Thoughts on Modern Parenting

My sister and I, c. 1999

Today, I want to talk about something a little different from my usual content: childhood and, in a sense, parenting.  I remember my childhood very fondly.  However, I keep stumbling across research about how today’s kids spend little time outside, are always supervised by their parents, about “helicopter” parenting, and about the shift in how parents raise their kids that took place sometime in the 70s or 80s.  My parents and grandparents often tell stories from their younger years that would make many modern parents panic.  My dad riding his tricycle to the town pool with a friend and disappearing for several hours before a neighbor boy told him his mom was getting really worried about him (he was very young, as in, he hadn’t started elementary school yet).  He tells stories of playing outside all day, going from one backyard to the next, his parents only checking in on him once dinnertime came around.  My grandparents recall walking several miles to school, sometimes in bad weather, by themselves at very young ages.  No, my grandparents and their parents weren’t neglectful.  This was simply what parenting looked like at that time.  And somewhere along the way, there was a huge shift, likely during the 70s and 80s (which would be right after my parents entered or graduated high school).

My own childhood was what I would consider a happy medium between the carefree (truly free) days of my parents’ youths and the over-protective super-involved parent-supervised childhoods that so many kids are now experiencing.  As a child of the 90s in a small, relatively safe rural town, we spent pretty much every afternoon playing outside.  We explored (sometimes with our parents, sometimes not), we played kickball, and we chased each other around the yard.  Sometimes, we ventured down to the nearby fairgrounds.  I remember we once went down with a group of neighborhood kids and found a little field mouse, which we brought home and begged our parents to let us raise as a pet (they said no).  We formed clubs with our friends that lived around the block and had meetings in various locations- the unfinished upstairs of our garage, the little shed behind our friends’ house, or any hidden corner where we thought our meetings could go undetected by our parents.  We were allowed to walk around the block to our grandparents’ way before middle school without our parents.  We played in our rooms without our parents breathing down our necks.  We rode our bikes to the nearby cemetery.  At night, we, along with all the other neighborhood kids, would play nightgames like manhunt or capture the flag with several backyards at our disposal.  We certainly didn’t know who lived in all of the houses, but we knew which yards we were allowed to go through.  No, we weren’t allowed to wander about with no restrictions, but we were allowed to be imaginative and go places and play without our parents right there.  And yet, our parents were still very involved.  My mom stayed home with us until my youngest sibling was 8.  She often babysat for different families after-school and during the summer and would come up with different activities for us to do.  We would make crafts and bake.  We’d work on the garden with her.  She definitely was not, in any way, an absent parent, or neglectful.

And I think that is how childhood should be.  Children should have unstructured playtime, they should be encouraged to play outside, they should have the chance to interact with other kids without immediate parental supervision.  Yes, safety is important, but kids should also be able to learn from their mistakes (within reason, of course).  They should be given a certain degree of independence.  We should stop assuming that something bad is bound to happen to our kids if we let them out of our sight for 2 seconds, because the chances are actually pretty slim.  Recent research has shown that being very over-protective and over-supervising does not help our kids.  In fact, it harms them.  We are so concerned about safety that we don’t allow our kids to be just that: kids.  No wonder kids are attached to their computers and tvs and play video games all the time.  It’s what we’ve demonstrated is “safer”.

I’ve been home since the very beginning of May, and I have loved seeing that the kids in our neighborhood (the same one I grew up in) still play outside.  They go from backyard to backyard to play, even during the day when most parents are likely working.  They ride their bikes, play basketball in the (very quiet) streets.  They build forts and play in very shallow streams.  The other day, I was walking home from my grandparents (who have lived in this neighborhood 0ver 52 years!) and passed a group of about 20 kids in a yard.  They varied a lot in age (some were quite young, others are in middle school).  Some of the kids were on bikes and about to start a race.  The others were just playing in the yard.  This is what childhood should look like.  This is what I want for my own kids someday.  It makes me so happy that the ‘new childhood’ hasn’t hit here yet, and I hope it never does.  Another added bonus: this kind of mindset encourages community.  All of the parents in the neighborhood make sure that kids aren’t getting into trouble and that they aren’t being reckless.  Parents talk to their neighbors while sitting on the front porch and keeping a somewhat distant eye on the kids.  The older kids watch out for the younger kids.

How were you raised? How does that differ from how you are/ how you are planning to raise your own kids?  Do you think this shift is good, or do you agree that it could be harming our kids?

Just some of the many articles I’ve read on the subject:

Mom Arrested for Letting Her Daughter Play Outside

Slate Childhood Survey Results: Kids Today Have a Lot Less Freedom Than Their Parents Did

The Overprotected Kid