Recently, an article entitled “The Over-Protected Kid” appeared in The Atlantic, and it has received a good deal of media attention. Related interviews have occurred in varied venues, and discussion groups have formed around the topics that writer Hanna Rosin’s piece explores. As a result, parents and school leaders have been challenged to reconsider many of today’s predominant parenting practices related to keeping children safe.
In the article’s opening page, Rosin’s points are summarized as follows:
“In the past generation, the rising preoccupation with children’s safety has transformed childhood, stripping it of independence, risk-taking, and discovery. What’s been gained is unclear: rates of injury have remained fairly steady since the 1970s, and abduction by strangers was as rare then as it is now. What’s been lost is creativity, passion, and courage. Now a counter movement is arising, based on mounting evidence that today’s parenting norms do children more harm than good.”
Rosin begins her piece by telling of a “new” kind of “adventure playground” built not too long ago in a typical housing development in North Wales. “The Land” is a “playground with [everyday] loose parts that kids can move around and manipulate to create their own makeshift structures.” It is grounded in providing a “free and permissive atmosphere with as little adult supervision as possible.” Clearly out of synch with affluent and middle class parenting norms, The Land can be mistaken for an abandoned lot, takes up about an acre, and slopes down a bank to an ice cold creek. It is supervised by “playworkers” who keep “a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much.” Kids can roll in tires into the creek, mess around in the dirt, bounce on stacks of old mattresses, build things out of pallets, swing across (or into) the creek on a frayed rope swing, repurpose any of the items laying around, or build fires in tin drums. Rosin points out that in the United States, nearby adults would likely call the police if they saw what was going on, and the fire builders would likely be referred for counseling. Yet in the two years that The Land has been opened, no one has been injured beyond scraped knees.
The idea behind The Land is that kids, in order to become resilient, creative, courageous, responsible individuals, have to have the opportunity to engage in true free play that is not overly structured by adults. They have to be able to “face what to them seem like ‘really dangerous risks’ and then conquer them alone. That… is what builds self-confidence, courage” and independence.
Rosin points out that the perception that the world is more dangerous than it was when we parents were children is just not borne out statistically. Playground injury rates are actually slightly higher today than they were before certified cushy surfaces were mandated, visits to the emergency room are about the same, and crimes against children are steadily dropping, (except for abduction by a known family member). In fact, “long bone” injuries have increased. Yet statistics like these are also increasingly common: in the UK in the 1970’s, 80% of 3rd graders walked to school on their own; in 1990 it was 9%; now it is even less.
Rosin believes that a few widely publicized playground injuries and lawsuits around 1979 had a contagious impact. Studies followed that identified the reality that many, many kinds of injuries can occur on play equipment. Federal regulation followed. A general “reluctance to accept accidents” settled in, and there was a growing inclination to shift responsibility from the parents to the equipment and the entities that own it. Yet parental supervision became omnipresent, and “failure to supervise” has become equated with “failure to parent.” According to Rosin, “adults have come to the mistaken view that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury… We have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”
Interestingly, when it was far less common for mothers to work outside the home, they spent less time on the average with their children. Today, most time is connected to structured activities like driving to play dates, swimming lessons, or soccer games. (Conversely I clearly remember as a child in the summer being let outside right after breakfast, checking in for lunch and dinner, and coming back in, mosquito-bitten, dusty, and sweaty a bit shortly before bed time.)
Today’s play equipment design is dominated by engineers, technical experts, lawyers, and risk consultants, rather “than people who know anything about children’s play.” Most playgrounds are totally standardized and contain no elements of surprise. Yet research shows that the sandboxes are the most popular attractions in most playgrounds.
Rosin fears that through over-supervising children, we are conveying a lack of trust in their ability to assess risk and “find their way around tricky physical, social, and emotional situations.” Numerous psychologists are suggesting we need to reset the bar, that “in the real world, life is filled with risks — financial, physical, emotional, social — and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.” In order to develop self-confidence and independence, “they need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to be actually dangerous, only that they feel they are taking great risk.”
“As we parents begin to see public spaces as dangerous, other smaller daily decisions fall into place.” Children are now almost always being watched by adults. The result, Rosin fears, “is a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.” Psychologists believe that this systemic decline in “childhood culture” and risk conquering opportunities has led in adolescents and young adults to everything from greatly increased levels of depression, narcissism, and fears of growing up to a decline in empathy, creativity, and difficulty with thinking for themselves. She also suspects that these maladies are connected to parents “making themselves miserable by believing that they always have to maximize their children’s happiness and success.”
I highly recommend reading Rosin’s article. You can find it at this link. The connections and impacts she outlines are more greatly nuanced than I can convey in this space, but she is convinced that a significant cultural shift is needed and that it “has to come from the parents. 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.”