Over the past 50 years, life has become much safer for our society’s children. Seat belt use has saved thousands of lives each year, bicycle helmets have lowered the risk of brain injuries, removing lead from paint and gasoline has prevented medical issues and death. The Centers for Disease Control report that from 2000-2009 there was a 29% decrease of youth deaths from unintended injuries. This is part of a larger trend that shows from 1960 to 1990, unintended youth deaths from injuries declined 48%. There are similar trends for crime reduction in major US cities during this period as well.
Despite these significant increases in safety, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggest in their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, that our parenting styles have actually become paranoid. They write that modern parents often reason that if reducing threats from things like driving, bike riding, and environmental hazards have such a positive upside, “why not go further and make childhood as close to perfectly safe as possible?” While they agree that efforts to protect children from environmental hazards have been very good for children, efforts to protect our children from any risk “come with costs as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.” In a nutshell, overprotectiveness is a danger in and of itself. Being over protective as a parent will most likely make our children less resilient.
Of the many examples that Lukianoff and Haidt bring, I found an anecdote from Julie Lythcott-Haims, who served as Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising for more than a decade at Stanford University, most instructive of the danger of over-protective parenting. She shares that she has met with parents who won’t let their seventeen-year-old take the subway. She has said to these parents, “What’s your long-term strategy for your daughter?” As Lythcott-Haims notes, children raised in this manner don’t like walking places alone, they don’t like biking alone, and they feel like they are always in danger.
As a parent myself, many of us want to do less hovering and give our children more freedom, but it’s not easy. We want to protect them and keep them safe. Lukianoff and Haidt suggest some reasons why it is so difficult. Some of this has to do with our fear as parents. While our children are statistically safer than we were at their age, the fear of child abduction is still very high among American parents. The laws in the United States have also created an environment where parents are charged with neglect for things like letting their kids play outside when they are not around or allowing their children to walk home unsupervised. And last, our parenting culture and its pressures to protect our kids prompts many of us to always think about the worst case scenario.
Moving away from being helicopter parents or snowplow parents (clearing all obstacles and always smoothing the way) can have some significant benefits for our children in the long run. When we are over-protective, we teach kids that the world is full of danger on the streets, in public places, and in parks. Children raised this way will be emotionally unprepared to take reasonable risks, to advocate for themselves, to explore the world, and to live independently. Ultimately, we stunt our children’s growth and deprive them of the essential experiences they need to become successful and functional adults. It’s not easy, but it is in our children’s best interests to not overprotect them.