There’s now consensus among social scientists that children across the United States, Canada, Australia, England, and other high-income countries have never been safer. Even the respected epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recently published a report that showed that the real risks to our children aren’t abductions by strangers or being murdered, but much more commonplace problems like bullying and obesity.
In my experience, however, no amount of statistical reporting gets parents to stop hovering over their children. Regardless of whether the parent is seeing me clinically or we’re sharing a burger on my back deck, statistics do not change behavior. The patterns are too enmeshed—and worse, reinforced by neighbors (who criticize parents for letting 8-year-olds walk to school alone), educators (who’ve forbidden failure in the classrooms and sanitized playgrounds), and Fox News anchors (who sensationalize every child abduction, no matter where it’s taken place).
This new normal is a growing pattern of overprotection that I’ve seen emerging as one of the thorniest clinical issues for therapists because it can look so reasonable. If we therapists have children too (I have two older teens), we may find ourselves empathizing and afraid to admit that we’re just as crazy when it comes to our own kids. Statistics be damned! We’re not going to let anything bad happen to our child.
The Risk-Taker’s Advantage
Over years of working with parents to help undo the bubble wrap around their children, I’ve found four questions to be useful. Rather than insisting that parents change their behavior and supervise their children less, or trying to persuade them that the world really is a safer place today, I focus on how they can give their kids opportunities to experience the manageable amounts of risk and responsibility needed for success. I ask them:
These questions, especially the fourth one, shift the focus of the clinical work from trying to get parents to stop overprotecting to doing what’s positive for their children, which is providing them with opportunities to experience what I call the risk-taker’s advantage.That advantage comes when children are given the chance to experience just enough stress to demand their full attention, but not so much that it overwhelms them.
These manageable experiences can come in two forms—taking risks and assuming responsibility—which often go hand in hand. For example, giving a child her first pocket knife at, say, age 9 not only gives her the advantage of experiencing a little risky play with a sharp object: it signals that she’s responsible for keeping herself and others safe. Of course, few families find it difficult to argue against giving a child her own pocketknife, but ask those same parents to let their 9-year-old ride her bike to school alone, use the stove to help cook dinner, or go into a fast-food restaurant and order her meal by herself, and suddenly you’ll see them unsure about whether their child is competent enough to keep herself safe or responsible enough to make good decisions.
When we bubble-wrap children, we deny them opportunities to experience what evolutionary psychologists have described as antiphobic play. “Free-range children,” a term coined by New York City journalist Lenore Skenazy, are likelier to experience the exhilaration of overcoming situations that they’re biologically hardwired to fear until they have the physical and psychological maturity to cope with them. Riding the subway at age 9 alone and climbing high up into a tree both offer children the same opportunity to experience enough risk to scare themselves a bit while feeling responsible for the consequences that can follow recklessness. Adventurous play and progressively larger responsibilities are important building blocks for psychological well-being.
The Problems of the Privileged
The pattern of overmonitoring children’s every move and emotional experience shows up in dozens of ways, small and large. Think, for example, of parents who sit and watch their 5-year-old at a soccer practice, the team swarming the ball as it moves from one end of the field to the other. It does a child no good when every time she touches the ball, her parents shout, “Way to go!” and clap enthusiastically. The child has done nothing to merit such praise and, in my experience, can grow up expecting to be the darling of everyone’s attention all the time. That’s not the perfect formula for the kind of individual who can form an equal and loving relationship with another person. According to these kids’ parents, though, nothing should threaten their children’s self-esteem. While these parents mean well, the world of hand sanitizers, net nannies, and oversupervision isn’t giving children the risk-taker’s advantage.
If overprotection can disadvantage children, why do so many parents continue to bubble-wrap their kids? Should we blame a culture of risk aversion, or the news media’s obsession with sexual assaults on children? Do some parents like to keep their children endlessly dependent? Or do they have such fragile egos that they need their children to be safe and successful so they can feel whole? Individual families offer many reasons for patterns of overprotection that may pose challenges in therapy. What’s clear to me is that parents, whatever their motives, don’t give up patterns of overprotection just because the statistics tell them their communities are safe. Most parents, however, will change when they’re persuaded that they’re disadvantaging their child. After all, they’re fundamentally motivated to see their child succeed. Once they recognize that a mix of a little failure, a lot of responsibility, and some risk can help their child become healthier and happier, they begin to see their children and their role as parents with new eyes. Suddenly, being a good parent no longer seems irreconcilable with learning to lighten up.
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