The Real Dangers of Childhood: How Do We Help People See Them?
“I walked or biked to school for years, but my children don’t. I worry about the road. I worry about strangers. You can start to imagine evil on every corner. I do think they’re missing out. But I like to be able to see them, to know where they are and what they are doing,” stated a mom in a newspaper article called “Bubble-Wrap Generation: Our Molly-Coddled Kids.”
“[I don’t know] one friend of mine who can actually walk across the street without parental supervision…. Parents these days are completely paranoid!” wrote a 12-year-old girl in a letter to the editor of the New York Times.
“My daughter was always outside as a child, but my grandchildren aren’t allowed to step outside the door,” said an audience member following one of my recent keynotes.
“Because you never know who might be lurking in the neighborhood,” responded a friend, when I asked why her son wasn’t allowed to play outside by himself.
In this, the safest time to be a kid in America, parents – adults, in general – have never been more fearful. But it’s not just the “dangers” outside that terrify them. There are scary things happening inside, too!
“I worry about having stairs in the house because they’re dangerous for the kids,” says practically every parent searching for a new place to live on HGTV’s House Hunters. (Last week I watched a mom reject a house because a step-down from one room to another would be too hazardous for her six-year-old!) They also look at fenced-in yards from the vantage of the kitchen window and sigh in relief because they’ll be able to observe their children at play while cooking. And they demand an open floor plan, not because they like to be able to entertain guests while prepping food but because they’ll always be able to see their kids in the family room.
On Facebook recently, I tried to calm the fears of participants involved in a discussion about when it’s okay to let a child walk to school alone (junior high, said one, but only because she was watching from a hill). The general attitude can be summed up in the comment of another woman, who wrote, “It’s definitely dangerous to leave kids by themselves ever.”
Ever? Here’s one of the things adults truly should be afraid of: that children will grow up scared and anxious. It simply doesn’t make for strong, independent humans. In fact, this is already happening. The introduction to an article in Psychology Today, called “A Nation of Wimps,” states, “…parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile; that may be why they’re breaking down in record numbers.” (A must-read piece!)
In that article, social historian Peter Stearns is quoted as saying that parents have exaggerated many of the dangers of childhood while overlooking others, such as the demise of recess.
Yes!! And here are a few other things that should be causing concern in our “dangerous” society:
- Children’s sedentary lifestyles: With 40% of children ages 5 to 8 showing at least one heart disease risk factor, including obesity and hypertension, and the first signs of arteriosclerosis appearing at age 6, adults should be terrified of letting children be inactive.
- Too much screen time: With more and more research showing that it causes vision problems, aggression, depression, and more, this is an issue that must be taken seriously.
- The elimination of free play from children’s lives…for more reasons than I could list in one blog post!
- Children’s lack of downtime, which is impacting their mental health.
And this is just a partial list of the serious risks facing today’s children. But they don’t get the kind of press that crimes do. They don’t get the airtime – or even the conversation – that potential hazards do.
Clearly, it’s not enough to point out that children through the ages have been raised in homes with staircases and survived! That many of us remember playing, not just in the family room but in any darn room we chose, including the unfinished basement. That we walked, ran, and rode our bikes for miles, often without an adult in sight.
In that Facebook discussion, I shared the statistics showing that it’s the safest time to be a kid in America, and even the Center for Missing and Exploited Children has stated that stranger danger is a myth. The response I got? “Sex trafficking is real. Kidnapping, rape, and murder are real. I don’t live in fear, I live in reality!”
Yes, they’re “real.” They’ve always been real, but it never before stopped adults from allowing children to be children. The difference between then and now is that now potential danger is all anybody talks about. The result is that these potential dangers have become so exaggerated that our grasp on “reality” is now seriously skewed.
So, I’m at a loss. If statistics aren’t evidence enough, how are we to turn around this culture of fear? How can we allay parents’ — and teachers’ and administrators’ and policymakers’ — misplaced angst? It’s absolutely imperative that we do – because there truly is much to fear if we don’t.
Hello Rae ~ Thank you for your Post. I am getting increasingly worried at what is expected of children and youngsters, and how they are being treated by the adults in their lives. To me, they appear lacking in independence and self-reliance – being ferried to and fro, never expected to work out and take even a short journey for themselves. What would happen if a youngster missed a lift? Would he or she have any idea what bus or train or tram to take to get home? Would he or she know how to buy a ticket? I also worry about the decrease in spatial awareness in some children and youngsters, as they appear never allowed out to run ‘free’ in the park, getting muddy, poking in puddles, climbing the frames, and scraping knees and elbows. Children need time in Nature for self-discovery and developing curiosity. I’ve written a few of Posts on these matters on my website http://www.icobrien.com, ‘Education Matters’. I’m also particularly conscious of the dangers of over-use of electronic devices on which I have written a constantly updated Post. Running around, getting tired naturally, and therefore sleeping properly, would all be excellent antidotes to online gaming in the middle of the night, or stumbling into inappropriate links which can lead to distress and worse. What’s the cure to feeling cold? RUNNING FAST! Kind regards, Iseult.
