The Atlantic Goes Free-Range!

Here’s stydzkrrie
the article everyone’s talking about, folks: “The Overprotected Kid,” by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic. She chronicles all the things we talk about: The lack of free time kids have, the excess supervision, the need for adventure — the whole shebang, including interviews with many of the folks you’ve read about here: Peter Gray, David Finkelhor, Tim Gill… So — enjoy! (Or whatever the word is for reading something you agree with that makes you sad and mad.) — L

…I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

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53 Responses to The Atlantic Goes Free-Range!

  1. Pałówko March 21, 2014 at 5:47 am #

    This one is easy, it’s largely due to cable TV which started rolling out in the 70’s. Once the news programs got competition they switched to an all fear all the time format. Just to make sure you tune in, the local station peppers the daytime programs with teasers about a special report that you just can’t miss on some horrible thing that can happen in an everyday situation if you’re not hyper vigilant. With constant exposure to every single awful thing that happens to a child anywhere in the country, or even world, it takes conscious effort to not be overprotective of your children.

  2. BL March 21, 2014 at 6:54 am #

    “Once the news programs got competition they switched to an all fear all the time format.”

    TVs still have an OFF switch, don’t they?

    And what “news”? Television is mindless entertainment, all of it. Even what they call “news”.

  3. Andrew March 21, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    Cable TV does not account for a change in behaviour in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. The cable and satellite channels still have relatively low viewership in the UK compared to the terrestrial channels (although many people watch them through cable or satellite) and did not really penetrate the market to a significant extent until after 1990.

    I think parents are afraid of “stranger danger” and also of road traffic (somewhat ironically, as the traffic gets far worse when parents are taking children to or collecting them from schools).

    Apparently 25% of all primary age children in the UK (not just third graders) still walk to school without parental supervision. Here is a recent article (although that mixes up the benefits of walking compared to driving with the benefits of walking without supervision).

    Still 76% in Germany, and no doubt very high in Japan too.

  4. BL March 21, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    “no doubt very high in Japan too.”

    Don’t a lot of Japanese kids take public busses (NOT “school” busses) to school as well?

    I’ll bet they have TV in Japan. Anybody want to take my bet?

  5. Donna March 21, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    “I’ll bet they have TV in Japan. Anybody want to take my bet?”

    Of course they have TV, but it isn’t the physical TV that is making people fearful. It is the content of the media. Media content is not the same in Japan and the US.

  6. brian March 21, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    I encourage everyone to read the entire article. It is a really good history of the issues along with some information on how people are trying to reverse the trend. Great article.

  7. Mindy March 21, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    One major omission–no interview with Lenore! Seriously!

  8. BL March 21, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    ” isn’t the physical TV that is making people fearful. It is the content of the media”

    So what is the content of Japanese TV? No 24-hour news? All happy smiley stories?

    Besides, TV can only make people fearful if they watch it and believe it.

  9. SOA March 21, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    Actually it is more dangerous to slide down a slide with a child in your lap then sending them down alone. Kids break their legs like that all the time because it gets caught under the parent. Apparently pediatricians are telling parents not to slide with kid in lap anymore as they see a lot of broken legs from that happening. I mean you can do it, but you have to be aware of their legs and make sure they don’t get caught.

    Part of the problem is although our neighborhood is FULL of kids you don’t see them out much. Because they always have activities or plans. I do think the availability of any kind of tv show you wanna watch effects it. I remember eventually a show would come on Nickoldeaon I did not like so then my only option was go out and play. Now, with Netflix instant watch and on demand you can watch entire seasons in one go. So kids never have nothing on the tube to watch.

    So then the parents have to make that effort to shut the tv off and even I am guilty of not making that effort sometimes. Same with turning off the video games. But even if I sent them out most likely they are out there alone as none of the other kids are out. Sometimes by chance we do catch other kids out but its not a given.

  10. BL March 21, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    “Actually it is more dangerous to slide down a slide with a child in your lap then sending them down alone.”

    Not surprising.

    I see parents at the local ice-skating rink trying to teach kids to skate by having each parent grab an arm with the kids in between. I wonder what happens if one parent takes a sudden fall and the other remains standing – couldn’t they pull the kids arm out of its socket?

  11. Donna March 21, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    BL –

    Again, it is the content of the news reports, not the fact that there is news. Other cultures don’t report every kidnapping of a random child living 3,000 miles away for weeks on end so that the names become household names. I can probably name off the top of my head at least 10 kids who have been kidnapped in my adulthood just from average media exposure – I am not a news-hound by any stretch of the imagination and the names and faces have still seeped in despite a total lack of interest in such cases. Of them only one, Danielle Van Damm, has any connection to my life at all as it was very local and I was involved in the prosecution while interning at the DAs office. The rest have lived many states away from my residence and should not be readily identifiable by me. Heck, most people even here, where fear has not grabbed hold, can readily identify the name Madeline McCann (could probably pick her picture out of a line-up) and she was abducted on a completely different continent and has absolutely no connection to the US whatsoever. And, yet, she makes an appearance on my TV screen at least once a year.

