I read an article in The Atlantic a few weeks ago that had me reminiscing about my childhood — one where I spent a lot of time outside making up ways to keep myself entertained with my sisters. My parents were around — running their business out of the detached office in our front yard. My sisters and I played mostly in the field in our backyard where my parents probably would have heard the second if not the first of our screams if it came to that. It rarely did, so summer in and summer out, and after school, we played outside.
Don’t get me wrong: we had babysitters and nannies. But the expanses of our yard absent of rules about where we could go made it feel like we were explorers of a lost land. We loved it. From repeatedly stripping a poor tree of its bark to prove it was alive ala The Secret Garden to walking up the road to the rope swing where we swung high and snacked on the purple flowers we thought were honeysuckle, we were free to roam and explore. In fifth grade I discovered that one of my friends lived in the neighborhood behind us, and that if I crawled over the fence into my neighbor’s yard and followed the dirt path into another neighbor’s yard I could get to her house rather quickly. So I did.
During my grade school summers, I used the stove to cook macaroni and cheese for my little sister and me. We hammered nails into the fence, just for the heck of it. We slipped off the trampoline a few times each summer after bringing the hose onto it, and tried to sleep on it at night until the cold ran us back inside.
It was so much fun.
“The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic explains that the way parents raise and spend time with their children today differs vastly from a generation ago all in the name of safety. High profile court cases and news coverage of childhood abductions and playground accidents in 1970s lead parents of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s to shield their kids in ways they never had before to the point that current parenting norms practically abolish unsupervised and risky play.
Childhood norms when my parents were kids in the 50s and 60s — like walking to school by yourself or taking off on your bike for an entire Saturday afternoon — are generally a no-no today. Part of it is probably the parents themselves insisting on supervision, but pressure from parents who’s kids they may have over most likely contributes to the decision to hyper supervise their kids too. Rosin, a parent herself, admits that weekends not centered on supervised activities for her kids are few and far between.
The interesting part is that modern parenting styles, ones marked by supervised and organized play dates, aren’t making kids any safer. There are just as many playground accidents and child abductions today as they were back then, and it’s not all that many. Not only are kids not any safer because of these precautions, but so-called “hover” parenting deprives children of the independence and risk exploration they need to mature. Kids who are kept from exploring and facing danger grow up to be less creative and more fearful, Rosin explains.
I can’t be the first to wonder how parents are affected by the model too. I’d venture a guess that if kids suffer from uber supervised childhoods, parents and marriages might be just as harmed under the kid-centric model. Maybe the mid-century mom who sent her kids outside so she could enjoy some sherry with her friends was onto something. Giving weight to that is research that says parental stress — say from having zero time alone (or with your partner) or being slave to three different sports practice schedules — can increase the risk of kids developing addiction and mood and attention disorders.
Some parents are ready to give their kids more freedom. The article in The Atlantic focuses on a resurgence in popularity of adventure playgrounds, like the one profiled in the article called The Land. There, rules are few, supervision is limited, and danger within reason is plentiful. Parents aren’t welcome. So-called “playworkers” keep an eye on the kids but rarely intervene in their activities or judgements. At first glance in the trailer for the upcoming documentary on The Land, you might mistake the playground for a junk yard. Tires, towers, puddles, and pallets all strewn about with kids in and on them. Sharp objects, materials to build fire, and general junk abound. Adventure playgrounds like The Land are built based on the idea that experiencing risk is an imperative part of childhood development. All within the walls of a “playground,” The Land gives kids a place to test the boundaries, to take risks, since research shows that they benefit from that.
But without an adventure playground in your neighborhood, letting your children navigate their world (or just your neighborhood) independently is easier said than done. How do we block out the melodramatic news headlines we’re inundated with daily, showing us how dangerous of a place the world is? And, how much freedom is enough — around the block? All the way to school? There isn’t a guidebook for it, and, these days, not knowing where your kids are or exactly what they’re doing might feel neglectful, if not almost criminal.
I’ll never forget something that happened at a New Year’s party I threw with a roommate a few years back. Among my roommate’s guests was a couple and their toddler, which makes the party sound more humdrum than it was. I assure you, the music was loud and continuous and the drinks plentiful at this shindig, which is why I was so impressed that they came. The parents danced with their learning-to-stand (and dance!) baby on the dance floor well past midnight. When my friend commented to the mom how impressed she was that they not only came but also stayed late, she responded with her mom’s advice to her when she became a mom: have fun. When you’re having fun, your kids have fun, she said. I’d heard parents say that before but had never seen it acted upon so fully. They weren’t worried about bedtimes or the baby’s eardrums. They were having fun, and I’ve never forgotten it.
So maybe even going a few steps back can help our kids develop the judgement and maturity we want them to. The childhood freedom I enjoyed was more protective than my parents’ childhood. I never took off for an entire weekend day without adult supervision, unlike my dad, who, on the weekends with his brothers, fled after breakfast to who knows where, and came back only for lunch and dinner. I was lucky enough to grow up on a quiet street and have a big backyard — things that I’m sure contributed to my parents’ easygoing parenting style, the one that granted us so much freedom (or at least enough freedom that we felt it). Maybe a good first step is letting our kids outside alone, letting them climb the trees past where we want them to, and teaching them to use the stove and the knives.
The autonomy my parents let us enjoy as kids is something that I seem to grow more grateful of and awed by as I get older. I guess you can never know what kind of parent you’ll be until you are one, but I hope I can follow in my parents footsteps one day and let my kids be kids — cut fingers, broken hearts, and all.
Happily holding my baby sister.
I’d love to hear what you think about adventure playgrounds and childhood independence. How much freedom did you have as a kid? How much independence do you give your kids (or want to give your kids)?
If this topic interests you, you might also enjoy this response to Alicia Silverstone’s new book on “kind” parenting.