If you are one of the few out there who have not seen it: Stranger Things is a science fiction series that is very reminiscent of “The Goonies.” The story takes place in 1983 and the central plot line follows a group of four boys. In the first episode, one of the four boys goes missing. The three remaining best friends do their best to find and rescue their friend. They do so independent of adults. They work together as a team (mostly) and it all involves a lot of bike-riding. We all love the nostalgia in this throw-back drama. As an instructor of college courses in Infant and Child Development, I was immediately hooked on how the show depicted the preadolescent gang of boys.
Prior to the disappearance of their friend, the main characters spend their free-time riding bikes and playing Dungeons and Dragons, a table-top role-playing game. After the disappearance, they use the skills learned through years of friendship and freedom to participate in their own mystery man-hunt. If these kids survive what they are up against, every major CEO would want to hire them. They are smart, creative, team-players who are confident in their abilities to solve problems.
I feel a tinge of sadness that this type of childhood is unlikely for most kids growing up America today. And, it’s not because monsters and “upside down” worlds don’t exist. There has been a cultural shift in parenting that makes this type of independent group problem-solving very unlikely. I point to two primary culprits: (1) screens taking up an increasingly large percentage of children’s time and (2) our over-focus on supervision and safety of children.
If this show took place in 2013 instead of 1983, the children would not be riding bikes to each other’s houses and playing Dungeons and Dragons. If they were the average child, they may be dropped off by their parents for a scheduled “play date.” More likely, they would be playing video games and using social media in their homes, perhaps connecting to others via the screen. However, Dungeons and Dragons is a far superior “toy” than a screen, as it requires a great deal of planning, team work and actual face-to-face interaction. The complex role-playing game and unstructured outdoor time portrayed in the show both contribute positively to natural development and the children’s self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a child’s confidence in their own ability to control their behavior in order to be successful in their environment.
Because the problems with screens, including how much time children spend on screens and why it can be so bad are discussed elsewhere, I will focus on our cultural obsession with safety and supervision.
Recent research from the University of California, Irvine suggests that as a culture, we have become increasingly focused on supervising children… all the time. The new study finds that, as a culture, we now consider leaving children unsupervised to be “morally” wrong, regardless of how much risk the alone-time presents to children. And, we base the risk on how morally wrong we consider the lack of supervision to be. The researchers provided vignettes of children left alone for a variety of reasons: parent working, volunteering, relaxing or unexpectedly injured. The participants provided moral judgments of the parents and assessed risk to the child. The researchers found that the risk followed the moral judgments. If participants thought the parent was in the moral “wrong,” they deemed more risk to the child.
The researchers were motivated by several recent instances of parents facing criminal charges for leaving their children unsupervised in relatively low-risk situations. The examples are endless and increasingly ridiculous but here are few: a 9-year-old who played at a busy public park while her mom was working, a mother who left her son in the car for five minutes while picking something up, social worker involvement for a mom who allowed her children to independently play in her fenced backyard and continued police involvement in a family that allowed their children to walk 1 mile home from the park independently.
What’s interesting is that this is a recent cultural shift and one that is not based in any factual evidence. It does, however, coincide with the advent of the constant news cycle and media hype of stranger abductions. Crime statistics show that violent crime has decreased steadily and quite dramatically since the 1970’s. Yet, perception of crime has increased. What is important to note about these cases is that parents are being charged without regard to evidence of identifiable risk to the child.
Allowing a child to play independently or complete developmentally appropriate tasks by themselves is now a fad parenting style called: free-range parenting. However, having the freedom to solve problems without an adult’s micromanagement and the ability to play outside without rules and a coach is also called something else: healthy, normative child development. The ages at which it is developmentally appropriate will always be debated. And, it is true that the individual child’s temperament plays a large role in when it is appropriate for him or her to be granted certain freedoms.
While we are focused on our witch hunt, we are ignoring a major, identifiable risk to child development: the lack of time and space to develop characteristics associated with long-term success and mental stability: independence and self-efficacy. We are willing to rage about all the risks of safety and liability, but nothing is said of the risks of constant supervision and little is done about the risks of excessive screen time and sedentary, isolated behavior.
Of the research study, author Ashley Thomas says, “I think that developmental psychologists need to start talking about the costs of never allowing children to take a risk. People seem to make this calculation where they say: “Well, even though the chances of anything bad happening are small, there’s no harm in keeping an eye on the kids.” I think what developmental psychologists can say is: That’s mistaken — there is real harm in keeping an eye on the kids, if you’re keeping an eye on them every minute of every day.”
That is what Stranger Things nailed about child development: children are capable beings. Allowing them to exercise their capabilities within social groups without parent involvement is healthy (and missing from today’s childhood).