From Dylan Tweney, friend and dad of two, who brings up the practical problems with a protective parent culture:
I can’t leave a comment on your blog without a login so I’m just going to email this, since you asked for feedback.
I’m really sympathetic to your argument and it’s one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I want Clara and Curtis to have the same kind of independence I enjoyed as a kid. And while I grew up in a very different environment than you (small-town Ohio, in my case) I had some of the same experiences: biking all over town, exploring things on my own or with friends, and in general having my days wide open within very broad limits.
Lots of the parents I talk with also had similar childhoods and want their kids to have the same. But none of us do.
The reason it’s different now is structural, I think. It has less to do with fear than simple logistics. When I grew up there were a lot more parents around — usually moms, but my dad too. If I went to a friend’s house there was a good bet that an adult was there, or nearby. Responsible adults were never far away. And for that matter, it seems to me that work hours were shorter — my dad was home for dinner at 5 or 5:30pm every single night. He often had breakfast with us too. And while he was a university prof, my friends whose parents worked in different fields had similar schedules.
Most of the parents I know now are in two-working parent families. Even if you wanted your kid to wander around all afternoon by herself, there would be nowhere for her to go, because all her friends would be in after-school programs or soccer or dance class or swimming lessons too. Whole neighborhoods are absolutely deserted between 8am and 6 or 7pm because of working, commuting parents.
On top of that my daughter has far more homework that she’s expected to do than I had at that age, and her school day is longer.
In other words, the center of children’s social lives has shifted. It used to be child-centric, open-ended and relatively unstructured. It is now adult-driven, centered around programmed activities and highly structured. Going against the grain is not a simple matter of decided not to be afraid and sending your child out into the world — because the world you want to send her out into doesn’t exist any more. Her friends are going to be in those structured activities.
The only hope, as I see it, is for lots of parents to band together and decide to do things differently, preferably on a neighborhood-wide basis. I don’t know of any place where this is actually happening, though.
Side note: I know one stay-at-home dad who insists on giving his kids lots of independence. He has let them walk around his (fairly safe) neighborhood since they were 4 or 5 years old, and often sends them off to play unescorted. It is working just fine for him & his kids. However, he is very nearly a pariah among most other parents, who view his approach to parenting as appalling and possibly reprehensible. Not sure that exclusionary kind of tactic extends to his kids as well, but I worry. But then, the suburbs may be more repressive in this way than urban environments.
And from my mother:
Many people my age and older think this overprotectiveness is just weird.