Are Today's Parents Overprotective, or Is It Time to Admit That We Live in a Different World Than The One We Grew Up In?

Nostalgia has its place, but it must also be tempered with a reality check.
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Publish date:
May 15, 2015
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parenting, children, helicopter parents, Precious Parenting

In “What Would My Mom Do? (Drink Tab and Lock Us Outside),” Jen Hatmaker argues against the “precious” treatment of children in the 21st century and in favor of a more “free-range” style of parenting. Hatmaker discusses the levels of stress that mothers in particular create for ourselves by competing with each other, striving to provide bigger and better experiences for our children’s smallest achievements, and our refusal to let our children have the freedom to explore the world and learn from their own mistakes.

Hatmaker takes accurate and understandable punches at excessive birthday parties, elaborate classroom holiday parties provided by parents, and the provision of expensive video games, summer excursions and “stimulating activities for… brain development.” She argues that we are raising a generation that is discouraged from key skills of problem solving, creative thinking, or having to work for what they want, while also believing that they are the center of the universe whose wants trump all others.

I agree with Hatmaker that children today are catered to excessively, and the “mommy wars” perpetuate unrealistic notions of what we should be doing for and giving to our children, leading to significant stresses put on mothers who aren’t able to provide these things and experiences. Whether for financial or moral reasons, or just not being crafty or interested in devoting the time and effort into such elaborate displays of motherhood martyrdom, not every mother is going to parent the same way.

The cultural currency of shaming mothers who don’t center their children’s wants in everything they do is a significant disservice to both mothers and children. Children of the generation of my now 18-year-old son have certainly grown up feeling entitled to a great deal of individual attention and access to pricey items and experiences that were considered rare treats, if at all possible, when Hatmaker and I were kids.

When I was a child, a trip to Burger King happened maybe once every other month, and it was a big deal. Today children may eat out at fast food restaurants several times a week. Lest we assume this is only poor or lazy mothers who are giving in and judge them, we should recognize how many middle class parents ask their children, “What do you want for dinner?” and then follow the answer of “McDonald’s!” In my childhood we weren’t even asked.

In 2014 we as a nation witnessed numerous examples of police brutality and killings. Excessive police force and violence statistically happen far more frequently to Black and other non-white people, the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and poor communities. I can’t help wondering about an essay written in 2015 that doesn’t take race and class factors into consideration. Hatmaker writes about parents who, if they are “run[ning] out and backfill[ing] eight antique trunks as a memorial to your third-grader’s life,” are probably solidly middle class, as she is.

In our communities, however, fear for the safety of our children leads us to keep them at home and indoors, even as we reminisce about the days we could wander aimlessly throughout the city. Today we are afraid of other parents, unknown neighbors, strangers, and the police who are supposed to serve and protect. The fears are hardly unfounded, but some people do not personally know the worst of these fears because their community is not the one at highest risk.

Hatmaker refers back to her own childhood to make the point that our generation was raised dramatically differently, with ample outdoor play, lack of supervision that forced us to work through differences with each other, and the opportunity to entertain ourselves in creative ways that challenged our minds and bodies.

I was born in 1974, good readers. It no more occurred to my mom to coddle us Precious Snowflakes than it did to quit drinking a case of Tab a day. If you told my mom to craft a yearly time capsule for each child to store until graduation, she would have cried tears of laughter all the way to Jazzercise.

I too was born in 1974, and had a Tab drinking mother who put us out of the house as much as possible. In fact, because I was a voracious reader and writer, content to sit in a chair by the window in my bedroom for hours at a time, my mom worried about my social skills and need for fresh air. She would regularly take the book out of my hands and tell me that I couldn’t have it back until I spent a few hours outdoors. My mother didn’t lock us out and we were required to tell her exactly where we would be at all times, but the other parents of the neighborhood were like Hatmaker’s mom.

While I agree that we over-coddle our children, cater to their every whim, and create undue competition and stress between mothers, all to our children’s detriment, there are some key pieces that Hatmaker does not seem to have taken into consideration. Specifically, the issues surrounding putting our children outside are fraught with contradictions and risks that impact certain families more than others.

In the early to mid-1980s when Hatmaker and I were growing up, neighborhoods were very different than they are today. My neighborhood was full of homeowners and only a few renters. The renters that were in the neighborhood rented entire family homes rather than smaller apartments and tended to stay for at least a few years. That is to say, I grew up attending elementary through high school with a large number of the same friends over the course of those years.

In such a neighborhood, everyone knew everyone. We knew as children that if we behaved inappropriately or wandered too far outside of the accepted zone, someone else’s mom would call our mom, or even drag us home to explain directly what we had been up to.

For the past 8 years I have lived in that same neighborhood again. The majority of homes are rental properties, and probably half of them have been broken up into 2 or 3 apartments. Most of my neighbors stay for only a year or two. We find it harder to get to know each other, harder to feel comfortable about our children being free-range in the neighborhood of strangers, and are generally less trusting as a society. As a single woman living alone, I don’t even feel secure that I could rely on my neighbors to come to my rescue if something terrible transpired. I don’t blame parents for feeling even less trust in the neighbors to look out for each other’s children.

