THE OVERPROTECTED KID
For the April cover story, Hanna Rosin described a new, less constrictive playground style to highlight a societal shift: the rising preoccupation with children’s safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery. The overwhelming majority of parents who responded to the article agreed. The Huffington Post’s Philip K. Howard said the article “should be required reading for all parents.”
I grew up in the 1960s, and played in the woods. So when my 10-year-old daughter asked me whether she could play in the woods near our house, I said yes. One day she was invited to a birthday party at a house not far from ours. She walked to the party with a friend, and I gave them permission to stop off in the woods on their way home, provided they called me when they left. This did not sit well with the birthday-party hostess, who called me in distress to tell me that my daughter and her friend had left on their own. “I know,” I said. “They were going to play in the woods,” she said, her voice rising. “I know,” I said. Over my objections, she dispatched several adults to search the woods, and she called the police. My daughter and her friend emerged from their detour to find two cop cars, a gaggle of curious classmates, and half a dozen semi-hysterical mothers. My daughter was terrified that she’d done something wrong, even though we assured her she hadn’t. After that, she rarely ventured into what had been her childhood kingdom.
Sanity cannot return soon enough.
One problem is that even if you don’t overschedule your kids and instead allow them freedom to run around the neighborhood, no other parent is doing the same thing, so your kid has no one to run around the neighborhood with.
Your choice as a parent comes down to either watching your kid mope around the house because all the other kids are busy with karate, soccer, tutoring, etc., or signing him up for stuff so he won’t be alone.
No matter what you do as a parent, you’re doing it wrong. It’s either overprotection or gross negligence. There’s nothing in between. If you don’t discipline your kids every time they’re loud or misbehave, you’re spoiling them for life and letting them become selfish anarchists; but if you tell them what to do, you’re killing their self-esteem and/or their sense of right and wrong. And whatever you do (or don’t do), it’ll permanently damage your child.
The questions that Hanna Rosin raises are not as simple as she makes them out to be.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was an undeveloped wooded area where bands of boys congregated, built paths and forts, took risks, and tested ourselves. In many ways it was a glorious place. But also in those woods, far from the prying eyes of the adults, I was sexually molested by several of the older boys. I never told my parents, or any other adult, about this experience. It had happened in the woods; it did not seem at the time to translate to the adult world.
As a parent and a psychotherapist, I understand now that the degree and nature of parental involvement in children’s lives is always a moving target, always a matter of balance. But in the end it is not really that much of a mystery. Attachment theory (which is oddly absent from the article) makes it clear that healthy exploration in children is made possible by the presence of the safe base that comes with a secure attachment.
The number of children we have today may play a role. In my parents’ generation, kids had half a dozen to a dozen siblings. Parents provided food and shelter, but playtime was something the kids had to figure out for themselves. Now there are fewer eggs in the basket, and all our attention as parents is on them.
Jayanth Raman, Ph.D.
Mountain View, Calif.
Hanna Rosin says, “The real cultural shift has to come from parents.” In one sense that’s right—it’s unlikely that the culture will change if the bulk of parents are against it. But it is wrong to frame the issue as solely a matter of parental choices. Many of the underlying causes of the decline in childhood freedoms—traffic growth, media scaremongering, institutional risk aversion, breakdowns in levels of trust and neighborliness—are beyond the influence of individuals. Children’s freedoms need to be part of a collective vision of a “good enough” childhood. And we need a broad movement—including educators, community leaders, and decision makers, as well as parents—to put that vision into practice.
IS STOP-AND-FRISK WORTH IT?
In April, Daniel Bergner examined stop-and-frisk, asking whether the law-enforcement practice is effective, whether it’s fair, and how it could be improved. One former New York City police lieutenant wrote in, “This is an important article that should be read by mayors and police chiefs everywhere.” A debate at theatlantic.com/stopandfrisk covered everything from racial discrimination to the effect of lead-based-paint exposure on crime rates.
Frank Zimring’s comment about removing testosterone from these stops is an important point. There is no reason these stops cannot be done in a polite, respectful way. Police need to be trained in tone of voice, body language, and, as one of the teenagers interviewed says, “people skills” in general.