Always so good to hear your point of view, Iseault. Of course, yours is usually the same as mine! What we’re seeing is causing us both a great deal of worry. With university mental health counselors reporting that today’s young adults can’t solve ANY problems on their own anymore — either having to call a parent or visit the counselors for help — I can only begin to imagine what our society as a whole will be like as these same young people become the world’s decision makers.
Thank you so much for this article and the solid information on the “real” dangers our children have to face. And – to think- most of it are caused by the parents!! I am a trainer of pre-school teachers and I design outside areas for pre-school centers. With each design, I have to include a lengthy explanation of the value and need for an outdoor area where children can run, climb, swing, hang, dare and experience. Then I must remind the centers to include such an explanation as part of their enrollment form which the parents must sign to give permission that the children may participate in these outdoor activities. Teachers, unfortunately, are part of this unrealistic scare for children to get hurt…possibly because the parents are enforcing this viewpoint. I agree with you Rae, we can only keep on spreading the truth and hope for the best.
Yes! To have most of these problems caused by parents is both astonishing and not surprising. I’ve often said that parents are the easiest group of people to scare, and the sheer amount of misinformation coming their way is frightening them beyond anything their predecessors could have imagined. And their fear is causing them to do perhaps-irreparable damage. I do agree, Sophie, that teachers are also part of the problem, as are administrators. When a school system bans cartwheels due to the potential for harm, we realize we have an epidemic of fear infecting us. Thank you for the wonderful work you’re doing! Together we’ll keep fighting the good fight!
You are preaching to the choir here, Rae! But how do we get this across to parents and early childhood educators? And quickly! Time is fleeting!
That’s the problem, isn’t it, Susan? We’re too often preaching to the choir! As to your question…it’s mine as well. I write about it and address it in my speeches, but I’m not sure I’m swaying the non-believers! I just hope that if we join all of our voices together and keep “preaching,” we’ll eventually be heard. But I also hope that my readers have other ideas as well!
Rea, this is a very good article and makes points I have been trying to share with others for a while now. Our culture of fear is really harming our children under the guise of protection. Thank you. I hope to share this with others.
Thank you, Helen! I hope you will share it! And thank you for all you do for the children.
I’m cleaning up the manuscript of a book I’ve written on exactly this. I talk about balancing the freedoms a child should have in order to develop properly with the concerns society has regarding their safety. I’m seeing the pendulum swing a bit toward unstructured play, yet still the level of supervision is such that it isn’t really allowing a child to take risks and solve problems on their own.
I’m inclined to blame our electronic age for this. It used to be the news we heard was about our own town/city and everywhere else was far away. Now, news happens in real time and even those far away places feel like they are in our own backyards, thus making us lose perspective on the actual safety of our community.
When I was a child, we were all thrown outdoors after school and on weekends and told not to return until mealtime! Every mom was everyone’s mom and if I got in trouble, by the time I got home I knew my mom would discipline me accordingly because parents communicated with each other. My children are in their 20s and although I let my kids roam the neighborhood, I was one of just a few who did and I could feel the pressure to keep tighter reins on them….
Ha! I could write a book on this topic, so I’ll stop here! Keep up the good work! I appreciate your message!
Anne, I’m thrilled that there is a book coming out on this topic! The message is so important, and I resonate with everything you’ve said here.
I was happy to see this post. When I think about my own upbringing in the 80’s versus raising children now, a few things jump out at me which I think are contributing factors to the difference. First, I knew every single family who lived on my street growing up (about 20 houses). My parents knew every single family. We spent time together as neighbors. Families spent a lot more time at home because kids were involved in fewer out of the home activities. Outside of school (which was a neighborhood school), our neighborhood was the primary source of socialization.
The other notice I have is a bit of a prickly topic. My mom was 24 when her youngest child was born. She was well within the average age of a mother in the 70’s. Now, fast forward a generation. I was 37 when my youngest son was born. I finished school, had a career, and traveled a great deal before having kids. My experience mirrors a lot of parents I know. A 37 year old and a 24 year old don’t view the world the same way. Our experiences change us and in some instances make the world a more fearful place. Unfortunately, we pass that baggage onto our children.
Thanks for weighing in, Heather! I appreciate the different perspectives.