    And the same cannot be said for previous generations. Although there were no fewer kidnappings in the 70s and 80s, my mother can’t come up with a name other than Adam Walsh. She vaguely remembers Etan Patz, but not by name until it became news again recently. She didn’t hear about kidnappings in Colorado, Utah and California while living in New Jersey to the extent that their names are readily known to her. And, yet, she can name most of the same ones that I can from the 90s and 2000s.

    Further, other counties don’t have the blame mentality of the US such that every media report of a kidnapped child is filled with blame thrown at whatever the parents were doing at the time. Since Danielle Van Damm is the one I know the most about, there was not a single news report that I heard surrounding this case that didn’t look down on the mother for going out with friends the night that she was kidnapped and both parents for drinking (and maybe smoking pot, I can’t recall). Neither of those things had anything to do with a neighbor coming in late at night and kidnapping the child, but google the case and you will get hundreds of media reports attacking the parents for “partying.” Nothing is blameless in the US and the media plays that up which spreads fear for people allowing anything, no matter how unexpected, to happen to their children.

  12. Donna March 21, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    that should be “countries” and not counties.

  13. BL March 21, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    “And the same cannot be said for previous generations.”

    The Lindbergh baby got some media attention, or so I’m told.
    Well before Adam Walsh.

    “Further, other counties don’t have the blame mentality of the US such that every media report of a kidnapped child is filled with blame thrown at whatever the parents were doing at the time.”

    Is the blame mentality caused by the media all by itself?

    I know you’re going to protest at the top of your lungs, but lawyers could have something to do with it.

  14. Buffy March 21, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    You guys know that there is more on TV than just news, right? I get SO tired of the argument that we must TURN OFF THE TV in order to be good parents. I don’t think that watching Parks and Recreation or Mad Men or heck, The Voice, after the kids are in bed makes me a more fearful, less free range parent in any way. Turn off the TV news I can buy, but otherwise TV is as valid a medium for storytelling and entertainment as anything else.

  15. Christine Hancock March 21, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    I think it’s a perfect storm of sorts. Playgrounds are super, super safe and about as interesting as slug trails… maybe less so.

    Children must sit still and study study study from kindergarten on up, because of course passing the tests and making the grade is what school and childhood life is all about, isn’t it?

    Outdoor play is thought to be more dangerous and inconvenient than heart disease, obesity, and diabetes; don’t ask me why.

    Of course the roads and byways are believed to be teeming with gypsies and cannibals; so letting children of any stage of development play outside unsupervised is neglectful parenting at it’s worst.

    I’d say tv, computers, and video games are a lesser problem. Give children the option to go outside with friends, without you, and they might (horror of horrors) go outside and have some fun.

  16. Captain America March 21, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    How do you print off a copy of this article from the Atlantic?

    Can’t find the Print button.

  17. anonymous mom March 21, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    @SOA: “But even if I sent them out most likely they are out there alone as none of the other kids are out. Sometimes by chance we do catch other kids out but its not a given.”

    Yes. This becomes kind of a self-perpetuating problem. It is really fun to spend hours or a whole day out playing with other kids, but it’s significantly less fun to do so if it’s just you. The fewer kids that are out playing, the less other kids want to go out.

    Honestly, the saving grace for me in the spring and summer is that I have a friend who lives around the corner who has five kids who spend much of the day playing outside. My kids, who often balk at being told to go out to play, are thrilled to be able to go play with their friends. I’ll often take my two little ones who are home with me during the day over there for 2-3 hours every morning, and they love it. Playing in a group of six is far more fun than playing as two.

  18. Peter March 21, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    Captain America, to print the article, use your browser’s print function. File –> Print on the main browser menu.

  19. anonymous mom March 21, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    One factor that’s changed since the 70s that I don’t often see mentioned is family size. We saw a dramatic drop in family size starting in the 1970s. IIRC, in the mid-1960s, the total fertility rate in the U.S. was something like 3.8; by 1975 it had dropped to less than 1.5, and has stayed around there.

    I think that feeds this in a lot of ways.

    There’s less to do outside with one or two people than there is with three or four or five or six. You can just come up with way more games and ways to entertain yourself with more kids. If just one or two of my kids is outside, they’ll stay out for maybe 20 minutes. If all three are out, I might get them to stay out for half an hour or an hour. But if we got visit my friend and her five kids around the corner, or my neighbor’s three kids are out, I have to forcibly drag them back into the house for dinner. In general, more kids is just more fun, if you are playing outside or without TV/electronics. (Unless you were me as a kid, who could happily read a book alone for hours. But I’ve got a house full of extroverts. ;))

    When you have larger families, older siblings can do some of the looking out for younger siblings. Littler kids can tag along with older ones, and older ones can help littler ones cross the street. For some reason, as families have gotten smaller, we’ve not only had fewer practical opportunities for that, but we’ve decided that we shouldn’t give older siblings responsibility for younger ones, as if they’ll end up resentful or overburdened. Personally, I think that’s nonsense, and I think we’re robbing kids of the opportunity to feel like vital, important members of the family with a necessary role to play. You can certainly take it too far, and I’m not advocating making older kids parent, but I do think a healthy amount of responsibility is good for kids, and also allows younger kids more freedom than they’d have if they have to rely on their parents to always be supervising them. I love that I can have my oldest supervise his younger siblings outside while I make dinner.

