The Overprotected Child

playground4Every now and again I’ll write a post that really means something to me and I’ll let it sit, completed, in my drafts bin for months, even years. I haven’t quite figured out why. I think it bothers me to post something that I feel so deeply about only to have it soon be buried underneath future posts. But I also can’t stand for this post to sit in my drafts bin any longer…
One of my fellow Childhood Unplugged photographers turned me on to an article published by The Atlantic called, “The Overprotected Kid”. The subtitle states, “A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery – without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution”. The article highlights the transformation of playgrounds in the US from the 1960s and 70s until now, noting that changes were made due to safety concerns without much of a change in the number of injuries that have occurred on a playground between then and now. It speaks to how consumed we, as parents, have become with safety and how driven we have become by fear. This fear has led to very little unsupervised playtime, which the article states can be detrimental to the development of a child. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t agree.
So what is this “new” playground like, you ask? Well it takes up half an acre and consists of things like tires, mattresses, a creek with a faded plastic boat, mud, wood, and other materials that allow the “playground” to transform daily. Contrary to many of the playgrounds we’re used to, “there are no bright colors, or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek)”.thelandplayground2
Childhood has changed. I was just having a conversation with friends when one admitted that, back in day (she grew up in the 60s-70s) when the cops used to show up to the parties, they’d simply hold their joints under the table and blatantly deny the presence of any drugs or alcohol. And the cops, who could certainly smell the marijuana in the air, would “take their word for it” and move on. In the same conversation, someone else admitted that he was in the car when his group of friends got pulled over for drunk driving (this was also in the 60s-70s). Instead of arresting anyone, the cop asked if anyone in the car was sober and took another kids word for it when one raised his hand and volunteered to drive the rest of the way home. I’m not saying I want my kids to be able to get away with doing drugs, nor do I think cops should turn a blind eye to drunk drivers; my point is only that times have changed and it’s affected the way our children interact with their world. The article states, “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70’s – walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine”. It continues, “When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost – and gained – as we’ve succumbed to them?”.
The article goes on to say that somewhere along the line risk became synonymous with hazard and due mostly to fear of lawsuits, playgrounds began to change substantially. And now, they’re all the same. From one playground to the next, you’ll notice that all the slides are at the same heights and angles and many share the same accessories. There are no elements of surprise and whether you’re in California or Kansas, chances are your kid is playing on the same blue and orange painted equipment with rubber pavement as my kids. And if you’re kids are like my kids, the actual equipment itself holds their attention for a whopping 10 minutes or so. After that initial 10 minutes is up, I rely on them interacting with other children (fingers crossed there is someone there for them to play with), the sandbox, or – if they’re lucky – their bike / scooter I brought for them to ride around on. And am I the only one that gets annoyed by the constant signage, “use caution”, “intended for children ages 2-5”, “adult supervision required”, and so on and so forth? It reminds me of a comedy show I saw with Demetri Martin where he does this whole bit about signage and how stupid it is, in general. He talks about driving across a bridge in the summer time that has a sign that reads, “May be icy”. He suggested that instead of concentrating on the negative, signs ought to concentrate on the positive; like, instead, how ’bout it read, “May not be icy”. It translates to mean the same thing, doesn’t it? I digress.
“Two parents sued when their child fell over a stump in a small redwood forest that was part of a playground. They had a basis for the lawsuit. After all, the latest safety handbook advises designers to ‘look out for tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps, and rocks.’ But adults have come to the mistaken view ‘that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury. In the real world, life is filled with risks – financial, physical, emotional, social – and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development”. It’s as if we’ve taken the trust for our children to properly judge the safety of a situation away. I hate watching my boys in yards where there is a pool, for example. But rather than chase them all over the place, like those guys who tease the bulls with those red flags, I sit back and wait for them to fall in with the reassurance that I will simply jump in after them. I remind myself that a few seconds under water will not kill them. Maybe some people may find me crazy for doing such, but I trust in their ability to know that playing by the water’s edge is not safe. What I don’t trust is their ability to swim and that’s why I sit out there with them, at all times, carefully observing, or “loitering with intent“, as the article calls it. And to this day, neither Hooper nor Van has fallen into the pool while playing around it.
I agree that learning to negotiate risks is an important part of survival. I mean the human race has survived as a whole because of our abilities to defend ourselves, run from danger, and be independent. The article states, “Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions. By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear”.
Hooper became a bit more daring when he transformed from toddler to kid, but I would describe him as far from reckless. Both boys are terrified of cars in the street or parking lot. When Van hears a car’s engine start in the parking lot, he latches on to my leg. Because the fear is innate in them, when we cross the street or ride bikes I make it a point to educate them about crosswalks or looking both ways but I’m careful to instill more fear and I speak to them in a calm and matter-of-fact voice. I think it’s important to know your children and teach to their individual levels of understanding, or in this case fear.playground5
Even with the introduction of the safety handbook for playgrounds that subsequently led to the change of all playgrounds today (due in large part to fear of lawsuits in situations where the playgrounds were not up to the new codes), there has been little change in the rate of injury between then and now; “We might accept a few more phobias in our children in exchange for fewer injuries. But the final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000 or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans”.
It seems that these days we are driven to shelter our children; encouraged to always hold their hand and guide them and supervise them. But, in-doing-so we can also dissemble them by making them reliant on us for safety and protection, guidance and direction. When you work at a job, for example, and show you are able to conquer a task with competence, you move up the ladder and are given more responsibilities and, as a result, you build confidence and independence and self-worth. The same goes, or used to go, for raising children; “Children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some would get neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant”.
The article concludes in differentiating between avoiding major hazards and making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness); “We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one; remind yourself of that every time panic rises”. 
It’s difficult to trust my boys at the age they’re at and I’m still adjusting to letting go and encouraging exploration; but I think it’s a battle worth fighting. I remind myself often of the big picture. I’m not raising children, I’m raising future adults.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you encourage your children to take risks? How did you grow up? Did you have a lot of unsupervised time as a child? And if you’re a grandparent, how do you feel things have changed (or not changed) since you raised your kids? 

