My wife and I are ready to start our family, and I’ve been thinking a lot about raising children in modern America. Traveling through Europe has also given me cause to think about the differences. I can remember reading a news story back in the 2000s about a Danish mom in America getting in trouble because she left her kid in a stroller outside the grocery store while she shopped. The Americans were horrified and called the police.
It still seems to be true in Europe that people are less scared for their kids. It’s not just in how closely they watch them. In many countries you’ll see public playgrounds that actually look fun – and therefore are more dangerous than Americans allow. Back home our old school and park playgrounds have been torn down or modified to be ‘safer’. We don’t let our children bring butter knives to school with their lunch because they would be a weapon, but Danish schools teach children how to use hunting knives and make fire.
American parenting wasn’t always like this. Children who grew up as recently as the 80s and 90s were often allowed to wander where they wanted. I can remember biking for miles around my small town and being gone for hours during the summer.
But something has changed in the last generation or two. Parents now are convinced that the world is a dangerous place for their kids. We believe that someone might kidnap or assault them. We agonize that they might be bullied. We are afraid of school shootings. We don’t let them trick-or-treat alone or in the dark, and we worry that something might be wrong with the candy. We think they need to get As and learn a second language from a young age or they will be lower class. How justified are our fears, and are we dealing with them the right way?
The answer is, not very justified. Crime is at its lowest level since the 50s or 60’s. A child’s chances of being kidnapped are about 1 in 300,000, and even that doesn’t include the fact that about 75% or more of these cases are relatives or someone else the child knows, not a stranger. To put that in perspective in a country of about 330 million people, at most a few dozen children in the entire country will be taken by a stranger this year. Almost anything our children do in daily life – eat food, get the in the car, play soccer – is more a danger to them. And with such tools as Amber alert and cell phones, the odds of getting them back are better than they have ever been. School shooting – any mass shootings – tell a similar story. The news makes a lot of headlines making us all feel like there is a gun violence problem and our children are in danger. We may even have grown up with shooter drills ourselves. But here is the thing – more children have died from being struck by lightning than shot in a school in the last 20 years. All of the fear we have around this makes for a big industry of consulting, training, and news watching. But it’s almost certainly never going to happen to your kid. If it does, it will be a terrible tragedy – but so is living in fear of the worst-case scenario.
Bullying does exist, of course. As do drugs, alcohol, sex, drunk driving, and all the actual daily concerns of growing up. But that leads to a second concern – are we actually helping our kids by protecting them so much? We’ve been doing it long enough that the evidence is in, and the answer is pretty clearly no. Children playing outside less may be partly due to technology, but parents also encourage it due to safety concerns, and that contributes to obesity as well as to allergies. No joke. Exposure to a variety of natural foods and organisms is the best way for children to have fewer allergies. Eating dirt is good. Or for another example, raising kids in homes and schools that avoid peanut butter and nuts, for example, leads to a rate of kids actually developing peanut butter allergies several times higher than normal. In order to protect the few kids that might have had an allergy anyway, we’ve essentially started giving a large minority of children peanut allergies, putting them all at risk.
And while this is hard to prove, many people strongly suspect the general atmosphere of being afraid of kidnappers, perverts, bullying, or other similar stranger-dangers is contributing to the rising prevalence of young people who want to be protected by authority and who fear interacting with anyone who isn’t like them. Examples would be the university culture of asking for regulation of speech and dress so that no one feels uncomfortable, or the fanatical drive to eliminate bullying in schools. Bully-free schools might actually be backfiring, according to research (example here) which shouldn’t be surprising. Authority can’t force awkward children to fit in or other children to actually enjoy their company.
In the past, we used to say “sticks and stones.” Everyone knew it wasn’t literally true. Words can hurt. But everyone understood that an important part of growing up is getting stronger. A child can be completely derailed by words. An adult can be hurt and offended by words, but is expected to have the strength to resist the bullying undamaged. That’s the common sense that’s missing from our discussion of children today. We believe that problems like bullying, traumatic events, or anything else negative will have negative consequences for life. But everyone goes through life experiencing regular setbacks, traumas, and cruelty. Our job is to make sure our children understand how to deal with them and learn by growing through it, not by avoiding it.
That’s a view of parenting responsibility we intend to live, and that society needs to remember. Our children aren’t fragile blossoms, and neither are their friends. It’s our responsibility to guide them and mold them into functioning adults. Part of that is making sure they are exposed to the appropriate amount of risk, challenge, and danger. Appropriate means enough that they sometimes fail or are hurt without being permanently traumatized. As they grow, more and more autonomy and responsibility must be given with the expectation that life should be challenging sometimes. A child who doesn’t face these difficulties will never experience the pride of standing up for themselves or overcoming a challenge that could have beaten them, and will never have the confidence from having done so.