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March 26, 2017

Helicopter Parents and the End of Childhood Freedom [Warden]

I found this 2014 Atlantic article, The Overprotected Kid, and found myself nodding vigorously at the astonishing difference between my childhood and those that my kids are living.

Admittedly, I was parented by insanely libertarian minded parents who figured that any day I didn't come home maimed was pretty much a win. Even for the standards of the 70's, my brother and I were given so much latitude that our parents were the black sheep of the neighborhood.

There are things I did that I'd never allow my kids to do. My parents were extreme, bordering on neglectful at times. For example, my mom never bothered buying us snow boots even though she could afford to. Nope, sneakers were fine for running around in the snow. Gloves and a hat were optional as well, even on subzero days. I never owned a scarf until my wife bought me one ten years ago. I remain baffled that anyone who doesn't work in life threateningly cold weather would think one a necessity.

Despite this, I think my childhood was far more enjoyable, adventuresome and healthy than that of my children. And I feel guilty about this. I'm the parent, after all. On the other hand, our current culture makes it nearly impossible, legally, socially, and practically, to expose my kids to the same level of risk and freedom that I enjoyed.

Looking back, my parents had it pretty damned easy. By the time I was 8 years old, I would ride my bike a mile and a half to the pool in the summer when it opened and not return until close to dinner. At least half of those evenings, I would rush outside to play with friends right after eating. Mom literally saw me for an hour or two a day.

The sound of children was a constant in my old neighborhood. Kids were everywhere outside, playing sports, racing bikes, chasing each other through back yards. Today, in a suburban neighborhood packed with kids, you can't find a single one outside on most weekends. Even if I wanted to encourage my kids to disappear for a few hours, there's no one for them to run around with.

I'm both saddened and chagrined at the fact that neither of my boys, ages 5 and 10, have every climbed a tree, went creek walking or ran the neighborhood past dark. They've never played kick the can, toilet papered a house or swam in a pond.

I'm sensitive to the damage a sheltered life can cause, and I do my best to foster independence where I can. For example, when I take my 5 year old to the supermarket, I let him roam about the store eating sample and searching the discount fruit bin for good deals while talking to employees and sometimes strangers.

This never fails to cause some well-meaning adult to inform me that I've lost my kid. "No," I tell them. "he knows where to find me." I usually receive disapproving looks. I wonder what they'd think of my mom, who'd let my brother and I wander off into the toy aisle while she grocery shopped in peace, tasking us with the responsibility to catch up with her at the checkout line when she was finished. They'd likely call the cops on her today.

It seems that no matter what I do to give my kids more freedom, I'm stymied by other adults. I used to walk my little one into preschool, open the locked, coded door for him, then kiss him goodbye. It was then up to him to hang his coat, fish his folder out of his backpack, wash his hands and make his way into class.

That is, it was up to him until a couple of months ago when one of his teachers got upset after finding him "wandering the hallway alone" and asked that I escort him into class. "Otherwise," she said, "we could get into trouble."

And so my 5 year old had even that small bit of freedom yanked from him. I'm annoyed, but I don't blame the preschool. Everyone is terrified of being sued.

Even my wife got into the game this past week, freaking out that I left the two boys alone at laser tag for an hour while I went next door for a beer. It was deliberate. I could've gotten a beer inside the laser tag place if I'd wanted to, but I chose to get out of their space. My wife thought this was irresponsible. She's wrong. A 10 year old can look after a 5 year old for an hour in a public place.

And so, I continue to fight a desperate and pathetic rear guard action against overwhelming cultural forces. I'll give my kids a few bucks at a sporting event and let them go find the concession stand (and their way back) on their own. I leave them alone at home while I run errands on the weekend. I have my older son cook breakfast for the younger one once or twice a week.

It all seems so inadequate. I can't win and we can't go back to a different time--one without smart phones, organized sports starting at 4 years old, and a pile of rules and regulations for ever conceivable situation. It makes me sad.

Perhaps I'm someone who just can't let go of things. I have dozens of childhood stories of adventure, mischief, recklessness, foolishness and bravery---hours of planning, exploring, competing, fighting, cooperating, exploring, failing and achieving-- all outside the oversight of our parents. I wonder... what childhood stories will my boys tell?


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posted by Open Blogger at 07:55 PM

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