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12 Responses

  • I read this article a few months back. It’s definitely something I can relate to. People are so over protective of their children that they stifle their growth. I see it all the time, even with some of my friends. Sometimes I know I need to check myself to make sure I’m not hovering. There’s definitely a line between being over protective though and “loitering with intent” and sometimes it’s hard to read. Some situations more so than others. Peer pressure can play into it also. When you don’t want to be the odd mom out or perhaps the one who gets called out.

    I also don’t necessarily think that crime and accidents happen all that much more than they used to either. I believe a large part of it is our awareness of these incidents. Social media and news is everywhere you look just trying to invade your life to scare you into becoming a bat-shit crazy parent or a hermit. I try my damnedest not to watch or read the news because I’d rather not here about all the awful negative shit that can happen in the world.

    Something else that goes hand in hand with this, is children aren’t playing outside enough and when they do get to play outside they aren’t doing the things they used to such as climbing trees, going to neighbor’s houses, collecting neighborhood kids for street or field games, swimming in ponds, etc. Instead they’re all playing on the plastic and metal playgrounds that (as you mentioned) are probably the same ones wherever you live. Or even worse they’re inside watching television and playing video games not getting exercise and not learning new skills and not negotiating natural fears. I’m not saying I’m against all screen time for kids, but it’s definitely something that should be kept to a bare bones minimum. Unfortunately I think a lot of parents feel their children are safer if they’re inside the house playing video games or watching t.v. Not only does it require little supervision on their part, but no worries for them either. It’s too bad that they can’t see the dangers that they’re exposing their children to in promoting such a lethargic life and how little their children will be able to function in society on their own if left with too many of these ‘bad’ habits. As you said I think the major goal is to raise future adults, ones with confidence and self control and understanding.

    One other aspect not touched on in this article that I feel goes hand in hand with overprotecting children is keeping children in the dark on many things. It drives me absolutely bonkers that one of my friends had taught her daughters that they have “pee pees” instead of vaginas. Their daddy and other boys as she’s explained it to them have a different “pee pee” and they only know this because of an accident of their little cousin stripping down in front of them. I can’t for the life of me understand why people are so afraid of labeling human body parts or of sexuality in general. It’s part of life people. It’s how we all got here and it’s how we’ll all continue to be here. I really feel it’s important that I teach my boys proper anatomy and I’d honestly rather my children here what’s up from me than from someone else. If I had little girls I feel I’d be even more upfront at an early age to prevent against them being taken advantage of.

  • As I started reading, I kept thinking of lawsuits in regards to playground changes…people are rather sue-happy these days and while sometimes it’s warranted, companies are constantly being driven by all of the “what -ifs.”

    Growing up, for me, (early 80s) there were swings at every park, metal slides 8 feet high with very little side railing (if any! LOL!) and the ground below was concrete or grass – no rubberized mats or mulch.

