Childhood Safety Myths
Do some safety measures leave us less safe? And has our uncontested acquiescence to safety culture made our children less capable, confident, and passionate?
Hello good people!
Last week I introduced an Is Your Child Ready for First Grade checklist from a prominent 1981 human development text. I argued that the underlying ethos which inspired this list was far better for children’s development (academically, emotionally, and physically) than the predominant approach today. But I saved the most controversial item on that list for today.
The wisdom of 1980 held that parents should be able to answer “yes” to the following question:
8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?
If that idea makes you feel uneasy, I can assure you that you are not alone. I have a five-year-old and I can’t imagine sending him to the store by himself anytime soon. Having said that, I, a 33-year-old, did have the opportunity in the late 90s to walk to elementary school without any adults coming along. So, even if you do not agree with this specific benchmark, perhaps there are nuggets of wisdom we can glean by evaluating how childhood expectations have changed over the past few decades. Has there been a cost to our mass acquiescence to any measure that would claim the banner of “safety”?
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Walking Down Memory Lane (without parent supervision)
Beginning in second grade when I moved to a section of St. Louis called University City, I began to walk about a half mile to school each day. And so did all of my friends. By the end of second grade I have distinct memories of walking to friends' houses by myself. By third grade, my friends and I were walking to the park most days after school. No one had mobile phones at the time, so I have to assume that our parents all just thought this was normal and that they were not prone to worry unless we stayed out too late. In fifth grade, I walked to school with my kindergartener little brother and I also began babysitting a set of twins who were also in kindergarten.
Many people my age probably did not have quite as much freedom as was normal in my neighborhood, but it is safe to say they had more than is common today. When parents hear recollections like mine the, almost universal, response is that the world is more dangerous now than back then and that it would be far too dangerous to allow their own kids anything approaching the kind of freedom they enjoyed.
Again, I totally understand the pit you get in your stomach at the thought of something happening to your kids. It is hard to imagine anything worse. But that feeling must be reconciled against a reality that seems to contradict our modern assumptions.
Two Things You Should Know About Childhood Safety
#1: Freely walking the neighborhood is actually far safer now than in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 00s.
There are obviously neighborhoods that are an exception, but the data are incontrovertible. If childhood freedom is given proportional to neighborhood safety, then our children should have more than we did. If it feels like there is more risk today, that is because there are thousands of news sources and social media enthusiasts eager to report on anything that feels scary.
Fear and anger are proven to attract more views than any other emotions, and, in a country of over 400 million people, there is always some rare incident the media can blow out of proportion. The paranoia about abductions, peanuts, poisoned Halloween candy, swimming within 30-minutes of eating, and many other overblown panics began in the 1980s after the birth of cable news stations which had to find a way to attract eyeballs all day long.
No one has shown this better than co-Founder of Let Grow, Lenore Skenazy. Here are a couple of great Skenazy insights from an article about childhood safety myths:
“Unsupervised” does not equal “unsafe.” Considering that, according to the Department of Justice, the vast majority of child abuse is at the hands of someone the child knows rather than a stranger, it begins to feel as if keeping kids indoors — with a babysitter, parent, relative, sibling or stepparent — is actually LESS safe than them getting on their bikes and riding around. Let’s not restrict kids’ freedom due to a misunderstanding of actual risk.”
(Elsewhere, Skenazy has shared that, “...statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger.”)
“Finally, there is a yin to every yang. Give kids some independence and they may fall off their bike, get lost or get cold. From which they can learn how much they can handle. Give kids NO independence — tell them they are in danger every time they are not under someone’s watchful eye — and they grow up thinking the world is a dangerous place that they are unequipped to deal with.
That is the definition of anxiety.
With childhood anxiety, depression and suicide spiking (not to mention obesity), it’s unclear that keeping them “safe” and supervised all the time IS safer.”
Which brings me to the next thing that is clear about our current safety culture.
#2: The move towards a culture of “Safetyism,” as it has been dubbed by psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt, has been disastrous for the development of our children.
It has been disastrous to their physical health, their emotional wellbeing, their capacity for healthy relationships, their character, their ability to develop passions, their sense of themselves, their view of the world, and their confidence.