    And, to some extent, more kids just means less fear. Most parents find that their fear level goes down with each child. I know mine did. With my first, I worried about everything. By the time my third came around, we’d be like, “Eh, I think he’s under the couch. I’m pretty sure there’s food under there, so he should be fine for a while.” It’s not that I love my third less than my first, but you kind of by necessity chill out. I don’t know anybody who has 4 or 5 or 6 kids who is a very helicopter parent, because you just can’t maintain it. And, to some extent, you don’t need to. We’re having our fourth and last kid this summer. Honestly, we joke sometimes that it doesn’t matter if one or two of them is a screw-up, because odds are that the other ones will end up okay. It’s not that we don’t care or want any of our kids to screw up. But, our hopes and expectations and dreams and fears are spread out over four kids rather than all wrapped up in one of them, and that does make it easier.

    I’m not recommending that everybody should have many kids, at all. I just think that small families becoming the norm has changed the way we think about children and childhood, and increased the pressure we put on parents and on children. But that’s been more of a societal change than an individual one. I do think it’s a factor that plays a significant role though, especially when combined with the other factors, like the fear-based media.

    And just to add, I’m totally on board with the media being a huge culprit. It’s not just the news, although the news places a huge part. It’s nighttime dramas that center around abused and missing children. It’s people on social media using the number of amber alerts they share as some sort of barometer of how good of a person they are. It’s book after book using “repressed memory” as a plot device. It’s just an entire culture where we entertain ourselves with the very things we feel so much fear and outrage over, and that shapes how we think no matter how critical we think we are about it.

  20. Angela March 21, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Times have changed. I think people move around and don’t get to know their neighbors like they once did. People are very busy on their electronic devices. They have access to all sorts of information that my mother never had when I was a child. If my mother had lived from neighborhood to neighborhood, spent even 50% of her time on the internet, and obsessed about what could happen to her children, we would have had a different childhood. We got to watch our Sesame Street and after school shows but we also had to go out into the neighborhood on our own, find other kids to play with, and avoided the house as Mom would certainly put us to work with chores. Mom took us to swimming lessons and the library but she didn’t spend much time taking us to program after program, sports activities or otherwise.

    My mom called her lady friends, read magazines and watched tv. She did not get 50 updates each morning about what food can posion you, what products not to buy as they will kill you, and how any myriad of items and events will forever damage her kids and family. She watched the news but only twice a day. She coudln’t get the latest and greatest (or not) at the click of a computer key. Her landline phone didn’t beep and chime every few moments. Every month or so, she might have the neighbor ladies over for coffee and nosh or maybe she could hear some news at church each Sunday or potluck. She knew what was going on in her neighborhood, her congragation and her community but the world at large was not at her fingertips let alone a crisis in some other area of the country.

    We are inundated with news of how we are in danger and how we don’t measure up. Is it any wonder people feel out of control and paranoid? Or that faced with all this “bad news”, people react to save themselves and their children to maintain some semblance of security and peace of mind? Mom had her own set of worries. She just had very different ways to deal with her world in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

  21. Donna March 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    “The Lindbergh baby got some media attention, or so I’m told.
    Well before Adam Walsh.”

    Really? Extremely hyped media attention surrounding the kidnapping of the only child of a world-famous aviator is to be somewhat expected. I would expect the same media frenzy if someone kidnapped the child of any celebrity or public figure. However, today the Madeline McCanns of the world get the same press and that seems a tad extreme.

    “I know you’re going to protest at the top of your lungs, but lawyers could have something to do with it.”

    I don’t protest at all. DAs are lawyers. CPS is advised by and represented by lawyers. Lawyers advise corporations, government entities, and insurance companies and play a part in their practices. Lawyers, except for the .00000000001% on TV, do not chase down clients and convince people to sue (in other words a client has to walk in their door seeking to sue someone, they don’t seek people and talk them into suing), but certainly play a part in lawsuits.

    But lawyers have existed doing these exact same jobs since the dawn of lawyers. Believe it or not, that includes the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Something shifted in the 90s, and I assure you that it was not the graduation of the first people from law school.

    I definitely don’t think the cause is as simplistic as just the media. Or just lawyers. Or just anything. But talk to any person about the abduction fear and the media absolutely will come up. It is majorly feeding this perception that the world is a dangerous place for children.

