I read an interesting take on Utah's new "free range parenting" law--a law that protects parents from unwanted government intrusion, which has always operated on the assumption that letting kids have some age-appropriate responsibility and freedom is bad parenting. The take was from the BBC, which means it's from England, where boys as young as sixteen can sit down with adults at the pub and have a pint.
That's the same England which exerts complete state control over life-and-death healthcare decisions for toddlers. I was intrigued by what I read.
One of the first mums to advocate "Free Range" parenting, Lenore Skenazy, believes allowing children to be unsupervised at times will help them become more effective adults.
She said she first realised there was a disconnect between what parents want and what they actually do when she was brought on a popular US morning programme to discuss a viral blog post about allowing her nine-year-old son ride the subway alone.
The staff of the programme all remembered having similar freedoms as children, but confessed they wouldn't allow their own children to do the same.
"We're being hypocrites because we're coming to the erroneous conclusion that any time a child is unsupervised they're automatically in danger and it's not true," she says.
Are we really raising our kids in a safe space bubble, while we remember riding our bikes all hours until sunset, or until we got hungry and came home? In my own memory of childhood, yes. I remember, as a nine-year-old, going to the community pool by myself every day in summer. I remember as an eight-year-old, walking down to the nearby pier to take sailing lessons three days a week--by myself.
I remember lots of time spent at best friends houses, with other kids, in a Charlie Brown world where parents are little more than background, serving peanut butter and jelly at lunch, and speaking like muted trombones. These things would be almost unthinkable today, where we have a panic attack ten minutes after (gasp!) letting our two boys aged 7 and 8 ride their bikes 300 feet to the community playground/clubhouse/pool in our subdivision. We literally ran to check on them.
We also worry about neighbors calling the cops on us because our kids might not have adults hovering over them 24/7. So we tend to hover.
The U.S. is objectively a safer place for kids these days than it was when we parents were growing up. Statistics prove this out. (See http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4575). Serious violent crime against youths age 12-17 are down by 50 to 89 percent, depending on whether the abuser is an "intimate" or not, and the sex of the victim. These drops are almost across the board.
So we ask: is this because we are helicopter, safe-space parents? Or are we overreacting?
I say some of both, but mostly that we're overreacting. Every generation has greater tools for helicoptering, and uses them to great effect. That, plus the 24/7 new cycle has greatly amplified every tragedy, as the BBC piece notes.
So what's changed? "Parents' perception of how dangerous the world is has changed over the years," says Dr Gail Saltz, a professor of psychology at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Parental anxiety, Saltz says, is inflamed by a global, always-on news cycle, as well as increased connectivity on social media platforms, which recycles "over and over again" kidnappings, rape and other threatening incidents.
Our parents used to worry about the creep in the creepy house down the street, or the loner kid. Schools used to deal with delinquents instead of endlessly referring them to "programs" where they never show up, in the name of rehabilitation. We used to have reform schools (or at least the threat of it).
Maybe we are safer today, but at some point more safety has diminishing returns, and costs more in liberty than we should pay. The world will never be perfectly safe, so we need to stop trying to make it so, while truly dangerous individuals slip through.
Now, we worry about the creep or the shooter on network news or online 1,000 miles away while we miss the abuser on our street. We raise our kids to compete with other kids their age, and don't let them be kids. My youngest son's Kung Fu instructor lamented today that the kids are so competitive with each other, they are hard to teach. Maybe part of that is the age group, but a large part is the fierce competition between grandstand-sitting cheerleader parents who want their kids to be the best in the room at everything.
This over-scheduling, incessant fretting, breakneck pace causes some parents to ignore the signs of actual abuse. This is why some predators, notably in sports, clubs, church groups, and the like get away with it for years. Back in past years, this trust and refusal to see the signs contributed to the Catholic Church's massive problem with sex abusers (requiring priests to be celibate I believe is also a major contributor--for what should be obvious reasons).
Today, we fret over everything, and therefore never allow our children to socialize without our constant hovering and watching their every move. Not only does this make for some neurotic kids, it prepares the next generation to prefer safe spaces and constant Big Brother surveillance over simple freedom.
Our kids are being raised to please their parents, to compete, and to look good compared to their peers. They'll become adults who see no problem censoring people with whom they don't agree, seeking segregation from others who are too different from themselves to bother relating to, and asserting that they are the best of the best in all things. In other words, we could be raising a generation of Big Brother-loving powder puff despots.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't train our kids to be safe. We should. Not everyone is friendly, and not every place is safe (for example, our kids have to stick by us in department stores, malls, or other public places where kids do get snatched). But society, and our neighbors, are not responsible for calling the police or CPS because a couple of kids are walking down the sidewalk without a helicopter parent watching over them.
Utah has the right idea. Parents should not be punished for being parents and making decisions for their kids. Sometimes parents make the wrong decisions, and sometimes kids disappoint us. That's called "life" and the sooner our kids learn to live with it, the better adults they'll be. The world is not a "safe space," and teaching our kids that there must always be an authority figure watching over them, 24/7, to ensure their safety, where no judgment or responsibility is required, other than to judge others who are different, makes for little spoiled brats who grow up to be big jerks.
And one day, those big jerks will run the country. The same Tide-pod-eating, soon-to-be safe-space-seeking, "woke," empowered idiots in our colleges, will be right at home having Big Brother listen to every conversation, track every movement, and root out every non-conforming person in their safe little world.
It's better to let them skin a few knees, and exercise some small level of age-appropriate responsibility when they're younger than 16. The "free range parenting" law in Utah should never have been necessary. The fact that it is says more about our society and the state of parenting than it does about child safety.
If we're not careful, we're going to end up with a very safe society all right. Totalitarian states always are.