In 2008, journalist Lenore Skenazy set the world on fire with an act that, thirty years ago, was unremarkable: she let her 9-year-old ride the subway alone. The public’s reaction ranged from applauding her choice, to calling her “insane” and her actions “just plain stupid.” Some called Skenazy a child abuser, while several media outlets dubbed her “America’s worst mom.”
Kids walking about in public without parental supervision lit up the presses again this past December, when suburban parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv allowed their children, ages six and ten, to walk home alone from a park within a mile of their house. Outraged neighbors contacted the police and Child Protective Services, who investigated the family and ultimately charged them with “unsubstantiated” child neglect. The Meitivs made the news again in April, when Child Protective Services seized their children as they were returning home from another nearby park by themselves.
Skenazy and Meitivs call themselves “free-range” parents, subscribing to a parenting philosophy that encourages children to have the freedom to explore and roam the world without the constant oversight of adults–in other words, how many parents today were raised. Yet free-range parenting is in stark contrast to the new norm – often dubbed “helicopter parenting” – which insists upon near-constant scheduling and supervision of children.
The norm has changed quickly, with one United Kingdom study showing that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, the percentage had dropped to 9. And now, it’s even lower. Another study has shown that in the United States, the percentage of students biking to school dropped from 41 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2001.
The reasons for the dramatic shift from a free-range to a closely-supervised childhood are just beginning to be studied and are not yet understood. Some theorize that the shift to overprotective parenting is a result of a less-cohesive community – due to divorce, single-parent families, and mothers working outside of the house – which has
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led to a general erosion of trust and a desire to exert more control. Others opine that economic and social pressures require parents to be more involved in their children’s lives.
But perhaps the most common theory is that over-parenting is related to the 24-hour alarmist news cycle. The constant bombardment by the media of horrific crimes, abductions, rapes and other atrocities can lead people to perceive that crime is actually much higher than it is.
A 2014 Gallup poll noted that “[b]ecause Americans are more pessimistic about crime in the U.S. as a whole as opposed to their own localities, this could suggest that many base their views on what they hear about crimes that take place outside of their own hometowns. Some argue that consumption of news media plays a role in this by exposing Americans to crimes that they may perceive as more widespread than actually is the case.”
In fact, crime rates in general have fallen precipitously since their peak in the mid-1990s and are currently the lowest they have been since the late 1960s. Murder, rape, robbery and assault rates are all down. And the most recent federal data show that the number of children abducted by strangers in the “stereotypical” kidnapping situation is approximately 115 per year. (In reality, most abductions are by family members.) As Skenazy writes on her blog, “When spread across all the children in the United States, this means that my son, statistically speaking, would have to stand on the street corner alone for upwards of 600,000 years in order to be abducted.”
Yet, despite the data, close to 70 percent of Americans believe that crime has gotten worse.
While harm to children from crime is on the statistical wane, over-protective parents may be harming their children in less overt ways. Studies report that these overparented children are “more fearful” and have “increased levels of psychopathology,” decreased motor development, decreased constructive problem solving, creativity and critical thinking skills, and difficulty coping in the world after leaving the home.
Thus, paradoxically, American parents’ desire to keep their children safe from harm may actually do the opposite.