At age 10 I was trusted to babysit and walk my five-year-old brother to school. The freedom that I was allowed early on developed my self-reliance and came with a reciprocal increase in the amount of responsibility expected of me.
Our kids desperately need freedom and the freedom to play absent adult intervention. As psychologist, Dr. Peter Gray explains:
“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”
It is time we recognize that safety culture is inviting pains that are far more scary than the bumps, bruises, and mild discomforts we help our children avoid.
What Hath Safetyism Wrought
Safetyism makes parents feel better about having their children inside pacified by a screen than outside playing and exploring.
Safetyism makes parents feel they have to stress themselves out waiting in car lines rather than allow their 3rd-grader to bike or walk to school.
Safetyism, in part, makes these maps possible.
Safetyism is at the root of this SNL skit…
Safetyism reduces childhood freedom, keeping kids in abnormally structured environments where adults have to constantly fuss at them. And by reducing their freedom we also reduce their problem-solving and personal responsibility…
Safetyism and the self-esteem movement (which is, effectively, a movement to keep feelings safe) is the root cause which has prompted a wave of fantastic books, like:
How to Raise an Adult
The Coddling of the American Mind
The Gift of Failure
The Vanishing American Adult
Safety culture, the self-esteem movement, and runaway consumerism have combined to create a new parenting paradigm that infantilizes and limits our children. In my book, I call this Overprovide, Overprotect Parenting. Many others have dubbed it “Bulldozer Parenting” or “Snow Plow Parenting.”
Overprovide, Overprotect Parenting will be a consistent focus of this newsletter, but that is more than enough for today. For more on the problems of Overprovide, Overprotect Parenting check out:
This PHENOMENAL 4-minute video from a former Stanford University dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims.
This fantastic article, which was published last week, titled The Honest Guide to College. It is from a former dean of students and current higher education consultant on her advice to parents following the troubling trends she’s observed.
And now to the practical implications…
The Things that Should Become Our Expected Norms
A 2004 survey of over 800 mothers across the US found that 85% of mothers said that their children played outdoors less frequently than they themselves had played when they were the same age. Of the mothers surveyed in 2004, 82% claimed that the reason their children didn’t spend more time on outdoor play was because of “crime and safety concerns.”
The children of these mothers are now mothers and fathers, themselves, and their children are playing outdoors even less than they did in the early 2000s. There is currently a lot of pressure telling parents to overprotect. Most parents today believe that their highest duty is to be an ever-present safety patrol. As LetGrow.com puts it, “Letting go is an act of bravery. It takes courage to resist the pressure to overprotect your kids.” That is the truth! But it is worth doing for the sake of our children.
It is important that we take the time to recognize that what was normal for us might not be normal. And what is normal today certainly isn’t normal.
Let’s clarify the things that should become our expected norms:
Elementary car pick-up lines should not stretch on forever. By third-grade, we should expect most students who live within a mile or two of their school to bike or otherwise transport themselves to school each day.
It is essential that our children climb trees and playground equipment. Our goal should be to scaffold kids to the point where they know there own limits and can safely explore those limits as early as possible.
Bumps, bruises, and scrapes are normal. If they aren’t happening, you might be overprotective.
Kids should spend a lot of time every day outdoors and indoors in free play. Free play trumps scheduled play.
Elementary kids should be free to roam their neighborhoods without supervision. Parents should be trusted to determine when their children are ready to roam. Good news! Many states are making that clear through reasonable childhood independence laws.
As early as possible, make kids self-reliant. The adults job is to make themselves obsolete. We are building adults!
There are a lot of links in this post that are worth checking out, but I’ll leave you with a couple more.
Tons of great support for this idea at Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy’s website, Let Grow. Start here: https://letgrow.org/resources/essential-reading-list/
Also, chapter 4 of my book, which I titled: The Danger of Overprotection, goes into far greater depth on this idea. I’ve released a free audio version.
Finally, I had an interview that was published this past week about the importance of History. It was on The Strong Stoic Podcast which is available on all podcast apps.
Have a great week and, remember, life is too short to be normal.
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