Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Maybe the backlash against helicopter parenting has gone too far

recent New York Times op-ed extols the supposed virtues of unsupervised childhood. The argument in the op-ed is essentially that letting kids get into a little trouble makes them more well-rounded human beings, leading them to live better lives as adults.

I call bullshit. There's no science, or evidence of any kind, behind this idea that letting kids break their bones and start forest fires is actually good for them, or us. On the contrary, the evidence I'm aware of shows that this generation of youngsters is, in pretty much every way, superior to my generation and all the generations that preceded it. For example, kids these days are shockingly less likely to commit crimes. They are just better people, on average, than we were. I'd be surprised if better and more conscientious parenting weren't part of it, but it hardly seems to be hurting.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for shooting down helicopter parents and trying to get everyone to chill out and turn it down about five clicks. I'm almost certainly in the bottom (most laid-back) ten percent of parents when it comes to this stuff—not just currently, but in all of human history. Yet the idea that juvenile delinquency is good strikes me as a fairy tale, a romantic conception. Certainly, the burden of proof to provide some evidence should be on people like the op-ed writer to provide something more than a just-so story.

Obviously, it could be that helicopter parenting makes better people but still isn't worth it because it costs too much in other ways. For example, the culture of parenting has changed so much that things Mr. Gillette and I were allowed to do every day back in the 70s and 80s would possibly subject our parents to criminal charges today, and this is creating some collateral damage. For example, I'm sure you've heard the story of the mother who got arrested because she was dropping her nine-year old daughter off at park while she went to work every day. The kid had a cell phone in case of emergency, so she was probably fine.

Even so, this case is a little ... strange. Even when I was growing up, I don't think it was common for parents to drive their kids across town and leave them alone at a park. In my day, parents just left their kids at home with the tv and a Nintendo. That's my America! I can't help wondering why this mother didn't just leave her kid at home. I suppose she could have thought the kid would get bored and just go exploring on her own. Maybe. But home seems like the better option.

One reason why leaving her home might not have been so appealing is that there doesn't seem to be any kind of neighborhood youth culture any more. When I was young, the local youths would gather around the neighborhood after school and during the summer. There was safety in numbers, even if there was more delinquency. Nowadays, since kids aren't let out of the house alone, there just aren't kids hanging around to a hang around with. It's kind of a vicious circle, I guess.

On the bright side, we get a lot less forest fires and broken streetlights. By the way, my frequent use of the example of "forest fire" is in no way an admission that I started a forest fire when I was a kid. Nor is it a denial. But if I did it surely made me the wonderful man I am today.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post.

    The weird thing about a lot of modern parents is that although they won't let their kids outside alone, when they take the kid outside, the parent buries their face in their smartphone and doesn't interact with the kid anyway. What message does that send?

    I also wondered why the woman didn't leave her kid at home instead of a park but it occurred to me that the mother was working at McDonald's and probably did not live in the safest neighborhood compared to the park.

    I sometimes wonder if the demise of kids just hanging out together after school and in the summer is a bad thing. Certainly, my kid has a much poorer understanding of television programs than I did at his age. But I suspect he is going to get in a lot less trouble when it comes to things like fighting, vandalizing construction sites, and/or picking on younger kids (to use some completely made up examples that are in no way a reflection of anything I did or that anyone I hung out with did).


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