March 26 2014
Is the tide beginning to turn on bubble-wrap parenting? The prominent liberal writer Hanna Rosin notes in her March 19 essay at The Atlantic that “our preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk-taking and discovery—without making it safer.”
Our preoccupation with safety, ironically, didn’t make the environment safer. Rosin writes about how playgrounds have been turned into models of safety, and yet injuries still happen. But parents may be wising up. Rosin points out that our attitudes towards child-rearing have changed:
It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.
Still, as Rosin explains, many of the good experiences and knowledge kids acquired on those “risky” old playgrounds, like the ones with fast slides, have disappeared along with the equipment. And the skills that kids once gained from spending time outside and alone have disappeared as well.
Children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children, at least, skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.
One aspect of the problem that Rosin underestimates, however, is the impact of the legal system on parents’ choices. She argues that it is parents who have to change their attitude, but Rosin never acknowledges the heavy hand of regulations and laws that make such a change seem revolutionary. As Philip K Howard explained at the Huffington Post, it is the law that is keeping parents from freeing their kids:
In America's lawsuit-obsessed culture, any accident is sure to result in litigation. Defensive play is standard operating procedure. That's why some schools ban running at recess, and tag. Dodgeball is almost a capital crime. The cure here is a dramatic shift in law: American courts must bar lawsuits over children's accidents unless the judge (or an expert panel) decides that the activity or circumstances posed unreasonable dangers. The standard must no longer be avoiding risk -- risk is often healthy, and attracts children at the same time as it helps them develop resourcefulness. The correct standard is unreasonable danger. Accidents will happen. That doesn't mean someone did something wrong.
Like Rosin, Howard also wants to see a cultural change among parents. But while a worthy goal, it is the legal, governmental, statist regime that must first be changed in the name of parental rights.