Everyday, the same scene plays itself out across American neighborhoods across the United States. Mothers pull up in their Suburbans and Lexus SUVs at the entrance to their housing development. Even though the families live in perfectly safe, middle-class (or better) neighborhoods, parents feel the need to chauffeur their children the few blocks from the bus stop to home. Why?
This behavior may be understandable if the child is 5 or 6. But at 8 or 10, this behavior is ludicrous and symptomatic of a dangerous infection that has spread throughout this country in the latest generation of parents.
If not stopped, we may end up raising a whole generation or two of children who have little effective life coping skills and no connection or understanding to the world around them.
If you’re around 30 or older, think back to your own childhood. How much time was scheduled by your parents, and how much free time did you have on your own, to do with as you please? You may be surprised at the contrast between the scripted lives you as a parent plan for your children versus your own unscripted, imagination-driven childhood.
Here’s another scene from modern parenting. A child holds their 8th birthday party at a local birthday party place. All the parents not only arrive to drop off their child to attend the party, but also stay to supervise the child during the entire time they are at the party.
This isn’t just one or two worried parents — this appears to be very much the norm in many towns throughout middle-class America now. When it’s time to eat the cake, the birthday song is sung, the cake is cut, and then all the kids sit down at long rows of tables and begin eating. Their parents stand, like a prison lineup, along the outside walls of the room, keeping a close eye on their child.
At the first sign of a child’s conflict, parents are quick to intervene nowadays. “I just want everyone to play nicely,” they may explain. But they’re depriving their child of the opportunity to learn invaluable problem-solving skills. Especially if a child has no siblings, how else are they going to learn such skills except through trial-and-error interaction with their peers?
There are many rationales for these kinds of parenting behaviors. But if we look at some of the most common ones, they all don’t stand up to tests of data, reasoning or logic.
One rationale is safety. “I’ll do anything to protect my child!” Okay, then why are you driving them home from the bus stop a few blocks away? Because statistics show that your child (age 15 years or younger) is 5 to 7 times more likely to die in your car than they are to be abducted by a stranger. And put into perspective, both are highly unlikely occurrences to begin with. With approximately 78 million children in the U.S., only 1,638 children died in car accidents in 2008, compared with only 200 who were abducted by a stranger.
Still another excuse for this behavior is a sense that there’s no reason not to help out our children or placate them with this thing or that. Why not buy them that toy while we’re out shopping for some new clothes? Why not pick them up at the entrance to our housing development?
Because it teaches our children that every outing is a chance for a reward. So much like a mouse in a cage pressing a button to receive a pellet of food, our children can inadvertently learn that any type of outing results in a toy and all of life is just another opportunity for a reward. When a reward isn’t granted, it’s an excuse to act out or punish those who grant the rewards.
Another rationale is wanting to provide our children with all the benefits we didn’t have. If our parents seemed uninterested or didn’t spend as much time with us as we may have wished, we’re going to ensure we’re there every minute for our children.
But somehow this has become twisted to trying to smooth over every life bump our child experiences, so that they experience virtually none at all. By the time they go off to college, they have had only this womb-like protected life that little prepares them for the realities of life — people who treat us badly, failure at something we want to be good at, rejection by others, and honest hardship.
Understandably, there may be times where a parent has good reason to need to pick up their child at their bus-stop, or attend a birthday party with them. But these should be exceptions, not the rule.
If you see yourself in this entry, it’s not too late. I highly recommend one of the following books, either Richard Weissbourd’s The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development or Freen Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. These books talk about the importance of letting children be children, exploring their imagination on their own, on their own unscripted and unscheduled time. The research we have on child development suggests this results not only in happier children, but children who grow up to be more well-adjusted adults.
There is no “right way” to parent (contrary to what the hundreds of parenting books suggest). The right way is to find the way that works for you and your partner, while respecting the needs of your child. Those needs include the need to be connected with nature, to be connected and learn how to interact with other children who aren’t their siblings, with no adults around.
What if your child doesn’t want to play outside or walk from the bus stop? Well, they often don’t want to learn arithmetic or do their chores, and yet we still find a way to have them understand the value of each. And if you’re feeling pressure from other moms, well, now’s the time to take a stand for what you believe in and what the research shows. Your child will thank you in the end.
Children — like adults — learn by doing, as much as they learn through formal teaching. If we take those informal learning opportunities away from our children, we ultimately hurt them while ironically trying to help them. We hurt their ability to learn the way they were intrinsically built to learn — through natural experiences, through interactive experiences with their peers, and through unscripted, unstructured play time.
If you want to help your child today, give them time to be a child.