We grew up in the era of “stranger danger” warnings. We were taught not to speak to strangers, not to take candy or anything else from them, and not to approach cars no matter what the adult in the car claimed, unless we recognized them. I grew up among hushed whispers of my mother and her friends discussing the abduction and brutal murder of Adam Walsh.

No effort was made to warn me that the elderly next-door neighbor whose house I cleaned might harm me. He was a nice old man and no one believes me to this day that he molested me for years.

In a neighborhood where most of us knew each other and parents recognized which house we belonged to, we were taught that if we saw anything amiss we were safe to approach the closest door to seek help. As a pre-teen I took advantage of this more than once to escape grown men who followed me as I walked home from the library or dime store; I would simply go to the door of a neighbor. I have a vivid memory of one friend’s father immediately running outside and threatening with a baseball bat a strange man who had followed me down the street.

Today, the police would pay a visit to my friend’s father following such an altercation and his life would be at risk for having looked out for me. Chances are high that a fellow neighbor would be the one who called 911 on a Black man wielding a bat on his own lawn but wouldn’t have paid any mind to the scared twelve-year-old-girl being followed down the street by a forty-year-old white man.

Today, I would forbid my teen daughter from approaching even a known neighbor if there were no women home. It is not because I would think my daughter is unable to problem-solve, but because I would have taught her about the very real “acquaintance danger” that is so prevalent in our current society.

Today, those of us who experienced trauma we couldn’t name at the hands of neighbors and family friends have grown into alert parents, aware that strangers are not the only danger to our children. We have also grown alert to how racism may result in the wrong person being faulted in a situation, to tragic ends, so we would rather avoid the situation.

We now live in a society in which there are institutional structures in place that underpin parents’ tendency to keep kids indoors and under a watchful eye. Recent stories about children being stopped by police while riding their bikes or accusations of neglect against parents for letting their child walk to the corner store or play in the park unsupervised would never have happened in my generation. In another story that was published the same day as Hatmaker’s essay, Lenore Skenazy shares another mother’s story, which is just one of three incidents the family dealt with in a few short months. This story demonstrates how systems are in place to force parents to become “helicopter” parents who cannot allow their children basic opportunities for play or age-appropriate exploration.

… youngest son (age 6) was accosted by an officer for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of our house (our block is three houses wide — he was riding from one end of the block to the other)… He had apparently received a call from a ‘concerned citizen’ who had seen him riding. In this case, the officer was aggressive and frightened us into thinking we might actually have broken some law. A little research showed that we had done no such thing, but we were shaken.

When I was 6 years old, I was walking to school with my best friend, three blocks from home and across a main street. The idea that your child cannot ride their bicycle on their own sidewalk while you check on them periodically from the window isn’t stemming from over-cautious parenting but excessive systemic meddling. Parents are afraid of losing their children. The neighbors who call authorities out of a supposed concern seem disingenuous. If they are so worried, they could simply approach the parent to let them know of their concerns, or create a network of neighbors watching out for each other’s kids. The fact that the police take such calls seriously enough to scare children and reprimand parents speaks to a larger expectation to keep children penned in.

Hatmaker writes:

We made up games and rode our bikes and choreographed dance routines and drank out of the hose when we got thirsty. I swear, my mom did not know where we actually were half the time. Turned out in the neighborhood all day, someone’s mom would eventually make us bologna sandwiches on white bread and then lock us out, too. We were like a roving pack of wolves, and all the moms took turn feeding and watering us. No one hovered over us like Nervous Nellies.

Hatmaker is right: we had it better. I share her memories of riding bikes miles away from home, walking across town to the larger library with friends, and coming home just in time for dinner. I wish my son shared these memories, but he had a very different experience.

My son was limited to the back yard because of a grandfather who threatened to kidnap him, and my health not allowing me to sit outside to directly supervise his every movement. My son lived in a neighborhood where nosy neighbors called the police when his father came home from work and walked to the back door, claiming there was a “suspicious Black man” wandering up our driveway.

We live in a very different era than when we were kids, and in our nostalgia we also minimize the dangers we lived with then. My son grew up in an era after we discovered that statistically, children are more likely to be harmed by someone close to the family than by a stranger. At the same time, I can’t look back with rose-tinted glasses and forget that these strong neighborhood ties did not extend to my safety when I was being loudly berated, beaten, and abused in my home and going around the neighborhood with the bruises to prove it. Nostalgia has its place, but it must also be tempered with a reality check.

Parents may, in fact, be overprotective but they are reacting to newer cultural expectations and realities. We live in complicated times and solutions will also be complex and varied. We can look back to our childhoods not only in nostalgia but to ask what supports existed then that do not now. Getting familiar with neighbors and bringing back the Neighborhood Watch concept would be a great beginning.

We must also take a realistic look at our changing times and build solutions that are relevant to this new culture. Frank discussions in the neighborhood around issues of community policing, recognition of racial dynamics in policing, cultural exchange and respect, and mental health awareness can prepare neighbors to support each other better and look out for each other. It is possible to create safer neighborhoods for our children so they can get out and play the way we used to.