by Julie Hall at ProgressiveKid
Parents are a jumpy bunch these days. Even before I had my daughter I was troubled by the prevailing attitude among parents that the world has become a place too dangerous to let kids be kids anymore. Popular opinion seems to be that it is now too risky to let children do time-tested things like play outside unsupervised, climb a tree, explore on a bike, or walk to school alone, all things my friends and I enjoyed as kids. Once I became a mother I began to witness first-hand the stifling paranoia among other parents about their kids’ safety and to see the effect it was having on kids. Not surprisingly a new major study by Play England, part of the National Children’s Bureau of Great Britain, found that half of all kids no longer climb trees and 17 percent have been instructed by their parents not to play tag or chase. Although 70 percent of adults reported having had their biggest childhood adventures outside in natural settings, only 29 percent of children have such opportunities today. Depressingly, most children reported having their biggest adventures in playgrounds.
With his 2006 book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv alerted our generation to the alienation of children from nature and the damaging effects of childhoods spent mostly inside, citing obesity, depression, and loss of self-esteem. Likewise, the recent British study points to the importance of risk-taking to “increase the resilience of children,” and “help them make judgments.” Although most parents today had such opportunities for outside play and risk-taking as children themselves, many of them are failing to make the connection between their own vital developmental experiences and their children’s need for the same things.
Why? Media fear-mongering in recent decades has given the public a distorted sense of the dangers of contemporary society. If we believe what we are told by ratings-hungry “news” outlets, human nature has suddenly turned inexplicably bad, predatory perverts are everywhere, and child molestations and abductions are rampant. The fact is that most sexual and physical abusers are family members—not creepy strangers. This is confirmed on the American Psychological Association website. Abduction rates are declining, with most being by family members or other acquaintances of the child. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Justice violent crime against children actually has dropped by nearly half since 1973. Human nature has always been a mix of astonishing cruelty and equally astonishing kindness, dolled out in varying ratios across our species’ population but averaging out to generally benign behavior.
Whether stirred by media hype and/or disconnection from nature and the nature in ourselves, contemporary parental fear is unhealthy for our kids and debilitating for parents. It reflects a fundamental loss of confidence in the general decency of others and, even more sadly, in the capability of our kids. To make matters worse, parental fear over children’s safety often obscures or even supplants our commitment to our children’s broader well-being. Tending to our children’s safety helps keep them out of harm’s way (though there are never guarantees). But simply keeping them out of harm’s way is not enough for kids and, as studies remind us, not even always healthy for them. Rather than focusing obsessively on kids’ safety, tending to their well-being helps give them skills and awareness that they require to be confident, capable people that develop into high-functioning adults.
How we foster the well-being of our children must be answered by each of us, depending on our values and the personalities of our kids. A great place to start is to have more faith in the resiliency of our kids—and ourselves—to bounce back from hurts, mistakes, failures, and false starts. Without such difficulties, there can be little healing, learning, triumph, and success. This kind of faith is really a faith in nature itself. It is a faith in our own animal selves and in the natural cycles of living—struggling and growing, protecting and challenging, exerting and resting, acting and reflecting, falling down and standing up again.
The topic of raising kids free-range, a term used by Lenore Skenazy on her thought-provoking website Free Range Kids, came up recently in an online mother’s forum I belong to. One mother expressed in extreme terms what many were feeling when she said she would “lock and chain” her kids to her because of “perverts on the loose” in a “rabidly changing world.” She called free-range parenting “science fiction.” Unfortunately mothers with such an approach to parenting become a far greater threat to their kids than the world at large. Thanks in part to the often grotesque influence of television and other negative media messages, parents unwittingly make their children helpless, soft, dull, and cynical to boot.
There is no fiercer mama bear than me, but I also know that my daughter requires a reasonable level of freedom to grow and gain the confidence she will need to thrive as an adult. And setting that aside, life is simply so much richer when it is lived fully, with dirty feet and skinned knees. There is nothing sweeter than knowing she is in the raspberry patch out back grazing at will in her bare feet, without anyone to answer to but the universe before her.
Julie Hall is the author of A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids: Understanding Climate Change and What You Can Do About It, a poet, and cofounder of the green online store ProgressiveKid.
Filed under: living green, parenting, social issues, television | Tagged: Abduction rates, animal selves, “perverts on the loose”, child molestations and abductions, children’s safety, depression, disconnection from nature, faith in nature, Free Range Kids, free-range parenting, high-functioning adults, kids’ safety, Lenore Skenazy, Media fear-mongering, media hype, National Children's Bureau, natural cycles of living, negative media messages, obesity, online mother’s forum, outside play, parental fear, Play England, raising kids free-range, Richard Louv, risk-taking, sexual and physical abusers, the alienation of children from nature, the American Psychological Association, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from N, the resilience of children, U.S. Department of Justice, violent crime against children |