  22. SOA March 21, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Buffy: Amen. We don’t even have cable but my husband and I watch a lot of Netflix and tv on the internet. So what? We watch shows like you watch comedies or Game of Thrones or True Blood and no, they don’t make me scared of stuff except for Walking Dead making me terrified of zombies.

    News is boring as hell and I don’t care to watch it. Also depressing.

  23. SOA March 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    Anonymous Mom: I agree you may be on to something about family size and that kids have more fun with more kids to play with. When we do playdates and there are 10 kids running around together they NEVER want to stop playing or go home. But when it is just my kids at home they get bored and just want to watch tv or play video games.

    So yes, it would be nicer if it could be like that all the time but with the way things are now I don’t think it can. With a lot of their friends living far away or having two working parents, everything has to be scheduled and does not get to happen often.

  24. Tsu Dho Nimh March 21, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    Nice post-apocalyptic playground they have there 🙂

    When I was a kid we had an entire bunker system that went hundreds of feet and lasted several months. Then some #$^*#$ farmer opened the gates and the canal flooded. But that’s better than the one we built in a pasture that turned into a tractor trap. Ooops, we didn’t think they were going to plow there.

    We had elaborate networks of dens and warrens in the dense willows along the river bottom.

    And fires. Roasting stolen potatoes until they are burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. Best food ever.

  25. Bob Cavanaugh March 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    Ok Donna, that’s an interesting perspective, but exactly who are these? I can only think of two, McKann being one and the recent case of Haley Owens being the other. There are also two I can think of locally from the last 4 years that have never been solved, but as far as I know they aren’t getting national attention. This btw is coming from someone who only watches the news and Jeopordy on a regular basis, although there are a few shows I’d like to start watching.

  26. Carol March 21, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

    We have some relatively new neighbors on my street, and they have four kids under the age of 10ish. I heard the weirdest noise last evening (thought it was a cat), and went outside to check it out. It was the sound of the kids laughing! They were riding their bikes and scooters up and down the sidewalk. Sad that I couldn’t recognize the sound – but I actually stood outside and watched them for a while because it was such a rare occurrence. Although, I’m surprised that someone didn’t call me in for being a weirdo!

  27. Wendy W March 21, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    I read the first few paragraphs, describing the adventure playground, to my 14yo son. His response: “LUCKY!! I want to go there!”

    When my boys were younger I tried to find ways to encourage similar activities in our yard, but my hubby vetoed every one. We’re in an upscale neighborhood, with a public bike path bordering the yard, and he didn’t want neighbors mad at us.

  28. Ann March 21, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    “I don’t know anybody who has 4 or 5 or 6 kids who is a very helicopter parent, because you just can’t maintain it.”

    I dunno. I think some of those overly-religious large families helicopter pretty well. Like the Duggars. Not allowed to go to school, go on dates, watch anything not pre-approved on TV, and so on.

    I have just one kid, and he goes out and explores the neighborhood pretty regularly by himself, goes to the neighborhood park, walks to the bus stop on his own. His friends who have siblings seem a lot more sheltered than he is. Me and my husband laugh to ourselves at how much they’re not allowed to do that he is.

    Me, as a kid, was not an only child but also I liked to do things on my own, never wanted to watch my younger sister, or anything like that. I’d bike or roller skate outside for hours. That was just how I was, she seemed more content to stay indoors and watch TV.

  29. Donna March 21, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    Bob – Just quickly Lieby Kletzky (copied the spelling from Lenore because I never would have remembered that), Polly Klaus, Elizabeth Smart, Samantha Runyan, Megan Kanka (for whom Megan’s law is named), Jacob Wetterling, Jessica Lunceford (for whom Jessica’s Law is named), Amber H. from Texas (for whom Amber Alerts are named), Jaycee Dugard, JonBenet Ramsey (although she was never taken outside her house), Stephanie Crowe (again, killed in her own home), the 3 women from Cleveland. I could probably identify several more if I saw the names.

    Add to that the fact that everyone even today knows Adam Walsh and Etan Patz although they happened many years ago.

    Admittedly, I have a good memory for names, but my guess is that several of those names are familiar to many here.

  30. SOA March 21, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

    I was an only child who also roamed the woods and neighborhood and played by myself outside for hours. I never did like swimming alone though. We had a pool and I hardly ever used it unless a friend came over to swim with me. Swimming alone is no fun. I always enjoyed walking around in the woods or biking around the neighborhood or walking the dog around or just exploring.

    I am pretty content being on my own too. I love to read and go for walks alone. I don’t have to constantly have someone with me. I actually need my space and alone time.

    My mom just let me do whatever but now she acts like I am a child neglecter to let my kids do things remotely similar to what she allowed me to do.

  31. Wendy W March 21, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

    Ann: I know a bunch of “overly religious large families” that homeschool, and as a rule they are MUCH less likely to helicopter than the average parent. They are strict about outside influences such as TV, and about fulfilling responsibilities such as chores, but they usually have lifestyles that are very free range in all aspects of play. The opportunity to play freely is often one of the factors that led them to homeschool.

