I read an article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin last month entitled "The Over-Protected Kid" and I've been mulling it over in my mind ever since. The gist of the article is that parents today attempt protect their kids by altering their environments and by constantly supervising them, but that it isn't really working. Tragic accidents still occur at the same rate. On the other hand, the cost of all this protection is that children are less able to take risks, feel more anxiety, and demonstrate less initiative. The article didn't offer much in the way of a solution. It did talk about a very cool sounding playground in Wales, UK named "The Land" which allows children to take more risks and experience more danger, but since I live in the mid-Atlantic in the US that's more interesting than useful.
The article woke nostalgia in me, because it talked about how, 30 or 40 years ago, children roamed much more freely. I know that this was true for me. I can remember being three years old myself, the age my daughter is now. I was allowed to run around in our front and back yards by myself or with other kids but with my mom in the house. I was allowed to walk alone down the street to the playground, which I think was about four houses down. I was allowed to walk another older but still little kid to the street corner on her way to preschool and then she walked the rest of the way alone. I can actually remember doing these things. I remember not being allowed to cross the street and I remember getting lost when I broke the rules and walked the other little girl past the mailbox. (My dad came and found me quickly - I think the only bad thing that happened to me was a spanking and having to sit in the time out chair for quite a while.) When I was older, around 6 years old, and living in a different neighborhood, I remember riding my bike up and down the street, running around in the woods behind the housing development, and generally being out of my mom's sight for hours at a time. I think I followed the rule about not going into anyone else's house, mostly because none of the moms on the street wanted us running around inside anyway. The older I got the longer my leash became, until by the time I was 12 or 13 I would literally be roaming miles through our extended neighborhood, just walking and thinking. My mom wasn't a chill, relaxed parent, either. She was teaching us about stranger danger, good touch bad touch, and making us buckle our seat belts long before these things were standard. My sister and I thought she was really strict.
I contrast this with my daughter's experience. I mocked helicopter parents before I had a child (and, by the way, I'm sorry!) and now I have to admit I am one. My daughter rides in a car seat with five point restraints. This is the law but I'd do it anyway. My daughter isn't exposed to stranger danger because she's never by herself. My daughter isn't allowed to go to the playground alone. It's right outside the door across the street, and I can see it as I type. But she's only allowed to go if an adult is with her. Partly this is because there's a sign on the playground stating children under 12 must be supervised by an adult. (And what child 12 and up is going to want to use the playground? My daughter's getting bored with it anyway, because at age 3 she's pretty much mastered the elements.) I'll be honest though, I'm not sure I'd let her even without the sign. I can tell myself that the stories in the media are freak events, that playing on the playground alone is quite safe, but culturally it feels wrong. It feels like bad parenting. I can see that none of the other parents in the neighborhood are letting their kids out alone either, at least not under the age of about 10 or so. The playground, the fields, the little woods near our home all seem to be vacant most of the times I look.
We're trying to break or at least limit the helicopter habit. My husband and I are starting to encourage our daughter to play in the backyard (fenced, locked, screened from view and essentially another room in our house) alone. We both struggle with this and find ourselves checking on her by peeking through a window every five minutes or so. We also struggle with allowing her to explore by turning on the faucet and then experience the consequences of being wet when she didn't want to be. I think my daughter is struggling too. She'll play for about 15 or 20 minutes and then she wants to come inside and be with us. It's what she's used to. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, so except for the hours in preschool, she's pretty much always with one or both of us. Most of that time we're interacting with her; either playing with her, talking to her, or getting her to help us with what we're doing. If not with us, then she's with a babysitter or grandparent who will indulge and play with her even more. Occasionally at home she'll play alone, but she'll often invite us into her game and usually we respond. The article talked about this too, how children in general today spend much more time with their parents, and how there are some advantages in closer family relationships to balance the loss of risk taking and challenge.
In the end, I'm still not sure what to do with all of this. I want my daughter to be as safe as I can make her, but I also want her to live a rich and full life. I see that those things are not always going to run along the same path. I loved my independence as a child. I loved the freedom to roam, to explore, to be on my own. I do want that for my daughter. I want her to feel like she can be alone without being lonely, to believe that she is capable of mastering challenges and handling mistakes. I understand that this means I have to let her be alone, be challenged and make mistakes. On the other hand, I want to limit the danger of the consequences she could face. I don't want mistakes to be fatal or even severely painful. I also don't want anyone to call Child Protective Services on me. Moving to Wales to gain access to that playground seems like a very impractical solution. I don't have any clear answers here. Just a whole lot of wondering.