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When we grew up, we’d go out after lunch to play and our parents told us to be back for dinner. Were they responsible or decadent parents?
Everyone who is over 35 grew up that way, me too. My mom quit her job to be a stay-at-home-mother with me and my sister, and we had that same childhood. No-one expected her to take us to or pick us up at school or watch us the entire time we played outside. Nobody considered such a behavior normal or necessary. This is what I call Free-Range Parenting, but at the time it was just normal parenting. Today, parents think that children should never be alone. Not even for a second.
Parents seem to be in constant fear about their kids. Also, they constantly fear doing something wrong. Why did they lose their confidence?
A lot of things changed over the last generation or two. The most obvious factor is the media: When I was growing up, there were three channels on television; the news was half an hour and was presented by a guy who was basically reading from a sheet of paper. Today on television we have a 24/7 news cycle and a whole lot of competition for eyeballs (and eyeballs equal money). The situation gradually changed since the 1980s with the spread of cable television. Then, in 1979, there was a kidnapping of a young boy from a bus stop in New York City that turned into an enormous story. Two years later, there was another gigantic kidnapping story. A miniseries was done about this kidnapping and it broke all ratings records. At the end of this miniseries, they showed pictures of other missing children. Then, they started putting pictures of missing kids on milk cartons.
It’s understandable that this scared parents…
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children never explained the fact that most of these children on the milk cartons were taken in a custody dispute between divorced husband and wife, or they were runaways. The organization talked about 50 000 children being kidnapped every year by a stranger, while the actual number was about 100 to 300. But the spark had been lit: the idea that children are in danger anytime they leave the house spread like wildfire. We switched from being a reality-based culture to a worst-case scenario based culture.
Would you say that this is a phenomenon of wealthy countries where people don’t have anything else to worry about?
Yes. I think America is to blame for anything that’s changed in any other country when it comes to parenting norms. Because parents here are terrified, they think their kids are requiring massive supervision. We also live in a litigious culture: if anything goes bad, you want to have somebody to blame or to sue.
What role does the media play?
At the beginning of every schoolyear, there’s a story of a kid somewhere who got off at the wrong bus stop which is being reported on the local news. The journalists always use the same narrative; instead of talking about the kid being safe, smart, and confident, they talk about a mom who took her eyes off her kid – and something didn’t happen, but it could have. They turn a story of a minor mix-up into a story of near-death.
What are the effects of this?
We seem to have become unable to understand that nothing is completely risk-free. People are demanding absolute certainty. They can’t make a distinction between low risk and high risk anymore – all they see is risk or no risk. And it seems that you can only guarantee no risk if you are with your children every single second, and never take your eyes off them. Smartphones make it easier to track our children. The belief has gradually crept up on us that if you paid enough attention, assisted by technology, you could be 100 percent certain that your kid was not going to be kidnapped.
You argue that shielding children from everything that might hurt them makes them less resilient as adults. In view of the discussion about cancel culture, would you say that the increasing hostility towards open debate in universities and society can be explained by a misled parenting?
I’m not blaming parents. I’m blaming a culture that tells parents to never leave their kids unsupervised, because they would be in constant danger otherwise. When these kids go to college and become uncomfortable with new ideas, or roommates they dislike, they are looking for some kind of a safe space. They’ve been told that they should never feel uncomfortable, and that if they do, they’re probably in danger – so they bring this idea to campus. If, for example, a woman who thinks that feminism is bad comes to give a speech, these students mistake the feeling of “I don’t think that’s right” for “I don’t think I’m safe”. If you’ve always had somebody with you smoothing out the mini-bumps and then there’s a slightly larger bump, you can’t handle it. Childhood has to be a mix of good and bad. If you’re trying to make life one big Disneyland vacation, that’s a strange thing to want for anyone.
You need bad experiences to develop as a human being.
There are some things that are fragile, like a glass that breaks if you drop it. Then there are things that are resilient, like a ball, which bounces back if you drop it. And then there are things that are antifragile, like bones: they need some resistance to get stronger. This is the idea of Nassim Taleb. Just one illustration: Everybody’s getting sick now after Covid, because we’ve been covering our faces for so long that we didn’t develop antibodies against other viruses out there. Similarly, children are antifragile. It’s interesting to observe how children grow: Their bodies grow very fast until the age of about seven. Then the growth slows down until 12, and then there’s another growth spurt. I think it’s during this period of slow growth where the growth of everything else is occurring: when you take little risks, try new things, figure out who your friends are and find out what you really like to do. It’s not that the door closes after that, but that’s when Mother Nature expects you to be becoming the person you are to be. If, during all this time, someone else takes care of everything for you, this stunts the development of those human muscles when they’re supposed to be growing.