  32. BL March 21, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

    @Wendy W
    “I read the first few paragraphs, describing the adventure playground”

    The only part of that I didn’t like was the radio. They should make their own music. Sing. Or bring a small musical instrument (tin whistles are cheap and portable).

    Most of the stuff on that playground I experienced as a kid, but not all in one place.

  33. Reziac March 21, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    Someone below says, “Lawyers, except for the .00000000001% on TV, do not chase down clients and convince people to sue (in other words a client has to walk in their door seeking to sue someone, they don’t seek people and talk them into suing),…”

    Actually, there is a class of lawyers who do just that. In fact at this very moment, I have in my hand a letter from a lawyer I’d never heard of, offering to represent me in a lawsuit against my bank.

  34. kate March 21, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    I notice that kids were not segregated into different age groups. The older kids were in charge, but would show the younger kids how to play. It is a great opportunity for the older kids to learn to lead as well as learn empathy. The little kids strive to keep up and eventually become the big kids that help the younger ones themselves. We as a society lose a lot when there is no interaction between different ages.

  35. Lance Mitaro March 22, 2014 at 12:16 am #

    Brilliant article that fully illustrates today’s hyper-vigilant, overwrought parents. It’s truly sad to see these Gen X’er parents believe everything told to them by the media and lawmakers in regards to the over-blown stranger danger mythos.

    The vacant stare of today’s children that have been smothered by their parent’s virtual “safety” perimeter is the product of the incessant “it could happen to your child, too” nonsense that has been parroted by John Walsh and the NCMEC for decades. One must understand that this man blames society for what happened and wants everyone to know it — and the landscaped subsequently changed for the worse. Even though crimes against children are statistically insignificant, these people use the headlines as a barometer for their relevance which further exacerbates and inflames fear into parent’s minds which is what their goal is – to catapult the toxic: “wolf is right around the corner” thinking.

    Fear is the oldest known weapon known to man and fear sells itself. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there is money to be made exploiting fear for profit at the expense of normality. We might as well saves millions of dollars by stop making sidewalks as children are told by their parents to not use them anymore.

  36. anonymous mom March 22, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    @Ann, I think there are certainly large families who have very strict rules about things like media, but in general I don’t think the kind of sustained, constant attention to what the kids are doing, and never letting them out alone, is as common. It may just be self-preservation. You can’t give each kid that level of attention and sometimes sanity requires that you kick all or most of them out of the house for a couple of hours.

    Again, certainly I’m not saying that you can’t have a small family and be a free-range parent. Many are. I’m just saying that larger families seem to just be more naturally free-range, and when we were a society of larger families, free-range was the norm. It takes a lot more conscious effort and deliberate choices to be a free-range parent to one child. My first was an only for six years, and it was very, very easy for me to be his constant companion and playmate.

    My point was just that, pre-1970s, when families were larger and homes were smaller, being free-range was simply the default. You can’t have four or five kids running around in a 980 sq. ft. home all day without losing your sanity. (We have three kids in an 1100 sq. ft. home, and even that was about to push me over the edge this very, very long winter.) But if you’ve got one or two kids in a 2400 sq. ft. home, with personal electronic devices for everybody, it’s suddenly much easier to keep them in the house all day, especially when you are inundated with urban legends and scary news reports that make you fear for your child’s safety even in your backyard.

    In general, I think people take the path of least resistance. It was true in the 1950s, and it’s true now. So if it’s easier, both practically and psychologically, to send all your kids out of the house all day so that you can get stuff done and have some quiet (which was the norm in pre-1970s generations), people will do it. If it’s easier, both practically and psychologically, to set your kids up in front of the TV or an iPad so they can be quiet and not leave you with visions of kidnappers dancing in your head all day, you’ll do that, as is more the norm now.

  37. JP March 22, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    What really jumped out at me was the “10 minutes in 10 years” bit.
    Just as many young folks are sadly discovering that their 30’s are the “new” twenties…..let’s extrapolate that a bit, and update it: teens are the “new” zero-to-tens.

    Some kind of weird inflation that erodes age-specification?
    Or try this one. It’s now not so much fear of what possibly (or almost impossibly) “might” happen to the kids….that’s practically a creampuff by comparison.
    The “new” fear is of societal legal reprisal. And that’s a triple jalapeno sandwich, that is.

    I’ve said it before but it’s fun to repeat: If this over-supervised nonsense had been going on when I was a kid, I’d have locked myself in my bedroom closet and not come out until I reached the age of majority (which happened to be 16 back then.)

    Makes me wonder….
    I always knew there were some parents out there who actually enjoyed supervising their kids unto black death. They used to fight losing battles. Now it appears that they’ve won.

    If I were raising a brood in this day and age….the happy carefree (and quite safe) kids I remember, the ones going about their natural business of slowly acquiring the trimmings and trappings of independence – would instead feel like a ball and chain strapped to every extremity, including my neck.