    As a mom, you can’t help but appreciate certain aspects of those changes, but I agree that regulations have gone a little overboard in some areas.

    We’ve often gotten comments from childless couples or families with very young children, that our boys “scare them to death!” with their jumping/climbing/etc. antics. My response is that it’s gotten easier as the years go by to trust the boys’ ability to assess the dangers of a situation. Not to say that they always “get it”…because they are still kids, of course. My youngest has absolutely no fear, but I know pretty well when I need to keep an extra close eye on him and when he’s more than likely going to be just fine. As their mom, I feel like I’ve been eased into their adventurous spirits as my mama experience grows with them. Thus, I can see how someone with no child experience may look at me like I’ve lost my mind when I let the boys venture into a creek while I stay at the top of the bank.

    My philosophy has been to be there enough for them to be safe, but to also explore and discover…and learn from mistakes. If we guard them from exposure to every single little thing, then they won’t learn how to cope with all the ins, outs, ups and downs in life.

    Where I draw a much tighter line is in their behavior. They are not allowed to “explore” just how far a bad attitude will get them! LOL!

    I think it’s important to find your family’s own “happy medium” when it comes to how much protection your child(ren) need. There’s no one absolute – but finding a middle ground is key – not too much and not too little.

  • Excellent post and a really interesting article. The issue of safety and terms like free-range parenting has definitely been on mind, especially with recent news stories. I like to think that I’m somewhere in the middle, and quite honestly I’m not sure why I’m more protective than my parents were. I remember doing so much on my own as a child and never feeling afraid of everything. I’m not sure when or why that changed. I try not to hover too much over my own children, but do sometimes catch myself and have to remind myself to step back. I encourage them to climb and leap and experience, knowing that I can’t protect them from every fall and every bump.

    Like others have said, we unfortunately live in a world where everyone seems a little sue-happy and so intent that their children never experience any discomfort ever and that heaven forbid if they don’t look where they’re walking, then it’s not their fault if they trip over something, but they should blame whoever didn’t remove said obstacle.

    As parents it’s our goal to keep our kids safe, but to also encourage them to explore and become independent, capable adults. I don’t want them to be anxious and afraid, but I want to teach them how to make smart choices and how to learn from their mistakes because everyone makes them. I want them to feel confident and know that they have a voice (but that they still have to be respectful). I do want them to take risks, though (getting back to the point), and to not be afraid of everything. I have anxiety and fear too many things, so the greatest gift I can give my children is confidence.

  • I think there’s probably a balance. Like, Grandma let Dad walk on the wall of the Hoover Dam and feed deer out of the palm of his hand in Yosemite. I don’t think either of those are very advisable activities. Ha. But, yes, I witness parents today and it kind of makes me sick to my stomach. I think a lot of it is fear-based. If you watch Shark Tank, you’ll see that many of the inventions are targeting parents looking for “safer” things. The one I watched the other day was about non-toxic shampoos for kids. Really? It seems like we’ve all done just fine with the products out there. This isn’t exactly what your post is about, but I think it’s related. There’s much more emphasis on “perfect parenting” today too. Everyone is so freaking conscious of everything their child says, eats, poops, etc. It gets a little excessive (and annoying) and I have to think it instills anxiety in children more than anything. I can understand the desire to protect a child and make sure they have “the best” life (whatever that means), but I think a lot can be said for parents letting go and surrendering a bit. It seems healthier for all that way.

  • I’ve been digging this trend of yours. The picture of the kid and the boat, wherever that was (instagram?) has stuck in my mind too.

    My son is, like, Mr. Clumsy. He’s a whiz in communication, but if there’s anything within 25 feet of his head, he’ll find a way to hit it. Around his 1.5 mark, I remember telling him not to climb on ladders at the park, or holding his hand when he went across certain perilous looking sections. He started preschool soon after and came home a few weeks later, zooming up the ladder and flying over those sections without any help. I was shocked. I knew immediately it was because he didn’t have a mother telling him he needed help. Preschool required him to step up and take more independence, to watch other kids and see how they were doing it and try for himself. Ever since I’ve been so laid back. I take a book to the park and peek over it every now and then to make sure he’s not doing something insane (i.e. running 25 feet away to hit his head on something).

    Yesterday I heard a mother of another 2.5 year old who was trying to climb the ladder after mine tell him, “He can climb that ladder because he’s bigger than you. You can’t climb ladders until you’re four.” and the little boy immediately insisted, “I’m four!”

