Parenting in the Age of Anxiety

Fear comes with the territory in parenting.  The midnight fever, losing track of a toddler in a store, the goose egg bump on the head – all guaranteed to bring a contraction of the chest and a brain full of worst case scenarios.  Most of us learn not to project our worst fears onto our children, and practice hand sitting and tongue biting in order to accomplish this.

Today’s pervasive media ensures that we will read of at least one incident of child abduction, shooting, sexual abuse, bullying, or suicide in every 24-hour news cycle.  Is it really a more dangerous world now? Or have we become irrational when it comes to what is appropriate to worry about and what is merely an exaggerated sense of the negative possibilities?

A recent article in the New York Times, “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” by Kim Brooks, highlighted stories of censure and even arrest of parents who made perfectly rational decisions about their children’s safety that were interpreted by authorities as abuse or neglect.  Parental “crimes” range from leaving a child in a well ventilated, easily visible parked car for four minutes while mom runs into a Starbucks to get a cup of coffee, to allowing children to play in a neighborhood park unattended.  The piece provoked a lot of responses, especially from parents who had been surprised to find themselves in similar situations.

Things have certainly changed since I was growing up. Though by no means a neglected child, I rode my bike around the streets until it got too dark to see, roller skated down steep hills sans helmet, hung out in vacant lots, and petted stray dogs. My mom waxed poetic about my inclination to talk to every drunk and “hobo” on the San Francisco trolleys that we rode. And oh yeah, I rode in cars without seat belts (OK, some things have improved).  Sure, stuff happened – skinned knees, some dicey situations with strange kids, and I probably freaked my mom out a few times when I came home well after dark.  Maybe it was just pure luck that I never got abducted.

Nowadays, such activities would be severely curtailed by watchful adults.  What is the trade off? Kids who are over protected have less opportunity to develop self-regulation, decision-making, and autonomy.  And this probably has some long-term consequences that we are only now beginning to understand.

Years ago, I read the book A Free Range Childhood by Matthew Appleton, who lived and worked at the famous (or infamous, to some) Summerhill school in England, where children were granted an unheard of amount of freedom. Ten years after the publication of that book, Lenore Skenazy wrote Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). I like the metaphor of “free range.”  We usually think of it in relation to the animal products we consume – it implies a healthier stock, because the animals are uncaged, and get to graze and have a varied diet. Both books highlight the ways that kids need to have room to graze as well; to explore their world unsupervised, make mistakes, suffer the consequences of dumb decisions, and learn to self-regulate.  And they can’t do this in “cages,” with adults constantly hovering over them, guarding against every possible mishap and preventing them from making choices and becoming independent.

In my new book, Unschooling in Paradise, I write about my kids’ unsupervised (and to many, incredibly risky) activities with snakes and chemicals and explosives and tools and dirt bikes. Like any parent, I did a fair amount of hand sitting and tongue biting in the interest of allowing them the freedom to screw up. We had our share of goose egg bumps on the head and I lost every one of my four boys at least once in the woods, or at a parade, or in a department store.  Gut wrenching experiences, all of them. But if I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t change a thing.