    It’s that bit about car dependence. The love affair with the car was going strong when I was a wee lad. But my town was geographically kid friendly, just the same.
    Inner city kids we still have, but the vast majority of them grow up in suburban sprawl.
    And that’s where you’re beat. If they need to be driven literally everywhere they’re going past the front lawn, may as well supervise a little bit while we’re at it, um?

    One wonders: how much poorer would Big Auto and Big Oil be if all this had never happened? We hooked our wagon to that fiesta, and the kids…..make do until that first driver’s license shows up. That’s quite awhile to have to wait for that ticket to freedom.

  38. EricS March 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    @Pałówko: It’s not television. It’s technology and the internet. It’s no coincidence that today’s “helicopter” mentality started to take hold when the internet was becoming mainstream. And changes in social behavior, and how people viewed things dramatically changed when social media became popular less than a decade ago.

    Think about it, back in the 70s and 80s, all we had was tv, radio and newspaper. Once it was done, you waited the next day for the next bit of news. So what did people do? They went out, hung out with friends, spent time with their kids (if they weren’t working), kids were out playing with friends most of the time. Now, any type of news or information is almost instantaneous. There is money to be made with instant information. So society is bombarded and over saturated with it. Media, to ensure people are ALWAYS tuning in, sensationalize news a greater amount than previous decades. Eg. The real news…Bear Approaches Hikers. The sensationalized news…Bear Attacks Hikers. It’s pretty obvious which one we will gasp and read on about.

    Because of this inundation of “news” and information, and the convenience of technology, society has evolved into a lazy, instant gratification, non-thinking drones. Exactly what these companies want. So often we see information re-tweeted, re-posted, re-worded without a second thought. “It’s on the internet…so it MUST be true!” Habits and mental conditioning do not take long to work. Today’s society has been literally been re-programed. It’s no different than religion. When people are lead to believe something so profound, all common sense and logic, and free thinking go out the window. It’s what’s said. No questions asked. Just do. Not harping on religion, only making on a comparison of how, with mental conditioning, it is very similar.

    As the sayings go, “He who controls information, controls the world”, and “He Who Controls the Media, Controls the Minds of the People”. And with technology, this far more effective than any previous generation.

    It’s how we are as a species. We thrive of knowledge/information. Especially when we don’t have to work hard for it. So instead of doing research on the subject, many just take to heart the first thing something is told to them by media, “experts”, and even their “know it all” friends. We are social creatures, as well as creatures of habit. That’s why many follow trends instantly, and show the world they are doing so. “Look at me! Look at me!”. They want to feel part of the “norm”. So many bandwagon jumpers, who don’t have a clue what they are even coming on board for. The mentality of “it’s just what it is, because that’s what people say”. lol

    This day and age, is not very different at all from our time growing up. As many have stated, as statistics show, it’s a safer time now then 30-40 years ago. People have just been conditioned to believe it isn’t. And once that fear and paranoia take grip, it’s very difficult to get rid off. It’s really all a matter of choice. It was easier back then to make our own choices. No one chastised us, no one sued us, no one reported us to police or CPS. We were free to parent just like our parents, and their parent, and their parent’s parents, etc… Today, our choices are limited by pressure and fear of retaliation from others. So many conform to the “norm” society has created for itself these days. Till eventually, it just becomes a normal day to day routine for many. People haven’t realized this, but they have allowed themselves to become slaves to this new world order. And inadvertently, breeding and raising their children to become future slaves. The only ones who profit from all this negative parenting, are the media (social and conventional), companies that sell anything from safety equipment for children, to books in how to raise your kids, pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs like ritalin.

    It’s time to take back things back into our own hands, and ignore all these worse case thinking first mentality. Common sense needs to make a come back. And fears to be calmed. In the end, for adults’ own selfish need to be appeased, they unknowingly put their children’s future on the line.

  39. C. S. P. Schofield March 22, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    To the several people who were noting that TVs have an off button; yes, they do. The problem is that many of the TVs one encounters through the day have had that button disabled.. I run into this all the time; checkouts or store entrances with flatscreen TVs yattering away with a mix of “news” stories and flat out ads for whatever the store is selling. And the off switch doesn’t work, because Gods forbid that the customers be able the SHUT THE GODDSDAMNED THING UP.

    Many of these TVs, being in supermarkets and drugstores, are showing scare stories about nutrition and medication interspersed with highly unrealistic plugs for happy family togetherness (and fruit pops or some such trash). Others, in Burger King for example, are just tuned to CNN.

    And you Can’t. Turn. Them. Off!

    Someday soon’t I’ll run amok with a tire iron.

  40. Red March 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm #


    And part of it is that other people are quite willing to overrule parents’ judgement by simply calling the police or something.

    Last night, we and the kid had plans to stop by a winery where we are wine club members to taste/pick up their wine club release, and then head out to dinner as a family. The kid is allowed in the winery, and in the past has grabbed his game system and sat over in the corner while the adults tasted. But we’ve never gone on a wine release night and didn’t realize how insane it was going to be. No place for him to sit down, long lines for each of the tasting tables.

