Kids Aren't Fragile, So Let's Stop Raising Them Like They Are

by Melissa L. Fenton
D. Anschutz / Getty Images

Last year, outside a quiet suburb of Chicago, a teenage boy was seen outside chopping wood. Of course, he was using an ax, as one would do for chopping fallen tree limbs. A passerby saw the teen chopping wood and called the police. THE. POLICE. Did I mention the teenager was chopping actual wood, and not a dead body?

Authorities arrived and promptly took away the the teenager’s tools “for safekeeping,” and then they notified the boy’s parents that he was chopping wood. WOOD.

Is this what modern American parenting has become — eliminating any risk or potential dangers from our children’s lives? And why are the police even responding to that call? This was a teenager, after all, and he wasn’t acting dangerously or unlawfully.

Sadly, many of today’s parents have become paranoid, pitchfork carrying, overprotective bunch of overzealous safety conscious helicopter parents. And the great irony of it all, is that they think it’s all for the betterment (and, of course, safety and protection) of their children when, in fact, it has done quite the opposite.

It has resulted in a generation of children for whom adolescent maturation is delayed, who have spent their entire childhood in the constant presence of adults without an opportunity for direction or — gasp! — danger. As a result, kids are lacking important skills for adulthood, like independent thinking, because they haven’t had the chance to take risks and make mistakes.

In other words, we’ve kept our children on such a short leash that when it’s time to let them go, they haven’t the first clue where to go, what to do, or even how to do it.

In a recent article titled, “The Taming of the American Child,” author Megan Baker makes a strong case for the unleashing of today’s kids, saying: “Kids have had whatever independence they enjoyed 40 years ago taken from them. Stolen. They’ve had their environment — home, school, the playground — made so safe, so risk-free you’d think they’re mentally defective or suicidal. They’re followed by a security detail everywhere they go. Every minute of their day is scheduled by adults who are ‘looking out for their future,’ and literally none of that time permits them to be away from the watchful eyes of adults unless they’re sleeping.”

With all my being I know she is not only right, but I also now feel horrifically guilty for buying into the “safety above all” and “helicoptering” philosophies during most of my early years of parenting. Though I grew up in the 70s with a childhood that was 100% free-range (more on that term later), and ultimately grew into a confident and independent adult, when it was time to raise my own children, I cowered and became a hovering, worried, and fearful mother.

Somehow, all the freedoms I was afforded as a child seemed completely irrational and unacceptable for my own children. Think for a second of all the things today’s kids are restricted from experiencing all because of potential (yet highly improbable) risks: spending hours of time outdoors unsupervised; using adult tools, implements, power tools, and lawnmowers; going for day-long solo bike rides; walking or biking to neighborhood stores and restaurants alone and without it being a “teachable moment;” using public transportation; and perhaps most importantly, coming home from school and deciding for themselves what to do next with their unscheduled time.

Of course, not all precautions are worthless. For instance, car seat safety standards have improved significantly and riding in a car with a baby on your lap like parents did “back then” is not only unsafe, but negligent and legal. When we know better, we do better, after all. But for the most part, parents are fretting about things that aren’t actual dangers and eliminating any independent thought from their children’s lives.

Even when kids have an afternoon “off,” their time is still adult directed with chore charts, homework charts, and even basic hygiene charts (brush teeth, hang up towel, etc.). Childhood has morphed into a job of checklists, and as Baker puts it: “In short, American children have been tamed; domesticated and brought into captivity. They had their wildness and sovereignty taken from them and were given light-up shoes and junk food as compensation (electronics these days). Children today, like our young neighbor, don’t proudly tell you what they can do, like previous generations — ‘I can draw, and tie my shoes, and tell time’ — but rather what they own — ‘These are my magic markers, my new shoes, my clock.'”

One of today’s most outspoken proponents of unleashing our children is Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry and founder of the website Let Grow. In an article titled “The Fragile Generation, Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed,” Skenazy and her co-author Jonathan Haidt contend that today’s parents are protecting their kids like no other generation before them, and the consequences are potentially too great to ignore.

“When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened,” Skenazy and Haidt write. “Yet modern child-rearing practices and laws seem all but designed to cultivate this lack of preparedness. There’s the fear that everything children see, do, eat, hear, and lick could hurt them. And there’s a newer belief that has been spreading through higher education that words and ideas themselves can be traumatizing.”

Skenazy’s Let Grow Foundation is seeking to change this culture, and wants to “change the social norms, policies, and laws that pressure and intimidate parents, schools, and towns into coddling their kids.” She also believes that “the more adults step back, the more we believe kids will step up, growing brave in the face of risk and just plain happy in their independence. Children today are safer and smarter than this culture gives them credit for. They deserve the freedom we had. The country’s future prosperity and freedom depend on it.”

I couldn’t agree more, and as an older and, let’s just say, more seasoned mother, I hope to be a good mentor for young parents out there who are eager to try to change the culture as well. It would be wonderful to see parks full of children playing freely and without adult direction — treating childhood again as a true adventure, and not a job to get through. Let go off the leashes, moms, and trust that when your kids fall (or fail, get hurt, take risks, do something dangerous) that they will learn to get back up again, safely and without your help.