Did the Covid lockdowns affect overprotected kids differently than others?
We did a survey in the beginning of the pandemic and asked parents what their kids were doing. They said that the kids were helping out around the house more and had found new all sorts of new things they could do: drawing, riding a bike, playing guitar – one girl even mentioned that she learned about Bitcoin. When the kids suddenly had unstructured time, they had to fill it up. At the beginning, it was sort of the flourishing of an old-fashioned childhood.
When remote schooling started, parents began spending a ton of time right next to their kids, just in case the kids had a question or there was a problem with Zoom. What I’ve heard from teachers is that when the kids came back to school, it was as if they had been in suspended animation for a couple of years. The maturing of social skills, which was already atrophying before Covid, had gotten worse. That’s why we started “Let Grow Play Clubs” at schools, where kids get to do what they want and come up with games themselves.
How does that work?
There are adults there, like lifeguards at a pool, in case of real emergencies, but they don’t organize the games and they don’t solve the arguments. If kids have a spat and run to the supervisor, the supervisor asks if their issue is a kid problem or an adult problem. If it turns out to be a kid problem, the kids have to solve it themselves. Play Clubs remind us how capable kids are of coming up with ideas. These might not be the same brilliant ideas you had – because you’re 42 and they’re 12. That’s okay. They can solve their problems, and by doing that they build up competence. How did you become a 42-year-old who has the answers? You have experience.
Why is it important for adults not to interfere?
When there are adults around all the time, they’re trying to make things as good as possible. They don’t want so see their kids sad or frustrated. So they try to help them. But sometimes kids need to learn things on their own. When you’re with your children all the time, you inevitably direct them. The only way to not interfere is to literally not be there. That’s why I push parents to send their kids out to do something without them. Give them play time because that’s how kids have always learned to get along and tolerate, collaborate and communicate. I’m just trying to give some normal old childhood experiences back to the kids. The ideal Play Club, of course, would be kids running around in the woods behind the house.
How important is free play for children?
Free play is what all mammals do. New born gazelles immediately start running around and chasing each other, they’re out in the open having a great time. You might think they are stupid, wasting energy and presenting themselves to lions like a cute little dessert. But there is a reason why Mother Nature puts this chip in the gazelle to behave like that. It must be that playing helps them to survive. They don’t just sit next to their mom gazelle listening to her advice the whole time and playing educational games. Similarly, human children are born with the play drive, which is just as strong as that other drive, later on, the procreation drive. And actually, free play is a bit like sex: it’s fun, but you don’t want your parents there. When you are playing without parents, you’re learning how to get along with somebody. You’re trying something new and scary, and when you’re successful you get rewarded.
So humans need free play to learn how to behave in life?
Whatever species you are, you need free play to learn how to be. Humans are very social, and they come into the world without a lot of pre-programmed knowledge. Everything – how to speak a language, hit a ball, kill a fox, fix an engine – has to be observed and then tried. It’s like driving: You can’t just be the passenger. You pick up a whole lot more information when you’re the driver, when you’re in charge of making something happen. When you’re playing, it’s the same thing. You’re active in every sense, physically and mentally – every bit of your brain lights up. And when things are boring, you come up with a new way of doing things or you go off and you do something else for a while. All of that is developmentally rich. While playing, you learn how to make group decisions. You learn the give and take of being a human, you learn how to master your environment. Mother Nature makes it fun, but it’s actually another form of school – a more enjoyable one.
Does the insistence of surveying kids all the time have long-term negative consequences on society? One could argue that if kids get used to being surveilled all the time, they will be willingly accept to be under total control as adults.
Yes. When there’s always an adult close to you, there’s always somebody around to do things for you. The results of the Torrance test – a standardized way of grading the level of creativity – show that a kid who was in the middle of the pack, creativity-wise, in the 1980s is at the top of the pack now. This is because children today are taken at age four or five to play organized games with an adult running the show. So they grow up knowing there is always somebody else who is smarter than them who comes up with a better way to do things. There’s no reason for them to muddle through because everything is already prepared for them. Childhood should be when the key turns in the ignition – «all systems go!» And not: «All systems on hold, waiting for an adult to tell me what to do.»