    He stuck to my side for a few minutes, looked around for anywhere out of the way he could sit down, then asked me if he could go out to the car and play his games there. It was early evening, in the 50s, and the car was parked in a shaded area that I could clearly see out the front windows of the winery. He’s also perfectly able of getting himself out of the car and coming back inside if things got too hot. So, I said yes.

    Luckily nobody seemed to notice, because after looking online this morning I discovered that while our state doesn’t generally have laws regarding leaving kids in parked motor vehicles, it’s illegal to leave a kid under 12 in a parked motor vehicle *outside* a place dispensing beer/wine/spirits. I’m going to guess a winery running a release tasting event counts. *sigh* So, I guess we’re not doing that again.

    Oh, and when we came out to go, the kid’s reaction was “You guys can go back inside for a while if you want. I don’t care.” Because he knew he was not going to be allowed to play games at the restaurant.

  41. MNorgren March 22, 2014 at 3:46 pm #


  42. Elisabeth March 22, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    I was mystified to see that there was no mention of Lenore or her book, Raising Free Range Kids. I find this almost an incident of journalistic irresponsibility, as if to make her point that Americans are so far gone into over-protection mode, she just omitted the fact that there has been an active and growing FRK movement for the last decade.

    Lenore, please tell us that you at least had some interaction with Ms. Rosin, whom I typically respect as a journalist, and she consulted you as background for her article.

  43. Jim H. March 22, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    My children spends most of their time with his mother. My older child resents her being a helicopter parent who doesn’t let him walk home from the bus even though it is not even a block away in a suburban enclave. When I was his age and younger, I had the run of an apartment complex, then later a neighborhood including a “woods area” of several acres. Before I got a car, a friend and I used maps to navigate ourselves on our bikes to the local mall. We were smart enough to look for back roads rather than the main highways. We once did a day trip of about 8-9 miles by bikes, even packed a picnic lunch. We didn’t tell our parents, they didn’t ask. My only regret now is that (since I cycle frequently) we didn’t wear helmets. needless to say, we didn’t have cell phones then.

    What I have tried to get back to, is a reconstruction of my adult world and a separate child’s world. Over-involvement is not a virtue.

    When he is with me, I tell him the outer boundaries and basic rules (let me know where you’re going, I would like to meet your friends once, be home by a certain time). Other than that, I don’t want to get involved in the inner workings of his play. Some parents are more permissive with what video games they allow. So I don’t have those games at our house, but I don’t want to go through the effort of banning him from playing them somewhere else. People are different and have different rules; I expect kids to follow my rules here. If another parent complains of a problem, I will take care of it but I do not feel that I ought to intervene for every children’s disagreement.

    It has been alarming how much my generation of kids/teenagers has become over-involved parents. They’re convinced of frequent kidnappings, “stranger danger,” etc. Malls have become ground zero for kidnappers who will throw you in a car and ferry you away via the local interstate. Websites have to be scanned for “child molesters” who will do harm.

    I think one reason may be because as marriages are more fragile, the relationship between parent and child takes over. Fellow adults are independent and do things we may not like; children can be controlled. We fear companion adults may betray us; children (at least for a while) can be kept loyal. But the irony is that the faith we put in the parent-child relationship replaces the adult relationship and weakens them. I’m not convinced that two parents consenting to over-controlling is any better either. It increases social isolation and undermines adult-adult ties.

  44. SKL March 22, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Today I took my kids to the rec center so they could swim, but first, I had to renew our membership. I told the girls (age 7) to go get changed in the locker room and I’d be there shortly. I waited in line. There was only one family ahead of me, but for whatever reason, I was in the line for like 45 minutes.

    About 30 minutes in, a lady comes out all “concerned” to the front desk. “There are two little girls left alone in the locker room-” I said, “those are mine, they are waiting for me but I’ve been in this line for 30 minutes.” The Concerned Citizen went on to say, “well, they are doing dangerous things.” “Like?” “They are sitting on the shelf that’s used for a baby changing station.” (I know the shelf, it’s quite solid.) I said, “OK, thanks, I’ll tell them off.” She: “I already yelled at them and they got down. But you know, if they get hurt, it’s not going to be good….” Me: “If they get hurt, they won’t do that again.” She went away. Thankfully the lady behind me chuckled, and the desk lady was understanding. I said, “well, I’m glad she didn’t call the police” [whose station is right across the driveway]. (The last time I left my kids in a car for 3 minutes, the police came.) The desk lady said, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. Sometimes you just have to take a breath and move on.” I’m glad at least some people get it.

  45. Sky March 22, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    These are UK figures. I wonder what US figures are. I live in Texas. I don’t know of any parents who walk 3rd graders to school. But more parents do drive than ever before. But of those that walk (and most do within a 0.75 mile radius), I never see parents walking anyone except K and maybe 1st grade.

