", the younger generations are having a blast doing their own thing. They might not be playing outside as much, for a large variety of reasons, but that doesn't mean they aren't having fun. (Maybe not exercising enough, but that's a different matter entirely.)

A quick comparison, if I may. Did the parents of the Baby Boomers tut-tut about how kids of that era were missing out on the fabulous entertainments of a few generations prior?

"Woe for the lost pleasures of the turn of the century! All the kids are playing with those newfangled Hula-Hoops, and Slinkies, and Etch-A-Sketches, and Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots! Hardly any child today plays with toy drums, or goes hoop rolling, or even just plays marbles or jacks or conkers! They're too busy watching those dreadful television shows and movies, or listening to their awful crystal radio sets, or worst of all running off into the woods getting into who knows what kind of mischief! To be honest, they shouldn't even be allowed out of the house! They should be put to work, chores around the house or a paid job at a mill to help the family finances! Idle hands are the Devil's workshop, after all!"