Humans
3:23 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Kids These Days: Growing Up Too Fast Or Never At All?

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 5:20 pm

On the cover of the April issue of The Atlantic there's a picture of a boy who could be 6 or 7. He's looking to the right toward an adult, whose hand he's holding. He's also wearing a helmet and knee pads. And — for further protection — he has a pillow strapped to his torso.

The cover art is for Hanna Rosin's article, "Hey Parents: Leave Those Kids Alone," about the overprotected child.

In an interview with All Things Considered, Rosin tells host Robert Siegel that she had long wondered why statistics show that today's parents both work more and spend more time with their children than previous generations. She says it has to do with the lack of independence people allow their children these days.

"What's happened now is we've swung way too far in the other direction such that we've become preoccupied with safety, and that's really having an effect on the culture of childhood so that we're stripping children of their independence, of their ability to take risks, which are key to a happy childhood," she says.

You can read highlights from the conversation below.

Also, we want your thoughts — are the children of today overprotected? Please take the poll below.


Interview Highlights

On too much supervision

[Kids] live with the assumption that they will always be watched. They look towards an adult if they need to make any decision, if they need to know whether they should go anywhere; at the playground they assume they're going to be watched. ... The assumption of being watched changes your personality and your experience of childhood.

On letting kids manage their own risks

I think we have this assumption now that children can't manage their own risks; that a child does not have the capacity to manage either a physical or an emotional risk unless we step in and manage it for them. But there's something a little bit unnatural about that. I think the process of growing up is the process of learning to manage those fears. When children used to play in playgrounds, they used to do things that felt risky to them. And I said, felt risky. That doesn't mean they were dangerous but they felt dangerous, and a child's sense of conquering that fear is what allows them to feel competent and independent.

On "junk playgrounds" in the U.K.

They're called junk playgrounds, or sometimes adventure playgrounds. They were relatively common in the 1940s in wartime U.K. and there they were kind of in tune with the parenting norms, which is that children should be risky; they should grow up to be courageous and brave. They've had a little bit of a revival lately and I went to visit one. It's remarkable by American standards. Children are playing with old tires, they're playing with hammers, all kinds of sharp tools, they're building fires all over the playground by themselves. ... Most parents would say children should get burned and that would be the end of the conversation. You say risk, we hear danger — risk and danger are not the same thing, in fact.

On what might happen to today's children

One sad thought I had while doing this is that we often say children grow up too fast, but maybe they never get the chance to grow up at all — to take the necessary interim steps in order to feel independent, in order to manage risk, in order to manage sadness. I love the close relationship I have with my children. This is going to be a fine line we all try to walk without having a suffocating or stifling relationship with them.



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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

CORNISH: On the cover of the April issue of The Atlantic, there's a picture of a boy - he could be six or seven. He's looking to the right toward an adult, whose hand he's holding. He's also wearing a helmet and kneepads. And for further protection, he has a pillow strapped to his torso. The cover art is for Hanna Rosin's article, "Hey Parents: Leave Those Kids Alone." It's about the overprotected child. Hanna Rosin, welcome to the program.

HANNA ROSIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, I want you to talk about two contradictory facts about parenting statistics about the American parent today.

ROSIN: One thing I'm always puzzled over is how it is that we parents, and mothers particularly, spend so much more time at work now than we did in the '70s, than my mother did, for example, and yet we spend a lot more time with our children. I've read that statistic over and over again and just assumed it was a mistake, you know, an oft-repeated mistake. How can that be that my mother, who was home a lot of the time, spent less time with me than I do with my kids?

SIEGEL: And the answer is today parents spend a tremendous amount of time with their kids.

ROSIN: Yes. I finally thought about it for one second as I was writing the story, and I realized my mother didn't spend time with me. She was home, but she didn't particularly want to see me on a Saturday and I didn't want to see her. And if I contrast that with my life, I'm always with my children all weekend. So the weekends alone probably could make up for the difference.

SIEGEL: So what you're writing about is this phenomenon from the children's perspective, which is children are constantly supervised nowadays.

ROSIN: Yes. Watched. Watched. They live with the assumption that they will always be watched. They look towards an adult if they need to make any decision, if they need to know whether they should go anywhere. At the playground, they assume they're going to be watched. And so I've never really thought about how that assumption of being watched changes your personality and your experience of childhood.

SIEGEL: Not just watched in the playground. The playground has a rubberized ground underneath any climbing apparatus to make sure the child doesn't get injured. Enormous steps have been taken for the safety of this child.

ROSIN: Which initially were taken for good reasons. In the '70s, there were certain cases. People were worried about certain dangers in the playground, and that was fine. But what's happened now is we swung way too far in the other direction such that we've become pre-occupied with safety, and that's really having an effect on the culture of childhood so that we're stripping children of their independence, of their ability to take risks, which are key to a happy childhood.

SIEGEL: Yeah. This is the core of your article, which is that there is something that is unhelpful to a child to have one's safety be such a concern and so taken care of in so many ways.