  46. Papilio March 23, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    I just watched the documentary Maidentrip (Jillian Schlesinger, Wild Shot Films), about Dutch Laura Dekker, who got in so much trouble with the Dutch version of the CPS when she decided she wanted to sail around the world, solo, at 13 years old.
    This is basically her video diary of that trip, when she could finally leave about a year later and even sets the record as the youngest person to sail around the world solo.
    What can I say, it’s Free-Range Kids Extreme (Not Lenore-Approved:
    I didn’t look for an English version online somewhere, otherwise here’s the link (works only until April 4th!) for the non-(English-)subtitled version (although it is English spoken for such a large part that it shouldn’t be too much of a problem).

  47. Melissa March 24, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    My kids are not-quite-2 and 4.5 so we’re still pretty heavily into the supervision thing – but I’m frequently “the neglectful parent”. Since it’s still (grumble grumble) winter here, we do a lot of indoor playland visits on the weekend. Those things are great! My kids get to go nuts running all over the insanely safe playground equipment that still feels slightly dangerous (high up and steep slides, and I guess they can fall off of things, but the floor is padded). They burn off energy, I get to sit in a comfy chair and read a book.

    However, I range from getting dirty looks to concerned comments, to outright chastised. Because I am “not watching them” – especially the wee one. She is really tiny but she can handle herself. If she wants to climb up and go down the biggest slide – why should I stop her? And I’m not climbing up those cargo nets and going down a slide half the size my arse needs. But the number of fully grown adults climbing up those structures, holding their toddlers’ hands, hurting their knees climbing through tubes, is RIDICULOUS.

    It’s not just “supervision” that has increased, it’s active participation. My parents were loving and supportive and took us to really fun places – but they wouldn’t be caught dead climbing through a 32″ diameter pipe 30′ in the air. And if I couldn’t climb it on my own – then I couldn’t slide down it – simple as that.

  48. Shelley March 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    I’m with Elisabeth: How could someone write this article and make no mention of Lenore and the Free Range Kids movement? It’s a great article, but that’s a pretty surprising omission. Let’s make sure the Atlantic’s comments and letters sections inform readers about the FRK website and direct them to it. Parents who want to break out of the paranoid frame need to know where to find a supportive online community, and this is it.

  49. anonymous this time March 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    Sad to say, my 9-year-old started to walk to school alone in grade 2, has been sent on errands by herself since age 7, went to friends’ houses alone around the same age, loves “nature,” lingers in wild areas on her own and is happy to do so but…

    She’s phobic, neurotic, and full of anxiety. How I wish simply raising a kid free-range guaranteed mental health, but it just doesn’t. Some kids are hard-wired to be worriers, unfortunately. Still, it’s wonderful to see that she is so confident and competent in so many areas of her life. She’s a fiercely entrepreneurial kid, and doesn’t hesitate to talk to strangers…er… potential customers.

    Anyway, all of this to say that YES, I’m glad that more and more folks are seeing the obvious, that “safety” measures have begun to erode exactly what it is that kids need to learn through risk-taking… how to be safe for themselves, not “protected from harm.” The atrophy of problem-solving and independent decision-making is alarming, was so for me, and it’s a wonderful sense of shared reality I have, seeing major media outlets stating the facts.

    I agree that Lenore is sadly absent from the article. You’re my hero, Lenore, and thank you for leading the charge for change.


  50. lihtox March 25, 2014 at 2:04 am #

    “even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s”
    I think the overprotectiveness might be BECAUSE women work more outside the home, but are made to feel guilty about “abandoning their kids”. When they come home, they make an extra effort to spend time with them. Working women get all sorts of signals that they are “bad mothers”, and helicoptering might have originated as defensiveness against that. “How can I be a bad mother when I am so involved in my children’s lives?”

    If that’s true, then this may be a generational transition. When this generation of children becomes parents, they will think of working women as the norm, and maybe they won’t carry around all of that guilt.

  51. Kaetlyn March 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Regarding Lenore’s parenthetical: “Or whatever the word is for reading something you agree with that makes you sad and mad.” I just want to say that it actually made me happy to read this article, and to see it being so widely circulated and discussed! Because maybe change is on the horizon? In one Facebook discussion that I was part of, some (self-proclaimed overprotective) moms mentioned that the article really gave them pause. And other free-rangers came out of the woodwork. Yay for expanding the discussion!


  1. Maggie's Farm - March 22, 2014

    Saturday morning links

    Are Yale girls sluts? Overprotected kids Our Criminal Justice System? It’s a Crime Why we debate the unimportant issues American Schools Are STILL Racist, Government Report Finds Steyn vs. Mann:  Oh, Won’t You Stay-ay-ay Just a Little Bit

  2. House of Eratosthenes - March 22, 2014

    […] insist on this from themselves. And after the kids earn their participation trophies, they are overprotected (hat tip to Bird Dog at Maggie’s […]