    “Alone” time, or time when they at least think and feel “alone” is essential. I never leave my son unsupervised, I’m with you on the loitering with intent. But I can just see the benefits every time I force myself to sit back and relax. I can see him growing so much faster that way.

  • Sometimes I wonder if i’m being overprotective (but he’s only 1 for crying out loud, i still have a right to be a little cautious), then i remember that people actually buy knee pads for their crawling babies, and feel like i’m doing a pretty good job. So thanks weirdos!

  • I was extremely overprotected as a child. As a result, I became EXTREMELY rebellious. At 18 I fled the clutches of my parents and ran away to start a new life in San Francisco. I spent a very wild few years doing a lot of drugs and going to raves and being a wild, wild child. My family and I have a strained relationship to this day, to varying degrees. And I don’t feel like I was ever given the tools to learn how to become an independent adult, something that STILL hampers me to this day (I’m almost 33).

    My parents coddled me and did not allow me to make my own mistakes or feel pride in accomplishing something myself. I am an only child and I’m sure that contributed to it, but in so many ways they were helicopter parents, and it was really damaging. I know they love me, more than anything — and I managed to turn out OK, but man, you know? It would have been easy for me to have gone off the deep end at some point between the ages of 18-21. And I wish they’d prepared me better for being an adult.

  • Trying not to sound arrogant I can say I have lived more than most much to the credit of my under protective parents. I was hardly monitored growing up and played freely through the neighborhood until dark on most nights. That’s not to say that my mother Debbie didn’t instill the fear of God in me with a number of swift backhands to the face and a healthy dose of choice four letter words when I behaved badly, none the less I roamed at my leisure at a young age to the park and to school and back on my bicycle or rollerblades… Yes I said rollerblades. I came and went as I pleased as long as I adhered to the rules they set which pretty much consisted of tell me where your going, who with and when to expect you home. There weren’t cell phones so I had to be trusted to follow through on my word or there was hell to pay because I gave cause for my parents to worry about “what the hell could have happened to you”. High school came along and there was never a curfew nor a consistent follow up on my grades but a relationship of trust and an allowance to “fuck up” as my Mom would consistently remind me not to do. But I did on occasion mostly grades related and when I did it was my responsibility to fix it, Debbie didn’t come to school to talk to my teachers or administrators she told me to “straighten that shit mess you got yourself into out on your own”. Today I have a 5 month old little guy who will be straightening out a lot of things on his own as he grows up, he will also roam the streets on whatever mode of transportation he chooses, although I pray it isn’t rollerblades getting himself into his own shit messes he will figure out on his own. I can’t learn his lessons for him all I can do is give him a healthy home and supportive consistent father figure he is comfortable enough with to rely on and come to with his questions his worries and his problems. I am a parent to this little human who will soon walk and bounce his head off of the sharp edges that surround him in the house, he will have to learn not to drink the cleaning supplies or put his finger or his wiener into the light socket, he will survive and be a better more grounded, beat up a little but healthy individual who’s just that and… An individual.

  • Really interesting article. I can very much resonate with your ideas on visiting the park and 5 minutes later, the kids are bored and just want to play and interact with other children (only for there not to be anyone in cold & rainy England). Over the pond, we have rapidly followed the US with lawsuits after lawsuits and crazy safety manuals on everything. I went to the swimming pool on Sunday and I couldn’t get over the amount of *kit* that kids wear- arm bands, inflatable jackets, swimsuits, floats it went on and on….However, for me personally having my daughter, Claudia (18 months), I have always tried to be laid back : allow her to explore, try not to watch her every single second but my vivid imagination sometimes stops me. Only yesterday, I watched her balancing on the concrete stairs that we have at our back door and I could only imagine her falling off and cracking her head….However, I keep telling myself that these are such formative years and I want her to have the freedom, time and nurturing that I was afforded in the good old 80’s so I let her crack on. Guess what she managed those stairs like a dream and I need to stop continually saying “BE CAREFUL” and start taking a leaf out of my husband book and let her just enjoy the freedom that is childhood. Kids suprise you everyday with what they can do and that for me is one of the greatest joys.

  • This was so refreshing to read. Here in ND, we have a lot of old playgrounds with merry-go-rounds and fast metal slides and it’s awesome. There is a good, hardy lot of conservative ranchers and oil field folk who built this state, but the newer generations are definitely more “helicopter-ish” parents. We took a parenting class based in the book “Love & Logic”, and now I’m trying to recommend it to everyone I know, because it’s all about letting your kids learn from their mistakes, whether that’s crashing the tricycle or climbing high on the playground.


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