ROSIN: Yeah. I think we have this assumption now that children can't manage their own risks, that a child does not have the capacity to manage either a physical or an emotional risk unless we step in and manage it for them. But there's something a little bit unnatural about that. I think the process of growing up is the process of learning to manage those fears. When children used to play in playgrounds, they used to do things that felt risky to them. And I said felt risky. That doesn't mean they were dangerous, but they felt dangerous, and then a child's sense of conquering that fear is what allows them to feel competent and independent.

SIEGEL: But was it that much more thrilling to climb to the top of the jungle gym when there was a concrete ground beneath your feet than when there's a rubberized ground today?

ROSIN: I think a lot of the thrill came from doing what you wanted and not necessarily being supervised and watched. So, for example, even when I was a kid, there weren't such separations. You know, there came to this idea that one side of the playground was 2 through 5, the other side of the playground is 6 through 12. That's kind of an arbitrary thing that playground manufacturers came up with. But it used to be that you could look around and see what the older kids were doing, and you would roam around in packs. And you would go to the ball field by yourself. I mean, we all - people of my age - and I'm in my 40s - remember what childhood was like. It was so different than how my own children are growing up.

SIEGEL: In your article, you described a researcher who filmed children playing back in the early 1970s in a New England town. And he goes back and talks to some of those same kids grown up and watches their children. And it's a completely different definition of parenting.

ROSIN: This is one of the most interesting research projects I've come across because when he was in that town in 1972, he wasn't looking for anything particularly novel. He was just watching how kids play. They would go across the river, and they would build these houses. They would spend hours by themselves - three and four-year-olds, hours by themselves in the forest, just kind of roaming around, playing among the ferns.

And then he returned in 2004 and what he found was that the parents - they were now parents - had whole different ideas about what was plausible, what was safe, whether their children could wander or not. And essentially, the children had no what's called free range. They weren't allowed to wander very much by themselves.

SIEGEL: The first tip-off was that the researcher, when he asked to talk to the children, the parents were very, very wary of him being alone with their children.

ROSIN: Yeah. And it wasn't so much that they thought that there was something creepy or weird about him. It's just that they were in the habit of always watching their children. So as he talked to the child, the mother followed him around the backyard. And also, it wasn't such a novelty for the child to talk to him the way it was in the '70s because they talk to grownups all the time. That's all they ever do, and so it wasn't that interesting to them.

SIEGEL: Now, at a very distant extreme from the completely supervised playground that many of us may see little children in today, you describe a playground in North Wales in Great Britain which is designed to be a kind of semi-supervised wild area, risky play area for kids.

ROSIN: Yeah. They're called junk playgrounds, or sometimes adventure playgrounds. They were relatively common in the 1940s in wartime U.K., and there they were kind of in tune with the parenting norms, which is that children should be risky. They should grow up to be courageous and brave. They've had a little bit of a revival lately, and I went to visit one and it's remarkable by American standards. Children are playing with old tires, they're playing with hammers, they're building fires all over the playground by themselves.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Let's deal with building fires.

ROSIN: Yes.

SIEGEL: Because, you know, there's a slightly Monty Python-esque edge to this story, which is that someone has analyzed the cost and benefit of children doing various activities. So the risk of fires is you could get burned. On the positive side, you can sit around like you're at a campfire and have good friendship.

And they've decided fires are OK on balance.

ROSIN: Yeah. I mean, there is something comically earnest about these books that they produce to show the cost and benefit of certain things. But I think what's radical about them is that there is a cost and benefit, that most parents would say children should get burned and that would be the end of the conversation. You say risk, we hear danger. Risk and danger are not the same thing, in fact.

SIEGEL: Hanna, I think your article in The Atlantic is going to prove to be a test of all adult readers who will imagine what their childhood was like and how unsupervised their childhood was or supervised. And I'm beginning to think that people will exaggerate the degree of their freedom as children, that we tend to romanticize how many trees we climbed that we weren't supposed to climb, how many fences we jumped over that we weren't supposed to jump over.

ROSIN: I wrote that in the article, that I have always feared that I might be exaggerating my freedom because what I did was so unimaginable in terms of today's childhood. On the other hand, that's why I love this guy Roger Hart's research because he has it on film. They were doing things by themselves, and their parents were nowhere to be found.

SIEGEL: So what kind of a generation, do you think, is going to, you know, grow up out of this one? What kind of adults will they be like if they've been watched all their childhood?

ROSIN: Well, one sad thought I had while doing this is that we often say that children grow up too fast, but maybe they never get a chance to grow up at all - to take the necessary interim steps in order to feel independent, in order to manage risk, in order to manage sadness. And I will say there's some niceness. I love the close relationship I have with my children. This is going to be a fine line we will all try to walk, to have a close relationship without having a suffocating or stifling relationship with them.

SIEGEL: Hanna Rosin, thank you very much for talking with us.

ROSIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Hanna Rosin's article in the April issue of The Atlantic is titled "Hey Parents: Leave Those Kids Alone." What do you think? Are today's kids overprotected? You can take our poll at npr.org.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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