The fun a child is allowed to have depends on when he was born, according to results of a survey conducted by Slate magazine. When the data from all 6,000 respondents were tallied, the results became clear: your parents had more fun than they let you have and your kids are allowed to do less than you did.
The world of experience has shrunk dramatically over the past 30 years.
Take walking to and from school, for example. People born in the 1940s were allowed (some would say required) to walk to school, starting in the second or third grade. Children born in the 1980s weren’t allowed to walk to school by themselves until fifth grade, and by the 1990s children couldn’t walk to school on their own until they hit middle school.
All sorts of other ordinary activities follow the same trend, like going to the playground alone, being out after dark, using the stove, and using sharp tools. People born in earlier eras were allowed more freedom than children born in later eras, with the greatest difference in the 1990s compared to those born in the 1980s. Adults who are now in their early 20s grew up in a much smaller world than adults who are now in their early 30s, and in a much, much smaller world than their grandparents experienced.
It’s reasonable to assume that the trend continues. Because the survey participants were all adults, the experience of teens and children born since 2000 was not included. But given that a parent in South Carolina was arrested recently for allowing her 9-year-old child to go to the playground alone, it’s fair to guess that the limits put on kids’ activities have grown even greater. What do you allow your kids to do on their own?
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the world is much more dangerous for children today than it was in the 1960s and it takes a lot of oversight to keep kids safe. But this is flat-out wrong. While it’s true that child abductions have increased in recent years, this increase is entirely due to kidnappings by non-custodial parents of their own children. While the divorce rate has increased over time, and so the number of disgruntled exes, the rate of kidnappings by strangers has not.
The impression that children are snatched off street corners on a daily basis is supported by today’s constant stream of news updates unheard of before the Internet era. Child abductions seem more common simply because events in remote localities now make the national and social media news. In fact, the jump in parental restrictions between the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed almost entirely to Reagan era panic over child safety. This is the time when Have-You-Seen-Me milk carton messages started, when Reagan declared National Missing Children’s Day, and when playgrounds were shutdown nationwide because of equipment suddenly deemed unsafe, despite years of uneventful play by generations of children.
Children’s shrinking world is a problem for their development and so for our development as a country. As you are well aware by now, we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. Spending time in the house, playing with electronic gadgets or even reading, develops the brain in only one way. Children miss out on opportunities to learn and develop complex skills that make them more capable of handling adult challenges and solving big problems. When we make our kids afraid to go outside, we set the stage for dependency, obesity, and rigid thinking. And we start our future grandchildren on the path for even duller lives than the ones we’ve given our children.
It’s not your fault. If you were born in the Reagan era, the fault for your own timidity lies in the fear-mongering and over-reaction to danger that was common among grown-ups when you were in your early years. But the solution is your responsibility.
Will you continue the trend and keep your children closer and even more limited than you were as a child? Will you shrink their world to something even smaller than yours? Or will you embrace the rich experiences that only come with freedom to explore and learn? Here are some first steps:
- Let your child walk to school. If school is within walking distance, great. If it’s not, park a few blocks away – in an area where other kids are walking – and let him walk from there. Walk 15 feet behind him if you must, but let him go.
- Let your child go at the playground. Quit saying “be careful” all the time and let your child figure out what is safe to do. If you have to stand nearby, go ahead. But don’t be obvious about being your child’s spotter.
- Let your child make his own purchases at the store. Don’t count out his money for him and don’t count his change. Stand behind him as if you were the next customer in line and let him manage this for himself.
- Let your child cook something. Yes, the stove gets hot. Yes, knives are sharp. Your kid’s no dummy, she knows this stuff. She’ll be more careful if you’re not hovering over her every move. Be nearby if she needs some help but otherwise get out of her way.
- Let your child play in your yard without being supervised. For goodness sake, isn’t this why you got a house with a yard, so the kids could play in it? Let them go outside, even in the front.
If your child is old enough to make his own decisions, let him. Widen his world.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.